The Rise of the Anti-Hero

Why the characters in TV and movies we love most are the ones with fatal flaws.

A lot of TV is dark these days. Some of television’s most celebrated shows over the past 10 years have taken us deep into the shadiest, seediest—and sometimes scariest—areas of our world, fantasies, and the human psyche. And you know what? Apparently, we love it. 

We are hooked on shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire, Dexter, Game of Thrones, Weeds, American Horror Story, The Sopranos, True Blood and House of Cards, just to name a few.

Network and Cable TV is entering a mini golden era in which solid writing, high production value and A-list actors have combined to produce top-quality shows that we can’t seem to devour fast enough. 

Unlike the traditional hero who is morally upright and steadfast, the anti-hero usually has a flawed moral character.

Of course, for some people, these shows are just a bit too dark. But for the rest of us who tune in to these series weekly (or binge watch them via Netflix), what draws us to these stories? And what keeps us coming back? Is it that we have a sick fascination with watching the underbelly of society live out our own secret desires? Or is it that we waiting for redemptive resolution that affirms our understanding of right and wrong?

To answer that question, we must first consider the anti-hero.

The “anti-hero” (also known as the flawed hero) is a common character archetype for the antagonist that has been around since the comedies and tragedies of Greek theater. Unlike the traditional hero who is morally upright and steadfast, the anti-hero usually has a flawed moral character. The moral compromises he or she makes can often be seen as the unpleasant means to an appropriately desired end—such as breaking a finger to get answers—whatever it takes for the protagonist to come to justice. Other times, however, the moral flaws are simply moral flaws, like alcoholism, infidelity, or an uncontrollable and violent temper.

At different points in history, the culture-at-large has preferred stories featuring anti-heroes over those with traditional heroes, and vice versa. 

For example, consider the popular Hollywood films and genres from the mid-1940s through the 1970s. Film Noir, Westerns, Outlaw Biker Films, Cop Dramas, Mob Films and Sci-Fi Films have featured anti-heroes who have become some of the most iconic movie characters of all time, such as:

  • Phillip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart)
  • The Man with No Name (Clint Eastwood)
  • Billy Jack (Thomas Laughlin)
  • Dirty Harry (Clint Eastwood, again)
  • Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro)
  • Michael Corleone (Al Pacino)
  • Han Solo (Harrison Ford)

So, what was the historical context that served as the backdrop for these films and characters? In the mid-1940s, U.S. soldiers came back from WWII after witnessing unspeakable atrocities. Then of course there was the Korean War, the Vietnam War, student protests, two Kennedy assassinations, the Civil Rights movement,Watergate, the Cold War, and the Carter-era oil crisis, among others. Not only did we see some of the worst acts in human history committed during this time, but many of our fathers and mothers experienced it firsthand and took part in their own questionable behavior. Endless cultural progress was Modernism’s empty promise, and it resulted in a deep-seated mistrust of the establishment, including it’s boundaries between right and wrong.

The world included far more shades of gray, and the characters on the silver screen needed to reflect a broader view of morally acceptable behavior. Traditional heroes were  just far too un-relatable. 

Brokenness is a part of humanity, and we can more easily relate to the choices that a character makes on a TV show if they are broken too.

So what about our lineup of dark TV shows today? I think it’s safe to say that we have more than our far share of flawed heroes. From Walter White (Bryan Cranston) to Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) to Don Draper, Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) to Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), and pretty much everyone in Shameless.

If we consider the 21st century so far—9/11 terrorist attacks, the Iraq War, Enron, Hurricane Katrina, the economic recession, Hurricane Sandy, the Newtown shootings, the Boston Marathon attacks—there’s been a steady stream of terrible events to shake our faith in humanity. The promise of hard work resulting in economic prosperity and a stable future is no longer trustworthy.

Characters who shine as morally pure and upright don’t ring true to us anymore, because it’s not who we see around us in the world. Neither is it what we see when we look in the mirror. Brokenness is a part of humanity, and we can more easily relate to the choices that a character makes on a TV show if they are broken too. After all, a believable and relatable character is one of the single-most important elements of an enjoyable story.

But is this really what’s behind our love of these stories? Are we tuning in just to see a weekly reflection of our own brokenness?

I don’t think so. I think against the depressing backdrop of history, amidst the disappointing reality of our mediocre lives and flawed humanity, we long to see truth.

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I think we tune in week after week in the hope of seeing our cast of characters eventually turn it around through some kind of redemptive act. Whether it’s to see them make better choices, slowly improve over time, or lay down their lives so that someone else might live, redemption is a powerful and resonating piece of storytelling.

Or, maybe we watch because there is truth, no matter how painful, in the natural and just consequences to a slippery slope of bad choices.

Redemption or consequence? One way or the other, I don’t think we really want to see evil succeed. Why? Because we see ourselves in the anti-hero. And we don't want to be spectators to our own downward spiral of demise. We want to see truth prevail and love conquer hate. Seeing this affirms the deep sense of justice that all of us have in our hearts. Evil will not go unpunished, and no one is too far gone out of redemption’s reach.

Perhaps it’s the darkness that reels us in, because we relate to the darkness. But even so, we hope for the light.




Bob commented…

This is a good article, although I don't know about the "rise" of the anti-hero. Perhaps "the return of the anti-hero" might be a better title.

I also think it fails to make the distinction between the "anti-hero" and the "tragic figure." Many of these stories, at least those I have seen, have more in common with Shakespearean tragedies. Sons of Anarchy is a perfect example which is consciously modeled after Hamlet. Walter White in Breaking Bad also seems more Macbeth than Philip Marlowe.

Having only just finished the first season on Mad Men on NetFlix, I'm not yet sure where Don Draper will fall. I suppose I am still hoping for redemption there. So that leads me to believe that all great tragedies start off with the hope of redemption but become cautionary tales based on the ending.

Matthew Brink


Matthew Brink commented…

Well-written, thought-provoking article, Jon. Kudos. I would tend to agree that for most viewers, there is a redemptive hope in watching anti-heroes. However, I think that motive is increasingly more a guitar riff than the song itself. What do I mean?

In cases where a redemptive outcome is portrayed, say at the end of a film, it seems it can just as easily be criticized as praised, usually as lacking realism, or just rehashing a strident stereotype.

Particularly within the last half century (though I tend to agree with Bob - half millennium?), especially within western media culture (that could just about include Shakespeare), there has clearly been an increasing embrace of the tragic or unresolved ending as being more weighty or more legit.

Some will disagree with me, but I trace that disconnect to a couple of points: first, that the rejection of God by many, and of the script He has written for the end, have been increasingly held in derision in western societies, nations that were once more prominently known for that faith; and second, that that widening void has given rise to strings of ideas that have rippled out in culture, ideas like relativism and nihilism, and their spawn postmodernism, which, guessing by culture like anti-hero media, seem more a culture of death than of life. How can I make such a blanket statement?

Take Jack Bauer for example, an anti-hero if ever there was one, though some might see him or "24" as a tad oldish and slant negative on it. Still, how did his story end (as of this posting)? There may have been a "happy" ending in that he got to walk, but he was definitely not unscathed; he exited as an exile who tasted great personal and professional loss. That suffering adds gravitas. Then there is his pragmatic, vigilante MO to uphold justice as he saw it. That goes with ideas of personal expression, passion, and individualism among others. Yet some would look down on the character or the show for its "happy" ending, not to mention the more conservative American or law-and-order values underlying Bauer's vigilante methods. By any measure, it was a violently bloody show with a high body count.

What we have been witnessing is ultimately not life-giving culture. And that's not because it's not "shiny happy people holding hands." It's because ultimately, there is no hope of eternal life, and no divine or immortal outcome, only the struggle to survive and the forensic coldness of death.

So what's the solution? At the risk of sounding unrealistic I'd say, give us the whole picture. In the Bible, David's history alone has some pretty "rated-R" content, but the thread of experiencing faith, hope, and love in God remain. That balanced realism was repeated in the real lives of Abraham, Moses, Paul, Peter...and above all, in Christ. The Cross was the most loving event in history. And to the degree we experience life as the Creator intended it, we will see all culture with that redemptive riff, but even more, our song - our creative culture - will be informed and animated by it.



Todd commented…

There's nothing new under the sun… Humanity's timeline is fraught with horrific acts and long before World War II. I believe what we're seeing is humanity's endless thirst for getting high. It's an inevitable spiral that began the moment TV was invented. The redeeming qualities we see in the "anti-hero" are simply safety nets. It's like in the old days of TV when they would show married couples in different beds. It's a way to make these shows palatable to the current audience while pushing the boundaries enough to give us our high.



Laura commented…

Great article! I have been very fascinated by the rise (or resurgence) of the antihero. What most people applaud in this golden age of television is the "realness" (read: brokenness) of the characters. Traditional heros, good versus evil, seems too simplistic in our ambiguous, gray world where presidents, executives, and other leaders have a way of letting us down. Maybe it is the increased media scrutiny, the market for expose, that has caused us to believe a hero isn't very "real" and must certainly be flawed deep-down. I think it there is narrative accessibility in the antihero ("he's flawed... just like me!), but I'm cynical about where this is going most of the time. In some instance, maybe, we look for redemption. But I think more often than not, we don't really want that outcome.

In a lot of these shows, we're not going to end somewhere redemptive. Breaking Bad, shows the transformation of Walter White from flawed guy trying to take care of his family in the face of impending death to full-scale drug lord. We, the audience, have enjoyed this process. His end? Likely a violent one. Meanwhile, think of Mad Men. Don Draper is on his second marriage. The question was, would he clean up his act this time around? Spoiler alert: no. And honestly, did we really want him to? Don Draper, family man just isn't sexy enough. It isn't REAL enough. Though Tony Soprano seemed somewhat reconciled to Carmela, his end wasn't entirely redemptive. Had things gone on, I really don't know that we were rooting for him to clean up his life and come out of this a better man.

As I said, the gray space fascinates me, but I wonder if we go beyond merely RECOGNIZING our flaws to CELEBRATING our flaws. I wonder if there is a tacit implication that we cannot be interesting people if we don't fully commit -- not to traditional morality -- but to our very own vices. Maybe some people can read these stories more sophisticated, but en masse, I am not sure. The guy walking around in a Scarface tee shirt isn't wearing the merchandise because they see the story as a sad, almost cautionary tale of a life of excess (the ending for Tony Montana isn't bright), but in reverence to that lifestyle.

I realize I may sound morally heavy-handed on this. I just feel that we don't really utilize the gray space well enough to my liking. It is enough merely to recognize the gray, to live in it, and to not move beyond it. This creates unsophisticated, stock characters (e.g. the criminal/philanderer who is good to his elderly mother) that doesn't seem any more challenging than the lovable schmuck husband who tries to work in his crummy, blue collar job to support his family and meanwhile blunders whenever asked to do housework. We recognize the antihero programming as highbrow, the lovable schmuck as lowbrow (compare our HBO, AMC dramas to network TV's laugh-track comedy).

Another component is this antihero -- until late -- tends to be a male-dominated role. The man is flawed, and the women he surrounds himself with fall into some Madonna/whore complex dichotomy. And when women DO inhabit the gray space (see Betty Draper), we lack the empathy. I don't know why this is -- changing times in gender roles? With women as-lead, we DID look for redemption. Look at Carrie Bradshaw. She went from chain-smoking and bed hopping to being a smoke-free, monogamous wife. The ending, palatable for Carrie Bradshaw, I doubt is equally-palatable for Don Draper. I don't want to play the sex card too hard here. Now, we do see more flawed women (Weeds, Nurse Betty) and flawed couples (an interesting Atlantic article I read notes The Americans and House of Cards as an example). However, I don't know that I feel women rise as a result of getting to be flawed, too. I mean, it's a good first step. But like the rest of these shows, how do we get deeper than merely accepting that life is imperfect and we are imperfect? That should be a start, not an entirety.

As a viewer, I like this resurgence of the antihero to an extent, but want to see it go somewhere more interesting. I don't really yearn for the traditional hero so much as I do something deeper.

Kimberly Hartman


Kimberly Hartman commented…

Thought-provoking article. There's a negative aspect to our appreciation of the antihero that wasn't explored, which seems les cyclic than a downward spiral. Laura mentioned it. There is indeed a strong temptation to celebrate fictional flaws, because it is 'safe'. It can mask our tendency to celebrate our own sin. There is a tendency to look at a flawed hero, and say 'well at least I'm not as bad as them'. As they fall lower and lower, our standards for our own behavior can similarly fall, because after all, we're still not as bad as them. Traditional good guys are often scorned, not because we don't see them as realistic, but because we don't want them to be. The virtuous tend to make us angry because they remind us of where we fall short. We will just as often relish a good character's comeuppance, the revelation that he wasn't as good as we thought, because that takes the pressure off of us to try to become better ourselves. That's a dark part of ourselves that we have to acknowledge.

The saddest part for me, is that the prevailing culture does not encourage people to comprehend the quest for goodness, or dare I say it, holiness. We have come to expect that everyone has their price; that every hero is hiding a dark secret, and that those who don't appear to, are lying, or worse, are simply dull.

Modern writers often do not comprehend and therefore can not write compelling and interesting good people, who have flaws more complex and subtle than the easy fare of sexual sin and politico-moral corruption. That doesn't even touch the fact that even in our modern 'good guy' shows and movies, our hero protagonists are just as often sleeping with their girlfriend or boyfriend (or the hottie of the week) as they are being chaste. The most recent tribute remake of Cyrano de Bergerac, "Roxanne", had the 'pure' titular heroine in bed with one of the male protagonists, which subverted the message of the original story. Because that's what we want to see. We can call it real or deep, but too often what we really mean is 'it validates my own comfort zone'.

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