The Rise of the Villain Hero
“I am not in danger, Skylar,” AMC’s Breaking Bad’s infamous main character Walter White seethes at his wife, “I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that of me? No, I am the one who knocks.”
Nominated for over a hundred awards, including four golden globes, Breaking Bad has become a pantheon of a television series in recent years. Walter White is a high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and in order to support his family he turns to cooking methamphetamine – a decision that changes him from mild mannered school teacher to a criminal overlord and one of television’s most loved characters. The deconstruction of Walter White throughout the series highlights an interesting trend in recent television – the rise of the villainous protagonist.
From an early age, we’re all introduced to the typical story narrative: the good guy, someone the audience should aspire to be like, defeats the villain, the mirror image of all our vices and secret sins. Heroes uphold values that society deems important and they’re often rewarded with meaningful relationships (whether they’re familial, platonic or in most cases, romantic). Financial gain doesn’t matter to them – the core motivation for a hero in the end is to do good for the sake of being good.
However as audiences mature and their understanding of interesting storytelling matures with them. More and more people have become enamoured with the darker side of media, whether that be with the villains of the text, or if the hero displays normal human faults: the anti-hero. The anti-hero starts off with no visible heroic qualities – they’re not going to instantly jump on a horse and save the prince or princess because it’s the right thing to do. They’re often motivated by more realistic reasons: revenge, personal loss, or even greed.
Still, we all know that in the end the anti-hero will find their inner nobleness. Just before they take their vengeance, the anti-hero will realise they’re doing it for the wrong reasons, or that the money they’ve earned through nefarious means should be donated to various orphanages around the world. As the anti-hero has become more popular in the media, their narratives have slowly become more and more predictable.
It’s with series like Breaking Bad, where we watch Walter White descend from anti-hero to villain, that we realise another change has started to occur in television narratives. Suddenly, we’re being offered more controversial main characters, characters that happen to have no redeeming traits whatsoever, and, more importantly, seem very unlikely to dig up even a sliver of goodness from within.
Another example would be Showtime’s Dexter. We learn from the witty narration in the very first episode that main character Dexter Morgan is a psychopath and serial killer. We watch as he straps down his victims and plunges a knife through his chest with visible glee. We’re told that Dexter is different though, because he only kills the most nefarious sort of criminals. It’s the most radical form of vigilantism and also the only thing that stops Dexter from going on a murderous rampage himself – in it’s own way, it’s all for the greater good. Still, as the series progresses, the line has started to blur between Dexter the well meaning vigilante and Dexter the serial killer. His psychosis has started to catch up with him, his intentions becoming darker and monstrous indeed.
And, considering the success of the series, audiences love it.
Villainous protagonists aren’t exclusive to the two series above. Other examples include The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire (however the gangster genre has long been home to villain protagonists), The Borgias with the corrupt Pope Rodrigo Borgia, both versions of House of Cards and Game of Thrones with its plethora of irredeemably wicked cast members. Even new NBC series Hannibal, where main character Will Graham tries to stay on the side of good, audiences are taking great delight in watching gentleman cannibal Hannibal Lecter manipulate him, pulling apart and rearranging his morals over the course of the series.
Why do we find these protagonists so engaging? Well, there’s no doubt they’re more realistic than your cliché fairytale heroes. We can empathise with Walter White’s drive to make money for his wife, his disabled son and his infant daughter before he dies. We can support Dexter Morgan’s hobby in vigilante serial killing, (after all who hasn’t wanted to take justice in their own hands one way or another?) What is different in these series though is the progression – not from anti-hero to hero – but from anti-hero to villain. It isn’t a new trope of storytelling at all, just look at the Star Wars prequels and the journey of Anakin Skywalker as he becomes one of the most menacing villains of all time – but more and more television series are jumping at the chance to portray these character deconstructions.
These series have thrown conventional storytelling to the wind. For Walter and Dexter the only karmic retribution that seems to be coming is in the form of their own deaths, one way or another. Rodrigo Borgia and his children are becoming increasingly twisted, Frank Underwood from House of Cards has no positive traits to speak of and Game of Thrones has repeatedly shown that being a good guy is the best way to lose your head. There’s a real danger that evil might very well prevail in the end, and it opens up incredibly interesting narratives that haven’t been explored before on screen. It’s more realistic, it’s unpredictable, it’s enthralling. We don’t know how low these characters are willing to go and we want to watch their journey all the same.
It’s not as if we aren’t attached to these characters either. In the case of Breaking Bad and Dexter, look at how audiences react to the actual ‘good guys’ in these stories. Walter’s wife, Skylar, is hated with a passion by most of the fanbase, despite the fact that she’s one of the few voices of reason within the series. In Dexter we grow to vilify those who are close to uncovering his secret, despite the fact that they’re often police officers, despite the fact that Dexter is breaking the law and is a murderer. We know Walter and Dexter are in the wrong, yet we want them to win anyway.
Perhaps the most important factor is that these series don’t underestimate us as an audience. We can distinguish real life from fantasy, we can appreciate hard hitting and shocking story lines and we don’t need a network to decide for us whether something is too difficult to grasp. It’s almost as if these villainous protagonists are a symbol of rebellion for bored audiences. They’re a momentum of change for how stories are told to us and how we feel about characters in general. It would be easy to hate Walter White and his naked ambition for power but through gripping, interesting writing we grow to enjoy his megalomania.
Or, maybe in the end, villains just offer a form of escapism that heroes don’t. Of course we’ve all dreamed of being the noble warrior or the gracious politician, but we can also dream of taking the law into our own hands and delivering the justice that we think the world deserves (just look at Batman for instance), or of becoming an incredibly wealthy drug lord after a particularly bad day at work. If the darker side of life wasn’t enticing to us in some way, the aforementioned shows wouldn’t be half as popular as they are.
In an era where films get quadruple the budget of television shows, it seems that it’s television that is taking all the risks. Whereas the movie industry is becoming increasingly formulaic, more and more TV series are embracing the potential for character development that multiple episodes and seasons can bring, as well as pushing the boundaries of what audiences find conventional. Perhaps its a freedom born of the lack of funding – for films, it’s more profitable to play it safe and stick to the formula. Television has less to lose.
With the growth of platforms such as Netflix and online streaming, television is slowly becoming the dominant media. Viewers can be more selective of what shows they watch, and if the ratings for Breaking Bad and Dexter are anything to go by, we like our good guys to be bad. So are these risky characters worth it? It seems the answer is a resounding ‘yes‘.
The television industry is fickle and will probably remain that way for a long time, shows like Breaking Bad and Dexter are proving one thing to the networks: the majority of audiences aren’t as stupid or as predictable as they’d like to think. We admire brave storytelling, we can appreciate complex characters with dubious ethics and we get equally invested in narratives where villainy is more profitable and rewarding than the honourable knight in shining armour.
Hollywood, if you think it’s about time to take note and give us some truly interesting main characters, then you’re god damn right. We’re ready.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
The villainous hero has really surged in popularity. Frank Underwood from Netflix’s House of Cards has got to be my favorite, though. Spacey is such a great actor.
I find it funny, how these evil characters do these evil things, yet we root for them. It would be great to see this in more mainstream films and not just television.
Totally agree – I had chills down my spine through the last few episodes of House of Cards. It’s only the first season and already we’ve seen how easily Frank strings everyone along (and Kevin Spacey nails it every time!)
My dream would be for a blockbuster with an evil lead – it would be interesting to see how people receive it on a broader scale!
Remember how the studios were scared of making dramas with these villian characters that you symphasize (how the hell do you spell that) with. That wave has long past hahaha Isn’t every successful drama have a good bad guy in it nowadays?
There’s a few interviews with Vince Gilligan (the writer of Breaking Bad) where he talks about pitching Breaking Bad, and how many networks turned the idea down because it was too risky for that very same reason.
Hopefully this trend will mean that more networks start taking risks, not just with unique protagonists but with shows in general!
I remember reading FX would have loved to have Breaking Bad but turned it down because the network already had a show with an “anti-hero” in The Shield and didn’t want to be driven into a certain niche.
This concept has been developing for a while (NYPD Blue would probably be the first that’s new enough for me to remember a little bit, but I was like 5 when that show started) but the anti-hero is definitely something that has come into prominence, even with other shows like Sons of Anarchy, The Americans, & Homeland.
A cracking article. Home truths sinking in as old studio execs are now pushed out for techno and geek-savvy young guns. As for a block-buster with a BAD lead – have a peep at;-
Based on a Mark Millar comic that posited “What if the Joker was as clever as Batman!”
A monster was born.
Thank you! It looks like I’m definitely going to have to buy the comic book and give Nemesis a shot. It looks insanely brilliant and dark (everything I love really!) Very exciting if it’s coming to the big screen! Thanks for sharing Neil!
I can never understand people’s hate for Skyler White. She has been the voice of reason, tolerant and more than lenient of Walt’s transgressions. Walt has been abusive from the first season when he attempted to rape her, of course right through to his drug dealing, murderous behavior and the threat that he brought to the family. Walt’s ego has literally destroyed their family. Why anyone would call a woman who occasionally voices her opinion about all this ‘a bitch’ is beyond me. Vince Gilligan has said in an interview that he feels similar – he just doesn’t get it.
Sadly Skyler falls into the trap that many female characters who 1) have their own agency and 2) act as a foil for the leading male characters fall into on television (just look at Andrea from The Walking Dead and Margaret from Boardwalk Empire). It’s a shame because I absolutely love Skyler and I think Anna Gunn does an amazing job of portraying her.
I view Skyler as a difficult character. It’s not that I would call her a ‘bitch’ but some of her treatment towards Walt comes off as hypocritical because she has been complicit in acts of crime as well, and not just covering up for Walt with money laundering but cooking the books for Ted. Her voiced opinions eventually turned into empty threats to me. One argument for her is that she is doing it to save her family from embarrassment, but let’s not forget providing for the family is the reason Walt got into the meth business in the first place.
I feel that Jesse actually turned into the moral compass of the show. I know it sounds strange but things clicked for him when he realized the way things were and admitted it by saying “I’m the bad guy”, a reality that I believe Walt may have embraced at this point, but Skyler will never admit.
Agree 100%, Marlon!! I don’t remember where I found the article, but I once read something about how Skylar is the “audience surrogate” for the show, meaning that if the average viewer was thrown into Walt’s world and circumstances, we’d probably act just like she does.
I also love her because, in the later seasons especially, they’ve even fashioned her into a anti-hero a bit. Great stuff.
I’m fascinated by the antihero trend in television, especially on basic cable and premium networks, and how it often seems to be an indicator of great TV. It’s reassuring to learn that audiences and critics won’t accept the white hat/black hat formula of yesteryear and that most prefer a more complex and ambiguous interpretation of morality. It’s especially interesting that the trend seems to have permeated comedic programs as well. Sure, broadcast networks still prefer the ultra-lovable protagonists of shows like Modern Family and Parks and Recreation, but series like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Curb Your Enthusiasm, not to mention animated hits like South Park and Family Guy, prove that there’s a considerable market for despicable, scum-of-the-earth characters who are also very, very funny.
Agreed! It’s great that networks feel it’s now okay to experiment with their audience – seeing how successful South Park and Family Guy are, hopefully it’ll encourage Hollywood to try and branch out and tinker with darker, grittier media.
Very good article.
The darkening of the ‘hero’ in pop culture is far from new, as I would say it really became noticeable with John Wayne way back in The Searchers, but things have really taken a sharp tun in the last couple of decades.
Thank you! And yes, there’s always been instances of grittier heroes, it just seems that more and more series are now more confident in stepping out of their comfort zone, it’s very exciting!
Good article. It’s true that TV can often test the waters more than film due to less fear of loss. And I think because of the length of series it allows a better exploration of character – it might be heading for that happy ever after, but much later down the line.
Cheers! And that’s very true – having multiple seasons to properly explore a character and what works well is one of the advantages of television, and why I think difficult dramas and characters work much better than in the film world.
I like this analysis, and you’re 100% right: we’re ready for more interesting characters, and characters who aren’t strictly hero or villain are complex in a way that we find fascinating because normal people aren’t simply one way or the other, but people are a variety of traits, possibly even conflicting traits. I would definitely love to see more of this in television and film.
Exactly! As an audience we identify more with multi-dimensional characters, after all how complicated is the normal human? Hopefully the success of this trend will encourage networks to push the boundaries further and further.
Great article. It’s true that we root for Walter and Dexter to not get caught and tend to hate characters like Skylar (who is essentially the “good guy” or girl in this case, in the show) that try and stop them from their plight.
Cheers Nick – it’s a sign of a good writer when the audience relates to the characters doing terrible things, as opposed to the others who are doing the right things for the right reasons.
Interesting read, but it is important to note that these “villain protagonists” cannot exist without their very important side-kicks who I think balance them out or provide some of the redemption that would otherwise be absent. Jesse Pinkman is essential to the narrative and thematic success of Breaking Bad. As is Deborah, Dexter’s sister. I didn’t see them mentioned here, but I think they’re very important in thinking through the strength of these series and the dynamic of their characters.
That’s a really interesting comment Melina! I do agree that Jesse is the heart and soul of Breaking Bad, despite being ‘the bad guy’ himself. However the reason why I didn’t include these redemptive side kicks in the article itself is because there are examples – Boardwalk Empire comes to mind – where a show has succeeded without the presence of these kinds of characters redeeming the protagonist.
I think it truly depends from show to show!
Its interesting that the original plan was to kill Jesse off in the first series. Vince Gilligan says it was due to the chemistry between Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul but I wonder if the show would have been as successful or if audiences would have taken to the premise as much as they have without the foil of Jesse.
I also heard Gilligan say that, and I am so happy for the greatness that is Aaron Paul that he made Jesse survive and gave us the amazing seasons two and three of Breaking Bad. I cannot imagine the series without him.
I’m so tired of the white guy hero/villian archtype. Let’s try something different. Great Article!
Thank you! I totally agree – we need more varied representation across television and media as a whole!
Interestingly we are just approaching the finales of these series that you discuss (specifically Dexter and Breaking Bad). Let’s see how audiences actually respond to a redemption-less ending. I suspect that, if these series don’t manage some kind of clever turnaround to make their villains slightly less villainous before the end, there could be some backlash, despite the fact that that is the kind of ending I would personally prefer (and that I think is more challenging and insightful).
There are plenty of examples of redemption stories – perhaps we will find that this is what these series actually are, and we just haven’t seen the final act yet. Either way, it will be interesting to follow both the titles themselves and the audience response to the endings.
I can’t think of a character who has both enchanted and unnerved me as much as Walter White. The character is brilliantly written, and Bryan Cranston’s ferociousness is mind-blowing. Though he and Dexter are not really comparable, I would have to favour Walt as the character best suited to break the viewers’ hearts, in terms of how much we invest in them and their story. Very enjoyable article.
Very interesting article. Something to think about: Some critics argue that we only sympathize with and root for these anti-heroes because they are usually placed alongside other characters that are depicted as purely evil with little or no redeemable qualities. An example is Hannibal Lecter versus Buffalo Bill, Travis Bickle versus Sport, and in TV, Tony Soprano vs. Phil Leotardo. In other words, the filmmakers deliberately have these characters stand next to “worse” characters in order to manipulate us into rooting for them, and if Hannibal, Travis, Tony, etc. were not contrasted with Bill, Sport, Phil etc., we would not root for them as we do.
Good point. And some of the best shows make us questions the supposed dividing lines between the “good” and “bad” guys. Like Justified, which alwas reminds us that in another life, Raylan is a criminal.
I’ve actually had a love-hate relationship with Walter White and Dexter Morgan as characters each of their shows. I won’t give away any spoilers, but although some of the things they do are what make viewers love them, there are instances where I become so angry with something they do, I automatically don’t like them as much. Then, the issue is resolved and I love them all over again.