When is a TV Bad Guy Not Always a Bad Guy?

There are two very different types of television bad guys: the ones we hate and the ones we like despite their essential badness and despite ourselves.  We’ll discuss a few television villains to see why we hate some unconditionally and we reserve our unconditional hatred for others. Popular culture is full of unsavory characters.  There may even be a villain of sorts in such subdued cultural entertainment like online slot game.In an imaginative game like a slot, the villainous aspect will usually be quite subtle.  In real life, some villains are quite evil.  So why do we reserve our hatred for some and not others.

Post-war Ennui

Before we discuss specific television bad guys, let’s go back to where the idea of villain as hero began.  It began with James Dean in Rebel without a Cause, the iconic 1950’s movie that showed how the generation that grew up after World War II and in the fast receding shadows of the Great Depression, struggled with the sense that their lives had no purpose.

This movie made rebellion popular in American culture.

Rebellion got another big push with the publication of The Feminine Mystique in the early 1960’s.  This book basically takes apart office culture that obtained at that time.  That office culture was best represented on television in the series Mad Men.  The characters in this series garner none of our sympathy; all our emotions are with the put upon women who work in the office literally as underlings to the male lords of the manor.

Let’s see how some more recent television villains have fared in our common imagination.

Hope for Redemption

One of the biggest villains of recent years is Tony Soprano – from…you guessed it, the Sopranos.  The show is considered one of the best television series of all time if not the best.  Tony Soprano is the lead character.  He kills and directs others to be killed.  Yet, we likely don’t hate him as much as we should because we believe that he might come to redemption of sorts.

His visits to the psychologist are full of loathing for himself and for her yet he tells her directly that he wants her sexually.  He stays with her even after she refuses his overtures outright.

These scenes show the more civilized human side of a vicious killer.  We accept that he has both sides in his character and hope that the civilized side will win out in the end.

A Victim of Circumstances

We spoke about how the men in a 1950’s office were akin to the lords of the manor.  Downton Abbey showed the life of a real manor and the Lord or Lords who administered it. Thomas Barrow is a mere footman, one of the lowliest occupations for anyone in the manor.  He is also homosexual at a time when such predilections were firmly hidden from public view.  Barrow makes the lives of all the servants miserable yet he manages to win the good graces of the Lords of the Manor. As much as we would like to despise him, we sense that his behavior is not of his own choice.  As people who live in an era where everyone, it seems, considers him or herself a victim, we see Barrow as the quintessential victim.

Dead End Life

Eastern Kentucky is about the most dead end of any real life dead end.  The people who inhabit this land are stuck with coal mining, drug dealing, or many other manners of crime. Boyd Crowder, of Justified fame, grew up in this environment and tried many ways to escape it.  He caused many deaths and has little in his character to make him appealing.  But he mined coal as a young boy and for that alone we give him our sympathy.  Even at the end when he lands in jail for probably the rest of his life, we sympathize with him.

Evil for Fun

The character of Negan in the Walking Dead is so evil we have no residual sympathy for him.  He makes killing and general vileness seem like a joyful day in the park.  He doesn’t just kill; he kills in the most horribly gruesome way imaginable.  He elicits no sense of a possible redemption.  He doesn’t evoke our sympathy for having lived a dead end life.  Finally, he is not a victim of circumstances; all the people he abuses are the victims of the circumstances that he creates.

Refusing Every Chance

Nucky Thompson in Boardwalk Empire is a gangster who lets every chance to become a better person pass him by.  In the first season we did feel a certain degree of sympathy for him but as the series wore on we lost all hope for him and we turned our emotions away from him completely. He was the Al Capone of Atlantic City and no less ruthless.  The big difference between Nucky Thompson and Al Capone is that Capone was known for his ruthlessness and made no secret about it.  Nucky Thompson tried mightily to seem like the benevolent crime boss but his underlying evil character came out in ever more frequent examples.

The Most Evil Man in History

If Caligula was the most evil man in real human history then Joffrey Baratheon, from the wildly popular Game of Thrones, was the most evil man, by far, in the fictional world of television.  Unlike Negan, who derived great joy from his evil acts, King Joffrey seemed to get no real joy from all the horrible things he did yet he did them again and again with relish.  Joffrey’s end demonstrated that there is a real limit to how much people can tolerate the worst that human beings can be.  It may very well be that we should stop watching shows with sympathetic villains but it might also be in our civilized nature to hope that the evil seen will not last. In Negan, Joffrey, and Nucky Thompson, we see evil that has no hope of ending.

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