Intelligent Television Drama and the Death of "Good" and "Bad" Characters
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Intelligent Television Drama and the Death of "Good" and "Bad" Characters

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | March 19, 2013 | Comments ()


One of the things that struck me in railing, along with TK, against Andrea on this week's episode of "The Walking Dead" is how odd it is that we're rooting against someone who is essentially a "good guy." Andrea, of course, is just another in a long line of "good guy" characters (mostly women, unfortunately) who we have rooted against or wished death upon: Rita from "Dexter," Winona from "Justified," Tara from "Sons of Anarchy," or Lori from "The Walking Dead," etc., etc. The reason is not because they're women, it's because they are obnoxious or poorly drawn or uninteresting characters, and yet in those same shows, we often find ourselves rooting for the "bad guys." We all know, for instance, that The Governor's days are counted on "The Walking Dead," but I can't tell you how many comments I've read wishing that he'd' survive the season and stick around another year, this despite the fact that he has fish tanks full of dismembered heads, despite the fact that he sexually abused one of the show's most beloved characters (Maggie), and despite the fact he's working to slaughter all the "good guys."

It's an interesting development, and one that is far more frequently seen in television: We don't root for the "good" guys; we root for the interesting characters. But there's an even more interesting wrinkle to that equation, and that's shows in which there are no finely defined good or bad characters; they're just characters. Justified is obviously the best example of this: Raylan Givens fits the good guy mold because he wears a marshall's hat and apprehends and kills criminals, but how good a person is he, really? There's a lot of Arlo on him, and as Boyd Crowder has suggested on several occasions, Raylan is not much different than he is. He's just working for a different side. The series as a whole, however, is peopled with characters who it's difficult to fit into a good-or-bad category: Boyd and Ava Crowder, Mags Bennett, Drew Thompson, and even Limehouse. They often do bad things, but their motivations are not necessarily evil.

"Game of Thrones," likewise, is populated almost entirely with people who we root for because we like them, and not because of their motivations. Yes, we hate Joffrey because he is a spiteful little sh*t (see also Pete Campbell), but there are a lot of characters in this show -- ruthless, cold bastards -- who we like and want to see succeed regardless of their intent, but because they are fascinating, well-developed characters. We were rooting for Tyrion Lannister in the Battle of Blackwater, for instance, because we love that character, despite the fact that his success would've meant a victory for Joffrey. Moreover, given how fun he is to hate, do we really want Joffrey to die? If our choice was the survival of the well-drawn Joffrey or the less compelling Sansa Stark, who would we choose?

"Breaking Bad," likewise, is most often about good people with evil intentions; Olivia Pope in ABC's "Scandal" is an adulterer who rigged a presidential election, and yet we root for her success; and Nucky Thompson on Boardwalk Empire is a piece of sh*t, but we pull for him anyway.

The most recent example of this trend is FX's new, phenomenal series, "The Americans," which has no good or bad people. They're just people. Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings are KGB spies trying to bring down American capitalism, and yet we root for their success. Meanwhile, FBI Agent Stan Beemer aims to eradicate the threat posed by KGB agents, and we are also pulling for him, at least until his interests come in direct conflict with the interests of The Jennings. At that point, our rooting interests will likely lie not with the motivations of the characters, but which characters are the most compelling at that time. What does it say about us that we could cheer for the overthrow of American capitalism? Does that make us bad people?

No. "Good" and "bad" are archaic categories in the modern television landscape. We value complexity and intelligence, although a little bad assery certainly doesn't hurt. So, please "The Walking Dead": If you must take either Andrea or The Governor, let it be Andrea first. There's still plenty to explore inside the sociopathic mind of The Governor.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Die In A Fire, Joffrey

    Moreover, given how fun he is to hate, do we really want Joffrey to die?

    Short answer, yes.


  • Kate at June

    We wished against Rita?

  • Lovely Bones

    Right? I had the misfortune of being late to the Dexter game, so I didn't start watching the series until it had already suddenly fell into being really bad and missed out on early discussion of it, so I haven't seen Rita-hate firsthand, like I have Skylar-hate (Speaking of, that hate pisses me off to no end.) However, Dustin did this whole article a while back about these characters, talking about them one by one, in which he seemed like he was mocking these attitudes. It's disheartening to see that he's stood by them instead.

    (Not defending Tara of SoA or Lori here, they're legitimately poorly written, and haven't seen Justified, but everything I know says Winona is a perfectly good character with a good send-off)

    If I find that article, I'll link it for you. It at least acknowledges that the dislike for these characters probably comes from the viewer nonsensically projecting themselves onto the protagonist, and thus placing the female figures of reason as 'obstacles' in their way.

  • Kate at June

    I mean, I hate show blocking characters with a fiery passion.

    But she wasn't that at all. I'm just so confused by this.

  • Mr_Zito

    It's a good topic, but I had to stop there when you implied the Governor is an interesting character.

  • There'll Be Pancakes

    This is a great post. Television is producing such watchable quality characters, it's no wonder cinema is dying. All the good shit is on telly!

  • olivet

    That's how I feel about nearly everybody in American Horror Story, too.

  • theotherone

    "phenomenal series, “The Americans" Phenomenally Boring.

    I don't root for them, maybe sympathize but not root. Russians were a surprisingly vanilla enemy all things considered. Americans foreign policy by far caused more harm then benefit to world then the Soviets.

  • Slash

    Even though Phillip and Elizabeth are not nice people, I don't want them to get caught. I find them sympathetic. I am attributing most of their behavior to brainwashing by the Soviet government. He seems to be starting to come out of it, but she's still a true believer. I think one of the most interesting things about the show is how we're asked (nudged) to sympathize with the "enemy." I'm old enough to remember when the USSR was the "evil empire" (and now it's us, amazing how much can change in about 30 years).

  • dizzylucy

    I am sympathetic to them too. In an ideal world people can see all sides of something and form their own opinion, but really, most people are a product of their environment. Those characters are a great example of that - what they were taught is what they know.

  • e jerry powell

    I'm interested in kind of filling in the complex differences between "bad" (such as it is) and "anti-hero." Showtime seems very interested in exploring that, but not very well. Nancy Botwin, Cathy Jameson, Jackie Peyton, even Marty Kaan. The showrunners and writers seem determined to create characters that are complicated and end up making them thoroughly unlikeable, which seems counter-intuitive for people who want to keep their shows on the air.

  • MrsAtaxxia

    Re: Game of Thrones, SPOILERS FOR SEASON ONE: I would also argue that we are drawn to Jamie because he is such a compelling and interesting character (and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is so good in the role) because by rights we should be repelled by a guy who hurls kids out of windows and is committing incest with his sister but he's written and played so well that we want him to stick around. In many ways Ned was one of the least compelling characters because he was so unabashedly "good." Compared to everyone else he seem very nearly one-dimensional.

  • DMA

    I initially didn't like Jaime Lannister either for all the reasons
    stated above, but as the onion is slowly peeled away, I find him one of
    the most compelling and better-developed characters in the books. At
    face value, Jaime Lannister seems evil but is he
    really? Let's
    break it down: Incest aside, his attempted murder of Bran Stark is
    prefaced by
    his comment "the things I do for love." He is referring to not only
    his love of Cersei but also for the love of his children WHO WOULD DIE
    should King Robert find out about their illegitimacy. Would you murder a
    stranger's child if it means saving your own? When Jaime later attacks
    Ned Stark, it's revenge for Catelyn capturing Tyrion after the latter
    is framed for Bran's fall. Jaime is the only Lannister who shows any
    affection for Tyrion. Jaime isn't evil (though he is an arrogant shit), just very misunderstood.

  • MrsAtaxxia

    Oh absolutely, the more we find out about Jamie, the more he gets revealed to be a deeply conflicted and fascinating character, but at first blush he really is repulsive, so its a testament to GRRM and to NCW's portrayal that he's both immediately repulsive AND compelling and only gets more so the more we get to see of him and what makes him the way he is. It's why he's a fan favorite and why those who have read the books kept being like "but just wait, Jamie's AWESOME" to the show watchers who were all "really? the guy who threw the kid out the window?" "yeah that guy, AWESOME." It's always what makes Cersi's eventual treatment of him so heartbreaking.

  • BendinIntheWind

    I despise him as a person, but I adore him as a character. Really can't wait to see where season 3 takes him, as the third book has some really interesting Jaime developments.

  • The Kitastrophe

    My wife has always maintained that she needs her characters to be either likeable or interesting. For them to be both is not a necessity.

  • QueeferSutherland

    Good post. The shift from black hats and white hats to various shades of gray has really ushered in the the dawn of honest television. We gravitate toward these shows because there's a lot of us, the viewer, reflected on the screen. We intrinsically understand that people are complex, flawed human beings. Seeing those same characteristics in a Raylan Givens or Vic Mackey or Jimmy McNulty fosters as attachment. While we wouldnt often make the same choices, we can certainly emphasize with how they got there.

    Or, like Chris Rock says, "I'm not saying I agree with it, but I understand."

  • JJ

    What shift? If we're talking television dramas, there have been complex shows blurring morality for decades. It's exactly what's makes great dramas compelling.

    The Sopranos, E.R., Twin Peaks, West Wing, The Shield, NYPD Blue, LA Law, Dynasty, Miami Vice, Dallas, Kojak, Hill Street Blues, etc etc etc. This isn't new. It's just what we notice because it's now.

  • QueeferSutherland

    It really started with The Sopranos. The rest of those shows didn't exactly feature white knights, but the protagonists weren't killing fellow cops or making meth empires, either.

  • JJ

    You said that it shifted from black hats and white hats to various shades of gray, but then shows that I cite from decades previous aren't white knights? Blurred morality resulting in compelling characters doesn't mean being a flat-out criminal like Walter White or being a serial killer like Dexter. I'm not saying that shows now don't do it well (because they definitely do). I'm saying that this has been done before and wasn't started with the Sopranos. Sopranos wasn't even the first show on HBO to do it. That would be Oz.

  • ERM

    I don't think I'd agree that West Wing blurred the lines of morality. I felt like it portrayed things as painfully un-nuanced and black & white. I thought the main characters were always supposed to be portrayed as the zenith of intelligence and morality, with pithy speeches to let you know it. Perhaps I just missed the nuance?

  • Three_nineteen

    Well, off the top of my head, the President of the United States lied to the American people about his health during the presidential campaign.

  • Wōđanaz Óðinn

    Those grey areas are what make those Studio Ghibli films so much better than anything Pixar has ever done. Children aren't retards.

  • Steph

    Nah, the food critic in Ratatouille is a great example of a sympathetic villain. Most other films would have used him as a straw man character to bash their own critics but Pixar gave him depth and characterization. Great writing.

  • And, lest we forget, Syndrome from The Incredibles? Yes, he's the supervillain, but only because of Mr. Incredible's own actions all those years ago. It makes him sympathetic, in a sense.

  • Steph

    Syndrome's just a dick.

  • really?

    Except for, you know, those with down's syndrome. Perhaps you should rethink your choice of language.

  • Andrew J

    Rooting for the bad guys isn't a new thing. That's why we watch nightmare on elm street, Friday the 13th or any horror franchise. Dearth vader, terminator, we have always followed interesting characters. Well how long have we like anti heroes? I swear the things you find new or groundbreaking is just the same stuff. This article was lazy

  • BlackRabbit

    Hell, I liked Smaug over Bilbo or any of the dwarves.

  • Tinkerville

    Interesting piece. An intriguing thing that Once Upon a Time has been exploring in the last couple of episodes (just bear with me for a second) is the good vs. evil dichotomy and how the characters straying from their respective sides causes an overwhelming identity crisis because they never imagined that they could be anything but the villain or the hero, going completely against their "storybook" selves. Complete cheesefest of the show aside, it's an interesting thing to explore. It's also something that Revenge does particularly well with Emily Thorne vs. the delightfully evil Graysons.

    I find myself rooting for the bad guys more often than not because characters that are so manipulative, calculating, and intelligent tend to be much more interesting to watch than goody two-shoes. It's part of the reason why I was rooting for Ben Linus all the way through LOST, though I'm not sure what that says about me as a person.

  • ERM

    I really sympathized with Sansa in the books after the first book. It is disappointing they've done such a bad job with her in the series.

  • QueeferSutherland

    I actually disgree. I think they've done a great job of showing her tranformation from petulant wannabe princess to savvy suvivor.

  • alwaysanswerb

    Interesting. I haven't read the books, but I was having a very serious (by which I mean drunken) conversation with a friend about this topic. Based on the TV series alone I'm pro-Sansa, because even though she doesn't have the most action-packed narrative, I feel she is growing into that "woman's strength" that Brienne identifies and admires in Catelyn. While Arya and Robb both have storylines that appear more obviously dangerous and thrilling, Sansa is not really in any less peril, and yet her way of ensuring her survival is very different and, so far, still successful. She has Tyrion's admiration, and that's good enough for me.

  • BendinIntheWind

    Totally agree. Telling Tyrion she is "devoted to Joffrey, my one true love", and baiting Joffrey before the Blackwater battle show how she's learning to play the game. Not to mention her contemplating shoving Joffrey into the pit after he shows her Ned's head on a pike.

  • There'll Be Pancakes

    I agree too. In fact, I don't think the show has gone far enough in showing Sansa learning to play the game. She had a great moment in the first episode of the second season where she figured out a way to play to Joffrey's narcissism. Let's see more of that HBO

  • BendinIntheWind

    Whuuuuuu?? I admit that having read the books gives me a better idea of the character as a whole, since she's had way more pages than minutes of screentime thus far, but Sansa is the freaking *worst* in books 1 and 2. I think the show is doing a great job fleshing her out by showing the little glimpses of her learning how to swim with the sharks while never abandoning the hope of escape.

  • ERM

    And I thought the second book did a good job portraying her transformation from naive child to being completely disillusioned by the realities of violence, which I found sad to read and thus I sympathized with her. For instance how she went from thinking of knights as gallant men who gave pretty ladies flowers before fake battles to having to worry about being raped by knights if they got past the wall.

  • BendinIntheWind


    I agree with you on the disillusionment, but I really think that's more by necessity, based on her surroundings rather than her character wising up. She never really infers anything unless it's presented to her straight. When the Tyrells tell her they plan to marry Sansa into their family, she gets swept up again into the "ooh, handsome knight" fantasy, and is shocked to learn they meant the older crippled (?) brother. And I do remember her putting a lot of faith into Ser Dontos and his lofty goal of secreting her away, having fallen from grace but still her gallant rescuer.

    I adored the bit added in the show before Blackwater when she essentially baits Joffrey into arguing about his place in battle, the "You're right, how stupid of me, of *course* you'll be on the front of the battle lines. My brother always goes to where the fighting is thickest and he's just a pretender..." So politely insolent.

  • ERM

    I can't imagine after reading the brutal treatment of Sansa at the hands of Joffrey in book 2 that anyone would say they would prefer she die over him because at least he is "interesting."

  • PaddyDog

    Okay, that should have told you that hubby thinks the Reagan era was the best. Lost in the editing.

  • PaddyDog

    The Americans has turned out to be a very compelling show. It creates its own little controversy every week in our house because I find myself rooting for Elizabeth and Phillip more and more while my husband who thinks the was the biz (I'm working on him: it's a long term project) wants them to fail.

    Contrast that with The Following, the show that I thought would be the one I would be in love with which has turned out to have such terribly written characters that it's impossible to believe a horde of people are dedicated to their head villain because there is absolutely nothing interesting or charismatic about him.

  • sean

    I was a bit surprised at that as well. That the Americans gets better every week. I am more drawn to Phillips character. He seems to be the best person on the show. A better husband and father than the FBI agent that is supposed to be chasing him. A better man. Yet he is willing to do horrible things. A well done character.

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