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Mere Anarchy is Loosed Upon the World: "Breaking Bad" and Our Love of Antiheroes

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | September 19, 2013 | Comments ()


heisenberg.jpg

This isn’t exactly yet another article talking about “Breaking Bad”, which I’m pretty sure that a lot of you are really sick of hearing about at this point, and will be more than happy when the show ends in a couple of weeks and all of us writers have to find something else to obsess over. But this is a thought process that has been swirling around my mind for some time, and the Internet fury over “Breaking Bad” has certainly helped crystallize it at this moment.

There’s been a lot of talk over the last few years about the rise of antiheroes in our fictions, particularly in the current renaissance of television. Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen, and now Walter White, perhaps the most truly villainous character ever to be presented as a nominal protagonist. And in contradiction to all logic, the more villainous these antiheroes have become, the more intensely they seem to be sympathized with, and the more sickeningly fans seem to turn on any characters who work against the antihero, even when they’re the only ones acting with any morality in the tale.

A lot of writers have puzzled over this, including on our site, and justifiably seen misogyny in the particular reactions of fans to Skyler White not backing Walter every step of the way. But this week we’ve seen a similar explosion of sentiment against Jesse for his betrayal of a man who put a hit out on him. The vicious malice of so many fans towards those who stand in the way of an evil man who thinks little of annihilating people in his way is disheartening for a lot of writers, and a great deal of digital ink has been spilled over it. Various reasons have been aired, including the simple and accurate observation that judging humanity on the basis of Internet commenters (our wonderful commenters excluded, of course) is an inaccurate and dejecting exercise.

But even though the pattern of misogyny by rabid fans has repeated in show after show, I think that the root cause is something different. I think that small minded assholes on the Internet will find the path of maximum offense when turning on a character. If Skyler were black, it would be racial. If she were highly religious, the slurs would be about that. But as it is, the spinning arrow landed on gender and that’s what the wolves have torn into.

Yet while watching “Breaking Bad”, I had the same underlying response to Skyler as the show went on. It did not resemble the misogyny on the surface, but it was rooted in the same irritation that she was getting in the way of the protagonist. Even though I could rationally understand that her actions were the more right, the more moral, I couldn’t shake the visceral reaction to the character. And that was the point when I started really thinking about antiheroes and why we are currently enamored with them.

And that eventually led me to thinking about maps, and dusty old history books.

I have a passion for old maps and old books, for perusing through the pages where a century of war and millions of dead are compressed into four color maps showcasing the farthest extent of any given empire’s expansion. I understand on an intellectual level that these were bad man doing bad things. Conquest is not pretty, and it’s only with the distance of history that we can make oblivious statements about what a good force the Roman Empire was, because you know, we got France out of it. The wastelands of the Gauls might have begged to differ, but then the dead don’t much argue, especially after two thousand years turning into dust.

We look at Alexander’s realm, and rather than weeping because he had no more lands to conquer, we weep because there were so many more. And we fill in the might have beens: what if he hadn’t bothered grinding away in Central Asia for a decade but had not given up on India? What if that single malarial mosquito hadn’t feasted on his veins? Could he have reached the final sea that we know exists, and he dreamed of finding? We do the same with Rome of course, looking at the blank spots on the map and thinking that if just this or that had gone differently, the legions would have looked on the Indus or Yangtze. And Napoleon of course, we look at those records and see where he could have pulled it out in the end. And we even do it with those for whom we cannot even pretend an affinity. The Germans having leveled Europe, stopped in their tracks by the earliest winter in a century. The Mongols having annihilated the last army in Europe turn around never to return when the Khan dies of alcoholism.

Even in our contemporaneous events we one-up the catastrophes. We look at 9/11 and some part of us niggles at the back of our brain that if the Pentagon plane and United 93 had just aimed at the bases of the two towers, there would have been 30,000 dead instead of 3,000.

Are we just so goddamned sick that we want to see people die? That for all our suburbs and minivans what we still crave is the blood orgy on the sands of the arena? I don’t think so. I think this runs to a deeper part of our psyche, one not so easily explained by simple animalism or malicious sadism.

I think we live for those moments when the entire world is shaken. I think we know that the times we truly feel alive are when we have our backs against the wall. And this leads to a complex relationship with the butchers of history. Gods do we loathe them. But so too do we crave the whirlwind they bring, and therefore turn on the characters in our fictions who would deny it to us. The knight cannot slay the dragon if we do not suffer the existence of dragons in the first place. Yet it’s more than just needing the villain for the emergence of the hero. The saddest part of a story is after the villain is vanquished. Every adventure is a tragedy, because the adventure ends. And so we look with vague hunger on all the tragedies of history, not because we want the horror, nor even for the victory, but because we crave that perfect moment of conflict in the middle, when the world stands still on the precipice.

Some men? What optimism, dear Alfred. We all want to watch the world burn. And the ones that set it alight are the Walter Whites. We root for him despite ourselves, not because we want him to win, but because we want the whirlwind.

Why is it antiheroes today though when twenty years ago it was virtuous heroes? Because we live in a world with all the answers and all the order. There are no absolute goods and evils left to us in these latter days still coasting on after the end of history. Communism is in the ground, fascism too, and to both a good riddance. But it has put us at a strange time in history, a time when there is only one answer, one world order. There is terrorism to be sure, and always the specter of resurgent nationalists, deteriorating social structure. Vicious fights for power still rage, but they are fractured fights over identity more than existential fights over ideology.

When we live in a world of constant existential conflict, when the Germans are marching through Europe or the Russians are moments from launching their rockets by the thousands, the whirlwind comes when a hero rises. But in a time of order, the hero brings us nothing, because the hero is order. So we turn to the antiheroes, to the agents of chaos who burn to break the existing order. And those who seek to burn are rarely saints.

The key is right there in his name after all, the one that he chose from the very beginning. Of all the scientists to choose, Walter chose Heisenberg as his name sake. He chose the man who is best known for formulating the Uncertainty Principle, to the man who pointed out that the implications of Einstein’s theories were that if you dug deep enough the universe was random. That underneath the elaborate edifice of order and structure in classical physics, was a foundation of raw chaos. That god indeed plays dice with the universe. In the language of chemistry, Walter White all but named himself the whirlwind.

They say that people do not play the lottery in order to win, but in order to dream. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that we find it so easy to adore the terrible men who play dice with lives.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.







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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Dennis Albert Ramirez

    wow. what a wonderful article. you are consistently my favorite writer on this site

  • Joseph Howe

    One world order? I'll pass.

  • rasputinreborn

    ah how very much
    a statement of so few words
    can say about one

  • Uriah_Creep

    Not only is this article well-written (as usual, Steven), but the comments are intelligent and well expressed. Huzzah, Pajiba.

  • Pippa

    "We look at 9/11 and some part of us niggles at the back of our brain that if the Pentagon plane and United 93 had just aimed at the bases of the two towers, there would have been 30,000 dead instead of 3,000."

    Really? I mean, I'm not offended and I can see a particular person thinking this way and not being a terrible person, but I really don't think this is true of even some Americans, and you present it as though most people subconsciously think this way. You can say people subconsciously think anything because it's hard to prove the opposite, but I just felt a real big no on seeing this one.

  • GDI

    This sort of analysis is precisely why I would've loved SLW over Daniel Carlson as the weekly reviewer (mediator?) for Breaking Bad. Sure, Carlson has some solid points, but he seems to pander to the Pajiba crowd, while this piece (and the other one by Joanna) has opened a wider format for dialogue.

  • mclbolton

    What a wonderful and thought provoking article this is! It will stay with me and give me a different way of looking at the world of today. thanks ---

  • Mrs. Julien

    Meth is the maguffin. Breaking Bad is an examination of "evil" without really showing us its larger repercussions. Walt's world is shaken, not the world. We don't see the people he makes the drugs for. As time goes on, the meth doesn't even stay on the same continent. It's a character study, a meditation on pride. If the show had a broader range of story (I'm not saying it should), if it were an examination of society instead of the character of one man and those around him, the indictment against Walt would be much stronger. How much could one root for Walt, if one was shown a few more of those children sleeping on the floor and living on Marshmallow Fluff while their parents self-destruct? Walt doesn't make anyone take drugs, but choosing to make poison for people who don't care shows a fundamental disregard for his impact on his world. (To be fair, he already has that last part very well covered just in the sphere the show examines.)

  • Wigamer

    Exactly the reason I'll never watch the ATM episode again. Too much time spent on the consequences of Walt's meth making and I would have abandoned the show very early on. It's absolutely a character study and could've played out regardless of the particular social ill Gilligan decided to focus on.

  • Mrs. Julien

    I couldn't watch it the first time, never mind again. I had to leave the room.

  • Wigamer

    It's just...ugh. I have to stop thinking about it now.

  • Mrs. Julien

    I tried to post a hug photo. Consider yourself embraced.

  • Wigamer

    DIT-TO

  • Mrs. Julien

    This article is, as always with SLW, eloquent, articulate and fascinating, but I disagree with it on so many levels. Of course, there is absolute good and evil in the world. The fact that the institutions we once looked to to represent these things are crumbling does not deny the existence of the fundamental principles. Neither does the fact that we still use the religiously-laden and out-dated terms of good and evil, as opposed to ethical/unethical, or perhaps moral/immoral, to describe them. The world may seem more gray, but it affords us more than enough black, and certainly shimmers of white, on a daily basis.

    Walt's evil is fascinating because we do not reap its whirlwind. He is a brilliant man who, under the guise of acting out of love for his family, has given himself permission not to care. We can watch at a safe distance as he destroys everything around him while simultaneously feeling that he has built himself up. We suspect he will escape punishment, we know so many truly reprehensible people do, but watching him surrender to the beast of his pride at a distance is captivating. We watch because we want to see if he can get away with it, not necessarily because we think he should.

  • Marc Greene

    I can only comment on one specific point: Walt only called the hit on Jesse after Jesse said he was going to hit Walt where he lives which Walt took to mean his family and Walt took a bunch of measures to avoid going "full measure" on Pinkman- after that, yeah... well, Walt's a bastard and does not take betrayal kindly.

  • emmalita

    I watch the show with two people. We all have very different reactions. The public defender lets his id out and whole heartedly roots for Walt. The one who works in corruption riddled, poverty stricken countries whole heartedly roots against Walt and hates Skyler for not taking a harder stand on Walt. My life has few extreme situations, so I get really invested in the psychological drama. I think we're all looking for what we don't have.

  • TenaciousJP

    "Communism is in the ground,..."

    中国不敢苟同。

  • Think again..

    China is 'Communist' in name only. They currently practice a brand of capitalism far more conservative and market-based than that of the EU or North America, in many respects, and their prospects for the future seem to denote even more deregulation and market investment, both in and out of Chinese borders. The CCP knows the score, and Deng Xiaoping opened China to direct foreign investment and oversaw the creation of unregulated, free market zones throughout China, which have worked tremendously and contribute greatly to China's economic success today. 'Communism' as an ideology is inadvertently mocked by the largest and most powerful communist party left in the world, and is very much in the ground, with the few remaining strictly 'Communist' nations mired in economic irrelevance.

  • Yossarian

    The real pleasure of antiheroes is in their complexity. Good guys, by comparison, are boring. Once we have accepted and internalized social norms and the conventions of morality there's not much left to gain from standard tales of good vs evil. The taboo of crossing moral boundaries in the safe place of fiction becomes appealing. As Joanna Robinson's Think Piece earlier in the week points out, good art allows us to sympathize with different perspectives, it enlarges us and broadens our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. What could be more seductive than violating the fundamental rules or decency and order that govern our daily lives?

    And so the idea that we want to identify with Walter White is natural. The idea that Skyler or Jesse or Hank are frustrating the purpose of our protagonist and by doing so frustrating us is also easy to understand. Part of us clearly wants to see Walt exceed, to see him push the boundaries and limitations to their breaking point, to see what would happen next.

    The problem with the extreme end of the Walt apologists, I think, is that they become too invested in their protagonist and they lose sight of the complexity which is what gives the whole thing meaning. What really makes this show so compelling is not what Walt accomplishes, it's what he sacrifices and what he loses in the process. The whole point of using literature and fiction to pierce that veil and step into a different perspective is that we then relate it back to ourselves and consider the chilling implications of the other world we've conjured up. Part of us roots for Walt but part of us stays grounded and is horrified at the things he does.

    And that's why it is troubling to see the lack of complex, critical thinking in the people who make internet memes calling Skyler a bitch, or comment that Jesse is a coward and a traitor for having a conscience. The value of the show is in the complexity, the interplay between this dark fantasy of violation and the safe, ordered reality we return to.

    If it is just a violation fantasy without any grounding or concern for the other characters and perspectives then it becomes something less. Like I said in a previous comment, it becomes a video game. It strips out all the nuance, all the complexity, all the emotional depth of the side characters and reduces it to a series of achievements and goals. There is story, sure, but it is linear and objective-oriented. By viewing the things Walt does not as choices he makes but as assumptions for the action that follows it obscures everything important that is being said about Walt that he is capable of these things.

  • Fredo

    Why is the villain so attractive? Because he can do what we only dream of; live without repercussions and stride through the world with impunity. The villain is often the more attractive of the roles in a story. They are free, in a sense, to act without limitations or concern. They seek to do and do and succeed and don't worry about the consequences. It's a worry-free life because they have the ultimate capacity to descend into anarchy, chaos and violence.

    Tony Soprano. Vic Mackey. Stringer Bell. Al Swearengen. Walter White. Nucky Thompson. Tywin Lannister. Boyd Crowder. The list of villains in recent memory is long and storied.

    The intriguing aspect, for me at least, is that we have not see the old, true-blue heroes rise up to confront them. Instead it's been anti-hero characters -- your Raylan Givens, your Jimmy Darmodys, your Tyrion Lannisters. Characters who straddle the line between good and evil, but are clearly not on either side. It's like we can accept the darkness in our characters far more readily than we can the light -- or think characters who are so upstanding and good are just fools waiting to be eaten alive (a la Robb Stark).

  • I've very inclined to agree with you. A very small part of me wants to take the easy road toward self-fulfillment like Walt and every other antihero does. Sometimes I want to say fuck it and just watch the world burn. Those thoughts don't last long. But seeing others take those thoughts and put them in to action serves to satisfy that desire and remind me why it's not a good idea.

  • Mrs. Julien

    That first sentence read my mind. I'm kind of freaked out.

  • Tinkerville

    For me as well. Very well played, SLW.

  • Markus Harris

    I think you're reading WAY too much into the whole "fans support the anti-hero" phenomenon.

    Fans support the character with whom they identify, and that character-- be they good, bad, or other-- becomes their personal surrogate through which they interpret and experience the ongoing story. In most cases, that character is the protagonist-- good, bad, or whatever.

    So fans staunchly support Walter because-- in relation to that TV program/story-- they ARE Walter. The whole TV show has been slanted so they see that world through his eyes. As he went bad, they went right along with him. His enemies are their enemies. Those who stand in his way deserve to be knocked aside or eliminated.

    The audience is not evil. But in the context of that storyline in that fictional world, they are Walter. Just as most Sopranos fans WERE Tony Soprano. And so on.

    Nothing disturbing about it, per se. We identify with the protagonist, and want him or her to succeed BECAUSE we identify with the protagonist.

    Look at Psycho. Audiences want Marion to get away, even though she robbed the bank. When she gets murdered, the audience shifts its sympathies to Norman Bates and hope HE doesn't get caught, until the big switcheroo at the end when the terrible truth is revealed.

    It doesn't matter how bad the character is, so long as we are compelled to dwell vicariously in his head for the duration of the story. We will root for them to succeed, because we are walking in their virtual shoes. Look at Dexter.

    We root for our surrogate selves, just as the writers intend for us to do. No big mystery or scandal about that.

  • PowLo

    Oh, how I wish I could possess a percentile of the talent you have in writing, sir.

  • Mrs. Julien

    It would be depressing if it wasn't so magnificent.

  • Ted Zancha

    Truth. This was such a heavy article but it was written so well.

  • Ted Zancha

    Well shit.

    Thanks for making me realize that I'm a terrible person

    No but seriously, this was a wonderful read. I had not ever considered the implications of why we like the anti-heroes (or even to some extent villains). Of how we view chaos/order. And yet you are right. When I watch comic book movies like the Dark Knight, I live for the scenes where the Joker is causing chaos in a town Batman controls. And yet when I see the Avengers, I cheer for the heroes because of the chaos that world is in.

    And even outside of TV and movies. The books I read have me cheering for different people depending upon the order in the book. Chaos? I want it fixed. Who will be the person to rise and save the day. If there is order, I want to quickly get to the page where everyone's world comes crashing down. And I heap love on the character that brings about this revolution.

    I just wonder what that says about us as people. What does that mean if we crave chaos when there is order. Is that just human nature and we have always been this twisted? Or have we become warped creatures and what started all of this?

  • rigbyreardon

    Okay, I'm just basically talking out of my butt here, but isn't there a fair amount of evidence that the human brain basically lives for the differences? So when you're happy, it's like your brain gets tired of it, so then you become sad, so that when you're happy again it's something exciting because it's different. I think a bit of this desire for chaos/order surely has something to do with that. Disasters shake us up, make us feel something different, and even if it's fucked up, it still, in some weird way, makes us happy. There's order to how everyone feels. I'm specifically thinking of the way everyone responded after 9/11; how everyone came together and supported each other and we all felt really proud to be Americans in a way that we haven't for...years. It was different, and new. Now, there's all of this chaos, all the time, with constant miniature disasters of our own creation (school shootings with no movement for gun control; no jobs, no money, people with masters degrees working as baristas) and I think, you know, everyone might just want a little Goddamn order. Or,perhaps, a person who can rise above all the horseshit and do something important with themselves, even if they're being a Bad Human Being. Like, say, a drug kingpin who makes a fuckton of money not following the rules that the rest of us have followed and led us to lives we weren't necessarily promised.

    I really want to write more/clean this up, but I have a meeting in 5 minutes and really shouldn't have read this in the first place.

    Anyways, just thoughts.

  • Ted Zancha

    I absolutely see what you mean. I think you are right. There is scientific evidence to prove this. And even I see evidence of it day to day. People getting bored at their jobs and showing excitement when there is drama or tragedy.

    I just wonder why we are that way. Why it takes a tragedy like 9/11 to bring us together as a country. Why we need a gridlock in Washington or multiple school shootings to call on a "hero" to fix everything.

    Dear lord, I think I'm starting to sound like a hippy or some pseudo- intellectual college student. Asking grand universal questions that have no merit or meaning. I'm backing myself into a corner of "Why are we like this?" or "Why are we the way that we are?" It just fascinates me and perplexes me as to why we need these stimuli. Why we get bored and need chaos and order to adjust our lives. I know its a part of being a human. But I still find it odd.

    That's why I applaud Steven for writing about this so eloquently while I just stumble through my thoughts.

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