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

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | March 19, 2013 |

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | March 19, 2013 |

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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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.