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.