The difference between an anti-hero and an antagonist isn’t just that we’re supposed to root for one and not the other. That’s the frame of it but it doesn’t explain why it works. You can’t just take a serial killer, put his name in the title and expect people to accept him as the protagonist. You’ve got to add a little nuance, you’ve got to add the little sprinkles of moral doubt to the foam that make you hold your nose and swallow what you’d otherwise pour down the toilet. There are two main ways to do it, of humanizing what we hate just enough so that we root for it. The easiest way is to make him incompetent, make it so that every morally depraved scheme backfires, one after the other. It’s most common in comedy, since it’s so easily mined for humor. It’s the Costanza and Simpson approach. Can you imagine sympathizing for a moment with the wormish schemes of either of those two if you didn’t know up front that every moment of triumph would inevitably be taken away by their own incompetence? If you didn’t already know that even their victories would be Pyrrhic?
The second way is to ensure that while the anti-hero is a right bastard, just enough of his activity is aimed at people even worse than him that you can sympathize. There’s frequently a code of honor wrapped up around it, something intangible to allow us some imaginary line between the anti-hero and the actual antagonists. Dexter has his code, Swearengen is the most honest man you’d ever meet (when he’s not lying). This is the sort of character that allows us to live vicariously, to see the bad men get what they deserve instead of mere justice. We need anti-heroes because no protagonist could do the things that they do and retain sanity. White hats always turn a little gray when they are put to work. These are the characters that we like to see get darker and darker, until we can hardly tell the difference between the gray of their hats and the black hats of their opponents. It’s perverse, but the closer that line gets, the more we can push the anti-hero to the very edges of outright villainy, the more of a vicarious thrill we get. It’s why we love that Hannibal kills the rude and Dexter murders the murderers.
But there’s a limit to it, encoded in story logic. When the anti-hero tries to turn his skills to personal gain, it always goes wrong. Pounding him down like the gods from a Greek tragedy, fate ensures that the very plans that would work to inflict harm on the wicked always disintegrate when aimed at profit.
This is the frame that “The Shield” is built upon. Construct a city so broken that it more closely resembles the post-apocalyptic than the procedural. Fill it with a few innocents but mostly with varying levels of human predators. And then turn loose a team of cops hardly better than the criminals.
As a show it could have easily imploded. It could have taken the easy route of gradually allowing Mackey to go down the road to redemption, of backing off from the character who executes a fellow cop in the pilot episode, of allowing him to turn into a man-with-no-name sort of hero. Instead the show never lets the stain fade, and never lets Mackey metamorphize into the sort who seeks redemption. To the very end, two things becomes clear. One, Mackey will never be able to shed events from the past. Unlike most shows, even good shows, where events from two or three years ago are resolved and dissipate, and new conflicts emerge, “The Shield” never lets the burdens go away. Terry Crowley, the Money Train, Antwon Mitchell, Ben Gilroy. Nothing is ever solved, only patched up or hidden away. By the end of the series, when Mackey finally confesses into that blessed microphone of immunity, one realizes just how massive of a pressure is being let off, just how well the show excelled at turning the screws tighter and tighter. Season by season, the burdens piled on.
But the show also made sure that Mackey was always weak inside, that for every bit of swagger, he evidenced a whining desperation, a shrill desperation to be accepted as needed. The moral centers of the show, Claudette and Julien and Dutch, they never looked up to Mackey, never wanted his sort of help, even when they needed it. They turned to him only when disgusted that they really had to accept his lesser of two evils approach.
And instead of giving the character a noble death, allowing the Strike Team to go out in a swaggering final blaze of gunfire, the show insists on the reality of mediocre evil. It doesn’t redeem itself, it doesn’t triumph, it just devours itself, losing piece by piece everything it cared about all along. And the white hats? They are still at their desks, still trying to make the world a better place.
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.