Warning: This post contains serious spoilers from Bloodline season 1 and 2, House Of Cards season 2 and Breaking Bad season 5.
Nowadays, it’s very common to watch a whole roaster of heroes and superheroes take on their own stories within the visual products we consume on a daily basis. From literal heroes to protagonists with big ambitions and a strong moral compass embeded in society’s high values, television and cinema have succesfully singlehandedly developed -and adapted- marvelous stories with heroic characters that we, as an audience, can often relate with.
Heroes are good through and through, they often do the right thing because is right and, most of the times, they get rewarded for their actions. Of course, they are not perfect, but they depict the most accurate version of a good human being. That said, what happens when this person becomes an atypical individual? One that doesn’t go by the rules, or any moral compass but his own, and is often apathetic? Simple, an Antihero arises.
According to tvtropes.org, an Antihero is an amoral misfit that has the opposite of most of the traditional attributes of a hero. They often work as a profound deconstruction of the traditionally heroic genres. Ultimately, an Antihero is just a consequence of the hero taking another path towards their goals. A hero gone wrong.
So, where do we should draw the line between a hero and an Antihero? What does it have to happen to a hero to walk across to become the Antihero hidden underneath all of that layers? Where is the point break where there is no return? If television has taught us anything, I would probably say it could happen after facing death, specifically by murder.
Not so long ago, a typical Antihero would be portrayed as an awful human being who’s only way of acting would be on self interest. Nowadays, TV shows are really at its best when they develop well-constructed and layered characters to carry character-driven episodes and fascinating character study plots, something that Bloodline excels at. In order to understand Antiheroes, we need to peel all the layers that surrounds them.
Before murdering his brother in cold blood, John Rayburn, one of their protagonists, was a character with clear goals and ostensibly heading to become the voice of reason and central role model of his family in the show. Granted, the Rayburns are not depicted as the most healthy and perfectly functional human beings, they do have a troubled and very fucked up past that always finds a way to come back to haunt them, but at least they keep trying their very best to manage it.
John wasn’t the first Antihero to arise within Bloodline‘s narrative, along came Danny. If you have seen this show (seriously, you should watch it), you’ll know that the youngest Rayburn sibling, Sarah, died at a young age when Danny was watching her. Living this complicated situation was the reason why he shaped the Antihero figure he became, leaving him only with a broken and damaged life to survive with. Danny and John’s stories are clearly different whereas their actions are coincidentally embedded.
That’s why Antiheroes in TV shows often need another character to contrast with in order to be legitimized as one in the first place. Dichothomies, parallels and counterparts work wonders with this type of characters, and their stories, when their flaws and virtues need to be noted. So it definetely wouldn’t be a coincidence if the writers of any given show decided to include someone in their script to balance and tie up their Antihero figure, in order to understand their particular gravitas and ethos.
Portraying both Danny and John as Antiheroes in season 1 and 2, correspondingly, worked greatly because it helped to enrich each character’s profound layers and motives as it was ideal to contrast them with the Bad Guy/Good Guy dichotomy level of understanding they carry with themselves.
When season one started off, John was certainly trying to do his best to be a hero. Notwithstanding, when his toxic brother arrived, he rapidly welcomes him back to the family without any hesitation, trusting him with blind faith and hoping for better days to come. Unfortunately, and depicting the perfect Antihero figure, Danny totes nothing but problems to their siblings, and even to the family inn, leading to his inevitable demise whilst passing the Antihero torch to his brother John in an somewhat act of self-defense.
Ah, ‘self-defense’, a simple word reflecting on an act so big and backhanded that can easily trigger any kind of feelings within a human being. Something that can transform a self-righteous cop into a murderer or a chemistry teacher, into a drug lord.
Just like Walter White, one of the most well-known Antiheroes of our time, that became that cold apathetic drug lord we all love to hate after his very first murder: a drug dealer called Emilio Koyima. Just like John Rayburn, he commited murder thoughtlessly on a self-defense act that not only pushed him to a road where there was no coming back, but also awoke the Antihero hidden deep inside of him.
Breaking Bad did a great job portraying Walter White’s ascension from the shy cancer victim to the shrewd drug lord, thirsty with power, that uses his family as an excuse for his behavior. Jesse Pinkman, on the other hand, served as a counterpoint to Walt’s antihero. He was the inocent life that White carried along, and couldn’t save, but didn’t turn into him either.
Their relationship didn’t work as a dichotomy as it is, but more as an action/consequence kind of dynamic. Where Walter White’s delusional plans were, Jesse Pinkman’s insecurities arose. Narratively speaking, this depiction was perfectly thought in order to draw upon the Antihero status of the character by contrasting him with his student’s decisions.
Whereas Jesse Pinkman did get to live on the season’s end, Walter White, just as Danny Rayburn, got a comeuppance of his own and ended up dying. The same fate that Zoe Barnes, in House Of Cards, had to face, before even having the chance of becoming an Antihero, when a murkier Frank Underwood decided that she was not relevant for him anymore as she started to pose a threat to his journey for the presidency.
Underwood’s main Antihero qualities veer around his prowess to manipulate people to do what he wants without making him look bad. Zoe Barnes’ murder, along with Peter Russo’s, was that necessary flame that the character needed in order to gain that apathy and brazen attitude that distinguish his Antihero status.
So, whilst John and Walter are paired with another men in order to aknowledge their bits and parts that they all share as male Antiheroes, House Of Cards cleverly matched up Frank with his wife, Claire, an evident Antihero on the rise for power. Unlike any of them, Underwood’s wife function in the story is not to become a contrast character but more to work as a parallel, or an equal. Whatever Frank does, Claire has already thought and perfected. She embodies everything he is. She is the result of all the decisions he took along the way and managed to get away with it.
Whilst death and murder are often used as a defining moment of the Antihero, contrast and parallelisms with characters around are used to understand what’s going on in their minds. Hence, as it happens in real life, we only judge someone when we compare them with our own experiences.