On television, it’s the age of villains

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), left, and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in AMC's "Breaking Bad." (Frank Ockenfels/Courtesy AMC/MCT)

As television prepares to bid farewell to a couple of longtime characters, it is important to remember what those characters are.

Criminals, for one thing. And killers.

Dexter Morgan and Walter White have both towered over TV, enrapturing some critics and millions of viewers, while leaving long and wide blood trails behind them. And they did that in a viewing world where the bad guys are central. Yes, there are TV series built around heroic characters; consider Gibbs on CBS’s NCIS or the law-enforcing family on the network’s Blue Bloods. And there are anti-heroes, people whose moral and personal stances are far from ideal, but who are still committed to good work; think of the lawyers at the center of USA’s Suits, or Raylan Givens on FX’s Justified.

But they share the landscape with people whose actions make it almost impossible to be considered as anything less than villains. Dexter Morgan, the main character on Showtime’s Dexter, currently in its final season, is a serial killer. He may be a moral relativist, but he still kills people; in fact, he needs to kill. Walter White of Breaking Bad, which begins its last set of new episodes tonight on AMC, began the series as a pleasant but ineffectual chemistry teacher, but he has more and more presented himself as the murderous and masterful drug dealer Heisenberg.

And those two stand along a video continuum that also includes Dallas’s J.R. Ewing, The Sopranos’ Tony, The Shield’s Vic Mackey, Deadwood’s Al Swearengen, Sons of Anarchy’s Jax Teller, the Soviet spies of The Americans, Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates (as well as his mother Norma), various Borgias and, coming this fall, the latest TV incarnation of Dracula.

Why do so many shows find evil so much more entertaining than good? It’s not a new phenomenon in literature, but it has evolved. While classic literary and screen villains have appeared before, more often than not their adventures led to some kind of comeuppance. A good guy eventually had to win.

But those victories were so common, and often so implausible, that writers began to chafe against the idea — not least because it meant their most fascinating creations were sent packing.

“If you write enough scripts, you see the bad guys always have the better lines,” writer-producer John McNamara said in 1996. “The bad guy is always cooler, has the big plan, has the cool team of guys, and then is beaten by some lunkhead.”

To be sure, there had been exceptions, notably J.R. Ewing. But there were also glaring examples of what was wrong with the formula. The ’80s drama Wiseguy was notable because the villains, among them characters played by Ray Sharkey and a then-little-known Kevin Spacey, were far more interesting than the good guy, an undercover fed played by Ken Wahl. By extending its stories through multi-episode arcs, Wiseguy gave its villains more time to connect with the audience, but there was still a point where they had to face justice.

More about that in a bit.

But the rules were bending. Prime-time soaps like Dallas and Dynasty had suggested that bad people were watchable in at least one genre (as they had been in daytime soaps) and set the stage for more extreme behaviors. McNamara and writing partner David Greenwalt made their bid for formula-changing with the ’90s series Profit, starring Adrian Pasdar as a corporate climber so unscrupulous that the series began with him blackmailing a woman who has just attended a funeral. It did not last, but the show’s getting on the air was a sign that networks were open to corrupt and amoral characters.

Cable and premium cable were doing likewise. Not long after Profit came HBO’s first foray into scripted drama, Oz, which for the most part focused on prison inmates guilty of various nasty crimes and quite willing to do terrible harm to each other. In Alan Sepinwall’s book The Revolution Was Televised, veteran writer-producer and Oz creator Tom Fontana points out that he, too, was reworking an old TV formula: “Every TV cop show ends with someone being put away, and you never hear about them ever again. Could you do a series about that?”

Finally, he did, and armed with HBO’s looser restrictions on content, he made one of the most astonishing, graphic, even horrifying series to air. It also, as Sepinwall has argued, set the stage for shows like The Sopranos, where evil can go unpunished; both Tony and his even more appalling mother Livia for the most part avoid major punishment.

If, that is, we count punishment as something basic like going to jail. Another source of fascination in focusing on villains is that it pushes the audience into agonies of moral relativism. Is Jax Teller a “better” person than some of his criminal associates? What about Dexter Morgan, who is a killer but chooses victims who deserve punishment?

In the first episode of Dexter, a child-abusing killer about to die at Morgan’s hands pleads, “I couldn’t help myself.”

“I can’t help myself either,” Morgan replies. “But children: I could never do that. … I have standards.”

Of course, those standards can change, and in that change audiences can follow both the effect of corruption in the long term on the villain and how it spreads to the people around him. It’s not unlike watching the two Godfather movies spread across a bigger canvas.

Tony Soprano was never likely to have been a good guy, since he came from a crime family, but as the series progressed, it repeatedly showed how his wrongs also affected his children and others close to him, sometimes with lethal results. Don Draper, a fraud and philanderer when Mad Men began, has become ever more petty, careless and destructive as the series has gone on, damaging not only himself but his daughter Sally when she caught Don in the middle of one of his infidelities.

Walt White begins Breaking Bad as a decent man who turns to meth dealing to provide for his family before his expected death from cancer; over time he has become an unapologetic criminal, his wife became complicit in his schemes and his former student — whose meth dealing gave White the idea to get in the game — was taken by White into acts far more awful than what he did as a small-time drug dealer.

How, then, can a TV show end such chronicles of dreadful deeds? That’s the question faced by shows like Breaking Bad and Dexter as they completed their final episodes, and are looming for Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy. The answers are wide open. Indeed, The Sopranos’ notorious fade-to-black conclusion left Tony’s life unfinished.

Dallas ended its original series with the devil urging J.R. to commit suicide because of his empty life. But the finale left open whether J.R. had actually shot himself, and he returned alive in reunion movies and the second Dallas series, always played by Larry Hagman. Only Hagman’s real-life death forced a final end for J.R.

The Shield found an appropriate punishment for Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) not in killing or jailing him, but by sending him to an earthly hell — confining a man who loved the street to a desk job in a windowless cubicle, without a gun or any other power. He’s not even allowed to change the thermostat.

Faced with that life, Vic took his gun and hit the streets. Audiences could then decide what happened next. It’s more complicated when you write the end for a villain. Unlike a hero, who can ride off into the sunset, the story of a villain leaves the audience wrestling with the basic question of how much he or she should get away with — and what, in that context, constitutes a happy ending.

Sons of Anarchy begins its sixth season on Sept. 10, and is set for a seventh after that. But already series creator and driving force Kurt Sutter has been asked how the show will end.

“It’s a heavy world,” he told the Huffington Post, “It’s a dark world but as heavy and violent as it is, I like to think that ultimately there is some sense of hope. So that it’s sad and heavy, but there is always some sense of hope. Will it be a happy ending? No, but I do think that there will be something hopeful about the way it ends.”

Not that such an ending will satisfy viewers. Again, what can you do to a villain that provides a good ending? Some will want rough justice, some yet another escape, some will want the body ruined, others the soul.

A Dexter producer, looking toward the series finale in September, told the Hollywood Reporter that “we all know that no matter what we do there are going to be a lot of people who are unhappy with it. We’re trying to not think about that and just think of what everyone who has been on the show from the beginning feels is right and that’s all we can do. No matter what we do, we’ll still be excoriated.”

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.

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