The Antihero’s Algorithm

There are a couple of pieces that have been making their way to me lately about the state of the Antihero on TV. I’d been thinking about this for a while, and I think those pieces have finally helped me crystallize my thoughts on the concept of the Antihero in general.

The stuff I’ve seen is a good foundation, but slightly flawed (sort of like several characters I’ve seen branded as “antiheroes”). For me, Hero and Antihero operate much as matter and antimatter do: the latter merely has the opposite characteristics of the former. Physicists figured out a while ago what those characteristics are, though, so there’s no real debate between what constitutes a quark vs. an antiquark. But there’s lots of potential debate about what makes a hero a Hero, especially in this day and age. And there are a few characters out there in the pop culture landscape that seem to straddle the line. So I’ve developed my own algorithm for deciding if you’ve got an Antihero on your hands:

1. Is he/she a Protagonist, or an Antagonist?

Antagonist: Not an Antihero. The antagonist has a supporting role; he/she spurs action and conflict, but, in a well-told story, never eclipses the protagonist. There are plenty of examples of stories out there where you end up rooting for the villain or wishing he/she had a bigger part in the text. Or really great actors who steal whatever scene they’re in, despite being antagonists, so they take on an antiheroic sheen. However, it’s just that: a sheen that masks the character’s fundamental relationship to the story. Justified‘s Boyd Crowder springs to mind first, and while the show rightfully places a lot of focus on the Boyd-Raylan relationship and Boyd’s journey, it’s very clearly Raylan’s show. Boyd is a supporting character, however magnetic Walton Goggins may be.

Protagonist: Let’s move on to number 2.

2. Does he/she have flaws that go deeper than “I wouldn’t like this person because he’s mildly abrasive or kind of strange”?

No: You’ve got yourself a genuine hero. Congratulations. This is where you’ll find The Hunger Games‘ Katniss, Harry Potter, Sabriel from Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy, Justified‘s Raylan Givens, etc.

Yes: We’re talking alcoholism, legitimately sociopathic behavior, deep-seated racism or misogyny that’s been acted upon (rape, domestic violence), etc., right? If so, down to 3 we go. If not, you’re probably thinking of someone like Dr. House on House, who, yes, was a bit of a twat, and did some shitty things, but (for reasons that will become even clearer later on in the algorithm) he’s not really an Antihero. He’s the network version of an Antihero, which is a Flawed Hero.

3. Is the protagonist aware of these flaws and the effects they have on loved ones?

Yes, and he/she is trying to change: Flawed Hero. Not having seen the vast majority of NYPD Blue, I can’t authoritatively state Andy Sipowicz belongs here, but if Wikipedia is right, this seems the best place for someone like him.

No OR Yes, and he/she doesn’t give a shit: Come on down to 4!

4. What is the protagonist’s raison d’être? Why do they get up in the morning? And, more importantly: Is it a goal we want them to achieve?

Yes: This can be a little complicated, though mostly this means you don’t have an Antihero. A lot of cops, doctors, government operatives, etc. end up here. If they’re saving people’s lives on a regular basis, they’re probably not an Antihero. They’re just Flawed.

In the case of, say, Revenge‘s Emily Thorne, it comes down to a matter of taste. If you believe the ends (ruining the people who ruined/killed her father) justify the means (blackmail, violence, etc.), you’re more likely to view her as a Heroine. If you’re a “turn the other cheek” sort, you might cluck a little and tell your kids not to be like her.

Some people might have gotten down here with Dexter, who also muddies the waters a bit. On the one hand, he’s a serial killer and, at the beginning of the series, a literal sociopath. So: Antihero. On the other hand, he only kills bad people (mostly other killers), has a code, and understands how his actions affect the innocents around him and sometimes takes steps to shield them; he’s also grown more human as the series has progressed. This one comes down to taste as well, though I bet most people would end up slapping the Antihero label on him.

Then you have someone like Travis Bickell from Taxi Driver, who raises the same question, though ultimately feels like he falls in the Antihero category, possibly just because Scorsese and DeNiro do such a bang-up job at selling how completely unstable the guy is; the lurking danger in every glance and mutter.

No: Antihero. Here’s where you have your Walter Whites, your Tony Sopranos and Nuckys and Humbert Humberts. These people are not contributing to society in the way an audience expects a Hero to; there’s something rotting at their core so that, however much we might be charmed by them or even root for them at the beginning, by the end of their story we want to see their uppance come, whether through death or some other kind of ruin. Their karmic debt is too damn high for an audience to allow them to slink away unscathed.

The best example I can think of to illustrate the real dichotomy of the protagonist is Homeland, where we have both a Hero and an Antihero in play. (Spoilers ahoy for those who haven’t seen all of season one.) Carrie Mathison, one of our protagonists, is a deeply flawed woman. She makes some pretty weighty decisions that we’re not entirely on-board with, at least in theory: secretly surveiling Brody, starting an affair with him, concealing her condition from everyone but her sister. But despite these choices, we understand that she is trying to do good: She wants to stop a terrorist attack. Her aim is sympathetic, and intent carries a lot of weight in the Hero vs. Antihero pathway.

Brody is our other protagonist– and he is a protagonist; the show is asking us to follow his journey just as much as Carrie’s, and to sympathize with him to a degree we’re seldom asked to do with plain antagonists. It’s why Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon felt the need to whack us over the head with the story of Issa. But Brody is almost an exact inversion of Carrie: a good man warped by years of torture and an unspeakably horrible act. It was an outside force that inspired his thirst for what he might think is justice but is perhaps more selfish than that. There’s a deep-seated self-destructive impulse in Brody (which was probably what drew him to Carrie in the first place, if only subconsciously); why else go for the bomb vest instead of some more remote method? By blowing himself up as well he gets to finally rest, consequence-free. At any rate, we understand his motivations, and even better, he’s portrayed as being conflicted about his mission, but we certainly don’t want him to fulfill his aim. Were the show not asking us to get inside his head, giving him as much screen time and separate plotlines as Carrie, he would be the villain of the piece.

I realize, going through all the potential examples, that the Antiheroes are overwhelmingly male, but that’s perhaps a post for another time. For now, let’s see if this thing can be broken by a character whose heroicness or lack thereof isn’t a question of taste. Takers?


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