Villains We Know and…..Like

Whether you’re talking about Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (an iron hand lacking any humanity) or Noah Cross from Chinatown (rich, powerful, and demanding control while hiding behind a facade of charm), it’s the depth of depravity that makes the match-up between these villains and the story heroes so memorable.

Hannibal Lecter is a shining example of the modern-day devil archetype. What made him so effective was that he completely understood Clarice. And when the devil interprets the hero’s thoughts and recognizes her fears and weaknesses, it’s chilling. Lecter does emerge as an ally of sorts to Clarice.

For my money, there was nobody better to demonstrate a relationship between the hero and the villain, beyond the hunter-hunted, than Raymond Chandler. Most of Chandler’s plots were labyrinths with Marlowe as the knight errant crossing a corrupted landscape, but we always experienced multiple layers of antagonism. Michael Connelly has brilliantly carried on that multi-layered complexity with both Bosch and Haller facing known and unknown antagonists.

I have no empirical evidence for this, but I think it’s become more common to see villains who we sympathize with, or sometimes root for, in movies, books and television. If the classic hero is incorruptible and virtuous, even though flawed, it’s the antihero villain that we rely upon, to not just clash with the hero and force transformation, but to represent something important in the story premise. Perhaps drive the storyline as the protagonist. Narrative television, with arcs continuing beyond an episode to a season or even longer, lends itself to antiheros quite well.

The antihero villain should have everything to do with theme and must represent another way of thinking and living, a path that has its own merits, like it or not. Seldom black or white.

It’s fun to see the antihero as the protagonist. They may not role models or honest or sensible, but we enjoy watching them, flaws and everything. Take Tony Soprano, Dexter, Don Draper, or Jax and crew/family from Sons of Anarchy. Philip and Elizabeth in The Americans. Piper and the superb cast in Orange is the New Black. In the first season of the fantastic TV show Fargo, mild-mannered, shy, under-achieving Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) encounters a drifter/hitman named Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) who sets Lester on a path to becoming a very clever killer and manipulator.

One of the most successful characters in recent history has been, of course, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in Breaking Bad. He’s a dying man who starts a quest to provide for his family by crossing lines he’d never been prepared to cross before. We love seeing his rise to criminal mastermind slinging blue meth and navigating that life while trying to maintain his family life, including keeping his brother-in-law DEA agent in the dark. Breaking Bad’s creator, Vince Gilligan, described his goal with Walter White as “turning Mr. Chips into Scarface,” and deliberately made Walter less sympathetic over the course of the series.

We don’t like watching Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) on House of Cards just because he’s diabolical in his schemes. We know in our hearts that many politicians have similarities to him (or want to be like him). We know he is, unfortunately, a linchpin of our democracy.

Great antihero characters are either forced into villainy by life’s inequities (Walter White, Lester Nygaard) or by the situation they were essentially born into (Jax in Sons). We want to experience that psychological complexity, moral relativism, and tests of what is most important at any given moment – family, love, duty, the thrill, the charade, or themselves.

Another example? Hitman Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) experienced a “moment of clarity” in Pulp Fiction when some bad guys emptied their guns at him and missed. He decided to retire, but had to diffuse the diner situation without killing before he could go “walk the earth” leaving Vincent to fatefully go after Butch alone.


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