This week I was going to write an article about infuriating cell-phone laws, but then I began playing Grand Theft Auto 5, and a brand new flavor of anger washed my palate clean. In an effort to bury the lead no longer, I will say this: Our society has become obsessed with the bad guys.
If you’ll follow me down this particular rabbit hole, I’m going to talk about how it started, why it’s huge, and why it’s such an easy, seductive, but ultimately destructive path.
Why It’s Big
You cannot turn on your television without seeing something horrible. Now, don’t get me wrong – this article isn’t about censorship, or violence, or sex. I hate the first thing and love the last two. However, you can’t argue with the fact that some of the most critically acclaimed (and commercially successful) television shows of late have been about the bad guy.
To many, the beginning of our current “Golden Age” of television can be traced to “The Sopranos.” A critic-darling, and well-beloved by the audience, the show followed the ups and downs of Tony Soprano, a mafioso trying to juggle family and crime. Tony Soprano was a bad guy – a murderer, a thief, and a bully, primarily, and the show offered an unflinching view of “the life.” The series won over twenty Emmys, and is considered by mainstream media to be “like the Godfather, just longer.” The Writer’s Guild of America even named it the best written show of all time. Granted, that’s a fucking overshoot if I’ve heard one – we all known that “Out of This World” is the most well-written show of all time.
After “Sopranos” came “Deadwood,” the series that could basically be called “The Show with All the Assholes Oh and Timothy Olyphant.” Then “The Wire,” which was basically “Cruelty and Selfishness: The Show.” Lately, what are the big shows? “Game of Thrones,” “Ray Donovan,” “Dexter,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Sons of Anarchy,” and “Breaking Bad” are all gigantic, water-cooler shows that are dominating the line-up. Are these shows bad? Absolutely not. In fact, for the most part, they’re all really great.
But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Because there are three stages of “big budget entertainment.” I’ll illustrate it with the “Sopranos:”
“I have an idea for a show about a mafia family. It might be a little dark, but I think I have a lot to say!”
The Sopranos is created, and crushes it. Money, acclaim, fans. Other writers perk up their ears and stare around like groundhogs. “Wait, we can tackle complex characters? Grey-area morality? Sweet.”
Then Deadwood, Dexter, Breaking Bad, etc air. Unfortunately, we’re now entering the third stage of Hollywood production – the imitators who don’t “get it.” Those people (producers, writers, the whole shebang) are now sitting up and saying, “Wait, shows with evil characters make money? I like money!”
And this is where the problem comes in. However! Let me take a moment to explain that an evil mufuckah as the story focus isn’t necessarily bad all by itself . . .
I May Be Bad, But I Feel Good
The problem isn’t necessarily that the villain can’t be the protagonist – gothic literature is literally based around the concept. Dracula isn’t about Jonathan Harker, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde isn’t about Gabriel Jon Utterson, and Wuthering Heights sure as hell isn’t about Nelly Dean.
A story about a villain can be a fascinating character study, an enlightening look into the dark side of the human soul. Not every story needs to appeal to our better angels – though, ironically, it’s the evil stories that crystallize our virtues. “Frankenstein” and “Scarface” teach us about pride and responsibility. “Dracula” and “Wild Things” teaches us that sex is predatory and awesome. “Wuthering Heights” teaches us that revenge is self-destructive, and that the choice between what we want and what society wants for us can destroy our lives.
The modern gothics teach the same lessons. “Breaking Bad” is about greed and pride and the downfall caused by same. “Game of Thrones” and is about the high cost of power, and whether true power even exists. “Sons of Anarchy” tells a similar story to “Wuthering Heights,” despite its “Hamlet” trappings: revenge will destroy you and everyone you love, and society’s view of your self (in this case, society is a close-knit biker-gang emphasizing loyalty) will steer you wrong everytime.
That’s why “Dexter” and “Boardwalk Empire” work so well – we get to see a character who shows us just what happens when we give in to our inner villains. What happens when we dont “turn our heads until our darkness goes.” When we strip the morality out, scream “fuck it,” and start murdering fools that do us harm.
However, it takes a good writer to understand that. Unfortunately, as in the wake of any plump school of fish, the sharks are circling.
The Neutral, the Bad, and the Ugly
You see, these so-called “villain protagonists” have a subtle distinction that separates them from monsters – they’re relatable. In the spirit of the classic Byronic hero, they may be loathsome, and they may even know they’re loathsome, but they harbor no illusions. They know they are ugly men in an ugly world, and they all have some binding sense of loyalty, or affection, or deep personal strength that not just contradicts their personality, but actually creates it.
Tyrion Lannister on “Game of Thrones,” one of the more noble characters, is a lying, drunken, killing, thieving, scheming bastard. However, he’s the first person to admit to such, and in the kind of world he lives in, who could blame him? His sense of duty to his family, and to the people they rule, raises him above simple definitions. He loves women, deeply, and he’s shown to fall quickly in love. Even the worst-of-the-worst on that show, Cersei Lannister (aka Thundercunt), perpetuates her breathtaking evil in the service of protecting her children. Joffrey has no redeeming qualities, certainly, but he also isn’t a protagonist.
Walter White in “Breaking Bad” is trying to protect his family. Jax in “Sons of Anarchy” is avenging his father and trying to keep his mother and “brothers” safe. Dexter is containing his horrible urges and turning them on the true bastards.
Unfortunately, some writers are beginning to fall into a trap – evil guys are popular because they murder, and kill, and steal. Mark my words, we’ll see a whole slew of thinly-constructed douche bags in our future . . . and it begins with Rockstar Studios mega smash hit “Grand Theft Auto 5.”
The Theft of Grand Autos
We’ve come to it then – the reason I wrote this damn article. I’ve been playing GTA V for about a week, and I can tell you this – the writers are having real trouble. While Grand Theft Auto was never known for its heroic characters (HA), there was always some gleam of the Byronic hero. Sure, they were moody, sure they were angry or brooding and (quite often) hard-core killers. They had anchors to humanity. They had personality. As my man Jules Winnfield once said, “Personality goes a long way.”
Tommy Vercetti of “GTA: Vice City” may have been an angry drug-dealer, but he’d been totally screwed, and his roaring rampage of revenge felt justified. Plus, he was really funny. CJ of “GTA: San Andreas,” easily the franchise’s most heroic criminal, believed in family, and loyalty. He acted honorably when the world allowed him to, he believed in friendship, brotherhood, earning respect, and hard work. Niko Bellic of “GTA IV” had lived an ugly life, and was trying to forget it, to start anew, to live the “American Dream” as only a foreigner can. He wanted peace, and even though it seemed he could never have it, the yearning was there.
This new game, GTA 5, showcases three viewpoint characters, a franchise first. Yeah, Franklin (the black guy) is a criminal, but he’s aspiring to better his shitty situation and leave the ghetto. He helps people out, even when it hurts him. He has patience for assholes. He’s a little flat, and he’s at his weakest when his dialogue dissolves into combinations of “fuck” and “nigger,” but he’s at least trying to be a character.
Michael (the older guy) is a bank robber who’s killed people, but he’s trying to connect with his lazy son and protect his slutty daughter. He wants to teach and help Franklin, the other protagonist, show him the ropes. Keep him safe. He wants a happy home life. Then, the day before yesterday, the game introduced me to the third protagonist. Oh boy.
You see, before playing the game, I’d read the beginning of an article (one I can’t seem to find right now, cry your pardon) that had said that the third character, “Trevor,” was the lynchpin of the story. The most fascinating aspect, the story that hit the hardest. The article was well-written by someone who was clearly intelligent. He called Trevor’s journey a fascinating character piece about a flawed man – a backroads meth dealer, in the mold of Bryan Cranston’s “Walter White.” A man whose rage could blah blah blah.
Then I met Trevor. He’s introduced banging a woman who looks like Lindsey Lohan run through a meat grinder. Then, he murders the boyfriend of the girl he’s banging by smashing the guy’s head in with his boot. Then he goes off to kill more people, screaming at the top of his lungs the entire time.
Franklin wants to improve his station. Michael is bored, unfulfilled, and unhappy with the home he’s spent so much time trying to create. Trevor is just a fucking stupid asshole murderer who likes murdering and being a stupid asshole.
I felt betrayed. But the article I’d read . . . Trevor . . . oh. I get it. “Evil protagonists make money.” I’m sure the writers were wringing their hands in sweet, sweet joy – we’ve made our Jaime Lannister! Our Don Draper! Our Al Swearingen! People will know how deep we are, yeah yeah, beatnik fingersnaps, etc. He cusses all the time and kills people and sells drugs. Yeah! He’s ugly and stupid, he’s every money-making character in existence. When he talks, I hear a cash register slamming open. Hell yes! God we’re cutting edge!
Except Trevor is the worst kind of hillbilly shithead. He’d make a Buddhist monk turn to axe-murder and mop sodomy of said hillbilly dick-nozzle. The worst part of it is that the writers had actually fooled some people, like the otherwise intelligent article writer I mentioned earlier. He saw an ugly protagonist who crossed the boundaries, beatnik fingersnaps, redefining the role of hero and anti-hero in a post morality world. Yeah, yeah, pipe light, pipe light, smoke, beatnik fingersnaps. He’s like all those guys that the TV tells me are deep, well written characters. He must be a deep, well written character! You can tell because he only ever speaks in loud profanity. He kills people, just like Dexter. He sells meth, like Walter White. He runs guns, like the Sons of Anarchy. He bangs other peoples wives like Don Draper. He runs a criminal empire. Yeah, yeah, berret adjust, pipe light, smoke.
He’s a joke. He’s an amalgamation of those characters, but with all the guts ripped out. He isn’t responsible like Dexter, he isn’t tortured like Walter White, he isn’t loyal like Jax, and he sure-as-shit doesn’t have the complexity of Don Draper. He’s a cypher, a shortcut, and the worst kind of pandering.
And Trevor is only the beginning. Go look online elsewhere. See how much praise is heaped on Trevor, how much people enjoy his character. “Trevor’s my favorite!” many of them cry.
People liked heroes because they change the world for the better. Now we’re just satisfied with the “change the world” part.
Is this what we want a protagonist to look like?