This past Sunday saw the arrival of Breaking Bad‘s final episode. Like many people around the world, several of us here at Renegade are big fans of the show. Although overall we were pleased that the creators of the show gave us a fitting ending and the series was going out on top, we were still sad to see it go. We’ve all formed our own strong opinions and connections with the characters in the show, but none more so than the show’s protagonist, Walter White.
For those few people who’ve been living in the group home Under A Rock in the town of Off The Grid, Breaking Bad is a series about a high-school chemistry teacher named Walter White who gets lung cancer and decides to provide for his family’s well-being by making methamphetamine. At the start of the series, Walter is a very mild-mannered husband and father who probably wouldn’t hurt a fly, but once he learns that he’s living with an expiration date, he becomes far more bold and less principled. As his criminal career progresses, he changes from a man whose struggle is very empathetic into a nearly heartless criminal who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. Only a few weeks ago, George R.R. Martin, the author of A Game of Thrones, wrote that Walter White was a bigger monster than anyone he’s created.
However, many fans still love the character, despite his horrific choices and actions. Even though he shows little to no remorse about killing anyone who gets in his way, people still empathize with him and even like him despite his numerous flaws. This connection causes him to be a more of an anti-hero than an outright villain in the eyes of many, although others disagree.
Over the past few months, I’ve noticed that it seems like almost all of the most popular characters of our time are anti-heroes, not just Walter White. Even if they’re more mild antiheroes, like Iron Man and Batman, audiences seem to have responded more with heroes who have some antiheroic tendencies, and Hollywood has taken notice. Heck, Zack Snyder and David Goyer thought it would be a good idea to have Superman kill someone in Man of Steel!
This got me thinking. Why is it that anti-heroes are so beloved? What is it about them that is just so appealing?
By the definition, antiheroes are lacking some of the noticeable heroic characteristics like nobility, charity, honor, and morality. One of the chief characteristics of modern antiheroes seems to be “the ends justify the means” mentality. They may be good people at their core, but they have little restraint barring their actions. Harry Callahan is a detective who is clearly passionate about protecting the innocent and administering justice to the guilty, but he bends the laws in order to get the results that he wants, thus he is called “Dirty Harry.”
Surely the fantasy of being able to do what you want when you want is appealing to audiences, but there’s a deeper reason for the love of antiheroes than just mere fantasy. There’s surely some sympathy present as well. In Prisoners, Hugh Jackman’s character goes to some unsettling extremes in order to find out who kidnapped his daughter, and many viewers have wondered if they would do the same things if they had to. People can overlook peoples’ flaws if they sympathize with what they’re trying to do, which is why so many consider Walter White an anti-hero instead of a villain.
But perhaps that’s the key to anti-heroes being remembered. Perhaps people identify more with antiheroes because most of us are more antiheroic than anything else. Most people are basically decent, and we have different places and moments where we’ll willingly cross the line. Some of us cheat on our taxes, some people cheat on their spouses, some of hit the sauce a bit too much. True saints and monsters are found few and far between, and the rest of us just fall on that grey area in the middle. Whether we’re more black or more white is a matter of our own choices. We all live on the lines that we choose to.
Whatever the reason, it looks like anti-heroes are the most popular type of character these days. I just hope we get back to looking for the real heroes again soon.