Shading in the gray of antiheroes

Now that we’ve laid the antihero era to rest (several times, actually) maybe it’s time we figured out what an antihero actually is.

When “Go Set a Watchmen” hit bookshelves last month, the media was in a total tizzy to discuss the “new” revelation that Atticus Finch was a racist. At the time I wasn’t floored by the reveal, and didn’t follow along with a lot of the hype that was happening as the book was released. But it did lead to me overhearing this gem from the local news channel my roommate watches: “In the end it seems the hero and the antihero are one and the same.”

What a dumb sentence. I have complaints about broadcast journalism, but for weeks I couldn’t believe this made the cut in somebody’s script. Don’t they know an antihero is the unpopular hero of a story, not just a villain? But when talking about it with some more people, I realized maybe I don’t know what an antihero is.

To me, an antihero has always been the hero of the story whose actions you would condemn if they weren’t so damn compelling to watch. Or maybe you do condemn them, but still tune in every week. Either way, they were the protagonist in a story, even if you wouldn’t root for them in real life.

My close friend had similar thoughts. “I figure that if most people’s loose definition of a hero is a protagonist who you wish you could be (Harry Potter, Superman, etc.), then an antihero is a protagonist who you’re not supposed to idolize (Don Draper; Tony Soprano; Dexter).

Cue Metric's "Gold Guns Girls" here...
Cue Metric’s “Gold Guns Girls” here…

What keeps me wondering, however, is how much the character motivation matters. Don Draper’s anti-hero qualities stemmed from a lot of shame and confusion, constantly simmering underneath his marble exterior. But Walter White’s, whose creator has given him out after out from his life of crime, seems to stem from an insatiable fire of anger and brutality burning within, stoked for the first time by breaking bad.

All too often, the audience isn’t clued in entirely on the writer’s vision of the anti- in antihero. It’s been clear in the Skyler/Walt fandom debacle that all too often characters who we aren’t identifying with still illicit some cheering from the peanut gallery for their bad actions. “The Americans,” though not often focusing on whether its soviet spy duo is in the right or wrong of the greater Cold War context, walks a pretty tricky line: If its leads were to succeed, the country we live in wouldn’t exist. So why do I feel so compelled to root for them?

Whatever your definition, it seems to deal a lot with how we perceive gender roles, as Think Progress writes:

But, as I wrote when HBO’s Girls debuted in 2012, female anti-heroes, both on HBO and Showtime, tend to present a slightly different test for us. Rather than examining how far our admiration for masculinity stretches when its applications turn toxic, female anti-hero dramas tend to examine at what point we can overcome our distaste for a character’s weaknesses–be they addiction in Nurse Jackie, a solopsistic turn to drug dealing in Weeds, mental illness in Homeland, or simple early twenty-something indecision and selfishness in Girls–to recognize their overall worth.

And a quick troll through the antihero hall of fame from the past few years and you’ll find many of them are white men. How much that has to do with network casting and how much that has to do with where the “hero” ends for an antihero, I probably couldn’t speak to without more than an afternoon of research.

Which may be the biggest issue for me: When do I root for the antihero? How can I define something that, like porn, I just have to know when I see. Walter White, Greg House, and Tony Soprano carry the label pretty easily, but Jack Sparrow? Snape? Howl? Oh-Dae Su? It’s not as simple to me as asking whether a hero was right because that’s so subjective. I frequently get to the end of movies/shows/books/you name it and say “this character was right, but…” Flawless characters aren’t that interesting. But flawed characters aren’t not heroes.

As we push on past the “age of the antihero,” and indeed through the “golden era of television” and onwards into some ever-expanding platinum epoch, have we left the antihero behind? Are we expanding the definition? So long as we elevate the discourse several notches above local news, there’s worse problems to have on our hands.

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They are a-changin’: Thoughts on the “Mad Men” finale

In many ways Matthew Weiner’s swan song for “Mad Men” on Sunday was a paradox. In what was both a characteristic and a complete departure from the tone it had set up to this point. To each character Weiner gave a mixed goodie bag: They got what they’d been seeking, in one respect or another, but they lost something as well.

Some of those changes, like Joan’s total 180 from her pilot advice to Peggy that she aim to marry rich so she doesn’t have to work another day in her life to her giving up just that to build a business of her own. In some readings of Don’s last days on the small screen, his changes and restlessness felt earned as well; the theme of achieving your dreams and then what permeating from many of the final (half) season’s arcs.

Others, like Betty and Pete’s sudden clarity felt more abrupt, no matter how many changes had been simmering in the background. Similarly though the love between Stan and Peggy had been evident for a while, their sudden reunion was both in and out of character; feeling abrupt and rom-com-y from a show that has never indulged in such fanfare.

Which is probably indicative of how I felt about the finale as a whole: mixed. Articles could (and probably will be) written for years about the meaning of Don’s final smile, or the three women who he calls in his life, but I’m not too concerned with it. Half the fun of “Mad Men” to me has always stayed in between the lines: the solemn but telling looks the characters exchange, the symbolism woven into the fabric of the show, that shot (that shot) when the SCDP partners step into their new floor for the first time.

“Mad Men” has never been too concerned with the expectations of the audience, and that paid off to one of the best dramas with some of the most systematic pacing around. Its introduction set the stage and the tone for a “new golden age of television,” established a network’s flavor and opened the door for many more muted and engaging dramas. Its introduction set the stage and the tone for a “new golden age of television,” established a network’s flavor and opened the door for many more muted and engaging dramas.

Finality never suited “Mad Men” the same way the sleek look of the 60s did. Don’s drive to keep moving forward—and the meditations on whether he and the rest of the cast could—often drove the show, and it’s the distinct neat packaging that made the finale feel so foreign. For all everyone’s talk of how Joan’s business could fail, and Pete will screw up his family life again, and whether Don’s vision of the infamous Coke ad is a sign of cynicism or optimism, the finale hour—hell, the final back half of season seven seemed dedicated to wrapping up loose ends (Rachel’s return, the answer to whether Glenn and Betty still have the same wooden chemistry now that he’s all grown up) and it all felt entirely too tidy; a borderline-sloppy look for such a composed show.

This is not to say that these past seven weeks were bad; I’m far too close to it right now to make such a grandiose statement as that. But the distinct air of “end game” that hung over each character’s actions made for a sometimes uneven dance as “Mad Men” fell into its final days.

In my experience “Mad Men” was best when it was gazing out to something I couldn’t see, and I’ll miss that on my TV screen most of all.

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Drapers Get Older—Coopers Get Older Too

As we head into the final half of the final season of “Mad Men,” little ol’ me has found myself nostalgic, and since I’m not allowed to watch the premiere yet I’ve been re-watching a mix of classic scenes from seasons old. From the infamous “I don’t have a contract” to the moon (semi-literally). And in my journey jumping around I noticed a change in Don Draper (aside from the obvious): he talked less.

don_Jon HammIt may seem odd, as Draper spends a good chunk of the pilot creatively blocked, and has always maintained his status as something of an enigma by managing his power through steely stares and reticent answers.

But early Don Draper (or at least, early in the episode order) actually talks more; a lot more. His grasp over those around him isn’t quite as legendary as it appears to be in later episodes, he seems almost chomping at the bit to demonstrate his value over others (mostly Pete, and who can blame him in those early days) and he’s not afraid to use his astuteness to put others in their place. Clearly Jon Hamm has grown into the role more, grown more comfortable in his frame as Don Draper, ladies man, man’s man, man about town. Draper, and by extension Hamm, have been through everything that early-Draper feared and come out the other side still a champion—or at least alive.

Perhaps the oddest thing about the transformation is that as Draper grows older and more stoic he resembles one character in particular: Bert Cooper.

Despite their obvious differences in both demeanor and zen, later-Draper and (arguably more) early-Cooper both hold their personalities in; only parceling them out as they see fit.

anigif_enhanced-11488-1401213071-2Often this is used a way to establish power (George Clooney used this direction during “Good Night, and Good Luck,” for instance). But given “Mad Men”‘s penchant for exploring nostalgia and the growing counter-culture of the 1960s, it’s an interesting evolution that’s taken Draper—a man from nothing, who constantly fights to remain relevant in a world where he’s increasingly less-so—to Cooper—who at first read is just a partner at an ad agency collecting what’s due to him. That reading of Cooper is largely how newbies to SCDP (or whatever the acronym is these days) could read Draper’s presence at the agency.

“Mad Men” creator plays endgame and future developments about as close to the vest as a show-runner can, so whether or not this is a useful reflection we’ll just have to wait ~7 weeks to find out. But given what we know about where advertising ends up, something tells me that there’s something Draper could learn from the genius that is Bert Cooper.