I’m seven episodes from the end of Breaking Bad, and I have to periodically step back, and ask myself what I actually want to happen. I remind myself that Walter White has done terrible things (which I won’t go into, to avoid spoilers). I had a similar experience while watching The Sopranos. Tony was the hero – I wanted him to succeed – but I couldn’t escape the nagging idea that the world would be a better place if he was in prison, or whacked.
What is the Value of the Evil Protagonist?
The protagonist gets our sympathy by default: we experience the world primarily through his or her eyes, and that reality becomes the norm. The morally questionable protagonist can be a way of exploring the darkness inside of each of us (Breaking Bad, Anakin/Darth Vader), fantasies of freedom and power (The Vampire Lestat), the banality of evil (I’d sayThe Sopranos falls under this category), and everything in between. Sometimes the villain is truly monstrous and sometimes more ambivalent, depending on how deep the reader/viewer is being taken down the rabbit hole. In many horror series (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hannibal) the villain starts out menacing, but as the series goes on is transformed into the hero: past and current indiscretions are glossed over to allow sympathy – or enjoyment – to take precedence over judgment.
The power of the evil protagonist is in the creation of a villain that slips past our defenses to make a dangerous Other, for a time, become “us.” The impact of that power depends on how much we are forced to tumble down the slippery slope that turns us from an observer into a participant.
Flirting with Relativism
The violent or sociopathic actions of a protagonist – and our empathy with them – demonstrate the relativity of evil. An evil protagonist forces us to see morality as existing along a spectrum, rather than in black and white. We aren’t kept from making judgments, but when criminality is set in the context of complex, human behavior, it challenges our conception of what evil is, making it that much harder to transform those with different beliefs into The Other. A protagonist who is hateful or psychopathic serves as a touchstone for our own beliefs: letting ourselves be drawn into a web of rationalizations and decisions makes us question the choices we would make, and why. Morally ambivalent protagonists give us a safe way to test our own ideas of right and wrong, and force us to consider what we might be capable of.
Our greater distance from secondary characters allows us to willfully ignore bad behavior. The Marvel cinematic universe character of Loki is one of the most beloved characters in the MCU… and a mass murderer who’s killed hundreds of people, and threatened millions more. How much a character is actually shown doing evil, and how much as readers we set our knowledge of that behavior aside, speaks to how easy it is to withhold judgement when it suits our purposes (in this case, liking Loki instead of reviling him).
It’s this distance that makes it easier to have a villainous protagonist on screen than on the printed page; being inside a sociopath’s head has can bring an intimacy that is hard to bear. When we are watching, it is easier to forgive – or at least gloss over – behavior that we are uncomfortable with: our mind provides the needed intellectual and emotional buffers to carry us to the next scene.
Keeping Evil at Arms’ Length: The Black and White Universe
Many stories don’t force us to sympathize with The Other: they define “evil” as something that “good” characters struggle against. Trilogies like The Lord of the Rings and movies like Starship Troopers keep their good and evil segregated, at most flirting with temptation or including the occasional, hard choice. Having an evil protagonist can be a reflection of how much a given author or culture wants to explore The Other, versus elevate a simple, moral paradigm. Books with religious subtexts tend to segregate good and evil, and war often results in a spate of stories that pit heroes against villains, as a way of reassuring readers and viewers of their own rightness in difficult times. In general, we’re most comfortable exploring relative morality when it’s “ours” (Walter White, Tony Soprano) rather than belonging to an actual enemy.
Do you have a favorite “evil” protagonist? Have you ever been uncomfortable with one, and if so, why?