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The Age of the TV Antihero 2.0

The old Antihero is dead, long live the Antihero 2.0! What makes BoJack Horseman, Marty and Wendy Byrde (Ozark), Claire Underwood (House of Cards), Selina Myer (Veep), Fleabag, and Rick Sanchez (Rick and Morty) different from past antiheroes on television, and what does our fascination with them say about us?

TRANSCRIPT

The rise of today’s “Golden Era of TV” was synonymous with the ascendancy of one figure: the antihero…

Walter White: “A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks!” - Breaking Bad S4E6

Yet following the end of Breaking Bad in 2013 and Mad Men in 2015, in the wake of rapid shifts in our culture like the Me Too movement, audience sympathy for this badly behaving, often white male figure has seemed to wane. Some have declared the “age of the antihero” over. One example, House of Cards’ Frank Underwood, was even cut out of his own show, due to public fury over the alleged actions of the actor who played him, Kevin Spacey.

Looking at the evidence, though, have the antiheroes really gone? In fact, acclaimed TV shows are still full of examples of this figure, perhaps more than ever. It’s just that they’re a new breed. So what’s different about the antihero 2.0?

Series starring an antihero 2.0 consciously discourage audiences from fully identifying with or admiring this character and this distance the writing creates between the viewer and the protagonist makes it easier for us to critically evaluate or condemn the antihero 2.0’s actions.

Todd Sanchez: “Is Bojack super sketchy? Yes, he is!”- Bojack Horseman 6x11

The Antihero 2.0 is also a lot more likely to be a woman and to be written or created by more women or people of color. And whereas Antihero 1.0 series leaned into moral ambiguity, stories about an Antihero 2.0 can include stronger moral stances and judgments.

Here’s our Take on the Age of the Antihero 2.0 and how it reflects the moral sentiments of the world we’re living in today.

From 1.0 to 2.0: Turning on the Antihero

From Tony Soprano to Jimmy McNulty, to Don Draper to Walter White, there was a “difficult man” at the center of almost all of the most iconic prestige shows that ushered in Peak TV. These stories (often created by reportedly difficult men as well) established the trademark qualities of modern televisual storytelling as we know it: a cinematic lighting and camera style; a realistic script exploring complex worlds of grey; explicit content that was previously considered off-limits to the small screen; and frequently a protagonist who fits the profile of the Antihero 1.0.

Played by a charismatic actor, often the Antihero 1.0 is very smart, with a strategic intelligence that makes his moves suspenseful to watch. He keeps his thoughts and plans close to his chest, so his interior life is mysterious to us. He becomes the audience’s gateway into a dirty, sensational world, offering us the vicarious pleasure of accessing something taboo or unknown—whether it’s a criminal underworld, a beautiful past that was only available to elite white men, or even what it feels like to kill someone. In a broader sense, the Antihero awakens something id-like and primal in the viewer, which might feel exciting.

Dexter Morgan “I feel… alive, half sick with the thrill of complete wrongness.” - Dexter 2x3

The story uses certain techniques to let the viewer feel justified in identifying with or rooting for this character. The Antihero 1.0 frequently “has a code” of sorts, his self-imposed discipline making him feel like a “good guy,” even though he’s not.

Dexter Morgan: “But children? I could never do that. Mike Donovan: “Why?” Dexter Morgan: “I have standards.” - Dexter 1x1

Some of these shows also strung audiences along with hopes that the antihero might eventually improve and become a better person, no matter how many times they frustrated those expectations. Fast forward to the Antihero 2.0, and one of the key differences that stands out is that the story no longer mines its suspense from this question of whether the Antihero will ever become a good person. From the start, it does away with the idea that this character is going to improve themselves in a meaningful way and the writing goes out of its way to remind viewers that this person isn’t a role model.

Herb Kazzaz: “You want to think of yourself as the good guy. Well, I know you better than anyone, and I can tell you that you’re not.” - Bojack Horseman 1x8

Compare Mad Men’s Antihero 1.0, Don Draper, to Bojack Horseman’s Antihero 2.0 Bojack Horseman. Both are self-destructive, womanizing alcoholics who live in empty, luxurious societies that make them miserable. Both spend most of their series running from their pasts while their internalized self-loathing hurts everyone around them.

But Mad Men keeps us holding out for Don Draper to make some modicum of personal progress and its “happy ending” of sorts is that,- if Don can learn to love himself, that’s a start.

Meanwhile, Bojack Horseman goes past the point where Bojack turns his life around and forces Bojack to reckon with how his past mistakes have hurt other people.

Biscuits Braxby: “You’ve drawn us an outline of a person—a person who doesn’t think about others, a person who puts his own needs first. And over and over, other people get hurt” - Bojack Horseman 6x12

It punishes its antihero, sending the message that the consequences of what he’s done wrong don’t disappear just because he’s starting to feel better. So the contrast between how these two shows deal with their similar protagonists ultimately reveals that we were holding many of our Antihero 1.0’s to an incredibly low standard. Or take Breaking Bad’s Walter White versus Ozark’s Marty Bird. Both of these exceptionally smart men make a lot of money in the illegal drug trade while putting their families at risk, and are accused of being the devil himself—

Mason Young: “You’re the devil”- Ozark 2x7

Jesse Pinkmam: “Mr. White…he’s the devil.” - Breaking Bad 5x12

—but Walt relishes being feared as a great man (even if that makes him evil); his adventures in cooking meth are a journey of personal fulfillment. Breaking Bad sometimes slipped into making Walt feel aspirational, letting viewers get such a vicarious thrill out of his “raising hell” that some idolized this man who did terrible things.

Meanwhile, Marty’s experience is one of constant fear, suffering, and guilt. The show hardly encourages fantasies of trading places with him and whereas Walt’s genius is portrayed as almost magical, supernatural, mythic, Marty’s is demystified, more like the workings of a computer.

Breaking Bad starts off by showing how Walt’s been overlooked and mistreated by his callous world, making us feel his grievances, and slapping him with a terminal cancer diagnosis, so that his lightning-fast transition into a ruthless criminal might feel like a semi-justified response to a deeply unfair situation. But when we meet Marty, he’s already been morally compromised for years. While Walt has been working two jobs to barely scrape by, Marty’s a privileged guy, starting out his series with nearly 8 million of personal savings in the bank. So nothing here is designed to let Marty off the hook.

Interestingly, though, not glorifying or justifying Marty in any of the ways Walt was, doesn’t make his story any less gripping to watch. Viewers can still relate to him, enjoy watching his unusual mind work, and wonder how he’ll navigate impossible situations, even like or root for him, while understanding clearly that nothing about Marty’s behavior is worth emulating.

Ironically, some Antihero 2.0 shows like Rick and Morty and Bojack Horseman have—despite being very critical of their protagonists -- still managed to attract passionate audiences who do idolize Rick or Bojack. But in both cases, the shows’ creators responded by going further to discourage this antihero-worship. Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon spoke out against toxic fans who trolled female writers on his staff and the show’s fourth season took pains to yet again foreground Rick’s limitations and dissatisfaction and Bojack Horseman includes a storyline that explicitly critiques the phenomenon of viewers falling for antiheroes.

Diane Nguyen: “I don’t want you or anyone else justifying their shitty behavior because of the show” - Bojack Horseman 5x10

Section 2: The Antiheroine 2.0...

The antihero 2.0 is far more likely than her predecessor to be a woman. Looking back, there were several female examples of the Antihero 1.0. Carrie from Sex and the City —whom The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum called “the unacknowledged first female anti-hero on television” showed a pattern of acting irresponsibly while blaming others for her mistakes.

Charlotte York: “Do you ever think about how she’d feel if she found out? Carrie Bradshaw: “Yes I do I think about it all the time—” Charlotte York: “No you don’t! You think about what would happen to you! You don’t think about her!” - Sex and the City 3x11

But her show, framed around her perspective, kept viewers firmly on her side. Weeds encouraged viewers to root for Mary Louise-Parker’s suburban housewife Nancy even as she became an international drug-smuggler, thanks to her initial motivation to support her family after her husband’s death, her “Milf” charisma, and the exhilaration of the over-the-top world she allowed audiences to enter.

Scandal (which might be viewed as a transitional example between 1.0 and 2.0) at times condemned the many bad things Olivia Pope did, but ultimately it still created an incredibly aspirational image of this character and delivered her a happy ending with a bow.

In recent years, though, we can see that the female antihero is becoming distinctly less aspirational and more Antihero 2.0. One strain of the Antiheroine 2.0 is unquestionably, irredeemably bad from the start, to a degree that she’s essentially a sympathetic villain. Her story—far from kidding itself that she’s going to redeem herself—encourages us to enjoy the ways that her bad behavior is either funny or deliciously wicked.

In these stories, the Antiheroine 2.0 has the potential to be scarier and more disturbing than her male equivalent because she counters our cultural assumptions about women’s deeper nature.

Another subtype of the Antiheroine 2.0 is the messy, struggling woman. Featured on one of what Gawker’s Richard Lawson termed “‘ladies with problems’ shows,” she’s not a bad person by any means, but she does questionable things and makes bad choices that can frustrate the viewer.

Fleabag: “I spent most of my adult life using sex to deflect from the screaming void inside my empty heart.” Fleabag 2x2

Often she’s dealing with mental health issues or grief, while she might showcase exceptional intelligence or insight that’s not entirely unrelated to her mental or emotional problems. Another subcategory of today’s Antiheroine 2.0 is the Rich White Woman Antihero. Frequently, this privileged woman’s central sin is using her relative power or wealth—and often considerable intellectual gifts—for her own self-interest, while enabling the continued oppression of those who have less, as well as of her own gender in general.

Phyllis Schlafly: “This is the false lure of the women’s liberation movement. Happiness. Because you see girls, the ERA won’t solve your personal problems.” - Mrs. America 1x4

Eventually, this character is often forced to confront that the status quo she’s defending directly disempowers her, too, and she’s been living in a gilded cage. Antiheroine 2.0s are often married women, who might not be acting like ideal wives or mothers. A number of these characters are also married to male antiheroes, their marriage becoming a sort of partnership in crime.

Marty Byrde: “We’re just business partners.” - Ozark 1x2

In Ozark, Wendy Bird bears a superficial resemblance to Walter White’s wife, Skyler—both are blonde mothers who have affairs and who, like their husbands, are fiercely intelligent. But a significant number of Breaking Bad’s viewers expressed outright hatred for Skyler due to the way that the show sometimes painted her as the annoyingly moralizing wife who would get in Walt’s way, and over the course of the story, the initially strong Skyler was traumatized, dominated and spiritually broken by her husband.

Skyler White: “I’m not your wife, I’m your hostage.” - Breaking Bad 5x5

Meanwhile, Ozark encourages audiences to sympathize at least as much with Wendy as with Marty, and she becomes a major player who frequently outshines her husband in her talents and ruthlessness as a criminal mastermind. Just as Walt was driven by feeling that his vast potential had been neglected, Wendy finds that crime offers a satisfying outlet for her considerable political skills, which were being wasted in her former life as a law-abiding housewife in Chicago.

Wendy Byrde: “Fighting for your life makes every other thing you ever did before seem extremely dull.”- Ozark 3x9

The same show also makes us feel for another very different antiheroine, Marty’s protegée, Ruth Langmore, a young person trapped by deeply entrenched generational poverty.

Arguably, female characters are naturally suited to be Antihero 2.0s because viewers are culturally primed to be judgmental of bad behavior in women, so the Antihero 2.0’s critical distance is built in already and what’s even more radical about the Antiheroine 2.0 than her more justified or admirable processors, is that her series no longer worries about that pesky “likability” concern that has been plaguing female characters since…forever. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend creator Rachel Bloom told E-News that when it comes to her character Rebecca Bunch, “I have never given a s—t about people liking her because she’s meant to be somewhat, at times, a bubbly antihero. What I care about is if they understand where she’s coming from.

By finally getting free of the pressure for female characters to be likable, these deeply imperfect female characters normalize the reality that women (like all people) have very major flaws—and that doesn’t make them any less worth thinking about or learning from. We all behave in ways that are incredibly unlikable, even in our own eyes. As Bloom said of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, “Any moment where the audience doesn’t like Rebecca, Rebecca also does not like Rebecca.”

Rebecca Bunch: “I mean you’re right I am hard on myself. God, it’s one of my worst qualities. God, I’m such a dumb, loser, hard-on-myself bitch.” - Crazy Ex-Girlfriend 3x7

Still, the mere existence of the female antihero is aspirational. Across movies and TV, antiheroines of all sorts have paved the way for the endless stream of boringly perfect “strong female characters” to yield to interesting female characters.

Section 3: Back to Black and White: Restoring a Moral Order

If we look back to past periods when the Antihero has been prominent, they often coincide with broader cultural trends and artistic breakthroughs. The morally confused protagonists of ‘40s and ‘50s Film Noir navigated the literal darkness of a war-ravaged society in which nothing appeared black and white anymore.

The “angry young man” of the ’50s and ‘60’s British Social Realist films expressed masculine frustrations and dissatisfactions with what society expected of them and throughout film history, Westerns and Gangster movies have used glamorous or sympathetic antiheroes to question what the “American Dream” is really all about.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, Antihero 1.0 shows felt fresh because their graphic, realistic portrayal of sex and violence represented a radical break from previous TV norms and offered new creative opportunities for honesty and three-dimensionality. When Tony Soprano killed a man with his bare hands in the fifth episode of his show, this went against all common wisdom of what a character could do without being rejected by audiences. But continuing to duplicate the same “envelope-pushing” content can quickly transform it into the opposite.

While Sopranos, Sex & the City, Six Feet Under and the Wire were hailed as revolutionary for their frank depictions of sexuality, Entourage, and Game of Thrones later received backlash for gratuitous female nudity that was there purely for titillation. In fact, the prevailing attitudes toward TV nudity and sexual violence changed so noticeably from the start to the end of Game of Thrones’s run that the show’s creators attempted to adjust how they dealt with these topics in later seasons.

Today, prestige TV is still full of the same stylistic trademarks and badly behaving characters that featured in the early 2000s, yet the emotional and moral messages sent by the storytelling are very different from what The Sopranos or Mad Men made us feel.

Those older shows remained ambiguous right up to the end, even sometimes resolving with infamously inconclusive finales. But while today’s antihero shows surely still include many ambiguities, they also go out of their way to make moral statements and even judge their characters. Ultimately, the age of the antihero 1.0 was about breaking down boundaries and opening up a world of grey; now, the age of the antihero 2.0 seeks to impose new boundaries and restore some moral black-and-whites.

One important way these newer stories successfully distance us from Antihero 2.0’s is by giving more point-of-view time to other characters with a more sophisticated or intact moral compass, thus giving credence to a coherent, principled worldview that challenges and critiques the antihero’s outlook.

Elena Richardson: “A good mother makes good choices.” Mia Warren: “You didn’t make good choices. You had good choices - options which being rich white and entitled gave you.” - Little Fires Everywhere 1x4

Because we feel for both the antihero and the more moral characters they clash with, we’re forced to think consciously and rationally about where our loyalties lie and why; we’re stimulated to engage in a moral debate within ourselves.

We can end up feeling greatly for the Antihero 2.0 and engaging deeply with their story, but not rooting for them to win their fights and understanding that we would not approve of these people or want to know them in real life.

Logan Roy: “You’re not a killer. You have to be a killer.” - Succession 2x10

All of this reveals that—despite long-standing wisdom—we don’t engage with characters only because we like them, admire them or want to be them. Antihero 2.0 stories more analytically and honestly dissect why people don’t do the right thing, and what truly drives them, underneath all the layers of lies that they tell themselves.

The antihero 2.0 no longer simply cheers on the demons in us. It firmly tells us there is right and wrong, and the person we’re watching is no good. Yet it draws us in any way, and makes us ask which angels or devils in our minds and souls we’re going to follow in our own lives.

Wendy: “The truth is Adam and Eve probably grabbed that apple because they were fucking starving, and it was the first tree they saw.” - Ozark 2x7