I’ve finally been binging away on AMC’s Breaking Bad these last few weeks.
Yep, I realise I’m like, years behind. I’ve just been so busy these last couple of years that I’ve been completely out of touch with any television beyond The Walking Dead, so it’s been nice to finally sit down and watch (read: lie in bed and binge) on a load of episodes recently. And y’know, the show has really got me thinking about the role of the tragic antihero in contemporary fiction, and in more wider terms, in society.
Spoiler alert: Walter White does some pretty nasty things. As the show progresses, in the supposed expectations of a “hero”, we should technically stop watching and root for Walter to just, like, die on the spot.
But we don’t. Instead, we want to see just how much further his descent into the dark side can go.
I also recently watched The Wolf of Wall Street at the cinema. A true story about a bloke who exploits the poor to line his own pockets should really be a lesson in morality; a tale where the viewer roots for the police officer rather than the infamous Jordan Belfort.
But we don’t. We want to see Belfort’s rise and fall. We want to experience it in all its drug-laden, booze-soaked anti-glory.
What is it about characters like Walter White and Scorsese’s representation of Jordan Belfort that makes us want to experience their rise and downfall? Well, the answer goes back some time. Way back, to the time of the Greek tragedy.
According to the helpful chaps at Wikipedia, a tragedy is “a form of drama based on human suffering that invokes in its audience an accompanying catharsis or pleasure in the viewing.” I won’t go full on historian or Lit student here (I did that enough during my Lit degree), but think Shakespeare. Think Macbeth, Hamlet, Coriolanus. All of these stories feature a central protagonist with a fatal flaw that ultimately leads to their downfall.
Breaking Bad is a modern tragedy. Some have suggested that it reflects a growing trend of more complex, “true-to-life” characters. I’m not sure. I think that tragedies have been with us our entire lives. Take Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, or Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. Both films feature protagonists with fatal flaws, which ultimately lead to their downfall (with slight modern variations). Both films are forty years old now, suggesting tragedy has been around (and acclaimed) a lot longer than it is credited for.
I write tragedies. I don’t intend to, and I never really considered myself as a “tragedy writer”, but I do. It just happens. Although it isn’t always as clear-cut as “hero has fatal flaw that leads to their downfall”, books like The Watching Trilogy, Killing Freedom, Dead Days — even Dying Eyes — incorporate tragic themes. In The Watching Trilogy, each character is filled with obsession of some sort, which leads to their subsequent downfalls. In Killing Freedom, Jared is addicted to killing, as much as he hates to admit or confront that idea.
Most interesting in this study is Dead Days. Yes, it’s a zombie book, but those who are enjoying the series will tell you that it’s more a human tale than anything else. A tale of human flaws. The protagonist, Riley, leaves people behind. He makes horrible decisions to save his own back. He makes the decisions that we would make, but are too afraid to admit. Sure — he redeems himself later on, but those decisions eat at his sanity right through the series. A tragic, flawed character, who will never be the same, but so utterly, utterly human.
Tragedies do not fit in to the common idea of what a plot arc should look like, not at first glance anyway. Ask most plot experts and they’ll tell you that the contemporary plot goes like this:
Opening > Inciting Incident > Try/Fail Cycle (this part varies) > Climax > Resolution > New Equilibrium.
Now, I don’t disagree with this formula. Most of my works would fall right into this, in fact, as would 99.9% of other work.
However, I do think that it is misinterpreted sometimes.
The resolution, for example, is commonly accepted as the point where the hero conquers the villain, leading to a “happy ever after” of a new equilibrium. This satisfies the reader, and I am not arguing with that.
However, I believe that there are different ways for the resolution and the new equilibrium to be approached in fiction. Take The Wolf of Wall Street again, as it’s such a great example, as well as fresh in my mind. Spoiler warning here, by the way. Jordan Belfort is arrested. There’s no way out — he’s going to jail. That is the climax/resolution phase. The “hero” loses out.
But there he is, in the new equilibrium, playing tennis in prison, paying everybody off, and just being all smug about it.
And there we are, as cinema viewers, even after all Jordan’s debauchery, grinning away and kind of glad he didn’t suffer too rough a time in prison, even though we know he’s in the wrong. We revel in his smugness with him, as viewers.
That right there is a clever, clever twist on the climax to new equilibrium phases. In common terms, The Wolf of Wall Street would have concluded with Jordan Belfort outwitting the police, avoiding prison, and giving up on his illegal activities, opting instead for his family. A “sail into the sunset” ending.
Instead, we get the “hero” losing in the climax, and then going back to his old ways in the new equilibrium. The hero doesn’t change. Just like Hamlet, who dies a revenge-driven man.
Sound familiar? Yep. Both tragedies.
I haven’t reached the end of Breaking Bad yet — I’m about twelve episodes off — but I’d wager a bet that Walter White does not have a sudden dramatic character shift and realise all the wrongs he has done, cheating death and returning to a normal life with his family in the comfort of their home (I hope not, anyway, or I’ll feel cheated). He’s too far over the line to return to normality. I can, however, imagine him going down in a blaze, trying to protect his family. I can imagine him relocating completely for the safety of his family, continuing his meth making empire for himself.
In other words, I can imagine a modern twist on the tragic ending where Walter White loses lots but wins a little.
I might be wrong. I probably am. We’ll chat about that when I reach the finish line.
Another thing — tragedy doesn’t mean miserable. Breaking Bad isn’t miserable. The Wolf of Wall Street is the most fun I’ve had at the cinema for years. It just means that a driven character with a fatal flaw slips further down the spiral. How the surrounding elements are presented depends on the story.
The tragic antihero is as strong in modern fiction and contemporary society as ever before. Take Edward Snowden, Julian Assange — these guys are supposedly the “bad guys”, and yet they get cheered on for their actions. They’ve lost all normal life as they know it forever in pursuit of their goal, but in a way, they’ve won, too. Look all through history and you’ll see similar figures.
I’ll continue to present the tragic antihero in my fiction because I love doing so. Not all the time, but a lot of the time. In fact, I’m working on a new project right now which is a multiple perspective novel that inspired this post. A bunch of people with fatal flaws in the form of unwavering goals. How dangerous the ramifications are in their cases… you’ll see. More on that in the future.
Have a great weekend. And oh, don’t spoil Breaking Bad for me. I’ll go full-on tragic antihero on you if you do.
I think a lot of it, too, is train-wreck syndrome. We want to look away, but something inside won’t let us, because that something is absoutely fascinated by what it sees. I think deep down we all have secret sadistic desires, and these types of stories allow us to live them out safely.