I’ve been taking notice lately, (in this case, lately means the last decade or so), in the increase in the number of popular storytelling mediums that are creating protagonists not only as imperfect models of human behaviour, but in some cases specifically on the wrong side of what we might consider ethical or moral behaviour. The first to come to mind, and the most extreme, is the show ‘Dexter’. Based on a series of novels by Jeff Lindsay, our television protagonist is nothing less than a psychopathic serial killer. His only redeeming quality, we learn from the outset, is that he only chooses his victims by their own equally heinous criminal acts. Which essentially boils down to a show about a ‘serial killer who only stalks other killers’, thereby contributing a net positive to society. When the show first came to air, I contemplated how difficult it would be for the writers to be able to build the viewers trust and sympathy in this seriously flawed title character. But over 7 seasons, and with one final season to go, they have.
Other modern shows on television that have either seriously flawed or even criminally culpable characters make up quite a long list: Weeds, Breaking Bad, Homeland, The Sopranos, Hell on Wheels, Sons of Anarchy, (I’m sure I’m missing quite a few, as the list goes on…) All of these shows ask us to let go of our moral certainties, and engage with a character that we wouldn’t want to be friends with, but would like to hear more about, regardless. An opportunity to explore themes and ideas that we would never allow into our real lives, but just for a moment, to try empathizing with someone in a different world.
Recent movies are also following this ‘darker’ path. A key example being ‘the Dark Knight’ series of Batman movies. Certainly a hit with the crowd, and a marked morality difference from the Val Kilmer, George Clooney Batmen of the previous decade. Also, having recently seen the movie ‘Lincoln’, I was struck by the moral grey areas that were presented through the character of the president. Watching this historical figure manipulate people, lie, deceive, and ask a good man to deny his deep seated belief was telling. Do we want our heroes to be flawless, perfect? Or are they flawed, sometimes uncertain, and prone to making mistakes, just like the rest of us?
Perhaps we are treading into territory that philosopher Alan Watts called our ‘irreducible rascality’, or, put another way, the yetzer hara from Judaism. That wayward spirit inside us that we keep under control, yet also the tiny part of ourselves that occasionally allows us to do things we didn’t think we could. Dalliances into behaviour that we had thought we could never abide come from inside us, and it’s part of our moral dualism. Naturally, most of us make the choice to listen to the ‘voice of goodness’. But every week, we turn on the television to get a look into the lives of Dexter Morgan and Walter White, and hope to find out… Are we redeemable?