I’ve been watching Sherlock lately, making good use of the doohickey my wife got us that lets us stream stuff over the television. I love the show, and I particularly love Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, a ‘high-functioning sociopath’ who’s particular hobby horse is the resolving of mysterious crimes. Were I to meet this Sherlock in real life, however, I would almost certainly find him intolerable. He’s an ass, simple-as. Granted, we might see him as somehow psychologically damaged, but that doesn’t absolve him of his ass-itude.
I find it interesting how much the anti-hero has become the standard in recent years. Between Sherlock, Walter White, Dexter Morgan, Frank Underwood, and others, we who watch television dramas bear witness to a veritable who’s-who of antisocial behavior and destructive personality complexes. Let us cleave through the fawning praise of their abilities for the moment (though they are extensive): these men are broken, psychologically unsound, and often amoral or immoral. By many measures they are bad people. People we would not like to know, with whom we ought not really sympathize, and whom are both dangerous and unstable. Really.
So why the love? Okay, yes, the antihero is an old trope. There is fascination to be had plumbing the depths of our dark souls (look at Macbeth, Othello, Medea, and so on), and no argument there. Walter White’s descent is compelling drama, like all good tragedy. What I wonder at sometimes, however, is the lionization of these characters in popular consciousness. By all accounts, Dexter Morgan should make us uncomfortable. His brand of ‘justice’ is cruel and without the ennobling spirit that the word ‘justice’ implies. Dexter would be killing people, one way or another, so he may as well kill people society deems reprehensible. We shrug and say ‘well, they were bad people anyway – who cares if they’re cut up and sunk in the Gulf Stream.’ We are okay with him. Similar with Sherlock – he is cruel to people, he is disinterested in the public welfare, he is gleeful at tragedy. Still, we admire his power and his intelligence and forgive him his (substantial) faults.
This should be concerning on a social level, if not a moral one. What does it say about us that we admire these creatures? I wonder this as I read student papers analyzing a hero of their choice – many of them choosing Dexter or Walt – and applying no more stringent criticism of their behavior than to say ‘they might seem bad, but they really care about their family.’ This, I suppose, makes it okay. Dexter is a serial killer who on a couple occasions murders people who do not deserve it, but we forgive him this by dint of the fact he throws birthday parties for his infant son. For the most part, my students apply words like ‘strong’ and ‘determined’ and ‘smart’ to these characters and leave it at that – such qualities are sufficient to secure admiration, regardless of context.
Context, though, is crucially important for considering what these characters indicate about the audience they appeal to. Without exception, all of them are powerful. For all their failings as people, as devices they are perfection itself. Perhaps this is evidence of the divide our society has placed between one’s life and one’s work (if you’re screwed up in life, you aren’t a failure so long as you are successful at work). Perhaps it means we have a broader understanding of worth (the world takes all kinds, yes?). Perhaps it indicates a certain disenchantment with the absolutism of moralists (this guys isn’t ‘good’, but look at all the good he does!). Any and all of those are potentially interesting threads of analysis. Still further there is another one, but it gets a little meta: the hero’s journey as satire. We love Dexter, but we’ve been suckered into it. The writers have stacked the deck, have given us a window into the mind of the ‘monster’, and now taunt us with it – you are cheering for the murderer, for the jerk, for the liar, for the criminal, you fools! Perhaps we should be taken aback by our enthusiasm.
Regrettably, I am not certain that is the case. I think it, perhaps, more likely that many of us have come to expect ugliness from our heroes just as so many have come to expect ugliness from our world. Our heroes are cynical ones, broken just as we, perhaps, are. We travel with them in the hope that somehow, by some artifice we have yet to devise for ourselves, they can find their place in the sun, warts and all.