Thursday, April 23, 2015

Best of the Big Bads

The rise of the anti-hero changed television storytelling. It also changed the nature of antagonists. If the hero is a bit of a villain, their antagonist has to be a truly irredeemable bastard.

I teach my students to think of the protagonist as the focal point of the story, rather than the "good guy". In fact, a protagonist struggling with self-destruction (or failing to struggle) might face an antagonist who actually has their best interests at heart. As long as there's a conflict, it doesn't really matter, and most of the best stories don't deal with black-and-white right-and-wrong.

The phenomenon has hit literature as well, with Gone Girl being a good example of an imperfect (to say the least) protagonist - the selfish and philandering Nick Dunne - being made sympathetic by contrast when compared to his wife Amy, who with her rape-framing, media manipulation, and murder is "gone" in every sense of the word. Another good literary example is the journey of Jaime Lannister in A Song of Ice and Fire - from an arrogant and incestuous would-be child murderer, to one of the last beacons of honor left in Westeros as of book five. George R.R. Martin takes us there by contrasting Jaime against sellswords (The Bloody Mummers in the book; Roose Bolton's henchmen in the show), his ruthless father Tywin, and his power-grubbing sister-lover Cersei. (To be fair, next to that bitch face, one might mistake Vlad Putin or Dick Cheney for mildly human.) Chopping off his hand was a nice touch, because when he couldn't just win with a sword, he had to change everything about who he was.

As for television, I picked three anti-hero vs. big bad battles worth your time and Netflix subscription. Spoilers abound from this point down, so if you have "Sopranos" "Dexter" or "Breaking Bad" on your watch list, read the rest later.

Anthony Soprano vs. Livia Soprano
I gave late-season big bad Phil Leotardo an honorable mention below, but to me, this is always going to be the show that succeeded in making a mob boss look weak while making the viewer cower every time his elderly mother shuffled onto the screen. It's a shame the actress playing Livia died, because it would've been wonderful to see how Tony's giving her stolen airline tickets to see if she would rat him out or not - to see if she ever loved him at all - would've played out. (I know it was also tragic because a human being died, just saying.)

Livia's misery was so all-encompassing, she was less a person than a mobile black hole. Tony's laughably inadequate attempts to get her to enjoy any small activity at her nursing home quickly devolved into her exacerbating his depression, and eventually, her attempt to get his uncle to kill him. Her use of phony tears, revealing secrets at the worst possible time, and 'dementia' to avoid accountability, made Livia so terrifying that we had to root for the unfaithful, murderous career criminal she raised.

Honorable mention: Phil Leotardo was a square-headed old school don in the last seasons. His slow-simmering grudge over being robbed his chance at avenging his brother's death started with tough negotiations, graduated to verbal jabs, and finally led to the murder of Tony's brother in law in the show's best hit (all apologies to Big Pussy on the boat).

Dexter Morgan vs. The Trinity Killer
If you saw "Cliffhanger", you know John Lithgow is an amazing villain. "Dexter" was all about a serial killer with a code. He only killed killers who had evaded the justice system. As a forensic blood-spatter analyst, he was in a great position to mop up after himself. Season four of "Dexter" saw him struggling with balancing a new family with his "hobby". Enter Trinity, a serial killer doing a much better job of balancing family and slaughter. This is becoming a classic anti-hero vs. big-bad combination: Dexter has to face someone who is "more Dexter than Dexter". Eventually, Dexter realizes Trinity is only better at hiding, but then he has to face the fact that the balancing act he seeks might be impossible. By the time Dexter kills Trinity, Trinity has already figured out who Dexter is, and punished him like no big bad before or after. It was the series' dramatic apex.

Honorable mention: There were no other big bads anywhere in Trinity's league, but I give an honorable mention to the executive who ruined the series finale by saying Dexter couldn't die. Seriously, corporate douche, don't tell your writers how to write.

Walter White vs. Gustavo Fring
I love my big bad to be a chess master. Gus Fring from "Breaking Bad" was exactly that. Walt and Jesse had already clashed with lunatic drug lords by the time Gus came on the show, and Gus's calm was a wonderful contract to the mania of the earlier villains. Even when he cut an associate's throat in an agonizingly long scene that followed each and every one of his measured footsteps, Gus never lost his cool. He hid in plain sight, driving a used car and managing a chain of chicken restaurants. Later, they kept him 'untouchable' by keeping him off-camera, with Walt yelling at him through surveillance cameras in Gus's meth lab. Walt's powerless fury contrasted perfectly with Gus's placid domination.

Gus specialized in frustrating Walt by out-maneuvering him. When Walt put a bomb on Gus's car, he seemed to just 'sense' it and walk away. Later, when Walt finally blew half his head off, we were left with the impression Walt got lucky. Gus, cool to the end, walked calmly into the hall with half his head skeletonized and fixed his shirt before dropping dead. It was the series' most gruesome and enduring image.

Honorable mention: Gus's second-in-command Mike was also an amazing big bad, though Walt was actually worse than Mike. When Walt kills him in a cowardly sneak attack, Mike asks, "Jeez Walt, would you let me die in peace?" before slumping over dead. It reminded me of Edward R. Murrow asking Joseph McCarthy, "Have you no decency, sir?"

So here's to the big bads and the big roles they play in the stories we love. You can't have a (good?) anti-hero without one.

***And here's some self-promotion mixed with promotion of others: click below to see the latest collection featuring one of my short stories, along with eleven excellent tales of love, grief, desire, denial, and all the other emotions on my bi-polar to-do list.