Rooting For Evil
By Kelly Crigger
“I can’t watch this anymore,” I say to my wife.
“These are bad dudes. They rape, kill, and foment biker stereotypes. Why should I want them to succeed?”
“Because it’s a good show and you want to see what happens next, bonehead.”
She’s right. It’s a very good show, but at the same time they’re pressing my moral panic button and I feel ashamed to find myself rooting for the Sons of Anarchy. So much TV content nowadays feature a protagonist that is inherently evil yet we keep watching and even hope that he or she gets away with their nefarious activities. Hollywood does such a good job of building up a character that we want to get behind him even though he does very bad things that we find ethically reprehensible. So who’s to blame, us or them?
The Sons of Anarchy, Boardwalk Empire, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Americans, Shameless, Game of Thrones, Scandal, Dexter, House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and of course The Sopranos all feature main characters who engage in illegal activities like murder, racketeering, drug smuggling, blackmail, torture, payoffs, book cooking, cat juggling, you name it. There’s no two ways about it…they are bad people who do bad things.
And yet their characters are presented in a way that you feel like an inept nerd for not being on board with their cause so you stretch your own moral standing and become sympathetic with the characters. We want the Sons of Anarchy to run guns and get along with the Mayans because we hold out on a flicker of hope that Jacks Teller will see the error of his ways, change the club, and maybe not hide Santa Claus’ body in the California redwoods. We want Walter White to succeed in dealing his homebrew meth, Francis Underwood to pass laws for his own good, Dexter to get away with murder, Don Draper to have yet another affair and not get caught by his Sainted wife, and Olivia Pope to solve a crime even if she has to use Presidential power to pervert the law. We get so involved in the characters that we compromise who we are in order to see them win. And that’s the scary part. Is our integrity that weak that we can sacrifice it at the altar of entertainment? Are we that easily manipulated by a compelling story? Or are we just so insanely desperate to fix someone?
I think it’s a combination of all three. I think we’re easily connected to a character and made to feel sympathetic to his cause no matter how wrong it is. I think humans are addicted to the feeling of hope and channel that into a fictional character that we want to change into a better person. And I definitely think we need someone to fix (especially parents like me).
But this is also entertainment. We’re Americans and at the end of the day we watch TV to be entertained. That means we need to have a reason to keep watching no matter how bad the hero (or anti-hero) is. If the storyline is good and the characters are interesting then we compromise ourselves in order to see them succeed even if it means rubbing out some unlucky innocent bystander to achieve their goals. The days of a consistently squeaky clean protagonist who does good things and teaches his sons great moral lessons he learned fighting the Great War are over. As sad as that is, I get it.
The modern age has been flooded with so many hard luck, derogatory, and filthy stories from the seedy underside of life that nothing shocks us. Nothing. Leave it to Beaver has no place in this world of thongs, blowjobs, crack, implants, and chicks in thongs giving blowjobs to get crack and implants while dropping more F-bombs than the Memphis Belle. June Cleaver is too sterile and generic. We need hard hitting cop dramas, life-or-death ER rooms, a Southwest drug war, high stakes 1950’s infidelity, medieval incest and torture, and a scorned housewife who slashes off a penis in the middle of the night just to arouse our interest. In this day of 1000 channels if it doesn’t make my jaw drop then why watch it? I have the power to watch anything at anytime which raises the ante on Hollywood. So the viewer has a powerful bloodlust like never before and who’s really to blame for it?
Hollywood is a profit motivated market and one of the most cutthroat of all. With every movie made, millions of dollars are at stake and the competition to break into the industry is incredibly tight. Take it from a guy who has tried for years to get his screenplays noticed by anyone…this field is tighter than a nun’s cunt at midnight mass. So can you really blame Hollywood for using their talents to make money even if it means manipulating your feelings and making you question who you are? Or do you, the viewer, who’s so easily swayed away from your own moral base really hold the rose of blame? Are they just giving us what we want and if so, why do we want it so much?
Cooking meth and selling it on the street is as vile and anti-social as it gets, so we’re revolted by this kind of activity in real life no matter who’s doing it. Yet as you watch Breaking Bad you see Walter White’s motivations and his constant struggle to overcome the obstacles created by law abiding citizens placed before him and those who are even worse than him so you cheer him on. Cook baby cook! Sell it on the streets Jessie! Kill those rival drug lords because they deserve it and you don’t!!
Watching that show and any like it where the protagonist is morally and ethically fucked creates a conflict inside us. Do I want to fix Walter White and Jacks Teller or am I really the one who’s broken here? Maybe that’s why we keep watching. It’s not about them so much as it is about us. In that case I’m glad I stopped watching.