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Breaking Bad, Sherlock, and Television's Golden Age of Anti-Heroes

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WALTER WHITE
ASSOCIATED PRESS

This year's Emmy Awards proved to be very big for Breaking Bad and, at least numerically, a little bit bigger for Sherlock. The BBC's updating of Arthur Conan Doyle's classic detective carted away seven Emmy Awards in the miniseries and television movie categories, one more than Breaking Bad, one of the critical shows in this golden age of television, for its final season as a regular dramatic series. But the AMC drama garnered the biggest award, that for Best Dramatic Series.

And, of course, a fourth and final best dramatic actor award -- no one has won more -- for Bryan Cranston's indelible portrayal of Walter White. With Sherlock's brilliant English actor Benedict Cumberbatch winning for the first time on his third nomination in his category for miniseries and television movie, the awards also became a celebration of this era of anti-heroic characters on television.

The irony is that the biggest movies are going in a very different direction.

Guardians of the Galaxy became the top grossing movie at the domestic box office over this Labor Day weekend. The film it just zoomed past? Why, it's Marvel Cinematic Universe sibling Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Cap 2 is, by far, the best action movie of the year, as well as one of the best superhero movies ever and a very gripping political conspiracy thriller.

Guardians is, well, an offbeat, funny, and ultimately heartfelt phenomenon. I wrote about that a little while back.

While superheroes, whether relatively perfect like Captain America or offbeat like the Guardians or spiky like Tony Stark aka Iron Man, reign in the movies, anti-heroes continue to grip audiences and critics alike in this golden age of television drama.


"Who are you talking to right now? Who is it you think you see?" Walter White clarifies matters for concerned wife Skyler.

Not long before the Emmys we'd seen the return of a long acclaimed and iconic anti-hero presence, 24's Jack Bauer. Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer seems to me to be more the very troubled hero than an anti-hero. And in that he remained a potent presence in the successful 12-episode run of 24: Live Another Day. Not for nothing has Sutherland received seven Emmy nominations (with one statue) for his portrayal of Jack Bauer, leading the way for the pack of what are said to be iconic anti-heroes in this decidedly anti-heroic age.

Jon Hamm, who plays Mad Men's Don Draper, matched Sutherland with his own seventh Emmy nomination. (But he'll have to wait till next year for his first, and long deserved, statue.) Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad's Walter White, has six (with four statues). James Gandolfini earned six Emmy nominations, and three wins, as Tony Soprano in The Sopranos. (He proved to be the acting nemesis of West Wing star Martin Sheen, whose six Emmy nominations for playing straight-up heroic President Josiah Bartlett yielded no statues.) Coming up fast in the iconic anti-hero sweepstakes is Kevin Spacey, with two nominations in two years for his Frank Underwood on House of Cards. He's president now, too, as perhaps the ultimate anti-Bartlett.

Whether all these figures are anti-heroes, or in some cases something else entirely, is an interesting question, as you'll see. As is the question of why anti-heroes are so important in quality television.

Short form answer is that they match the times. It's a mostly cynical and sour era, with little faith in institutions or, generally speaking, leaders. Seen a lot of hope and spare change lately?

And anti-heroes are very interesting, with the potential for many intriguing twists. That makes them easier to write than a good guy. While anti-heroes are dominating television, superheroes are dominating movies. But a series about Captain America, aka Steve Rogers, the self-sacrificing "little guy" with great '40s values who became the first super-soldier, wouldn't be easy to do. All that goodness, so boring. And who would buy it, week in and week out, in this snarky culture which looks to validate its shallowness?

While the literary Sherlock Holmes, and his multiple cinematic incarnations, has long been part of our cultural canon, the modern day version for the BBC, masterminded by Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat and running in the US on PBS, is much less well known to American audiences than these iconic characters of American television. That's too bad. In Benedict Cumberbatch's more than capable hands, Holmes is a strikingly anti-social genius ranging about a strikingly shot London in his various inquisitive quests.

Cumberbatch is best known to American audiences for playing the villain in last year's big hit, Star Trek Into Darkness. With a powerful voice, ferocious intellect, and arresting presence, he was doing very well until the script witlessly revealed his turncoat Starfleet officer-turned-terrorist to be Khan Noonien Singh, the genetically engineered superman from the past played so memorably by Ricardo Montalban in the original Star Trek series and in the greatest of all Star Trek films, The Wrath of Khan. Once it became apparent that STID, second in J.J. Abrams's rebooted film series, was actually a dumb reworking of Wrath of Khan, the performance of the aristocratic Londoner Cumberbatch, who looks nothing like a South Asian warlord, was lost in the conceptual wreckage.

But in Sherlock, he is in far better hands. As the "high-functioning sociopath" -- this Holmes's self-description, in counterpoint to suggestions that he is a psychopath -- Cumberbatch is all icily ruthless intellect, possessed of an arresting and frequently hilarious rudeness leavened by a menacingly silken charm. Riotously self-absorbed, albeit with a cold sense of unshakeable ethics, Sherlock is rescued from terminal sociopathy only by friendship with this era's Dr. Watson, the Afghan War-traumatized blogger played by fellow Emmy winner Martin Freeman (perhaps better known as The Hobbit) and a complex relationship with brother Mycroft Holmes, a shadowy MI6/Foreign Office maven played by Sherlock co-creator and Doctor Who writer Mark Gatiss.

As vivid as Robert Downey, Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes -- RDJ's other big film franchise -- is, this take is superior. (The less said about CBS's nonetheless watchable Sherlock Holmes series -- in classic me-too fashion it's set in the present day, too, but in New York City, which is ridiculous -- the better.) And we get more of Cumberbatch's Sherlock than RDJ's. The BBC produces three 90-minute TV movies every 18 months or so.

Like Sherlock, Breaking Bad's protagonist Walter White is a murderer, brilliant, selfish, endlessly dismissive of most others, etc. The difference, aside from Sherlock's murder being of a very bad guy, is that Sherlock is presented as a flamboyant asshole. Walter White, in contrast, is presented to the audience from the series' outset as a sympathetic figure.

A brilliant scientist somehow reduced to teaching apathetic high schoolers in Albuquerque, New Mexico, perhaps screwed out of a fortune after co-founding what became a multi-billion dollar company, a struggling family man with a son stricken by MS, who himself has learned that he has a terminal cancer.

That he turns to the meth trade by chance after his DEA agent brother-in-law takes him on a bust and he discovers (and covers for) one of his worst students ever making a clean getaway seems like a quirky form of justice, an evening of the scales in what is, after all, a corrupted society anyway.

It's the genius of Bryan Cranston's performance as Walt, and of the storytelling of Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, who wrote many of the most offbeat and telling episodes of The X-Files, that much of the audience identified with Walter Whit'e plight for so long.

Because Walt is not only not a good guy making do in bad circumstances, he's not even really an anti-hero. He's the villain of the story.


"Oh, do your research. I'm not a hero, I'm a high-functioning sociopath. Merry Christmas!" Sherlock Holmes encounters an extremely powerful adversary who anticipates his moves.

There were big signs from the beginning.

How Walt constantly patronized and berated his loyal ex-student, Aaron Paul's wonderfully realized Jesse Pinkman (now winner of three Emmys for the role), who amusingly calls Walt "Mr. White" throughout. How Walt refused a big job with all health costs paid for from his now super-rich former business partners in favor of being a kingpin in the drug trade. How easily Walt rationalized making an even more powerful and addictive version of a drug, crystal meth, that even the biggest apologists for controlled substances can't rationalize away. How Walt, anxious to make a big deal, finding Jesse and his relapsed junkie girlfriend passed out, jostles the couple and then coldly watches as she drowns in her own subsequent vomit. How Walt, at a school assembly to address the tragedy, tries to minimize the import of the massive aerial disaster in the skies over Albuquerque caused by the murdered girl's distracted air traffic controller father.

By the time Jesse again tries to get them, their fortunes made, out of the drug trade with his plaintive question -- "Mr. White, are we in the meth business or the money business?" -- and Walt replies, "I'm in the empire business," it's clear where this has been going all along.

Walt's monstrous ego has been there all the time, disguised by manners and education, pathos and family. Perhaps it was his ego which got in the way of converting his early co-founder role at Gray Matter Technologies into legitimate riches.

Because it is Walt's egotism and anger and fear that leads him into some very bad calls in his guise as the dread "Heisenberg." After destroying his very good partnership with legitimate businessman Gustavo Fring, who was far better positioned than Walt to handle the overall business, he quite idiotically shoots Fring enforcer-turned-partner of Walt and Jesse Mike Ehrmantraut to death. Because Mike wouldn't facilitate the murder of his loyal team, whose knowledge Walt feared, AND because the brilliant Walt forgot that their transnational corporate associate Lydia already had all the information Walt had demanded from Mike.

But Mike, played by Jonathan Banks, Emmy-nominated here as he was on Wiseguy, the late '80s show which is something of an ur text for these shows, doesn't die right away.

First, he tells Walt how badly he has screwed everything up on account of his ego needs, blowing a highly professional set-up with Gustavo Fring, presaging Walt's future problems in inning up with a white supremacist biker gang. Then Walt realizes he didn't need to shoot Mike after all and apologizes to the mortally wounded ex-cop. But Mike, now sitting beside a beautiful little river, isn't interested in Walt's belated apology. "Walter, shut the fuck up and let me die in peace."

Walt never does really acknowledge that he's the bad guy. When he tells his wife Skyler, concerned for his safety, that he's not in danger, he is the danger, it's more chilling braggadocio than introspection.

It's Jesse Pinkman who calls himself "the bad guy." Yet it's Jesse, not Walt, who's the real anti-hero of the show. He has redeeming features, including a real heart not connected to a reflected narcissism, as Walt's concern for his family may be. He shows remorse for the incredible damage their product has caused, and real growth during the show, including notable acts of heroism.

Speaking of which, the show does have an actual hero, in the form of what at first seemed to be Walt's comedy relief brother-in-law. As DEA agent Hank Schrader, Dean Norris is equally adept at playing the buffoon and the hardass with heart. It's not really his fault that he finally tumbles to Walt's secret identity as Heisenberg just as Walt has set up another stupid murder, this time of Jesse, with a slew of white supremacist bikers who simply outnumber Walt and his partner.

Walt, as Hank points out, is the smartest guy he's ever known yet still too dumb to see that he can't let Hank live, though they do find a use for Jesse in cooking the fabled blue meth.

More problematic is the character of Walt's wife Skyler, played with double Emmy-adeptness by Anna Gunn. A lot of fans seem to have hated her, leading Gunn to pen a New York Times op-ed defending the complexity of her character, likening her to Betty Draper, the lightning rod ex-wife of Mad Men's Don Draper. The trouble with Skyler is that she's betwixt and between, neither the supportive moll to Walt's "Heisenberg" nor the the dismissive good citizen till late in the day.

Of course, Skyler White had a much bigger shock to deal with than Betty Draper ever had Betty's greatest shock -- as she wasn't shocked that Don Draper drank too much and cheated on her -- was that Don was really Dick Whitman, originally a poor, sad, nobody from nowhere. Skyler's discovery is that Walter White is actually a monstrous criminal.

Frankly, Walt makes Don Draper look like Captain America.

So does House of Cards' Frank Underwood. In Kevin Spacey's imaginative hands, Underwood -- an utterly ruthless, uber-witty aristocratic political schemer in the superior BBC original miniseries in the early '90s -- isn't really an anti-hero, either. He's a super-villain. He'd have to be to go, as the character none too convincingly does, from House majority whip to president without an election. Unlike the Brits (in whose system the House of Cards scenario actually made sense), we don't have a parliamentary system.

All of which makes the hatred many fans have for Mad Men's Don Draper more than a little strange. After all, Walter White, and Francis Underwood, for that matter, are much colder characters than the last flat-out criminal, James Gandolfin's Tony Soprano, who flat out transfixed viewers.

But I think Jon Hamm will finally get his due for his much subtler performance -- playing a subtler and more sophisticated character -- when Mad Men's run ends next year. However, at the rate he's going, Don Draper may have turned into something of a hero by then. He does seem to be in an increasingly redemptive place, notwithstanding the many fantasies of doom which have spun up around him.

It might even be a healthier sign for the culture. Because the anti-hero theme, wildly entertaining as it can be, ultimately ends in a rather nihilistic place.

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