The Evolution of the Antihero |

TV | Mad Men

The Evolution of the Antihero

Three of TV's most villainous men — Walter White, Dexter Morgan, and Don Draper — are about to get the hook; is it time for antiheroines to swoop in? Jeff Jensen and Melissa Maerz take on TV's so-bad-they're-good characters

Jeff Jensen: Farewell to the Biggest Baddies
The end is nigh for Dexter Morgan, and it’s about damn time. On Sept. 22 the psychopath prodded by Daddy to become a superhero — Norman Bates with Batman for Mother — quits his personal, flawed war on terror after a rippingly good eight-season run. We will miss the quality of his brilliant black dramedy, just as we will grieve that of retirement-bound Walter White of Breaking Bad and Don Draper of Mad Men. But we will not miss the quality of their devilish and Dickish models of heroism and manhood. Saying goodbye allows us the same catharsis found at Dexter’s kill table: the opportunity to pass judgment on an objectionable character and purge him from the culture.

Perhaps it’s a measure of how well we relate to these villains that we ask, ”Can they be redeemed?” We’ve cheered for Dexter because we hear ourselves in his internal monologue, the Glib Ironic Detached Guy yearning to be a fully realized, emotionally engaged human. Like Tony Soprano before him and Walter White and many others since, Dexter represents the man enslaved to his appetites and insistent upon self-justification. It’s time for this rabid bloodhound to be taken behind the shed.

What does ”redemption” mean? Not just for unrepentant rogues like Dexter or Walt, but anyone? Dexter just might be tackling this tricky topic via the ongoing, very fuzzy mystery of Dr. Vogel, the psychiatrist who wrote Dexter’s batty ”code.” Dr. FrankenShrinker tried to ”help” other monsters, too, and recent episodes have suggested the possibility that she’s been using Dexter and even her own demented son to clean up after her mistakes. Among the victims: Dexter’s own attempt at a legacy, a teenage Mini-Me named Zach, a wannabe American Psycho. If Dr. Vogel is indeed practicing a perverse form of social responsibility, then she models two values essential to redemption: regret and atonement. But Dexter can never correct his wrongheaded approach to righteousness. His sins demand submission to his own murder ritual: confrontation, confession, CHUNK!

Redemption is also a pipe dream for meth-making auteur Walter White. Not that the proud sinner even believes in such a religiousy-sounding concept (yet?). The cynical chronicle of the po-mo Everyman’s plunge into nihilism reveals our want for a moral, responsible life by finding ingenious new ways to make us root for this increasingly malignant creature’s destruction. Motivated anew by the return of his cancer, Walt’s degrading quest for lasting significance has shifted from living out a mythic, monstrous self — the death-threatened, Death-becoming bogeyman Heisenberg — to living on through the blood money he wants his family to keep, lest his degeneracy be rendered meaningless. Like Dexter, Bad is a nightmare that speaks to — and mocks — the transgressive wish-fulfillment fantasies of the legitimately disenfranchised and metaphorically emasculated. But the legacy of this audaciously original show shouldn’t be more criminal archetypes for ”heroes,” more pulp gangsta romances, more (ugh) Ray Donovans. May Breaking Bad inspire a new generation of bold, finely drawn — and better — men.