Anatomy of an antihero: Dissecting Dexter and AMC's new Hell on Wheels
What has happened to all the heroes on television these days?
A family man and high school teacher turned methamphetamine manufacturer on AMC's Breaking Bad. A serial killer who targets other killers on Showtime's Dexter. A former cop who escapes a crowd of flesh-eating zombies by letting them eat a companion on AMC's The Walking Dead.
Now, AMC has made a hero of a soldier who fought for the pro-slavery Confederacy in its new Western, a post-Civil War series called Hell On Wheels. (The show, which debuted Sunday, airs at 10 p.m. weekly.)
It's obvious today's heroes have become antiheroes - especially in the wilds of cable TV. And as modern times get more intense and explicit, so have these antiheroic characters.
"We've gone through Vietnam and Watergate and Monica Lewinsky; the new orthodoxy (on TV) is that the hero has to be seriously flawed," said Bob Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "The antihero is the new hero … the old-fashioned hero in antihero garb."
Pause here for an English lesson: the term "antihero" refers to a character the audience is encouraged to identify with, even though he or she has many characteristics of a villain. In film, Al Pacino's Mafia boss Michael Corleone is a perfect antihero; a ruthless crime lord and killer who nevertheless is devoted to his family and friends in The Godfather.
But it's on TV where the antihero now rules.
Apparently, people love to see compelling bad guys getting away with something good.
"I did everything I could to make Dexter likable; little mechanical things," said Jeff Lindsay, the Cape Coral author who created the Dexter Morgan character in the 2004 novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter before Showtime (and ace actor Michael C. Hall) turned him into a folk hero.
"Everybody's got a wish list (of people they'd like to kill)," added Lindsay, who wrote in the first person to bond readers with a man secretly compelled to kill murderers. "We're not psychopaths. We don't act on it. But it's nice to see someone else getting away with it."
On Sunday, the debut episode of AMC's Hell on Wheels opened with former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) shooting a man in the head inside a church confessional. We later learned the man was among a group of Union soldiers who raped and killed his wife.
The character seems an example of just how far antiheroes go these days. But the Bohannon character also reveals a few tricks to creating a modern TV antihero:
Trick NO. 1: The antihero needs some admirable code of behavior or values. On Dexter, our serial killer will only kill someone he has confirmed is a murderer. Bohannon on Wheels is doing whatever it takes to track and kill the men who destroyed his family.
But in Sunday's episode we learned this former slaveowner actually freed his slaves before the Civil War and is reluctant to admit he owned them at all. It is the former Union soldiers who sling the n-word and chide him for not treating black people like subhuman property. Which leads to …
Trick NO. 2: The antihero's nemesis must be worse than he or she is. On Sons of Anarchy, the biker gang once faced a group of murderous white supremacists who raped a key character; this season, they're caught in a battle between two muderously brutal Mexican drug cartels.
On Wheels, Bohannon is uncomfortable with the brutal racism of other white characters. In fact, racism is the litmus test on this series; characters considered heroes don't display it, while all the villains, including Colm Meaney's brutal railroad owner, toss around racial slurs like Halloween candy.
Trick NO. 3: Antiheroes usually don't hurt the innocent. We rarely, if ever, see a methhead strung out on the product Walter White creates on Breaking Bad, and Dexter has not yet killed a completely innocent person.
In a future episode, Bohannon will save an Indian man's life by convincing him not to be seen with a white woman who has been attacked by a tribe.
Is there any better definition of hero than that?
"They always worry about the cuddly quotient in TV," Lindsay said. "That's what (the book) Dexter's about; a protest against moral relativism. On a gut level, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is the only thing that makes sense to people."