Is there a character on television more broken down at this cultural moment than Mad Men's troubled advertising executive Don Draper?
Last week, we saw his prized protege, Peggy Olson, turn on him after he humiliated a married co-worker she not-so-secretly loves. The week before, Draper's daughter, Sally, saw him cheating with a neighbor's wife, neatly mirroring a moment in his own childhood when he saw his pregnant stepmother forced to trade sex for their room and board.
Curled up in a fetal position last Sunday, Draper was isolated from friends, neighbors, wife and the rest of his family, shorn of any quality that might bring viewer sympathy. You wonder: How ugly can producers make this guy before viewers stop caring?
And that, according to author Brett Martin, is probably the point.
"What these shows have done is continually test viewers," says Martin, author of the coming book Difficult Men, about the creative revolution behind what he calls the Third Golden Age of Television: groundbreaking series such as The Sopranos, The Wire, The Shield, Breaking Bad and, of course, Mad Men.
"They'll say, 'You like Tony Soprano? Well, what if he does this?' " Martin added. "That's what (Sopranos creator) David Chase always did with Tony; every time you began to forget Tony is a psychopath or sociopath, he would do something to remind you: He is a killer."
This was bound to happen in the Age of the Antihero.
As scores of obituaries for Sopranos star James Gandolfini pointed out last week, that show ushered in a renaissance of TV quality, inspiring producers to make heroes of conflicted, awful (mostly) men.
Three important shows starring antiheroes are now winding down. Breaking Bad's story of a high school teacher turned meth-dealing drug kingpin ends on AMC this summer. The tale of a serial killer who preys on murderers, Showtime's Dexter, begins its last season next Sunday. And Mad Men airs the last episode in its penultimate season at 10 tonight on AMC.
This, along with the death last week of Gandolfini, gives the sense of a page turned. An era is ending as these classic characters become more despicable than ever.
But what does it say about us that we can root for such awful people no matter what they do onscreen?
The bad guys
Shawn Ryan thought he was planning a coup.
As executive producer and creator of FX's explicit cop drama The Shield, he had cast likable actor Forest Whitaker as an internal affairs investigator determined to bring down the show's central character, Michael Chiklis' unethical, murderous cop Vic Mackey.
"I really felt like, wow, we're going to give the audience a really tough choice here," said Ryan. "The episodes hit the air, and people hated (Whitaker's) character." The lesson: Once an audience buys into an antihero, he can get away with almost anything.
"I always described it as, 'The theory of perspective,' " he added. "People begin to associate with the people they watch. I got a lot of emails and comments after (the show ended) from fans who said, 'I can't believe I was behind (Mackey) for so long.' "
In the early days, these characters felt like a breath of fresh realism. "These antiheroes demand that the audience stop, listen and reflect on their own moral judgments," wrote Tom Fontana, creator of HBO's explicit, brutal prison drama Oz, in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.
Fontana's latest show, the BBC America series Copper, centers on an Irish immigrant cop working New York's notorious Five Points slum just after the Civil War, facing crushing poverty and rampant corruption with a realist's resolve.
"The antihero lives by a code of ethics that is wholly his own, to which he remains absolutely true," Fontana added. "The world in which he lives is more corrupt than he is, but there are still people he encounters who deserve a better life." Indeed, that is often the only difference between heroes and villains in this new TV world; villains don't have any code.
In Difficult Men, author Martin quotes The Sopranos' Chase, who said an antihero only needs to be two things: good at his job and the smartest guy in the room.
Antiheroes are often surrounded by characters worse than they are. And the series can hide the worst impacts of their actions, as on Breaking Bad where you rarely see lives destroyed by the meth Walter White makes.
But some producers are pushing the envelope in new ways. On Dexter, Michael C. Hall's killer of murderers Dexter Morgan watched his police detective sister kill a fellow officer to protect his secret. Last year, Breaking Bad's Walter White let an associate murder a child to cover up a crime.
Ryan said he saved such stuff for the final episodes of The Shield: "You're really endangering your show if you make the audience feel that way (too soon) … kind of what Mad Men is going through right now. It makes you feel a little queasy about enjoying next week. Do I really want to watch a scene next week between (Draper) and his daughter?"
Heroes or villains
He's been dismissive to an attentive wife and an overbearing know-it-all for several seasons.
But Dean Norris also sees his character on Breaking Bad, drug enforcement agent Hank Schrader, as the show's real hero.
"It's great to play the only guy on the show who didn't break bad," Norris said. "All he wanted was a clean soul. He wanted to be the guy who gets the bad guy."
As his Breaking Bad character becomes more heroic, facing a showdown this summer with his meth-making brother-in-law Walter White, Norris is also playing straight-up villain "Big Jim" Rennie in CBS's miniseries of a Stephen King novel, Under the Dome.
Norris says his character on Dome, a local politician who goes power-mad when a bizarre, impenetrable dome surrounds a small town in Maine, can act heroically and brutally, saving the town one instant and killing someone in the next.
What's the difference between hero and villain? Norris credits a meld of great writing and great acting, exemplified in the work of Breaking Bad's creator Vince Gilligan and star Bryan Cranston.
"Any other incarnation of this character, people would just hate," he said. "But somehow, Cranston's able to make you like that character, or at least continue watching him. Even somebody like Tony Soprano was conflicted about some things; Walter White has no problems with what he's doing. Certainly, from my limited knowledge of TV, it's the first time you've rooted for such a bad guy for so long."
James Remar, who plays Dexter Morgan's adopted father on Dexter, is more direct. Audiences, he says, know immediately who is the story's protagonist, trying to overcome a problem, or the antagonist who is the problem.
"Even little kids know the protagonist is the guy the audience has on their side," he said. "It's all perspective; if you're rooting for the Yankees, the Red Sox are always (villains)."
So why does this feel like the end of the beginning?
"There was something specifically tuned to the zeitgeist of the early 2000s in these shows, connected to our president and our political situation, that lent itself to TV about male power and when it's okay to use it or not," said Martin, referencing George W. Bush, the 9/11 attacks and the war on terror in one swoop. "TV is now good and we know it. I'm just wondering what comes next."