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No Sympathy for the Devil

How do you stick with ‘Mad Men’ or ‘Breaking Bad’ when its protagonists become hateful? What if that’s the whole point? 

“A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right.” – C.S. Lewis

For the past decade, TV has been awash with deeply flawed antiheroes: philandering ad men and pill-popping nurses, meth-cooking chemistry teachers and mob boss suburban dads. But when you launch a show that’s centered on an unethical protagonist, how do you keep viewers engaged and invested in that character indefinitely — or at least through six seasons?

Because for every show like The Sopranos and The Shield that made us cheer for a rotten scoundrel, there were five or six others that failed to engage us. Dark dramedies like Californication, Shameless, Weeds, American Horror Story, Nurse Jackie, and Nip/Tuck have plenty of redeeming qualities — a wicked sense of humor, an irresistible visual style, a delicious knack for realistic marital spats. But the second we determine that our antihero is nothing but an irredeemable loser and/or we conclude that his or her choices will never make a shred of sense, we’re lost. Every plot twist feels arbitrary and impossible to care about, like watching Bart Simpson burn his finger over and over again without learning a thing about cause and effect.

Despite Edie Falco’s great performance on Nurse Jackie, which made Jackie far more likable and believable than she would’ve been otherwise, it was tough to understand why this very practical woman was popping pills and sleeping around on her perfectly good husband. Eventually it became hard to watch. Likewise, Hank Moody’s high jinx on Californication were only amusing until his total lack of a soul and somewhat repetitive insistence on deadpan debauchery reduced him to a caricature. The two antiheros of Nip/Tuck navigated their shiny, shallow world with irresistible swagger, but the arrogance and slickness that drew us in were exactly what drove us away in the end. The drama Dexter’s perverse sense of humor (its perverse sense of everything, really) kept us in a serial killer’s thrall far longer than seemed plausible, but that show’s appeal started to crumble once our antihero’s antics landed his wife, a reliable source of comic relief, in mortal danger.

But what did we expect from a show about serial killer? Hugging and learning? Isn’t it a little unfair to lose interest in Dexter the second it stops looking like a darkly comical revenge fantasy and starts to look more like a gory horror movie featuring a baby in a pool of blood?

Unfair or not, maintaining an audience’s interest can require self-restraint in storytelling. Carmela of The Sopranos never ended up with her throat slit, and if she did, our feelings about her husband would’ve been irretrievably altered.

In truth, the likability of any given protagonist represents one of the most subjective assessments you can make about a TV show. Debating how hateful Vic Mackey, Walter White, Nancy Botwin, or Don Draper is can feel like squabbling over whether a tasteless joke is funny or not. Gut checks depend on what’s at stake for viewers, how many ethical lapses are tolerable to them, how interesting they find it to watch a person’s principles bend and then break, and which personality strengths (and weaknesses) they judge as redemptive, where others are judged as unforgivable.

And as easy as it is to pinpoint when Weeds or Nip/Tuck stopped commanding our interest, it’s a little more thorny when two of the best shows on television, Breaking Bad and Mad Men, repeatedly grapple with the same problem of character likability.

Breaking Bad presents a particularly fascinating example because its protagonist, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), was never supposed to charm us, enthrall us, or appear remotely heroic. The hard sell of Breaking Bad is that it offers up a painfully regular, geeky school teacher who sees himself as a big failure (and he’s dying of cancer to boot). Our antihero is anti-hero in the literal sense: He is clumsy, stutters, and rarely saves the day. And who better to occupy the role of sidekick than a self-interested, shallow kid like Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul)? Jesse is the epitome of a thug: uneducated, naïve, and brutish.

Even though Breaking Bad’s pilot was much more comedic than the subsequent series proved to be, an acute sense of the absurd seems to drive the show. Throw in its gorgeous cinematography, its poetic appreciation of little details (a stuffed animal’s eyeball in a swimming pool, a pizza fermenting on a garage rooftop), its unerring grasp of dramatic tension, of nuanced dialogue, of escalating stakes, and you’ve got one of the strangest, most riveting shows on TV. Breaking Bad is so good, in part, because of creator Vince Gilligan’s insistence on ignoring every TV convention in the book. What we see on our screen are two essentially unlikable, not very attractive human beings, placed in ethically indefensible situations over and over again, each of which unfolds at an extremely patient pace.

But even as Walt stretches our patience to the breaking point, he never gets to enjoy the spoils of his crimes. Unlike Tony Soprano, who eats and cheats and drinks and indulges his own vanity and self-delusion over and over, Walt is usually focused on digging his way out of one mess or another, trying to win his family back, trying to hide his crimes from them so they never know just how far he’s fallen. This fact alone can be exhausting. But if Walt were vain or wasteful, or if any of his choices felt ego-driven at the outset, we’d never stay on his side. He’s not appealing enough to pull that off. He’s more of a blank slate than a character, someone we can project our own longing or frustration onto.

Slowly over the course of the show, Walter goes from desperate man in a tight spot to a true criminal — killing somewhat blameless people out of convenience. Jesse, on the other hand, proclaims at the start of season three, “I’m the bad guy,” but by the end of that season, he’s the one trying to convince Walt not to commit murder. Over the course of the show, Jesse develops from typical scumbag to something else, a lonely guy who’s smart enough to know better but who keeps falling short of his best intentions. For all of his flaws, Jesse is usually more sympathetic than Walt, because he’s actively trying to connect with other people, even if he does so by falling in love with a manipulative junkie or throwing hundred dollar bills in the air. Walt is troubling because the guilt and moral compass he has at the start of the series melts off him until his choices feel purely pragmatic. But he no longer has a choice. He boards this crazy train and then he can’t get off without destroying his entire family.

Because Breaking Bad doesn’t take pains to show us Walt’s vulnerabilities and the root causes of his damage the way The Sopranos did with Tony, we rarely feel that much sympathy for the man. We do want him to find a way out of each mess (unlike Dexter, who we sometimes wish would get caught). But we don’t look into his eyes and feel heartbroken the way we felt with Tony Soprano. James Gandolfini was a master of showing us Tony’s mixed emotions and regrets and guilt, and David Chase served up at least one vivid, guilt-inducing moment per episode (Tony says the wrong thing to Meadow and immediately cringes at his own gall; Tony orders a hit and then can’t sleep at night, etc.).

But Walt isn’t a giant puppy dog in mob boss clothing. He’s not supposed to be lovable. While Breaking Bad veers into unrelenting darkness so often that it can be tough to stomach, that’s kind of the point. The daring of Breaking Bad lies in its insistence on making its protagonists scrape and claw and make awful compromises without any retreat into giant plates of pasta or reassuringly mundane family bickering or self-doubting therapy sessions. Tony’s very relatable vices — laziness, gluttony, adultery — offered the recurring impression of an indulged child who refused to grow up. We were meant to see our own lapses reflected in Tony, and to empathize with him despite his obvious repugnant choices. Our feeling of connection to him was necessary, thanks to how extreme his flaws were. He was vengeful, ego-driven, short-sighted, and sometimes even casually reprehensible, striking people down out of mere convenience. The trick that David Chase pulled off with The Sopranos was that he made us feel protective, affectionate love for a bad, bad guy, a guy who wanted to grow but couldn’t, a guy who, at the end of the day, just wanted to daydream about the good old days and stuff his face with onion rings. When Tony had a panic attack or missed the ducks in his pool or got beat up or embarrassed, it made us feel terribly sorry for him in spite of ourselves. That’s not how we feel about Walter White. But that’s not how we’re supposed to feel about him.

Just as Walt wasn’t designed to occupy the same place in our hearts as Tony Soprano, neither was Don Draper of Mad Men. But because Matthew Weiner and the show’s other writers take pains to show us why Don does what he does, it’s more of a problem when we come way from these character sketches feeling unmoved. In the show’s sixth season, Don didn’t necessarily make bigger mistakes than he ever had, but his hungry ego and his weaknesses were on full display like never before. Aside from being called a monster by Peggy and assuming the fetal position toward the end of the season, Don didn’t register guilt or awareness of his own terrible behavior that often. Even though it may be Weiner’s intention to demonstrate the limitations of Don’s consciousness, even though Mad Men is arguably guided by ideas more than emotions, and Don’s shortcomings are meant to embody the shortcomings of not just an entire generation but also late capitalist American society itself, the exercise can grow tiresome when Don is less likable than the writers seem to believe.

That’s arguably a minor quibble, considering that Mad Men is an ensemble show, and Peggy and Joan and Roger and even Pete continue to draw us in thoroughly despite (and even because of) their flaws. Still, Don’s storylines would be more satisfying if the show’s awkward attempts to have us understand him — via flashbacks to a not-all-that-sympathetic kid in a whore house — didn’t fail about half the time. Weiner and company seemed to assume that we’d tolerate Don’s repeated hypocritical behavior in the absence of any hint of how alone he felt in the world. As Don cheated on his second wife, betrayed his new friend, demeaned his new lover, disappointed his co-workers and horrified his daughter, we needed some offsetting moments of feeling sad for him. We needed to see him wishing for something that he couldn’t quite have (something other than another man’s wife). We need to see him relying on someone for help (other than the man whose wife he was sleeping with). Instead, we got the same repeating close-up of his perplexed face. In the show’s sixth season, the writers set out to make Don the victim, but they accidentally made him the enemy instead.

Maybe it’s time to admit that we’ve been spoiled by Chase, who made Tony sympathetic from the very first episode of The Sopranos. Chase tricked showrunners into thinking they could make audiences feel sympathy for a truly awful person. It wasn’t as easy as Chase and Gandolfini made it look.

And to be fair, Walter White and Don Draper aren’t designed to elicit the same kind of affection that Tony Soprano is. At the end of The Sopranos, the show’s audience was on the edge of their seats, wondering whether Tony would be killed or not because, by then, for better or for worse, Tony felt like part of the family. When Breaking Bad ends with Walt doing something so reprehensible it makes our teeth hurt, or Mad Men ends with Don leaping from his office window to his death or leaving his fourth wife for his eleventh secretary, we’re unlikely to feel quite as wound up about it. Most likely, Walt will simply continue suffering, and Don will continue to believe his own hero complex despite all evidence to the contrary. These characters were made to disappoint us, even if the shows they occupy rarely do.

We might wish for a prettier picture, or hope for some closure, but redemption is not at the heart of either of these shows, and that’s exactly what’s makes them so mesmerizingly different from more typical, saccharine fare. Neither show is perfect; both Don Draper and Walter White could be humanized more. But as Breaking Bad and Mad Men enter their home stretches, it might make sense to step back and accept that these are both dark portrayals of doomed men. We’re not going to be treated to a heartwarming indie pop ballad as Skyler White drives off into the sunset in a Prius like Claire Fisher on the Six Feet Under finale. Instead, we should expect an unnerving ending, and feel grateful that such unapologetically bleak, literary stories now occupy the small screen. Because this picture was never pretty to begin with.

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