The Changing Face of the Antihero

WARNING: Lots of spoilers in this one, especially if you’re not up to date on Westworld.

Words, like knives, grow dull with extended use. Language changes over time with the push and pull of invisible social forces–terms of art and technical jargon, once adopted into the zeitgeist, transforms like metamorphic rock. Think of the meme–once Richard Dawkins’ most dangerous idea, now a catchall term for jokes on the internet.

I briefly mentioned antiheroes last week and I wanted to talk about them some more. Part archetype and part simple character model, “antihero” is one of those words that gets used all the time now so that it has lost most of its meaning. We talk about characters like Walter White and Tony Soprano as antiheroes. Dolores on Westworld is supposed to be an antihero. Typically what we mean by it these days is any complicated protagonist; someone whose desires and agenda are outside the sphere of conventional morality. The word used to mean something quite different, though.

Once upon a time heroes were all cut from the same cloth. Selfless, brave and steely-eyed, they wore white hats and loved law, the right, and American values. That changed (in the American tradition) some time around the 30s, though Cowboy westerns kept it going a lot longer. Suddenly you had heroes who weren’t clean cut and effortlessly virtuous. Characters like Philip Marlowe and Batman came along who were, honestly, a little scary, especially at the time. Heroes who dressed like bad guys, who were at home in gin joints and casinos. Yet at the end of the day they reviled that demimonde that they crept through like shadows. They still shot the right bad guy, and let the gold-hearted burglar get away.

These were antiheroes. They didn’t look like traditional heroes. They smoked and drank and swore and sometimes they even bent the law. Especially after WWII, when a generation of disillusioned world travelers came home to a world they didn’t recognize, these new heroes were more believable, more relatable. They didn’t always win. The system could be stacked against them. Yet at heart they were still pure. They still believed in the moral compass, even if it got knocked over on its side, sometimes.

The antihero was corny and dumb by the 60s–just like the white hats they’d replaced, these louche figures were still squares at heart. A generation of counter-heroes arose to take their place. People who fought the corrupt system, often by subverting the traditional heroic values. Either they echewed guns in favor of flower power, or, as in the case of James Bond and his ilk, they embraced an amoral kind of violence, a kill-or-be-killed (live and let die?) code of honor. They rarely shot first, but they always shot to kill.

The 80s saw a return to the classic hero, if he was a little rough around the edges, still. Rambo and the Terminator (well, Terminator II) were the heroes of Reagan’s call for a return to white hattery–John Rambo, betrayed by his country, betrayed by what it became while he was off fighting its wars, transforms into the ultimate American Hero by the end of his second film. Just as the Terminator, originally the symbol of our fear of the rise of computer technology, is turned on its cybernetic masters and becomes our only hope–using technology to fight the abuses of technology.

The antihero never truly disappeared, of course. Mad Max was a true antihero of the old stripe, a throwback. In Star Wars we got both Han Solo, a classic antihero, and Luke Skywalker, a white hat. It truly was a movie with something for everyone.

Through the 90s and early 2000s we looked elsewhere for our heroes, often appropriating them from other cultures–think of the Asian martial arts vibe of the Matrix. Heroes at a remove, heroes viewed through a filter of foreign strangeness and ancient lore. We couldn’t believe that one of us could be a hero without some kind of outside influence–I mean, look at us, and what we’d become.

The rise of modern “antiheroes” came along about the same time as the rise of “Peak Television”, and also a rising tide of cynicism concerning politics, religion and even capitalism itself. Walter White is an interesting case, because he transforms throughout this period. When he begins he’s just some poor schmuck with cancer, a man who needs money to protect his family. That’s not exactly heroic, not in the traditional mold, but it’s highly relatable. His scientific knowledge is what begins to elevate him, and that’s something viewers can get behind. Yet by the third or fourth season of the show–and definitely by its cataclysmic ending–White has transformed into something nobody could call heroic with a straight face. There was a great deal of dissatisfaction with the ending of the show, not because he dies but because he dies well. He wins, for a given value of winning.

Much like Heisenberg, Tony Soprano is often considered an example of a modern antihero. Yet in fact he’s a classic example of an antivillain. This opposite number of the antihero is someone who demonstrates traditional villainous motives and tactics–he’s a gangster who breaks legs to get what he wants–while cloaked in the appearances of a very different kind of character. The core of The Sopranos is Tony’s relationship with his therapist, Dr. Melfi. We see him as a man who wants to be good, who is working toward going legit. The show had to descend through many layers of hell and even suffer an unbearably ambiguous ending to let us see Tony’s true heart is still just as black and shriveled as it always was.

More recently, Westworld has given us a pair of potential antiheroes, in the form of Dolores and Maeve (not the first time a story has allowed for a female antihero, but having two female protagonists who fit the bill, with now no real male authority figure to temper them? That alone is groundbreaking). Dolores says she wants to “dominate this world” but we sense what she really wants is justice for what was done to her while she “slept”. Now that she’s awake she wants the world to pay. Perhaps Maeve is a better fit for the antihero role, though. Even after she’s shown definitive proof that she is not real, that her old life never existed–and after she goes on a violent rampage through reality–she is still driven by a heroic need, to find and protect her lost daughter.

Just as Breaking Bad changed its tune over the years, it’s possible Westworld is doing the same, reflecting a change in the values of its viewership. The first season was all about amorality, about individual desires and their destructive ends. This second season is much purer of heart, even as it climbs over a pile of bodies. It’ll be interesting to see where it goes.

Antiheroes didn’t dominate Peak TV–instead Peak TV played with them the way a cat plays with a mouse. A game that never ends well. Yet the archetype is so strong it keeps coming back. Two of my favorite shows right now are Legion and Into the Badlands, and both feature strong, classic antiheroes.

Sunny, on Into the Badlands, is the Good Man with a Bad Past, an archetype straight out of the second generation of Westerns. Tormented by the violence that was once his whole life, now he struggles to right wrongs in a compromised world. He’s even given an infant son to protect, carrying the baby on his back while he swings his sword in ever more desperate arcs. It’s a hell of a show and a great tribute to an old and cherished archetype.

David Waller on Legion is an interesting sort of antihero, and again one who changes radically between his first and second season of adventures. In the beginning he was shown as mentally ill, a creature of impossible danger whose powers were at the service of the phantoms in his head (an interesting comparison could be made to Rambo, here). In the second season, having been freed of his demons, he turns and fights them in a much more traditionally heroic role. It’s too early to say how well that works, but it’s a fascinating transition at the very least.

It’s possible, looking at these new characters, to imagine that changes in the wider world have forced us to return to these old, if evergreen, character arcs. Even just a few years ago our heroes were amoral psychopaths in an insane world–riders on the chaos, who fought not for the right, and not even for survival, but only to magnify their own control over the uncontrollable.

It’s no coincidence that Westworld has changed so much since 2016. In the first season we watched the old centers of power–the amoral men who built the world–flame out and be crushed under the weight of their own disillusionment, only to be replaced by two young women who, dismayed by the chaos they’ve inherited, will move heaven and earth to put things to right (and it’s hardly an accident that the men in their lives are terminally befuddled, allies at best who don’t understand the change they know in their hearts is worth following).

The true antihero, the shaggy but incorruptible hidden hero is still with us, burning bright in the midst of shadows. It’s a figure we need, a character we cannot afford to lose, now more than ever.