There’s a special place in our hearts for villains. We have a capacity for empathy and adoration of the bad guy that goes beyond the rational and occasionally ventures on idolatry. I’ve argued that the villains we idolize are usually not evil as much as they are bad-boy stereotypes on an epic scale.
But then there’s sociopaths. Not just the run-of-the-mill killer types from Special Victims Unit. I’m talking about THE sociopaths; the killers that let us touch evil. In particular, I’m interested in protagonist psychos.
I’m talking about Dexter Morgan, Hannibal Lecter, late stage Walter White, Sylar and, most recently, BBC’s new Sherlock Holmes. These characters inhibit a lack of empathy, disconnect from other people, shallow or absent emotions, poor impulse control, routine manipulative behavior and various other qualities generally thought to come with antisocial behavioral disorder.
Breaking people has never been so sexy.
In short, they are something akin to a robot… with a fascination or excitation towards homicide. Sociopaths are constantly pretending and manipulating because they don’t feel human emotion in a strong, meaningful way. Not unlike a robot or an alien. And in the absence of concern towards others, all that’s really left is selfish desire and a drive to win. I think this is why the best sociopaths on television come off as alien. And it’s creepy the same way as a robot that kind of looks like a human is creepy. All the parts are there, but something’s not quite right.
These characters, like everything else on television, exhibit romanticized qualities that don’t reflect actual psychopaths (interchangeable with sociopath) and other antisocials. And since I’m not an expert in psychology, I’ll stick to the characters of popular fiction.
These characters are serial serial killer killers. No, you didn’t misread that. And that’s an important distinction because they enjoy the ruination of others and find ways to legally experience that joy. Dexter Morgan is the perfect example. He needs to kill, but was taught by his father to only kill other murderers. More than one Dexter arch has dealt with what happens when he goes off the rails. The character struggles with being good so as not to get caught, while feeding his killer instinct.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you can call this range of psychotics a spectrum, is Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes. He doesn’t kill, but he exhibits a trademark lack of empathy and manipulative behavior to the point of clearly not understanding why people find his behavior abrasive. And his grandiose sense of self is pitch perfect psychopathy. Watch as Sherlock calls out a friend for getting him a gift.
Everyone is uncomfortable (me included), and he just doesn’t get it. Sherlock does it all the time because he is always bored (another psycho trademark), he doesn’t actually care and the only joy he derives is from besting someone to the point that they are ruined.
These characters are a morbid fascination that fill several different rolls at the same time.
They remain an outlet for the traditional power fantasy that villains often serve. You get to do evil deeds and flout the traditional system that we spend so much of our real lives being trapped in without actually being evil. The methods are questionable, but the final result is positive.
And the thing I didn’t mention in the last villains article is that we celebrate barbarism. Consider one of our recent national holidays: Columbus Day. The Oatmeal has a pretty great graphic of how Christopher Columbus actually performed genocide and, arguably, was the father of the international slave trade. And for all that we celebrate him with a federal holiday.
I’m not saying Columbus was a sociopath, though his biography reads like he may have been. I’m saying that most celebrated historical figures engaged in violence on some level to do great things. Patton. Washington. Caesar. Odysseus. Almost every founding father. There are a few MLKs here and there, but the majority are celebrated for what they did in conjunction with violence.
Now look at pop culture. All our greatest, most popular heroes are violent. Every now and then we get an Oscar-worthy film about someone accomplishing something through peaceful means. It wins a ton of awards, even though virtually no one sees it, but the most popular fare remains Bruce Willis, Jason Statham, or anyone in a cape beating good old American values into the situation.
I talk about this all the time. These stories are an affirmation of our values. The good guys almost always win because it feels wrong when someone does the right thing and still loses. Our tradition has trouble reconciling against the idea that you can work hard, be the good guy, go to church and have it all seem meaningless. As a matter of fact, I’ll even quote myself:
At the end of the day, most movies are about the affirmation of common values. These are largely Judeo-Christian ideas about the triumph of good over evil and the sacrifice of the individual for the salvation of the people. In a way, films like these (and TV shows, books, and comics) are a religious experience. The “good guys”, who we tend to recognize as good because they believe what we believe, shouldn’t win so often. By all rights they shouldn’t even walk away from crazy without trauma from what they’ve seen. The implication is that they win because their cause it righteous and because the big guy upstairs has his pinky on the scales.
We watch movies that reflect our beliefs. And if all our action heroes use violence to employ good, what does that say about us? More importantly, if the most idolized character of 2013 is Walter White, what does THAT say about us?
Enter the Sociopath. There is a lot of stuff going on here, but at the forefront is true barbarism. Psychopathic protagonists are the purest way to use violence for goodness sake. You could even say these characters are a kind of avatar for our own fetishism towards violent causes. What’s better entertainment than absolute moral victory through absolute destruction? Like the sociopath, the audience NEEDS a story with action and ruination. We’re hungry for it.
And neither of us will stop.