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In praise of antiheroes

A fascination with human evil is hardly new, but is the proliferation of recent television series plumbing the heart of darkness reflective of something particularly acute in our time? Whether it is the brooding Don Draper’s inexplicable self-destruction, Tony Soprano’s tormented soul, Walter White’s journey from high school chemistry teacher to violent drug lord, or Sarah Lund’s dysfunctional obsessiveness, television’s present golden age is replete with characters and plots that are assiduously and determinedly grim. And it seems we can’t look away.

But no character captures the allure of the Stygian deep more than Frank Underwood, masterfully portrayed by Kevin Spacey in Netflix’s political thriller, House of Cards. Underwood begins the series as the Democratic House Majority Whip on a campaign of ruthless personal ambition and revenge. As he climbs the political ladder, aided by his chillingly calculating wife Claire (Robin Wright), other people are singularly used for his advancement and discarded when they have served their purpose. There is something jaw-droppingly compelling in Underwood’s cynical and brutal campaign. His frequent soliloquies, directed straight to camera, perversely implicate the viewer in his Machiavellian plots.

When the Puritan writer, John Milton, wrote his epic poem Paradise Lost, he probably didn’t intend his Satan to turn out to be the most interesting character. Such naïveté clearly didn’t plague the writers of House of Cards, and their central character, no less diabolical than his 17th-century predecessor, is just as captivating a figure. Both Milton’s Satan and Frank Underwood display an astonishing penchant for turning events to their advantage and neither has any obvious good towards which they strive beyond their own lust for power.

Victor Brombert’s In Praise of Antiheroes (1999) examines the ways in which the heroic model has come to be subverted. Noting Western literature’s long tradition of protagonists failing to live up to the expectations of mythical heroes, he shows that the loss of the “ideal image” captures something of the spirit of the times. “In an age of scepticism and dwindling faith, an age marked by the pervasive awareness of loss and disarray, the deliberate subversion of the heroic tradition may betray an urge to salvage or reinvent meaning,” writes Brombert.

Is that lack of meaning—perhaps a lack of God—what we are witnessing in our attraction to the darkness on our screens? Brombert points out that the deliberate loss of the hero does not necessarily mean irredeemable cynicism. An absence “can be a form of presence”, and an expression of desire—the wish for something better. A clear message from the latest and, frankly, the best TV on offer is that salvation is profoundly needed, but in short supply. Justice? Redemption? If they are to be found, we’ll need to look somewhere beyond ourselves to find them.

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