It was sad to see Walter White breathe his last, Christ-like on the floor of a meth lab. Even if the justified praise for the final episode of the current holder of The Best TV Programme of All Time title (apologies to The Sopranos, The Wire, Hey Arnold and countless other previous holders) has been punctuated with murmurs of discontent over the neatness with which everything was wrapped up. The White family got Walt’s dirty money, via the Schwartzes, who had to suffer a degree of comeuppance as a result. He gave Skyler an ‘out’ with the police while simultaneously giving Marie (and presumably Ms Steve Gomez) closure by revealing the location of Hank and Gomie’s grave. Hell, he even managed to spectacularly annihilate the Nazis with his car keys, allow Jesse to avenge Andrea, then give his former protégé some form of closure by finally allowing him to take charge of a situation. Oh, and just in case we’d forgotten, finally do something about Lydia doing something disgusting as drinking camomile tea with milk. In short, everything ends wrapped up in a meticulous, neat little bow.
Of course, Skyler, Walt Jr. and Jesse are likely to be traumatised by Heisenberg’s eventful reign; Marie has lost her husband, and Holly White will never know her father. But it drags me away from the point I’d like to make, so please disregard that for the time being.
The rise of the anti-hero in modern TV has heralded a golden age in which we all fawn over the bastards of the small screen, from Walter White to Don Draper; Tony Soprano to Jimmy McNulty. Rather than the Dean-Cain-as-Superman or ER’s Dr Green of yesteryear, we generally seem to have accepted the fact that rather than rooting for the guys to who save others from peril or patch up injuries, we cheer for the one pushing others into peril or firing the bullets.
This has obviously been blamed on the grotty, miserable world we live in, where Britain has a chancellor who happily condemns the country’s “something for nothing” culture, despite having only worked in data entry and towel-folding before taking control of the country’s finances. Where American politicians have shut down government because they are so appalled by the concept of people being given free medical care.
In such an unfair, twisted and imbalanced world it’s natural that we root for the people who by foul means make their own way, almost as if they are feeding on our darkest thoughts in times of greatest hardship, right?
Well, maybe not. While the proliferation of televisual bastards leans strongly towards this train of thought, couldn’t the rise of the scumbags be much more closely linked to a need for some semblance of hope?
Think about it. In many of the programmes supposedly showing just how hideous humans are, these men all achieve some sort of redemption. A moment where we feel that despite the horrors they inflict week in, week out, they have a saving grace, or in their final moments perform some act that goes towards atoning for their crimes.
If we look at The Wire, it is Jimmy McNulty, everyone’s favourite adulterous, burnt-out pisshead, finally settling down with Beadie Russell, and giving up on what fuelled his capacity for self-destruction. Of course, this leads nicely back to Walter White – while Breaking Bad’s ending may have disappointed some, it has generally been lauded as a perfect conclusion to the series, with everything put into some sort of satisfactory order and his death the final box to be ticked in wrapping things up. Hell, as I said before, he ends up lying with his arms splayed out in what could be construed as a Christ-like pose. He dies a martyr.
You could argue – and believe me, I’m about to – that this lack of redemptive closure led to the howls of confusion and general nonplussed reaction to The Sopranos finale. Sure, we see Tony sitting down with his family, Phil Leotardo whacked (in spectacular fashion, I might add), all indicating a happy conclusion. But the fade to black, just after those two men enter the diner, stole the final moment of redemption from us. We don’t know if he has dinner and continues life, or if he is shot in front of Carmella, Meadow and Junior. Either would have provided closure, as it would have shown which family was ultimately the ‘real’ one. If he survives it’s his wife and kids. If he dies it’s the guys in leisure suits and slicked-back hair. All we needed was to see who his real family is. Out of context it sounds like a fairytale.
What about Game of Thrones? Even in what appears to be one of the murkiest shows on the market, morality-wise, we want the good to shine through. Of course, that hasn’t exactly happened so far – it’s definitely bastards three, good guys nil there – but that’s why the likes of Tyrion and Jaime Lannister are the most compelling characters. We want to see them shift from being drunken, apathetic bystanders or arrogant, violent (yet equally apathetic) tools to becoming people who end up actually doing some good for once. That and seeing Joffrey die some horrible death, of course.
Sure, it’s hard to see beyond the notion that life has ground us down to the sort of people that enjoy the twisted escapism of seeing our favourite TV characters doing really, really bad things. But it would be more honest to say that we need to see these characters plumb the depths then rise up to redemption and in doing so offer us a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel of often self-inflicted human misery. Believe it or not, the rise of the bastards is actually a source of new hope. Even the bad guys can make good, if we stick with them a couple of series.