Did you know that ‘monster’ and ‘demonstrate’ come from the same root word?
A monster is nothing if not an example, a reverse role model. Outlaws and monsters move in dangerous circles and they can see just fine in the dark, thank you very much.
Sometimes books and TV shows get you to side with pariahs. That’s one hell of a trick. Slowly but surely, they chip away at stereotypes (mob boss, outlaw biker, drug dealer) to paint a finer picture of the person behind the mask.
I’d like to think that we are growing as a civilization when we move away from absolutes and recognize that people are capable of love and hate in equal amounts. No-one is a caricature. Even freaks have morals.
We’re going to take a brief look at three fictional characters, two of which play a very popular role, that of the villain-protagonist. The third one is a madman with the law on his side.
Tony Soprano (The Sopranos)
Tony Soprano is a two-family man. Not only does he look after a wife and two children, he is also de facto leader of the DiMeo crime family. If you’re looking for an object lesson in character development, spend some time with Tony. The show delves deep into his attachments and foibles: a domineering mother, recurring panic attacks, an overpowering sexual appetite… and a twisted relationship with his psychiatrist.
The Mafioso loves his wife and children. He only wants the best for them. Like you, he harbors self-doubt and finds it difficult to control his impulses.
Things go awry, the veneer cracks and the beast comes out. A strange sense of honor compels him. When associates become inconvenient he has them killed. Nothing personal. But when a dear cousin and childhood friend stirs up the muck, Tony’s got to off the man himself. Families take care of their own.
Jackson “Jax” Teller (Sons of Anarchy)
Jax Teller is the vice-president of a motorcycle club, the Sons of Anarchy, a.k.a. SAMCRO, who operate out of the fictional town of Charming, California. The club deals in illegal firearms – and they’ve got the Chief of Police’s blessing.
Jax’s dead father, John Teller, envisioned a utopian destiny for the Sons, which he describes in a journal, The Life and Death of Sam Crow: How the Sons of Anarchy Lost their Way. Said journal finds its way to Jax’s hands. John’s ‘complications’ infect the young SOA vice-president.
Time and again, Jax butts heads with Clay Morrow, his stepdad, over the nature and purpose of the motorcycle club. Morrow is OK with gun-running while Jax wants to steer SAMCRO away from crime and violence.
Necessity drives Jackson Teller, not bloodlust. Sometimes he kills people for love. At one point, his mother Gemma confesses to Jax’s girlfriend, Tara, that “God wants her to be a fierce mother.” Jax Teller has the same kind of intensity. He engages in acts of violence, but he does not revel in them. Contrast that with Alex Trager, the club’s Sergeant-at-arms: when he and Clay Morrow suspect another club member, Opie, is collaborating with the FBI, Trager practically begs to be the one who takes Opie out. Is the safety of the club his only concern? (Trager is a venal character, but by no means one-dimensional. You should see him on mushrooms when all his guilt bubbles up to the surface.)
At the end of season 2, Jax’s baby boy, Abel, is kidnapped by a True IRA operative. The Irishman abducts the child as retribution for the death of his own son, allegedly shot by Jax’s mother. Jackson will stop at nothing to get his baby back. He’s more than a soldier in a gangland war, he’s a father. And a wounded one at that.
Nelson Van Alden (Boardwalk Empire)
Nelson Van Alden, a Federal Prohibition agent, is a religious fanatic. His back is covered in welts and bruises, because he flagellates himself on a regular basis. When his barren wife finds out about a new surgical procedure that might solve her fertility woes, Van Alden states that God has seen fit to make her sterile – end of discussion. Nelson murders his Jewish partner, Agent Sebso, on suspicion that he is in cahoots with the criminal elite of Atlantic City. “Thou hast fulfilled the judgment of the wicked,” Van Alden bellows over the body of his dead partner.
What truly separates Van Alden from Tony and Jax is not the badge. It’s his lack of empathy for his family and his tyrannical devotion to principle. Nelson Van Alden is a fanatic in a position of authority.
Pleasure is inextricable from guilt. Joy is unthinkable. Only duty, prayer and penitence are legitimate. More than Tony Soprano and Jax Teller, Nelson Van Alden lives in a prison of his own making.
Looking at these three characters, I ask myself: what makes a good villain or a good anti-hero?
What Tony, Jax and Nelson have in common is the conflict between law and justice, past and future, tradition and change. The three men court the abyss and it responds.
They live with ambiguity because they don’t have a choice. The Sopranos, Sons of Anarchy and Boardwalk Empire make a compelling case for “hell is other people.”
Corrupted beyond hope, they still cling to a moral code. They face monstrous pressures. Does that mean they’re monsters? What does it say about you and me if we empathize with them?
Outcasts in fiction demonstrate the dangers of crossing the line between civilization and savagery. Swim with sharks long enough and you might become one.
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