Spoilers for Steven Universe and The Shield.
I saw a meme recently that put Rose Quartz, mother of the eponymous protagonist of Steven Universe, in the same category as Tyler Durden, Travis Bickle, Rick Sanchez, Don Draper, and Rorschach (amongst others), and learned that part of the journey of the story was Steven and the viewer discovering that the distant image the show initially pushed of Rose as loving, kindhearted, and pure was an illusion, and that she’d actually been a self-centered asshole who spent her life making messes that our hero would have to clean up in the present. Once I got past my delirious and petty amusement at the expense of self-righteous Steven Universe fans who had to suck shit in a way I have over and over, I got to thinking about that whole “you missed the point if you idolised these characters” idea. I think the people who think Tyler Durden is the hero of Fight Club are idiots, and I think the people who think Tyler Durden is the villain of Fight Club are also idiots; the correctness of his goals and ideology are less important to the meaning of the movie than his conviction and clarity in having them. Fight Club isn’t about a man killing a bad guy, it’s about a man learning how to organise and act upon his thoughts in an effective, meaningful way. I think so often people let their convictions, feelings, and/or sense of social propriety get in the way of their empathy when it comes to antihero stories, which gets in the way of finding real truth.
One of the things I like about The Shield is that every viewer has their own totally unique emotional arc watching it, and what I love to point out is that my first watch of it was me shifting from totally despising Vic – thinking him a smug, fascist bully – to finding myself totally surprised in the second-to-last episode that his actions could be interpreted as, you know, evil. It wasn’t anything as simple as me getting sucked into his orbit by his charisma; it’s that I’d come to grasp why he did what he did so deeply that it was hard to be either surprised or offended when he kept doing it. It took three watches to really, genuinely come to empathise with Vic; to see not just the superficial emotions I recognised, but the bone-deep drives that we shared, disguised by the fact that he’s not a Tasmanian movie geek and I’m not a brutish jock LAPD cop. His hubris isn’t anything as simple as thinking he’s a good person or thinking he can solve any problem in front of him; these are obviously parts of his character, but a big chunk of who he is comes from his refusal to truly process the events that happen around him. It’s hard to pick just one character who stands in comparison to him in the series; Shane is the one who goes through all the same events as Vic and allows himself to process them, centering himself by how he feels about them and why. Dutch has many of the same skills as Vic – a similar ruthlessness – but is more willing to play different roles, comfortably sliding between the all-powerful detective, the sidekick, the confidante, and even the bad guy in a way that Vic never could.
I know this flaw because I’ve had this flaw; I’ve made similar mistakes and didn’t even have Vic’s craftiness to compensate for it. It’s impossible for me to feel superior to Vic, because I can see how I am Vic and he is me; hell, I see attitudes and positive attributes in him that I don’t see in myself. His ability and willingness to play Master of Ceremonies and Chief Whip would be useful if he, you know, wasn’t completely selfish and also part of a toxic, awful culture, and I can see how his horrifying authoritarianism is inextricably linked to his shit-hot negotiation skills. I genuinely had things to learn from Vic Mackey, and since realising that, I’ve looked at all the other anti-heroes a little differently. The thing I can’t seem to get away from – the thing that set my Shield thoughts in motion in particular – is that these famous characters are all fun to watch*. I still think about the Bad Fan discussion that developed over the run of Breaking Bad, as critics observed people who took Walt as an uncomplicated hero and cheered on every kill and meth sale he had and judged the show by how it courted and/or punished these viewers. Sometimes people asked whether antihero stories should even exist, with the suggestion that they only provide fodder for bad behaviour.
And you know what, fine. There are people out there with the mindset of an eight year old and will engage in a little monkey-see-monkey-do with this kind of thing, no matter how well the story illustrates not only the practical consequences of the behaviour but the way such a path can be emotionally and spiritually unfulfilling. But this doesn’t match up with my personal relationship with antihero stories – I have often found that they act as an outlet for my worst instincts and desires, letting me get catharsis from seeing them acted out, from seeing their consequences, and perhaps most of all for being able to separate myself from certain emotions I felt and being able to look at them in a more detached fashion. In being presented with Walter White, not only I could recognise my own bitterness, sadness, and ambition, I could separate the three emotions as I watched Walt follow his path and study my own reaction. I could separate the parts of Walt I liked – his increasing assertiveness and ability to trust his own instincts – from the parts I didn’t – his emotional abuse of his wife and his murderin’ – and it actually served a purpose in clarifying the next step I took in my life.
This is all a long way of clarifying why I find judging antiheroes to be tedious and pointless compared to trying to find a common humanity with them. The beautiful thing about fiction is that it has no consequence; Walt, Vic, Tyler, Rick, and Rose do not in fact have a kill count because they are (and I realise how condescending this is going to sound) fictional characters. We’re free to lose ourselves in the dream of being them, and when the story is over we can wake up and reason out what would be stupid to bring into the real world and what would be necessary; to take the feelings we have and find a more productive expression of them. Enjoying a story about an antihero can burn the impulses that lead to them out of our system. I smugly crow about Rose Quartz fans going through the humiliating process of seeing their impulses dragged out into the public square for execution, but I can empathise with the experience and see the value that Rose brings to their life, and I can hope all people are given it one day; to have the strength to look within and without and be able to say that, on a level only they have the ability to see, Rose Quartz was right, she just went about it the wrong way.