From Odysseus to Walter White

The antihero's journey

In the final episode of Breaking Bad, Walter White finds himself trapped in a snow-bound car while police hunt for him just outside. Hoping to escape arrest, he prays to whatever God he thinks might listen: “Just let me get home… Just let me get home…” With these words, mild-mannered Walt—A.K.A. the meth lord Heisenberg—reaches back in thematic time, echoing the same sentiment the Greek hero Odysseus embraced in his famous ten-year journey from the ruins of Troy to his palace in Ithaca.

But Walt and Odysseus share much more than a desire to get back home. In the psychological complexity and moral tension they exhibit, they stand among a variety of avatars with names like Lazarillo de Tormes, Moll Flanders, Adolph Verloc, Humbert Humbert, Augie March, John Yossarian, Randle Patrick McMurphy. There’s no one set of pat traits that categorically encompasses all these characters, though the epithet “antihero” routinely gets slapped beside their names.

But “antihero” defines them by negation, emphasizing what they’re typically not—altruistic, honest, idealistic, courageous—which does nothing to explain their appeal, an appeal that’s not just enduring but, judging from recent trends in TV, inexhaustible. Doubt me? Consider: Tony Soprano, Jimmy McNulty, Dexter Morgan, Patty Hewes, Don Draper, Ace Bernstein, Nancy Botwin, Ray Donovan, Red Reddington—and, of course, Walter “Heisenberg” White.

What “antihero” does get at, though somewhat indirectly, is the fundamental antagonism at the core of this character’s existence, the wily rebellion, the refusal to bow. And that helps explain the timing of when these characters have often emerged, for they do seem to blossom in times of reaction to cherished ideals that, for one reason or another, have seemed to grow outdated, if not rancid.

First Sightings: The Homeric Antihero

Some sources point to the disfigured, vulgar, dimwitted Greek soldier Thersites as the true progenitor of the antihero. But he plays such a minor role in the Iliad he seems more a suggestion than a model. Appearing in just one scene, he dares speak “truth to power,” condemning Agamemnon as cowardly and motivated solely by greed (something all the other warriors are thinking but refuse to say out loud).

In contrast, the warrior who rebukes Thersites, beating him till he weeps from shame—Odysseus—possesses enough heft and complexity to present something truly unique, even revolutionary.

This is especially clear when he’s compared to the other great warriors in the Achaean camp: Achilles and Ajax.

The Iliad is a transitional narrative, dramatizing the eclipse of an era championing heroic values to one prizing rhetorical ones. Achilles and Ajax, despite their limitations—volatility of temper and vanity in the first case, a certain beef-wittedness (Shakespeare’s term) in the other—both represent the courage and ambition for glory typical of the great hero. And both die before the walls of Troy—Achilles in battle, Ajax by his own hand—their deaths signalling an end to the heroic age.

From that point on, Odysseus commands the stage, and he is not just a great warrior. He is also the consummate deceiver, a descendent of both the Olympian trickster Hermes and the thief Autolycus. Known as much for his cunning as his courage, he performs a great many feats of valor but also feigns lunacy in an attempt to avoid combat, corrupts Achilles’s son Neoptolemus by coaching him to lie, deceives Clytemnestra about the death of her daughter, Iphigenia, and famously enjoys the sexual hospitality of Circe and Calypso while dallying on his return to his devotedly faithful wife, Penelope.

It’s this essentially dual nature—a warrior’s warrior on the one hand, a shamelessly amoral opportunist on the other—that keys our fascination. We’re never sure exactly which Odysseus will appear at any given moment, creating a kind of character-driven suspense unrivaled in ancient western literature. The doubt of Moses, the ignorance of Oedipus, the licentiousness of David, they don’t even come close—underscoring the distinction between a heroic flaw and a psyche at war with itself.

The Roman Rejection

As it turned out, there would be no hero like Odysseus in Western literature for centuries. His disappearance is largely due to the fact that the Romans despised him; he violated their sense of duty, their belief in the preëminence of honor.

This is one reason the Romans traced the founding of Rome to the hero Aeneas, preferring the defeated Trojans to the victorious Greeks, whom they considered immoral and corrupt. Virgil in particular seldom referred to Ulysses, the Roman name for Odysseus, without the adjectives “cruel” or “deceitful.”

Enter the Picaro

The chivalric romance of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance was largely an aristocratic form, and as the Golden Age of Hapsburg Spain began to curdle into corruption and decline, the fantastic adventures of the intrepid knight errant were losing a bit of their sheen.

An entirely new form of novel emerged on the Iberian Peninsula, based in part on the Arabic genre of maqamat and Slavic folktales, such as those featuring Till Eulenspiegel, imported from Germany under Charles V. The first novel of this kind appeared in 1554 and was titled The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of his Fortunes and Adversities.

Due to its scandalous subject matter and blasphemous disregard for the Church, it was banned almost everywhere, and the identity of its author remains in debate. And yet it proved not just wildly popular but profoundly influential.

Instead of steadfast knights, these novels featured lovable, wandering rogues and thieves, known as picadors, and the stories recounted their morally questionable—but never explicitly wicked—exploits. Principally, the stories concerned the plight of the poor, forced to live by their wits in a patently corrupt and hypocritical society. There was often an element of redemptive conversion near the end, despite the blatant attacks on priests and other clerical officials. In short, we have a return in these tales to something like the dual nature of Odysseus, with both virtue and vice residing in the hero’s heart, enjoying a tricky equilibrium.

The appeal of the picaresque novel spread across Europe and took solid root in England, where its popularity survived into the 19th Century in novels featuring rakish heroes such as Tom Jones, Moll Flanders, Barry Lyndon and Martin Chuzzlewit.

None of these protagonists were irredeemably evil or, in the end, completely reformed, though the good in their natures tended to overshadow the bad. Rather, all possessed a duality of character forged by the misfortunes of poverty and birth in a society premised on the crowing of virtue amid the worship of privilege and greed.

Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know

As the popularity of the English picaresque novel was cresting in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, another type of hero was taking shape. Like the picaro and the wanderer, he was a social outsider, but it was temperament rather than class that defined his iconoclasm. A kind of orphan child of Romanticism, he possessed a brooding intelligence that defied the coal-stoked ambition and pompous vulgarity of the Industrial Revolution.

With Hamlet as forebear and Lord Byron as mastermind, this hero gave us the Gothic novel, and found himself incarnated in characters as diverse as the Brönte sisters’ Heathcliff and Rochester, Victor Hugo’s Quasimodo, Alexander Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo, and the original vampire, Lord Ruthven.

Byron, describing the pirate hero of his verse tale The Corsair, provided a kind of template:

He knew himself a villain—but he deem’d
The rest no better than the thing he seem’d;
And scorn’d the best as hypocrites

Again, the theme of defining a new morality in a society rotten with falsity found voice in a hero neither evil nor virtuous, but revealing instead an uneasy marriage of both.

A Demon, not a Flaw

As the tradition of the antihero matured, the classical hero evolved from the incorruptible vessel of virtue found in the chivalric romance to a more nuanced, complicated, flawed human being. In truth, this hero had been with us since the time of Greek tragedy, though Aristotle, in his Poetics, emphasized that the hero should err, not through some fault of character, but a mistake in judgment. Even so, his term for this error, hamartia, gradually came to be understood as the hero’s tragic flaw.

And as the English novel of self-improvement gained popularity in the early nineteenth century, heroes became capable of positive change. They were not prisoners of their flaws but were, through insight, capable of overcoming these limitations. In fact, the very definition of hero changed to incorporate this notion of inherent flaw, willful insight, and deliberate self-transformation.

But the skepticism that has traditionally given rise to the antihero remained unconvinced that such positive change was always possible—or desirable. Even as Freud’s development of psychoanalysis hinted at the potential for curative insight, his concept of the Unconscious so often resembled a monstrous darkness that it seemed the best even the sanest mind could hope for was an uneasy truce with its demons. And creativity in particular seemed to require a willingness to risk imbalance.

A Hero for the Twentieth Century

The vision of the divided hero, a person equally capable of infamy or greatness, with a moral compass never pointing squarely toward true north, continued to haunt the western tradition, especially amid the feverish patriotism and ideological rigidity that characterized the Twentieth Century—with its seemingly constant warfare and its mastery of the machinery of propaganda.

The concept of nobility and the heroes who embody it took a serious hit in the trenches of the First World War, and the carpet-bombed cities of the Second. The Holocaust and Hiroshima redefined our understanding of hell and the kind of soul that might inhabit it. Slaughter and butchery are not ennobling—especially when systematized. A sense of the random, the meaningless, infected the Western psyche. The abyss wasn’t just waiting. The abyss was us.

As World War II was drawing to a close, and then for a decade afterward, we saw a flood of B movies and paperbacks characterized as noir—with morally compromised heroes straining to grab that alluring, illusive brass ring.

The pushback was both fierce and fun (Joe McCarthy, Joe Friday, Doris Day, Technicolor, Cinemascope) and so the antihero remained a kind of cultural shadow. But he reëmerged with a vengeance in the 60s as the Vietnam conflict wound down, putting the lie to the jingoistic sloganeering of the Cold War, appearing in such neo-noir classics as Cool Hand Luke, Bonnie & Clyde, King of Marvin Gardens, Klute, Mean Streets, Midnight Cowboy, Catch 22, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Chinatown.

But the forces of idealism, conformity, and normalcy struck back again, rising up against the dark tide. We got Jaws and Star Wars and Ronald Reagan. We got Morning in America and the ever-chipper Gipper.

It didn’t take long for this largely contrived optimism to grow stale. The 90s arrived, and as novelist Dennis Lehane has remarked, trying to describe the reasons behind yet another resurgence of noir—which he considers working class tragedy—it was clear the so-called prosperity of the Clinton economy and the dot-com boom was a massive house of cards.

There seemed to be a lot of money flying around, but it was landing less and less in middle class neighborhoods—never mind the pockets of the poor. And writers, as always, responded to the Great Lie with characters who saw through the hypocrisy and refused to play nice.

Twenty-First Century Man, or the Rewards of Dramatic Complexity

It’s tempting to believe that the proliferation of antiheroes on cable TV since the appearance of The Sopranos is a continuation of the neo-noir resurgence of the preceding decade. But the housing collapse revealed the Bush economy to be an even worse pump-and-dump scheme than the tech stock disaster that plagued the previous regime.

Call it the New American Anxiety, the recognition that something’s gone horribly wrong and won’t get better, especially as long as politics continues its degeneration into what Henry Adams blithely described as the “systematic organization of hatreds.” The antihero seems perfectly suited to the time. Dread smothers all hope while the chattering class indulges in a sanctimonious orgy of blame. The Socratic ideal of the just man, who takes satisfaction solely from his own virtue, seems not just ancient but quaint.

But there’s another, far more practical reason for the antihero’s newfound popularity. In an era of long-format storylines, where a show’s narrative arc doesn’t stop at the end of this week’s episode—it continues not just to the end of the season but on to the next and the season after that—the psychological depth and moral complexity of the antihero provide a greater range of dramatic action than a hero constrained by virtue.

Just as with Odysseus, we’re never quite sure which half of the divided self will appear in any given scene, which helps sustain suspense. Tony Soprano’s careening between loyalty and cynical narcissism; the clash of Don Draper’s capacity for genuine kindness despite an obsession with his fabricated image; Patty Hewes’s scorched-earth careerism balanced against a scathing ruthless honesty, especially about herself—each exemplifies how a soul at war with itself creates a dramatic engine with limitless possibilities.

Which returns us finally to good old Walter White. In the pilot episode of Breaking Bad, Walt learns he has terminal cancer, and wants to provide financial security for his family, something he realizes is impossible given the new economic reality and his meager salary as a high school chemistry teacher. But this awakens in him something deeper, a need in the truest sense of the word to live.

That war between familial love and a dying man’s resurgent self-interest created the defiant Frankenstein we came to know as Heisenberg, with his need to avenge himself against all those who sold him short or stole his promise. He wanted a vengeful, pristine excellence, not mere success.

In the final episode Walt reveals this exact same divide, though deepened and deftly articulated through five brilliant seasons. Challenged by his wife, who refuses to hear one more time that his criminality came from nothing more than a desire to care for the family, he stands exposed, and finally admits the dark ambition that also drove him: “I was good at it.”

Like the tragic hero, the antihero stands before a vast, impersonal force—not God or fate, but hypocrisy, or the end of an era. Unlike the tragic hero, he avails himself the weapon of amorality, plumbing the darker aspects of his nature. This provides an excellent means to dramatize the seemingly endless struggle between the proud, resourceful individual and the corrupt society that would gladly crush him. And though his turn toward the darkness may help him survive, it also taints whatever victory he manages to secure.

It’s a great dramatic trope, with little risk of seeming irrelevant, especially given America’s current trajectory. We may see the antihero recede into the shadows for a while, as he has before, but it’s unlikely he’ll vanish anytime soon.

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