Do Anti-Hero Dramas Make Us More Interested In Understanding Real-World Killers?

Over at Slate, Joanna Weiss has a piece about the fascination with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev that strikes me as working a bit backwards. She argues that anti-hero dramas have convinced us that we can understand mass killers:

We can’t fathom how a pot-smoking 19-year-old, widely liked by teachers and classmates, could place a bomb in a backpack a few feet away from an 8-year-old child. And so we look at his path from slacker teen to calculating killer and assume that it had some discernible arc, one that passed through some series of formative events. We imagine that his actions were preventable, if only something had gone differently or someone had intervened…

Tony had a psychiatrist to guide him—and us—through the process. But in plenty of Sopranos successors, it’s the show’s writers who connect the dots for us, helping the viewer process how a likable guy can do terrible things. Showtime’s Dexter is a serial killer because of the bloody trauma he witnessed as a child. On AMC’s Breaking Bad, a cancer diagnosis launches Walter White on the road from mild-mannered teacher to vicious drug kingpin. In the recent Mad Men season premiere, Matthew Weiner seemed to draw a straight-line between Don Draper’s womanizing ways and the time he spent in a whorehouse as an impressionable child, glimpsed in a flashback. And on Homeland, Brody becomes a true-believing terrorist—for one season, at least—after a child he loves is killed in a U.S. drone strike.

The thing is, fascination with mass killers—or really criminals of any kind—dramatically pre-dates the rise of the anti-hero drama. David Berkowitz, who confessed to the Son of Sam killings, was the subject of immense media speculation, and participated in it by writing about his motives for the New York Post. President Nixon accused the mass media of an unproductive obsession with Charles Manson, and Manson violated a gag order placed on him during the trial. Former Mafia underboss Sammy Gravano did an interview with Diane Sawyer and wrote a book about his work for the mob. Lots of killers have been eager to make themselves understood, and judging by the followers they’ve attracted, the ink columnists have spilled on them, and the armchair speculation the public has always engaged in about them, we’ve always been eager to engage in that project with them.

What I think anti-hero dramas actually do is engage with a different set of questions, namely, how people doing extraordinarily deviant things manage to conceal their actions from the other people in their lives, and how people who are friends or family of people who turn out to be terrorists or killers manage to overlook clear warning signs that the people they love have strayed far from the norms of human behavior. Tony Soprano, to a certain extent, lives out in the open, in part because mobsters have a certain cultural capital and system of plausible deniability that serial killers or terrorists lack. And Carmela Soprano knows who she married, but ultimately can’t resist the fur coats and the ability to purchase social status that marriage to Tony provides her. On Dexter, Deb’s love for her brother helps her overlook his oddities, but her skills as a detective help her understand what he is, and when she finds out, she has a reaction that’s perhaps more appropriate than any other anti-hero’s wife or family member: she vomits. Breaking Bad follows what’s perhaps the most realistic trajectory for an anti-hero’s wife: Skyler White sees that things are strange with her husband, but she can’t actually figure out what’s going on because it’s genuinely beyond her conception that her husband could be cooking meth. Once she learns the truth, she dallies with the idea of participation in Walt’s crimes until she fully understands what he’s become: then, she stays out of fear.

We’re all familiar with the idea that people’s minds can decay, that ideological and political grievances can turn toxic, that profit can induce otherwise unimaginable human behavior. I don’t actually think that confuses us much, even if we’re fascinated by the case-by-case specifics. But the real mystery—and the thing that scares us most because while almost none of us believe we’re at risk for becoming sociopaths, I’d imagine all of us are afraid that we’re being fooled—is the people who miss the signs or who know and stay. We may thrill to get in Tony Soprano or Walter White’s head because it feels naughty and exciting. But the parts of anti-hero dramas that really scare us are the ones that are potentially about ourselves.