The Anti-Hero & Me

"For some reason, I believe I am drawn to the anti-hero especially in episodic television, because my own story and life plays itself out in what I would witness through all the episodes...all of them scripted, directed, acted out for someone's entertainment. But it's really a serious thing for me - to identify with that persona."

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I've been meaning to launch into a Fight Club story about my fascination with the anti-hero as portrayed in various episodic television series worth the time to not only binge but also to deconstruct: Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, The Blacklist and The Sopranos.

Why these particular epic stories? If anti-hero-centric, I would have to say it is my immediate empathy for the characterizations of Walter "Heisenberg" White, Jackson "Jax" Teller, Raymond "Red" Reddington, and Anthony "Tony" Soprano to start. Perhaps that is fair enough territory from which to launch out on this journey.

 

One of my earliest memories of rooting for the antagonists in episodic television was my allegiance with The Bowery Boys. 

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Aloysius "Slip" Mahoney, Satch, and the rest of the Boys (...especially when things got tight and they had to fight and broke out Routine 7...) were a band of brothers I couldn't get enough of. Being rough and tumble characters from the streets of New Yawk (just like me) made a difference - I could relate even though I wasn't an orphan or caught up in juvenile crime and its consequences. It was something about them being in a tribe together and willing to fight for what they had that also intrigued me. Sure, Slip never missed a chance to mess with Satch but both had a loyalty to each other you don't see much of, even in real life. There was the "street kid gone straight" in Gabe but also the flip to him in maverick Bobby who was always up for a fight. These guys were way more than the Jets and the Sharks. 

There were others, too: those desert Nazi-hunting danger dogs known as The Rat Patrol; kick ass and taking names comic book anti-heroes Nick Fury & His Howling Commandos; and too cool and cavalier street cops Starsky & Hutch.

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Somewhere around the time I turned 18, I began to somehow forget or outgrow the idea of having heroes in my life and story. I became my own anti-hero. Maybe it was my first real taste of freedom, independence, or all the sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll that escaping my family and taking on the challenges of college presented. That winter of 1980 in Purchase, New York (during freshman year at Manhattanville College), my heart was broken to join much of the world in mourning the murder of one of the great musical anti-heroes, John Lennon.

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By 1984, there were some new sheriff's in town. These men from Miami showed me a depth to anti-heroism and cool cajones that blew my hair back and made Friday night television I would not miss for five years straight. Castillo - former CIA still silent and deadly. Crockett - a fierce Ferrari attitude and pastel-tailored angst with a shot glass of Jack Daniels. Tubbs - New York bravado flash and suave, street-smart dash. 

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After 1989, at least for me, both music and television died a rough and tumble death. I was so far gone that it didn't matter anyway...I had been expelled from Manhattanville, traveled back to Kentucky and a family I didn't quite love in both shame and defiance, destroyed one engagement and jumped headlong into another. Pot was leading the way to crack cocaine, and the story in front of me would be nothing like a long and winding road. And it would be decades later - deep into the living waters of redemption and restoration - that I would discover through the binge watching wonders of Netflix the personas of Heisenberg, Red, Jax, and Tony.

 

Let's take a ride through the pilot episodes...

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BREAKING BAD

Season 1, Episode 1: "Pilot" (Written & Directed by Vince Gilligan)

Premiered January 20, 2008 (1.4 million viewers)

Creator Vince Gilligan pitched this show as the story of how "...Mr. Chips turns into Scarface..." When I first binge watched the entire run of the show, I remember dreaming of these characters for weeks afterwards. When I went back to view this inaugural episode again, here's some of the observations I captured that somehow pierced my imagination and memory the most:

The opening scene - Walter White in his skivvies - pushes Jesse Pinkman's unconscious head aside inside their RV/meth lab to retrieve his wallet and video camera from the glove compartment.

When he gets the news about his inoperable lung cancer he can only see the blotch of mustard on the doctor's white coat.

His buried anger at life and his job at Bogdan's car wash - "Fuck you...and your eyebrows!!"

Sitting by the pool behind his Albuquerque, New Mexico home, lighting and tossing matches one by one into the pool at the break of day.

While on a ride-along with DEA agent (and brother-in-law), Hank Schrader, Walter sees former high school chemistry student, Jesse Pinkman, jumping off a roof at a building near the site of the DEA's raid. "Oh, my god - Pinkman??" And finally making the offer to Jesse (whose meth making name is "Cap 'N' Cook") in order to join forces to make meth and money - "...and I know the chemistry..."

Giving Jesse "...all the money I have in the world..." to buy the RV to use as a mobile meth lab, then telling him "I am awake!" when asked by Pinkman why at this point in life he's willing to "break bad."

When he steps up to protect his disabled son, Walter Jr., when several people are ridiculing the young man in a clothing store as his mother, Skylar, is helping him find some pants.

Receiving high praise from Pinkman on the extraordinary meth Walter's chemistry produces: "You're the goddamn Iron Chef! Every jib-head from here to Timbuktu is gonna wanna taste of this!"

Missing the chance to shoot himself after crashing the RV in the desert after things go horribly wrong with him, Jesse, and Crazy 8. Later on, he literally launders Crazy 8's money in his washing machine.

The final scene with Walter in bed with his wife, Skylar, as he feels the massive internal shift in his life and character while initiating sex with her: "Oh, Walt, is that YOU??"

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THE BLACKLIST

Season 1, Episode 1: "Pilot" (Written by Jon Bokenkamp & Directed by Joe Carnahan)

Premiered September 23, 2013 (12.58 million viewers)

The inspiration for The Blacklist came from the capture of Boston archcriminal, James "Whitey" Bulger and the premise of "What would happen if a criminal of this stature turned himself in and was willing to help bring down even worse criminals?". Upon viewing the inaugural episode again, my keen eye couldn't help but notice some of the following:

The opening scene - Raymond "Red" Reddington - one of the FBI's Most Wanted men - sits dressed in trademark dark overcoat and fedora hat outside the Bureau's Washington D.C. headquarters with an unknown assistant. "Must be good to be home again, sir," the young man remarks. Reddington looks at the building in front of him. "Yeah. Well, we'll see about that," he replies. His laugh is both sarcastic and foreboding.

The surrender with a plan...the spy who came in from the cold. Reddington - a Naval Academy graduate at 24, he disappeared from both family and intelligence services to become known as "The Concierge of Crime."

Once surrendered, he has only one ultimatum - "I only speak with Elizabeth Keen."

Elizabeth (Liz or Lizzie) Keen is an FBI profiler..."My colleagues call me 'Sir' - they think I'm a bitch."

Red's securement in a bulletproof glass and steel cell box - and his extension out of it, chained to a chair, the look of joy and satisfaction upon seeing Lizzie. His intimate laugh in opposition to her claim she's not important. "Oh, I think you're very 

When questioned by Keen about the veracity of his claims, Red is brutally honest: "I'm a criminal - criminals are notorious liars. Everything about me is a lie."

Reddington begins to engage Keen with questions about her past. Once the FBI Task Force hesitantly begins to work with him, Red picks apart their operations room clue board with gleeful mastery. He challenges Liz to "...think like a criminal..." and angles for his freedom to operate - which is where his style and eccentricities begin to emerge.

When Liz's husband, Tom, is attacked by someone from Red's past, she sticks a pen in Reddington's carotid artery to force his hand - but he reveals Tom has secrets ("If I die, you'll never know the truth").

In a plot to stop an international criminal (Zemadi), Lizzie saves a little girl and shows here "...the secret weapon my Daddy gave me..." (the scar on her hand she got in the fire as a little girl earlier referred to in conversation with Red).

"We're gonna make a great team," Red tells Liz after the case is closed. To the FBI Task Force, he says, "Well this was fun - let's do it again." The Blacklist is revealed - culled over 20 years..."The criminals that matter because you don't even know they exist. Zemadi was a small fish...I'm Ahab."

In a hidden chest discovered under the floorboards of her D.C. apartment, Liz find false passports, money, and a gun linked to her husband, Tom. "You've discovered something about your husband, haven't you Lizzie?" Reddington challenges her.

Actor Kiefer Sutherland was originally offered the role on the NBC show - James Spader was approached and cast just 3 days before filming began. Spader is Red - and totally owns the enigmatic and prolific role.

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SONS OF ANARCHY

Season 1, Episode 1: "Pilot" (Written by Kurt Sutter / Directed by Allen Coulter & Michael Dinner)

Premiered September 3, 2008 (2.53 million viewers)

Creator Kurt Sutter had a vision: "Hamlet on Harley's." This crime drama focuses on the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original (SAMCRO), a close-knit, family-based outlaw club. When I first binge watched the entire run of the show, I was both galvanized and pulverized by the story of Jackson "Jax" Teller - his discovery of a written manifesto from his late father, John (the previous leaders of the club), leads him into a whirlwind journey of questioning himself, all of his relationships, and their connections to SAMCRO. The major themes of love, brotherhood, loyalty, betrayal, and redemption were foundational to the show. When I viewed this pilot episode again, here's some of what struck me hard and true about this phenomenal show:

The opening scene - Two crows at night, a full moon in the sky. "Jax" Teller riding his Harley, smoking a cigarette, smiling. The rival MC, The Mayans, rip off a SAMCRO weapons depot. Jax stops at a gas station store to buy condoms and smokes - the counter girl puts a child's book Jax was looking at in his bag when he's not looking. The depot's blown up in the night sky, sending Jax on the run. The MC rides into the next day's scene - Clay, Bobby Elvis, Tigg, Chibs, Half-Sack, Juice, and Piney.

Jax telling Clay Morrow (current SAMCRO President and Jax's step-father, also one of the Original Nine members of the MC) "It ain't easy being king." And Clay's reply: "You remember that."

Gemma Morrow (Jax's mother and John's widow, now Clay's MC old lady) discovering the pregnant and overdosed ex-wife of Jax, Wendy, at their former home.

Jax finds old photos of his father (John Teller, the SAMCRO founder) along with his 1993 manifesto: "The Life and Death of Sam Crow. How the Sons of Anarchy Lost Their Way."

Jax's son, Abel, is born 10 weeks premature - he receives the news from a hospital nurse, Tara Knowles, his ex-girlfriend. Jax beats a Nazi gang member from The Nords into a bloody pulp in a pool hall for selling Wendy drugs, sticking a broken pool cue into his balls.

Jax starts to subtly test Clay's leadership of SAMCRO by suggesting a "new direction" for the MC.

Learning that Jax's only brother, Tommy, died young and that his father died riding his motorcycle under mysterious circumstances. Gemma tells her only son: "Your father became a man. Men take care of business."

Clay and Gemma plotting to "...nail Jax down hard..." Jax tries to help his best friend and on-the-outs MC member, Harry "Opie" Winston, deal with his wife, Donna - Jax lies to Clay to help Opie regain a foothold in SAMCRO.

While Jax is killing Mayans in revenge for the depot fiasco, Tara is helping save Abel's life during surgery. Gemma prays for Wendy - leaving her a Bible with a crank-filled syringe...then chokes her out in a near murderous rage for impacting the life of her grandchild, threatening her life: "I suggest you turn to Jesus" in a move to drive her to overdose again.

The final scene - set to Bobby Elvis singing "Can't Help Falling in Love" - a montage of life and death, Jax seeing his son, Abel, for the first time...Gemma appearing by his side, saying "He's perfect."

MORE WILL BE REVEALED...this is a story in progress.