Three things I’ve watched recently and loved plus one, or, the rational love for immorality

Posted by @ 12:59 pm on December 16th, 2010

I’ve been watching a lot of television lately. Television off the internet. This is a preferable way to watch television. For one, I don’t have to deal with commercials. Also, I can watch a whole season at a time, and being naturally obsessive, I can’t deal with the suspense of waiting an entire week—much less a whole year for a new season to start—to find out “what happens.” That being said, I have to wait on two shows now, which brings me great displeasure and discomfort.

I’ve seen a few things recently, and I’ve struggled to understand what makes them enjoyable, what compels me to keep on watching. After all, if I weren’t watching television or movies, I could be reading. (Though to be fair to myself, I spend my days trekking through fairly dense geographic texts, so by the evening, I like to relax with my partner and our two cats, “turn off” so to speak, even though I know my time could be spent in a more “productive” manner.)

But even as I’m “turning off” and letting myself get tangled in television or film, I remain critically alert. And in the end, I realize the reason I love watching what I’ve watched is because through these particular shows and films, my morality is challenged and I not only empathize but also desire the success of immoral characters. It is not unlike the experience of reading Crime & Punishment, where the reader rallies for Raskolnikov, even though he is a murderer. We don’t want him to get caught. We want him to be ok. We want the best for him. And in the end, as his consciousness fractures under the weight of his lawfully unpunished crimes, we want him to be physically punished, just to alleviate the psychological punishment.

But back to the things I’ve watched and loved.

1. I have this incredibly soft spot for serial killers. This past summer, I wrote a novel about a serial killer, a novel I’ve wrestled with for the better part of the last six years. So it comes as no surprise that when I started to watch Dexter, I instantly fell in love. The eponymous Dexter is a blood spatter analyst by day and serial killer by night. Like many serial killer “super heroes,” he only kills murderers (and with the newest seasons, rapists, though they were also responsible for the deaths of the women they raped so I guess he was still fulfilling his code). The show is told in first person. We hear his thoughts, which I thought would be annoying, but it’s ok.

I love this show because as a viewer, I get to experience his life vicariously. The first person narrative offers viewers a peek into his motivations. We get to think he thinks and do what he does. He is always on the brink of getting caught, even though he is obsessively meticulous. It is easy to see why a writer would like his character. He is rich with nuance and morally immoral. He is the embodiment of contradiction.

(I have to admit though: this show is a little heavy-handed at times.)

2. I’ve also been watching Breaking Bad, a show about a fifty-something chemistry teacher who, upon being diagnosed with cancer, starts manufacturing meth. Like Dexter, Walter White is a morally questionable character. He makes meth because his family needs the money, sure, but there is something more sinister in it: he likes it. He enjoys the “thrill” of doing something wrong. Walt, at the beginning of the show, is a stand-up citizen to the point that the viewer assumes he’s the kind of guy who would never even cheat on his taxes, or cheat on anything at all. He’s the perfect citizen to a fault.

Then, he gets cancer and everything changes.

Ultimately, we’re not supposed to like the old Walt. He was boring and “too good.” Through the first season, we see a complete transformation in Walt from decent but boring guy to a murdering, meth manufacturing kingpin. Ok, so kingpin is too strong a word, but it’s a close approximation.

And yet, we love it. We practically salivate when he does something morally reprehensible and then, because of the excitement and thrill of it all, goes home to his ignorant, pregnant wife and fucks her wild.

3. Yeah, so I know it’s kind of cliché and all, but I really loved the Steig Larsson trilogy. Well, the films. I haven’t read the books. The second two films (The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Next) were fairly uneven and not nearly as powerful or provocative as the first (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), but I enjoyed them nonetheless. What is perhaps most enticing to me about these films is the “translation” (read: overt name change) from Swedish to English. Larsson’s title was Men who Hate Women. Now, obviously, for an American market, that seems like a big, scary title. The title change and marketing are two big facets with my love for these films.

That, and the sexy but androgynous protagonist is morally suspect. Whereas she has experienced rape and abuse, her reactions are violent. She affects anger. She’s a computer genius-hacker and uses her skills to become a vigilante.

Like Dexter and Walter White, Lisbeth is extraordinarily intelligent. It is their savant-charm that makes their immorality so poignant. They can easily distinguish between right and wrong, but they all logic themselves into immoral behavior. That is, they get to behave in ways that their viewers wish they could but don’t.

4. Finally, I recently saw The Town.

I liked it ok. For those who don’t know about this movie, it’s the newest Ben Affleck directed (and starring) flick. It’s about a group of bank robbers and their downfall. The beautiful Jon Hamm (aka Don Draper) plays an FBI agent hunting the Affleck-led robbers. This film has all the elements of film that would ordinarily make me love it. It has pretty actors, and I have an unnatural love for bank robber/heist movies. The film manipulates the viewer into sympathizing with the morally corrupt robbers and wanting the best for them while hoping the “good” (though this questionable because of one scene of unabashed violence) FBI agent fails at catching his criminals. And yet, I thought it was ok. I mean, I wanted to really “respond” to the film. I was looking forward to seeing it. It got good reviews. But in the end, my belief was not suspended enough for full viewing pleasure. I couldn’t disconnect Jon Hamm from Don Draper from FBI agent. And Ben Affleck was kinda just Ben Affleck. This seems like a silly reason to have a luke-warm response to a movie, but it is what it is.

Concluding thoughts: As I’ve written this, I’ve tried to think of morally sound characters (from either books or moving pictures) that I love and I’m at a loss. I wonder, now, if it is immorality—or at the very minimum moral wavering which signals complexity and nuance—that makes characters memorable. Do you love any good characters? If so, why? I want to be convinced. I want to believe I’m a good person who likes good characters, but I’m increasingly convinced I really just love serial killers and the corrupt. After all, it’s not real life. Maybe that’s why. Let us hope. Let us hope.

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