Let’s face it. Sometimes the good guys just suck.
More than once in fiction, we’ve been asked by a novel, television show, comic book or movie to get behind a hero who is insufferable, obnoxious, morally repugnant or just plain awful.
And sometimes, we’re given a villain who isn’t. Sometimes we get antagonists who are more interesting, nuanced, or….actually morally justifed in their actions. Bad guys that we want to see win in the end.
This month, listeners, we have a doozy of a question for you:
“Have you ever found yourself cheering for villain to win (and the hero to lose) in a work of fiction?”
This is a question comes with an important qualifier.
We are not asking for you to name your favorite villain. Fiction has plenty of excellent, compelling, or hilarious villains who outshine their respective heroes. And we’re not talking about stories like Breaking Bad or the Sopranos where the main character is a “bad guy.”
We’re specifically asking about villains who you wanted to see defeat the main characters and win at the end of the story.
Our hosts had this to say:
I thought long and hard about this particular Mailbag question, and after mulling over the options, I reached far back into my childhood. Who is the “bad” guy who never got enough recognition for his ambition? Whose struggle was far more compelling than that of the heroes? Who, unquestioningly, comes away as more memorable than the protagonists? Cobra Commander.
It’s only in hindsight that we get the opportunity to reflect on the glorious nonsense of our childhood. G.I. Joe were the Village People on steroids (and methamphetamine). They were self-righteous, do-gooders who never had the balls for finish the job. Of course, they wouldn’t ever catch Cobra Commander and put a bullet through his face-shield (for obvious reasons), but like Batman, this aspect of their moral reasoning is simply baffling. If you don’t stop Cobra once and for all (and use lethal force), then more shit is gonna get blown up, and more civvies are going to die. For all of their even-handed, White Hat nonsense, G.I. Joe was a bunch of pussies.
Cobra on the other hand is the literal rogues gallery. Their costumes more badass, their special weapons more insidious and their fucking theme song (“COBRAAAAaaaa!”). For the sake of this piece, I’ll assume that the whole organization is the manifestation of the ambition of Cobra Commander, who sees the world as mutable. And this is the truly admirable quality of Cobra. Sure, most of their plots involve building or capturing doomsday weapons, but at least they are using imagination. They are harnessing mankind’s creative potential to remake the brutish and mundane world. I mean, at one point Cobra captures Sgt. Slaughter and wants to merge his DNA with that of the legendary Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu! Holy shit, that’s amazing!
Plus, Cobra Commander looks like a bad motherfucker. Just look at him! Would you rather be rooting for this guy, or some honky Boy Scout with a buzz cut named “Duke”?
Given this, I find it so sad that Cobra Commander is foiled every time… and almost exclusively on the brazen incompetence of his foot soldiers and lieutenants. They fuck it up. EVERY. GODDAMN. TIME. And sure, C.C. could be faulted for his poor hiring decisions, but he gets so close to doing something the world has never seen… remaking the two-dimensional, static, bland world into a chaotic, brutal monument to one psychopath’s totalitarian vision.
And certainly that would have made for better Saturday morning television.
The best example of me rooting for the bad guy comes from the afore-mentioned “Breaking Bad,” though not what you’d expect.
There is a lot of debate about the point at which Bryan Cranston’s science teacher-turned-drug lord, Walter White, became a lead character you could no longer root for. I tend to think that Walt crossed the moral event horizon in the middle of Season 3.
I tend to have a pretty high tolerance for lead characters who do nasty things to even nastier people. But there’s a point at which a character starts to become unlikeable. In Walter’s case, he was becoming more transparently ego-driven and paranoid. And he was starting to hurt good people to hide his own illegal activities.
And while he was often very protective of his young partner, Jesse Pinkman, he was just as often coldly manipulative and hurtful to him. Again, Walt’s sun rises and sets on his own ego.
But I was a bit surprised when I found myself expecting – no, hoping – to see Walt lose outright over the course of the series.
And a big part of that was the character of Gustavo Fring.
Gus Fring was an antagonist introduced around the end of the second season, played by the always-awesome Giancarlo Esposito.
Gus was a crime boss who, like Walt, profited from the drug trade. He moved methamphetamine and killed people, and had them killed. He was not a good person.
But he was also mature, even-tempered, loyal to people who were loyal to him, and he had a tragic back story. Gus was a guy who had very good reason to hate Don Eladio, the leader of a Mexican cartel. Eladio was those “even nastier guys” I mentioned before.
He had Gus’ closest friend and business partner murdered for no reason except to show Gus that he could.
And for the last twelve or so years, he had kept Gus under his thumb. In the course of the series, we get to see Gus not only get some really emotionally satisfying revenge against Don Eladio, but we also see Gus become a far kinder and encouraging mentor (along with his subordinate Mike) to Jesse than Walt ever was.
Gus and Walt form a working relationship, and almost immediately, Walt’s anger, paranoia and insecurity kicks in and ruins what could have been a smooth, respectful and mutually beneficial partnership.
When Gus finally has enough of Walt’s plotting and his bullshit, and decides that he needed to die, I found myself agreeing with him.
Walter White had become a volatile, megalomaniacal, cruel, and utterly self-destructive person. He became someone I could no longer cheer for, and I wanted to see him lose in the worst way.
And I wanted to see Giancarlo Esposito put a bullet in him.
What do you think? Have you ever rooted for the bad guy? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!