What is it about Hannibal Lecter, Tony Soprano and Walter White that makes us root for them? How is it that a cannibalistic serial killer, a sociopathic mob boss, and a ruthless drug kingpin became the protagonists in three hugely successful pieces of media over the past 20 years?
If you watched Silence of the Lambs in a movie theater in 1991, odds are that at the end of the film, when Hannibal intimates that he’ll be exacting revenge on his jailer, Dr. Chilton, you heard the audience cheer and applaud. I sat in stunned silence. During the course of Jonathan Demme’s outstanding film, we had been told that Lecter had disfigured a nurse; that he killed a man and ate his liver (with some fava beans and a nice Chianti); he talked Multiple Miggs into swallowing his own tongue; and brutally murdered two police officers and two ambulance medics.
Despite all this–and remember we actually witnessed this guy bite a cop’s face and brutally beat him to death with a baton–the audience cheers as he stalks Chilton into a Jamaican resort.
Now, part of that moment is that Chilton is so insufferable in his brief amount of screen time that it’s kind of like poetic justice. Yet, it really isn’t. Chilton enjoys playing the tormentor–but he’s tormenting a cannibalistic serial killer. How is that poetic justice? Chilton isn’t the villain! Lecter is!
I think it goes beyond Lecter’s inherent charm, although it helps that he’s a gentleman. We also like that he abhors rudeness in all forms, takes a shine to Clarice and ultimately helps her find Buffalo Bill. In fact, his indirect murder of Miggs was vengeance for his rude treatment of Clarice. I think what the audience responds to in that final moment is the suggestion that no matter how awful a person is, even if he is effectively a monster, that there are worse monsters in the film, and that even monsters can be redeemed. None of the film’s other antagonists have any humanity, while there is at least a degree of humanity in Lecter. Indeed, what he wants is to be treated as a human, not a monster.
What’s intriguing, though, is that all this can never negate that he is a cannibalistic serial killer. Demme and writer Ted Tally, along with Anthony Hopkins’ memorable performance, managed to so carefully craft Lecter that the audience actually starts to see the world from his perspective. It’s exactly what Hitchcock did in Psycho.
Somehow, our empathic buttons were pressed and we succumbed. Lecter is pure evil, yet the filmmaker placed us in a position to empathize with him.
James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano isn’t much better. He’s also a serial killer. He’s a serial adulterer. He’s ruthless. He’s racist. He gives no quarter. In the final season of The Sopranos, his sociopathic behavior was textbook. Unlike Silence of the Lambs, however, this nutjob demonstrated over several years that he wasn’t really all that different from us. He was troubled by a mid-life crisis. He had evocative dreams that expressed deep anxieties and longings. He was constantly searching for the meaning of his life. His mother tried to kill him, reflecting the parent-child conflict many people have. After his psychiatrist was raped, he effectively offered to kill her rapist. When friends or colleagues were wronged, he exacted revenge.
So while there is the inevitable comparison of Tony not being as bad as his antagonists, we are again led down the Path of Empathy. We all have dreams and longings and are searching for meaning. Tony is a little different from Lecter, though. Tony is a reflection of all those aspects of ourselves that we know are wrong, but that we secretly wish we could execute on.
I frequently write about the Jungian Shadow, and I think Tony is our collective Shadow. We all wish we had assassins at our beck and call to take care of wrongdoers. We all wish we were beyond the law enough to accomplish the things we want. Tony pulverizes and kills, but there’s always a reason for it. It’s always about business or to protect himself, or someone on his team.
Because we cannot engage or even acknowledge those darker instincts, we revel in the ability of someone else to do these things. They become projections of our collective Shadow. We are able to disengage from his actions because they are his acts, and not ours. We are merely voyeurs, a comfortable arm’s-length from the mayhem. Oh yes, we say to our friends, “That Tony Soprano is evil,” but we secretly whisper to ourselves, “I wish I could beat the crap out of the scumbag who is dating my sister.”
Tony is pure Shadow and becomes the willing vessel for our projections.
Walter White of Breaking Bad is a third variation on this theme. Unlike Lecter or Tony Soprano, Walter (Bryan Cranston) spent much of his life as a normal guy. We identify with his struggle to just make it in life, to provide for his family, to try and maintain even a little self-respect, and that he feels like he got screwed by business colleagues (even though he walked away).
We fear for him because none of us want to get cancer. He’s a milquetoast victim of life, of his own lack of self-esteem and of the cruelty of others. We have all experienced moments like this in our own lives. We are set up to identify with this sad sack, and we want him to stand up for himself.
Walter then discovers his own Shadow, and its name is Heisenberg. With nothing left to lose, he actually permits himself to engage with the Shadow in order to accomplish what few goals he has left. Here’s the problem with that approach: In Jungian psychology, our life journey is to bring all the elements of the unconscious into consciousness, which allows us to more fully develop. By recognizing that we have darker traits, and accepting that they are a part of us, we grow.
Walter, however, actually permits his Shadow–Heisenberg–to ultimately possess him. Having been denied existence all his life, the Shadow material is set loose. It is so powerful, however, and been jammed down so long, that all it has done is grow stronger and stronger with potential energy. When the ripcord is pulled, Heisenberg explodes into life. “I am the danger” are not Walt’s words. They are Heisenberg’s.
And we love Heisenberg because we’ve been set up to empathize with Walter, and we all wish we could let those darker instincts take over–just enough to exact justice or vengeance or to gain that little advantage. Whereas Lecter was pure evil and Tony was the projection of our Shadow, Walter is us. His gravestone could easily read: “I have seen the Enemy and he is me – and I like him.”
The reason for the general satisfaction with Breaking Bad‘s finale is that Walter accomplishes what we all want in life–he has found meaning. He discovered what he was good at. He discovered what he liked. He provided for his family. Although he’s done some pretty awful things, there was always an edge of humanity there. He may have been an abusive Surrogate Father to Jesse, but he probably did love the kid and want the best for him. He was truly devastated at Hank’s murder. He didn’t want there to be collateral damage, but when it happened, at least he showed remorse. That’s the Walter side of him. Heisenberg may have caused the misery, but he left Walter to clean up the emotional mess.
Why is any of this significant? Why even write this essay? Popular culture relies on our identification with its primary characters, and high-quality content deserves our attention. Each of these three pieces of content asks us to engage with it in ways we normally do not. Popular culture is the battleground for values, morals, and ethics, and it is incumbent upon us to struggle with these issues in order to ultimately gain greater understanding of ourselves.