What is the allure of fictitious criminals? It seems counterintuitive for there to be such huge entertainment value for an audience in having their moral compass tested by a sympathetic villain. Nonetheless, stories that feature criminals as their protagonists have been and continue to be hugely popular.
At their best, such dramas manipulate the audience’s sympathy for the criminals, punishing us for making excuses for evildoers. Here, I would like to focus on three examples of intelligent crime stories that intentionally twist the knife in the viewer: The Godfather films and the television series The Sopranos and Breaking Bad.
Warning: Spoilers for all three will follow
The first Godfather film earns the audience’s sympathy for the Corleone family easily by pitting the family against even more despicable foes: a crooked police captain, a heartlessly manipulative Hollywood director and other (less aesthetically pleasing) mob families. It’s possible to feel at the film’s conclusion that the Corleones, who represent old-guard class in a rapidly changing world, have upheld a certain set of values, and that their survival shows that those who respect a certain code of behavior are duly rewarded.
The Godfather Part II shreds this interpretation by depicting the disintegration of the Corleone family, both in values and influence. It makes the audience suffer the consequences of loving a monster. By the end of the film, Michael Corleone, the most sympathetic character in the first Godfather, has become a cold shell of his former self, a stranger to his wife and his brother’s murderer. There are few images more haunting than that of Michael sitting alone at the film’s end, his face a blank slate of despairing nihilism.
Although I see The Godfather films as a moral indictment that punish the characters for the moral quicksand upon which they build their empire, the films do their fair share of glamorizing in their critique. Unsurprisingly, the mobsters of The Sopranos adore the films. They probably see them as an elegy to the end of the “golden day” of organized crime, when bosses held nearly unrestricted influence over politicians and institutions. In their eyes, the real tragedy is the collapse of this order because of government crackdowns, rather than the collapse of the Corleone family because of the corruption that eats at it from inside.
The Sopranos characters’ arguably ignorant interpretation of the Godfather films contrasts with the moral arc of the The Sopranos itself. Of the three dramas explored here, it is the least ambiguous in its condemnation of its characters. It initially courts the audience’s sympathy for them by making the Soprano family in many ways a generically dysfunctional modern family. The father loves his wife and children fiercely but seldom finds the words to express it; the mother feels limited and struggles to define herself outside of her relationships to her husband and children; the children see through their parents’ bullshit but are unsure how to leave it behind.
However, as much as Tony Soprano may win over the audience with his childish neediness and occasional tenderness, the show’s brilliance is that it only sets him up as a hero to allow him to fail the audience. In a sickening third-season episode, one of Tony’s underbosses smashes the head of a stripper who is pregnant with his child into a rail outside of the strip club, killing her. In response, Tony hits and punches him — a tame response that is nonetheless criticized by other mobsters, since the underboss is a “made man” and should not be harmed. Tony justifies his actions by saying that the underboss had “disrespected the Bing,” the strip club where the mobsters congregate.
Tony is set up here to fulfill the audience’s wish to punish the underboss’s horrific crime, and he fails spectacularly. He isn’t even able to explain his outburst as motivated by the girl’s murder; instead, he says the underboss disrespected the mob family by murdering her in that specific location. As the show progresses, the shallowness and moral blindness of the characters becomes more and more nauseating. It’s impossible for me to imagine any viewers loving the characters of The Sopranos in the uncomplicated way that those same Sopranos characters love those of the Godfather movies.
Breaking Bad has, I believe, the most interesting division in its fans’ style of viewing. Many fans watch the show to its conclusion and never stop rooting for Walter White. Since the story begins with Walter as an unremarkable high school teacher and then pits him against astounding challenges, it’s easy for much of the series to get caught up in the intensity of the plot and not worry about the moral implications of Walter’s actions. But at what point does Walter become evil? Is it when he allows Jane to die from a heroin overdose? When he poisons a child? When he kidnaps his daughter? Or was he evil the moment he chose to create addictive poison, partly to support his family but increasingly because it made him feel like a god?
The same viewers who never stop seeing Walter as the protagonist often hate his wife, Skyler, with inexplicably vitriolic fury. She’s called a nagger and a bitch on online forums because she objects to her husband’s crimes. While she is imperfect, I find her significantly more worthy of sympathy than her husband, who for me crosses the line to irredeemably evil in the fourth season. In fact, I still feel that the finale, which allows Walter to play the hero again by making things right with his family, saving Jesse and murdering a bunch of Neo-Nazi scumbags, is a bit of a cop-out. Walter’s sins earned greater wages than a glorious death.
I believe that all three of these dramas are morally driven and intend that the audience not only see but also feel the consequences of evil. But I suppose that the real lesson here is that these stories aren’t necessarily even viewed this way. Viewers may say that Michael Corleone, Tony Soprano and even Walter White aren’t really evil — and this often feels true when watching these characters. But evil is created by actions, not identity, and what all three of these characters allow, condone and do is evil. The genius of all three dramas is that they make the evil nearly impossible to condemn on principle, and we allow the characters to make inroads in our hearts, until we can no longer distinguish with any certainty what is right and what is wrong.
Jack Jones is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Despite all the Amputations appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.