Your favourite character is a psychopath

Many thanks to Tina for her kind invitation to contribute to this unique blog. I hope to prove worthy of her trust and to share something valuable with the people here. If nothing else, y’all can use me as a lab rat. 

Have you noticed how psychopaths are everywhere at the moment? Fictional psychopaths that is; on television, at the movies, and in webseries. Take a moment; I’m sure you’ll come up with a few examples. If there is something we can all agree on, it’s that screen psychopaths are always the villains, right? And they come in two flavours, those magnificent bastards we love to hate (think Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker, Sherlock’s Jim Moriarty, that relentless and merciless assassin from No Country for Old Men) and the monsters that haunt your nightmares (Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates, any slasher movie antagonist). These are two character types with which we are all familiar, so familiar in fact that when we think of psychopaths, these are the people who pop into our heads. They are the seen as the authentic onscreen representation of psychopaths. End of story?

Well, no. The truth is Lecter, Moriarty et al are not very realistic depictions (even the slightly more normal real life murderers the likes of Hannibal were inspired by are one in a million in their savagery), and in terms of the full list of screen psychopaths, they are just the tip of the iceberg. You don’t have to tune into the Horror Channel to get your psychopath fix anymore. Neither do you need to confine yourselves to big budget action blockbusters about daring heroes foiling a psychopath’s plot for world domination or Law and Order-type procedural dramas. If you know what to look for, you will find psychopathic characters in many different screen productions, and not just in villain roles. There are realistic psychopathic protagonists, in more shows than you might think.

These days, a myriad of films and television programmes features psychopathic characters that are not necessarily the heroes, but are certainly not the stereotyped supervillain or super-creep. We might consider half the cast of American Horror Story and many of the True Blood vampires to fall into this bracket. Cartoons are particularly noted for such characters; Eric Cartman, Roger the Alien, Bender the robot and Mr Burns are all psychopathic for our entertainment and are hilarious in doing so. These cartoon characters are even less realistic than the traditional screen psychopaths, but since they inhabit animated universes, their antics are meant to be outrageous and unbelievable.

So far, we have mainly looked at characters that, despite being famous psychopaths in their own right, are little more than caricatures of what is a complex condition. Now, we are going to turn our attention to a different type of screen psychopath that couldn’t be more popular with the viewing public at the moment.
Let’s look at some of the recent television phenomena that have been hailed as the big players of TV’s new ‘golden age’ against the backdrop of a fragmentation of traditional viewing habits and a creatively stagnating Hollywood. It is said to have all started with The Wire (a gritty crime show about the continued struggle between psychopathic criminals and psychopathic police officers) and Mad Men (a period drama whose protagonist is Don Draper, a psychopath). Then came Walter White psychopath-gets-cancer-and-becomes-a-meth-baron, in the smash hit Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones (where almost every character of importance exhibits strong psychopathic traits and the philosophy espoused by the show is one of cutthroat Machiavellianism) and most recently House of Cards, a thriller that is not only Game of Thrones for the real world but focusses on the exploits of the very sort of politician this blog campaigns against.

What’s interesting about the psychopaths in these shows is they are:

  1. the protagonists with whom the viewer is supposed to identify and support;
  2. humanised in their personalities and realistic in their goals and behaviour;
  3. not acknowledged as psychopaths, either in-universe or by the shows’ creators.

I won’t pretend this kind of character is new. JR Ewing, Tony Soprano and even James Bond (a character with whom I share more than just a first name and nationality, or so it would seem) were psychopathic protagonists long before it was ‘cool’. But they were outliers. The whole point is this type of character is everywhere now, and not only more popular than ever, but more popular than the myriad of non-psychopath characters. So there you have it, the main characters on the most watched television shows of our era are psychopaths, and you didn’t even know it.

This fact begs the question… why? Psychopaths are clearly not popular in the real world. Among the most hated and feared groups of our society, perhaps only paedophiles and Nazis have a poorer reputation. Yet stick a psychopath on the screen, don’t tell anybody he’s a psychopath and watch the viewing figures soar. The suspiciously-minded among us (and anyone with some degree of intelligence should be suspicious; you should always question assumptions) may chalk the psychopath’s media ubiquity down to a deliberate attempt to normalise psychopathic behaviour; to push the psychopath agenda, if you like. It is certainly possible that all this TV exposure may have a slight normalising effect on public perception of psychopathy, but there are three good reasons to discount a conspiracy. Firstly, psychopaths are so inherently self-interested that the collaborative effort required by hundred or thousands of them to orchestrate such a conspiracy is unrealistic. Secondly, while the shows may not draw attention to the fact that they are populated by psychopaths, they certainly don’t treat the characters’ behaviour with moral indifference. These are meant to be controversial, amoral, exciting characters but there is no suggestion that viewers ought to emulate or idealise them or their behaviour. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, the simplest explanation for something is 9 times out of 10 the most likely. Therefore most likely explanation for the psychopath phenomenon is, I would posit, there is viewer demand for such characters. These characters are on our television screens, online and in the cinema because we enjoy them, not the other way around.

This conclusion raises further questions, which I will not go into here but would be keen to tackle in a future post, if the admin would be so kind as to allow me back: just why are so many viewers entertained, thrilled, humoured by fictional psychopaths, and what is it about these characters with which people identify?

For now, let’s wrap this mini-essay up with a prediction. That the ubiquity of psychopathic characters is a recent phenomenon suggests that there will be a point when they will fall out of favour. After all, a few years ago it was all about vampires, macho cops had had their day by the early 80s and near-future sci-fi utopias belong firmly in the 1960s. Nowadays it’s psychopaths that are in vogue. And zombies of course, thanks to AMC. So it seems reasonable to suggest that sooner or later the next big thing will come along and the psychopaths will crawl back to their traditional haunts of horror films and endless reruns of CSI.