Friday, May 8, 2015

The Anti-Hero and the Vague Ambiguity of "Good"

I just finished watching the seventh and final season of the show, Sons of Anarchy.  I don't even remember why or how I got into this show in the first place, but I stuck with it throughout and waited with eager anticipation for the release of the next season on Netflix.  If you want to watch a show which really drives you into the pit of despair concerning humanity and just how screwed up it can be, this is a good show to point you in that direction.  Now that I've finished it, I had a few thoughts. (Disclaimer:  Spoiler alerts.)

The show's protagonist is Jackson "Jax" Teller who has worked through the ranks of his Motorcycle Club (MC) called the Sons of Anarchy to become president.  Though a social club, they are a wealthy organization due to the legitimate businesses they have, but mainly from the  criminal enterprises they support, e.g. drugs, gun running, prostitution, pornography, etc.  Throughout the show, Jax wants to reform his MC since the enterprises it has engaged in has not only cost them the lives of friends and family, but also their wealth and connections and also put them under the microscope of law enforcement beyond the local level. 

Jax's father's ghost haunts him throughout the series.  His father who started the MC and was its president died mysteriously when Jax was a kid.  His father left behind a manifesto which detailed how the MC lost its way and how it can be changed.  Jax made that his mission.  But, for all of Jax's good intentions, for all of his cleverness and street-smarts, things blow up in his face.  More friends are killed.  His connection to his kids becomes more tenuous.  His mother's interests start to conflict with his to the point that she even goes so far as to kill Jax's wife in a fit of rage over a misconception.  In fact, misconceptions pervade the characters in this show. They think "x" when "y" has actually occurred.  And because they think "x" they act out on it immediately without thinking.  Jax's mother tells him that a rival gang killed Tara which spurs him to set into action a number of events that only leads to a lot more killing, a lot of new alliances, more killing, patching up damages, more killing and round and round we go.

All throughout this process of bodies being stacked up, we, the audience, are told by other characters about how Jax is a good person.  This is a man guilty of numerous murders, numerous felonies, unfaithfulness and being an absentee father.  He claims he does everything for his family, but hardly ever does he ever stop to think.  His clever solutions often find him digging a bigger hole for himself which trigger more "brilliant" solutions and bigger holes.  It never seems to end.  But, we are still told he's good and/or decent.  This decent man is responsible for killing his own mother.

It seems that modern TV has little to no use for the traditional hero who does right for the sake of doing right with little to no reward.  There are no longer any shows like The Rifleman or Buck Rogers where the hero of the story did good for good's sake.  Now, granted even in older shows like The Lone Ranger and Zorro, the hero was checkered a little bit since he operated outside the law.  But today's TV and even movie heroes, we are treated to more anti-heroes.  We want them to win, but at the same time our moral compass is praying for them to get caught and get what they deserve.  We see the same Jax "anti-hero" in other shows like Breaking Bad, White Collar, Suits, Bosch, Hell on Wheels, House of Cards, etc.   In movies, even the modern incarnation of Batman becomes less the traditional hero and more of an anarchist.  Yet, they are still referred to as good.

How far we have come as a society where the descriptor "good" is applied more to intentions than to reality.  It is true that Jax wants to do well for his family and make sure they are safe and taken care of.  But the extent he goes to ensure that results in death and destruction for everyone, especially him.  Without doubt, everyone wants to think of himself as good.  But even Jesus balked when someone called Him good saying that no one is good save God alone.  Facts are we are not good.  Intending to be is not the same as being.  Still, we like to confuse the two or say that they are one and the same.

I cannot explain the explosion of anti-heroes in modern television and cinema.  Maybe it has something to do with Americans wanting to cheer for the underdog, even if the underdog is a hardened criminal. But even if we do cheer for the criminal underdog, why does that presuppose wanting to imagine him or make him into some good person in his own right?  Is good an absolute or a relative term?  I think if we are really honest with ourselves, we know the answer to that question.  When and where the individual reigns supreme, the overreaching definition of a word or concept goes with it.

I am not suggesting that the perpetuation of such shows is the result of the devaluation of what constitutes good and bad.  Nor am I suggesting that there should be some censorship to reverse the course.  For the latter, that is in the hands of our parents, our teachers, our clergy, our friends and ourselves.  But what I do see is that we are going to have a lot fewer Lone Rangers and a lot more Jax Tellers in our entertainment.  The word, "good", will continually be redefined for each character to the point that as an absolute, it will be almost entirely absent.  Good intentions will rule the day. Considering how much TV our children watch, it will take a lot of effort to deprogram them.