Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Achilles heel

with 2 comments

Jon Hamm on Mad Men

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What fictional character embodies your masculine ideal?

AMC used to stand for American Movie Classics, but over the last few years, it’s felt more like an acronym for “antiheroic male character.” You’ve met this man before. He’s a direct descendent of Tony Soprano, who owed a great deal in turn to Michael Corleone: a deeply flawed white male who screws up the lives of just about everyone around him, whether out of uncontrollable compulsion, like Don Draper, or icy calculation, like Walter White. Yet he’s also enormously attractive. He’s great at his job, he knows what he wants and how to get it, and he doesn’t play by the rules. It’s a reliable formula for an interesting protagonist, except that his underlying motivations are selfish, and everyone else in his life is a means to an end. And the more ruthless he is, the more we respond to him. I’m only four episodes into the current season of House of Cards, but I’ve already found myself flitting with boredom, because Frank Underwood has lost so much of his evil spark. As much as I enjoy Kevin Spacey’s performance, I’ve never found Frank to be an especially compelling or even coherent character, and without that core of hate and ambition, I’m no longer sure why I’m supposed to be watching him at all.

Ever since Mad Men and Breaking Bad brought the figure of the male antihero to its current heights, we’ve seen a lot of shows, from Low Winter Sun to Ray Donovan, attempting to replicate that recipe without the same critical success. In itself, this isn’t surprising: television has always been about trying to take apart the shows that worked and put the pieces together in a new way. But by fixating on the obvious traits of their antiheroic leads, rather than on deeper qualities of storytelling, the latest round of imitators runs the risk of embodying all the genre’s shortcomings and few of its strengths. There’s the fact, for instance, that even the best of these shows have problems with their female characters. Mad Men foundered with Betty Draper for much of its middle stretch, to the point where it seemed tempted to write her out entirely, and I never much cared for Skylar on Breaking Bad—not, as some would have it, because I resented her for getting in Walt’s way, but because she was shrill and uninteresting. Even True Detective, a minor masterpiece of the form with two unforgettable male leads, couldn’t figure out what to do with its women. (The great exception here is Fargo, which offered us a fantastic heroine, even if she felt a little sidelined toward the end.)

Achilles and Ajax

Of course, the figure of the antihero is as old as literature itself. It’s only a small step from Hamlet to Edmund or Iago, and the Iliad, which inaugurates nothing less than the entire western tradition, opens by invoking the wrath of Achilles. In many ways, Achilles is the prototype for all protagonists of this kind: he’s a figure of superhuman ability on the battlefield, with a single mythic vulnerability, and he’s willing to let others die as he sulks in his tent out of wounded pride, over a woman who is treated as a spoil in a conflict between men. Achilles stands alone, and he’s defined more by his own fate than by any of his human relationships. (To the extent that other characters are important in our understanding of him, it’s as a series of counterexamples: Achilles is opposed at one point or another to Hector, Odysseus, and Agamemnon, and the fact that he’s contrasted against three such different men only points to how complicated he is.) It’s no wonder that readers tend to feel more sympathy for Hector, who is allowed moments of recognizable tenderness: when he tries to embrace his son Astyanax, who bursts into tears at the sight of his father’s armor and plumed helmet, the result is my favorite passage in all of classical poetry, because it feels so much like an instant captured out of real life and transmitted across the centuries.

Yet Achilles is the hero of the Iliad for a reason; Hector, for all his appeal, isn’t cut out for sustaining an entire poem. An antihero, properly written, can be the engine that drives the whole machine, and in epic poetry, or television, you need one heck of a motor. But a motor isn’t a man, or at least it’s a highly incomplete version of what a man can be. And there’s a very real risk that the choices writers make for the sake of the narrative can shape the way the rest of us think and behave. As Joseph Meeker points out, we tend to glamorize the tragic hero, who causes nothing but suffering to those around him, over the comic hero, who simply muddles through. Fortunately, we have a model both for vivid storytelling and meaningful connection in Achilles’ opposite number. Odysseus isn’t perfect: he engages in dalliances of his own while his wife remains faithful, and his bright ideas lead to the deaths of most of his shipmates. But he’s much closer to a comic than a tragic hero, relying on wit and good timing as much as strength to get home, and his story is like a guided tour of all the things a man can be: king, beggar, father, son, husband, lover, and nobody. We’d live in a happier world if our fictional heroes were more like Odysseus. Or, failing that, I’ll settle for Achilles, as long as he’s more than just a heel.

Written by nevalalee

March 6, 2015 at 9:12 am

2 Responses

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  1. Just some random thoughts:

    Odysseus was a bastard through and through. Cunning to the point of conniving. The more one encounters him in both the heroic poetry and the great Greek drama of classical times, the less appealing he becomes. And Achilles was a big child. Neither is terribly likeable today, yet both were great heroes. I vaguely recall reading an essay that said we must be careful how we relate to these figures, in that we must not assume it is how the ancient Greeks would have related. It supposed that to an ancient Greek these figures were admirable precisely because they were favoured by the Gods; their own actions were in a sense not the source of ‘character’ as we know it in modern fiction, and the idea that one ‘earned’ one’s reward or punishment was not as embedded as it is now, and therefore a hard working, honest, yet doomed character was not necessarily seen as more congenial.

    (Having said all that, I recently read Gilbert Murray’s truly wonderful translation of Euripedes’s _The Trojan Women_ and it paints all the Greek leaders as callous. And for a modern contribution I’d recommend Margaret Atwood’s _Penelopiad_.)

    Darren

    March 7, 2015 at 4:23 am

  2. That’s an interesting perspective, and I think it gets at much the same point that I make above—that the virtues that make for compelling heroes of fiction aren’t necessarily those that make for tolerable or ethical behavior in everyday life. But I’m still on Team Odysseus.

    nevalalee

    March 8, 2015 at 2:36 pm


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