From Breaking Bad to Hell on Wheels, House of Cards to Fargo, psychopathic characters are becoming the mainstays of modern TV. In this episode I offer my opinions on all four of these shows, focusing on Fargo as an example of an antidote to the glorifying of psychopaths in pop culture. I also reflect on the differences between reptiles and mammals and how this pertains to the problem of psychopaths lacking empathy and what this implies for our society.
This is former SAS killer Andy McNab admitting to being a psychopath and trying to argue that being a psychopath is better than being a normal human being. Naturally, I hate Andy McNab not just for being an SAS psychopath but also obviously being on some sort of state-sanctioned propaganda mission. Since officially leaving the military he has written numerous books, mostly fiction, and his most famous book Bravo Two Zero is almost entirely made up, if not entirely made up. I do wonder with McNab whether he was ever actually in the SAS or whether that’s just part of the backstory with him, to lend him credibility.
Anyway, alongside writing books he’s also been out to Hollywood where he worked as a military technical advisor, and also worked as a security advisor to The Sun newspaper in their coverage of the Iraq War. Perhaps the most widely read of his books, the The Nick Stone Missions are, according to wikipedia, ‘a successful series based on an ex-SAS soldier working on deniable operations for British intelligence.’ How very odd. Also notice the similarity in names between Nick Stone and Mark Stone, the real undercover police intelligence agent who I discussed in episode 15 of ClandesTime.
Anyway, before this turns into a rant about Andy McNab, let’s get to today’s topic, Psychopaths on TV. I included that clip as a preface because there you have a psychopath on TV, with his face disguised by shadowy lighting, being heroised and granted an element of romantic mystique, all while he’s openly admitting to being a psychopath. And let’s face it, no one apart from comedians with a sick sense of humour would go on TV and say that, unless they actually were.
While that’s relatively obvious and I can only hope that most people would be able to figure out that much for themselves, when it comes to entertainment TV people are far, far, far less discerning. Which is a problem, because virtually every TV shows these days features at least one psychopathic character, often either as the hero or as an exciting, charismatic anti-hero.
The simplest example is Breaking Bad, the show that all middle class white people say is the best TV show ever, and what they usually mean is that Breaking Bad is the last TV show they can remember watching. And aside from that glib, stupid label my main problem with Breaking Bad is that the central storyline is about an underachieving middle class white man who realises that he is a psychopath, and that embracing his psychopathic tendencies is a means to achieving a lot more. Walter White is, in essence, a bitter, narcissistic serial killer.
And yet no one says this. People talk about Breaking Bad the same way they talk about films ‘that bit when, that bit when, that bit when’. Always just the moments, never the overall picture. Walter White is portrayed as some sort of idol, or even worse, someone to emulate. No one ever responds to the show by saying ‘that bit when the guy ruined his family’s life and killed all those people – that wasn’t very good, I’m glad my life isn’t like that’. They go on about Walter White being a ‘legend’, and there are regular stories in the media about Breaking Bad copycat crimes.
The other massive problem I have with Breaking Bad is it is incredibly racist. Every Mexican character in the show, pretty much, is a crazy reckless psycho drug dealer. So what’s the impression people come away with? That all the problems in Mexico are because those brown skinned people are all nuts. It’s got nothing to do with the CIA using drugs as a source of massive, untraceable funding. It’s got nothing to do with Operation Fast and Furious, where the ATF were selling guns to the Mexican drugs cartels supposedly as series of sting operations, but no leaders of the cartels have been arrested as a result. It’s got nothing to do with the DEA turning a blind eye to this sort of thing even though it is explicitly their job to try to stop it. No, it’s all the fault of those stupid Mexicans, fucking border jumping bean eating crazy bastards.
Of course, the show had support from the DEA in the form of technical consultants, who were apparently there to make sure that the science was accurate. Except that in the same interview one of the producers also says that they deliberately made the science inaccurate so that people wouldn’t be able to learn how to make crystal meth by watching the show, which means the DEA consultants weren’t there to do that. Which begs the question of what they were doing.
There are of course other shows – House of Cards being an obvious one where in both the remake and the vastly superior original the central character is absolutely a psychopath. In the older one he’s more chilling, in the newer one more charming, possibly because Kevin Spacey is a softer actor than Ian Richardson, but also because the modern version is more designed to charm you rather than to scare you. I did quite enjoy Breaking Bad, and kind of enjoyed the opening season of the American House of Cards but never stuck with the show. So it’s not like I have any special hostility towards these shows, I’m just observing how psychopaths are becoming the dominant characters in our popular culture, having once been the bone-chilling villains, part-time characters, they are now playing the main roles, typically as the centre of attention in anti-hero roles.
Two shows that do things differently, shows that I am very fond of, are Hell on Wheels and Fargo. For those of you who aren’t familiar with these TV shows I will quickly summarise them and talk about how their portrayal of psychopaths is somewhat different.I ‘ll start with Hell on Wheels because I have less to say about that. Hell on Wheels is set in the post-Civil War period in the United States, focusing on the building of the railways, the railroads, that spanned across the entire country. For the first few seasons it is the Union Pacific, coming across from the East, that is the focus of the attention. Then the central character, Southern civil warrior Cullen Bohannen switches sides and goes to work for the Central Pacific, coming from the West.
So Cullen is our protagonist and hero, and he is very violent but only in a ‘man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do’ kind of way. One might even call his use of violence very rational in most situations, often saving much larger bloodshed with a decisive strike. He’s one part southern farmer who hates the government, one part railroad man, one part wise old gunslinger. It’s kinda cliched and a bit predictable but it’s by far the most entertaining cowboy show I’ve ever seen.
Meanwhile, Cullen is best on all sides by antagonists, but the worst of them is known as The Swede (who is actually Norwegian). He is an out and out psychopath, he does extremely warped things including murdering an entire Mormon family including a young child and taking the place of the father, a senior Mormon minister. He eventually becomes an assistant to Brigham Young, the father of the mormon church, and conspires to have him murdered. To be honest I quite liked that storyline, but the Swede butchers all sorts – children, several women that Cullen falls in love with, he even goes over to the side of the Native Americans at one point, he constantly reinvents who he is. It’s a really good bit of acting, at times very funny but unequivocally evil. There is no part of you that wants to be the Swede, wants to emulate him, or wants him to succeed. The entire series is leading up to some big showdown where, no doubt, Bohannen will finally kill the Swede in revenge and retribution for his many crimes. Rational violence will triumph over irrational violence – that is basically the underlying idea in this whole show so I can’t see them pulling the plug on it in the final seven episodes which will broadcast next year.
So that’s a rather classic tale of an evil man, a devil in human form, up against a heroic man, and we’re rooting for the hero. Very different to breaking bad and that sort of show. But in truth Hell on Wheels is not that well made, some of the CGI is quite poor, the acting is pretty hit and miss, some very good actors and some quite weak ones clearly picked because they just look the part. It is not as well made as, for example, Deadwood, a beautiful Shakespearean melodrama set during the gold rush a short time after the period portrayed in Hell on Wheels. But it’s just as entertaining if not more so, or at least I find it is. If you like silly action where the hero keeps just escaping by the skin of his teeth then you’ll probably quite like this show.
Fargo, on the other hand, is an altogether more sophisticated and quite amazing piece of television, a show I thoroughly and utterly recommend to everyone. It is, naturally, based somewhat on the film of the same name made by the Coen Brothers and starring William H Macy. This series was developed by another guy, Noah Hawley, but early scripts were shown to the Coen brothers and they signed on as producers for the show.
Like the film the story is about a town in Minnesota where the quiet smalltown life is interrupted by a series of murders, and the rest of the series outlines the impact of this and the police investigation into the murders. Ultimately the local cop, a woman named Molly Solverson, solves the crimes and everything is sort of resolved. As I say, it is an absolutely brilliant show, I thought the first season was the best thing I’ve seen on TV in a long time and I can’t wait for the second season.
To summarise the storyline in Fargo would take too long, so let’s just focus on two of the central characters – Lester Nygaard, the useless insurance salesman who kills his wife, and Lorne Malvo, the malevolent psychopath who kills pretty much everyone else. Lester is played by Martin Freeman and Malvo is played by Billy Bob Thornton and they are both very good, as indeed are most of the acting performances in this show.
These two characters meet by chance in the emergency room at a hospital. Lester is there with a broken nose he injured fleeing from a bully and Malvo has a bang on the head from a car accident. This scene between the two is not only really well done, it’s fascinating because this is essentially how Malvo is introduced to us. On the surface he appears to be some sort of avenging angel, it is only later that we realise what he truly is. So I’m going to play this scene for you, if you’ve seen the show I’m sure you’ll remember it and if not I think this will intrigue you enough to go out and watch it.
So you get what’s happening here – Malvo is essentially trapping Lester into conspiring to murder Sam Hess, this idiotic bully of a man. What happens – sorry for spoilers but this is mostly all in the first episode anyway – is that Malvo kills Hess that evening, and then goes to meet Lester again. And I’ll play this scene for you too because it really helps explain what this show is all about.
So you see, the psychopath Malvo awakens in Lester certain psychopathic traits – Lester is what some call a proto-psychopath. That evening, Lester murders his wife during an argument about the washing machine, and then calls Malvo for help, with the intention of shooting Malvo and blaming the whole thing on him. Just before Malvo arrives the chief of police turns up, asking Lester about the murder of Sam Hess the night before. He then discovers the dead wife in the basement, but Malvo by this time has arrived and shoots the chief of police, before leaving Lester to lie his way out of the bloodbath in his house. Lester then lies, and lies, and lies some more, covering not just for himself but also for Malvo too, even setting up his own brother to look like he murdered the wife and the chief of police.
So this is a cautionary tale about how psychopaths can awaken and inspire this sort of behaviour in others, this ability to just kill and lie and deceive without remorse and regret. Of course in the end both Malvo and Lester get their comeuppance but I found the whole show not just a very realistic portrayal of psychopaths but an excellent warning about them, about what they are and what they are capable of. That is not something that is at all common in modern entertainment – an underriding message that I actually believe and think is a good thing to be using entertainment to try to get across to people.
I could go on at massive length about Fargo but I won’t because I do want you to watch it for yourselves and figure a load of this stuff out for yourselves. But the key here is the time and effort the show’s creators have clearly put into understanding psychopaths and thus portraying them very accurately. Like the Swede, Malvo easily adopts different identities and again like the Swede he even poses as a minister for a while. It is while he’s pretending to be a minister that he temporarily caught, by a policeman Gus Grimly played by Colin Hanks, the son of Tom Hanks. He is a bit useless – overshadowed in detective ability and in truth in acting ability by Molly Salverson, played by Allison Tolman. She really steals the show. But he does recognise Malvo and arrests him, though Malvo, at this point posing as a minister called Frank Peterson, talks his way out of it. The Grimly character is astonished by Malvo’s ability to lie, and confronts him just as he is walking out of the police station and this dialogue is a masterful bit of writing.
Shortly after this scene it is explained to Gus Grimly, by Molly no less, that the answer to the riddle is that the human eye can see more shades of green so they can spot predators in the grass. That is, Malvo is saying to Grimly that he is a predator, that he preys on people, so lying is no problem for him.
But more profoundly than that, he is saying that he is effectively a reptile. Because what green predators live in the grasses? Reptiles. Lizards, snakes, all the usual animals that are used as metaphors for psychopaths in literature and TV and so on. Thomas Sheridan has spoken about this and I strongly recommend his books on this stuff but I’d like to offer you some of my own thinking.
Sheridan and others have said that psychopaths brains work in different ways – they are more dominated by the reptilian part of the brain, the r-complex, the oldest part that is purely there to ensure survival. The mammalian part of the brain is undermined in psychopaths, hence their lack of empathy.
But from my own experience and reading and reflecting on this I think there’s more to it. Because the difference between reptiles and mammals is about more than this. Reptiles are cold blooded, they cannot control their body temperature, so they hug the ground for warmth. By contrast, hot blooded animals can stand up on hind legs. All this is one of the reasons that people think that dinosaurs were hot-blooded, because how could something like a T-Rex or a brontosaurus with that great long neck, how could these animals be cold blooded? Unless, I guess, the earth was much warmer then.
As a result of being cold blooded, reptiles live close to the ground and therefore cannot see as far. Quite literally, they can’t see as far because there’s grass or rocks or whatever in the way. Mammals can grow taller, raise up on their hind legs, climb trees without fear of becoming too cold in the wind and so on. This is partly why the mammalian brain developed, in evolutionary terms, is to accommodate for new mental skills demanded by being able to see further. Imagination, reflection, planning, anticipating consequences. These are not vital survival skills, they are something else.
So you have the reptile brain, which is largely reactive and based entirely in a perception model of surviving in a threatening world. And you have the mammal brain which is pro-active and creative based in a perception model of being able to recognise different possibilities. Those are two quite different ways of thinking, and human brains do both.
Psychopaths almost entirely think with the reptilian part, they perceive people around them to be either a threat or prey, they can scheme and can be very cunning, but planning, anticipating consequences is not their strong point. This is why psychopaths lie so much – they literally don’t think that two people that they’ve said two different things to are going to have their own conversation and figure out that they’ve been lied to. I’ve experienced this myself, and it was a bit of a headfuck trying to deal with someone who even when confronted with obvious lies that they’d told showed no sign of just admitting and being sorry. What it would be like to be married to such a person – well, I can only sympathise with people in that situation. And tell them to get the fuck away from the lying, devious psychopaths as quickly as they can.
Now, that’s not to say that psychopaths have no imagination, it’s more like their imagination is poorly developed. Their brain might tell them ‘if you lie to this person then they’ll probably find out’ but because that’s an abstract future scenario, not an immediate issue, the reptile part of their brain tells them that it doesn’t matter. This is why, when confronted with the lie some days or weeks or months later, they will just lie again, or admit the lie and then change the subject. It’s about the here and now with psychopaths, their ability to think long-term is typically very poor.
I hope you get what I’m driving at here – the link between short term thinking and short-distance vision, and of course the link between long-distance vision and long-term thinking. Bringing us back to empathy. It is only beings that can imagine other beings pain that truly show empathy. Reptiles do not care for and rear their young, mammals do. Reptiles lay eggs, and then leave. They are the ultimate in absentee parents, from a mammalian point of view. As a result their young have to be born ready to survive – ready to find food, protect themselves and so on. Mammal babies, and in particular human babies are the opposite – they’re pretty useless when they are first born, pretty defenceless against the world and they require protection and help for the first few years of their life at the very least. But they are born with brains capable of learning a lot more than any reptile brain ever could. They can imagine a lot more, remember a lot more, and hence empathise a lot more.
Now, I’m not claiming that is what the makers of Fargo were saying with their show, but it is one of the lines of thinking that it inspired in me. It’s a very rich, well textured drama which is admittedly very violent but nonetheless very funny, utterly gripping and genuinely intelligent in what it is saying and how it is saying it. So of all the TV series I’ve talked about today that is the one I recommend, because it is an education is why psychopaths are so dangerous and how to spot them. Sadly, it offers no better solution than to kill them, but then there may not be a better solution than that. Again, rational violence can win out over irrational violence.
Fargo is also something of an antidote to all the glorifying of psychopaths on shows such as Breaking Bad and House of Cards. Because while we are initially charmed and fooled by the Malvo character, as I said we might see him as a righteous soldier, an avenging angel, within an episode or two everyone has figured out that he’s the bad guy, and that charming and fooling you is what bad guys do. You see how the education that this show offers is built into the fabric of the drama itself.
Meanwhile, our hero is not glamorous or sexy, she’s an overweight slightly absent minded small town police detective. While someone like me might identify with such a character, most people initially won’t, they’ll be drawn to and identify with Malvo. By the end of the series Molly proves herself to be very intelligent, a very good detective, and she is right all along in her suspicions. And we, the audience, know that because we know who is committing the murder. Thus, the dramatic irony of us knowing more than, for example, Molly’s boss who is played by the same guy who plays Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad, that dramatic irony means we’re on Molly’s side as we see her struggle. Meanwhile, Malvo never struggles, he just kills and torments people. It is because of our capacity to empathise that we identify with Molly in her struggle, rather than with Malvo. That’s what Fargo is telling us about all these other shows, again whether this was a conscious intention of the writers or not, this is what Fargo is doing.
So, that is my meditation on psychopaths on TV. It is something we have to confront in ourselves – and not by refusing to watch these shows because I just think that’s unrealistic, not enough people are going to self-censor their entertainment habits for that to mean anything. Instead we should recognise why a show like Fargo is better than a show like Breaking Bad, and explain it to others. Appreciation of the good in pop culture is the best counter, the best antidote, to what is poisonous in pop culture.
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