Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Signs of Three: Recent Television Shows about Evil

*Art often examines the same idea from various viewpoints, creating a multitude of interpretations of the subject at hand. Signs of Three is a new series in which we compare and contrast three different works, based on a common theme.*

Not to keep harping on True Detective, but it completes a pretty impressive trifecta of television shows, alongside Hannibal and Breaking Bad, that have examined the nature of evil. It's an interesting subject for television to tackle, especially since both television and film tend to carve black-and-white definitions of what is "good" and what is "evil." Not that this is necessarily a bad thing; for as long as narrative storytelling has existed, stories of good battling evil have been prevalent and engaging. But more often than not, heroes and villains are easily identifiable, and even if the heroes have human conflicts and shades of darkness, their essential "goodness" is never in question. Batman, despite the questionable means he uses to find the Joker, will ultimately prevail, because he stands for justice over the Joker's anarchy. Good wins, and evil loses.

That's why it's so interesting to have these three shows that make it their mission to examine what evil is, and how it affects their protagonists. As I wrote in my review of the show's first season, True Detective took cues from weird fiction to add an element of Southern Gothic horror to a fairly boilerplate police procedural. Detectives Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), in their pursuit of a prolific serial killer, are forced to confront the darker side of human nature, and it takes its toll on their lives. Both men spend so much time staring into the abyss that it begins to consume them, and they lose sight of the good that they have in their lives. The idea that the show proposes is that darkness, monsters, and evil lurk all around them, and director Cary Joji Fukugawa does a terrific job at suggesting this with composition of the show's visuals, leaving empty space in the Louisiana landscape that powerfully suggests what could be out. The show makes a case that the light - good - has won this particular battle, but not without serious consequence to the heroes, and the war is far from over. To use Rust's speculations, if the stars in the night sky represent goodness, then evil still looms large as the inky black void.

More after the jump.

Similarly, Hannibal is presenting the notion of evil lurking in the shadows on NBC. As season two has recently began, Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) is in prison for murders that he did not commit, but because of his fragile - and fragmenting - mental state, there's no way he can yet prove his innocence. Will is haunted by his ability to empathize with the most deranged members of society, and his decision to use his ability for that very reason is what's destroying his sanity. It doesn't help, of course, that the man who's supposedly helping him resolve these issues is Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), the closet cannibal who's been manipulating Will since their first meeting. Like True Detective, Hannibal is a show about what happens when you stare into the face of evil for so long, and how that evil can be so well hidden. Unlike the former show, though, Hannibal does this through the lens of macabre psychological horror, often placing the audience in Will's headspace to bear witness to the grotesques that terrorize him on a daily basis. Will is still essentially good, but he has a lot more darkness within him, and he's far past the point of turning his gaze from the specter of evil. Despite this, he's only just recognized the beast before him as Hannibal, and he's in a position where no else will see before it is too late. Evil is all-consuming, and it never relents in the world of Hannibal.

Breaking Bad, then, sets itself apart by making the protagonist the monster who's hiding in plain sight. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) was never a good man; he was a monster masquerading as a upstanding citizen, and his death sentence via cancer has given him an excuse to slowly take off the mask. Throughout the course of his run as a prolific kingpin, Walter stops at nothing to gain and consolidate power, even as it threatens to destroy everyone around him. Eventually, it does, as the final season sees his reckoning come in the form of his empire falling. The show's greatest feat was asking the audience to sympathize for this character before quickly demonstrating why it shouldn't, then positioning Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), ASAC Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), and especially Skyler White (Anna Gunn) as the true "good" in this story. Walter wasn't an "anti-hero," he was the villain. His Heisenberg persona, a name he invents to cover his "real" identity, is ultimately his true self. Breaking Bad presented a narrative of good vs. evil from the perspective of evil, and as a result forced the audience to examine themselves in how they perceived the legacy of Walter White.

All three shows offered a different perspective on the nature of evil, but agree on one central tenet: in the cosmic battle between good and evil, the latter is powerful and prevalent. It can be defeated in the short term, but the war will always continue to rage. And as long as it does, artists of every medium will continue to examine it, and how it affects the human race. These nuanced inquiries into what evil is prove that this is still fertile ground.

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