Dictionary.com defines an antihero as a protagonist who lacks the attributes that make a heroic figure, as nobility of mind and spirit, a life or attitude marked by action or purpose, and the like. When it comes to modern television antiheroes, my definition is a little more complex. I think that they are characters that in the real world, you'd probably abhor. You'd only see the worse part of them. But because we watch their stories unfold from their point of view on television, we can see the varied parts of their nature and they most definitely have purpose. The world and especially great storytelling, is not black and white. No one is all villain or all knight in shining armor. Some of the best written characters are those that continually cross the good guy/bad guy line. And it usually is a guy. Female antiheroes are few and far between. They're like the unicorns of television.
Vic Mackey, "The Shield" - Some consider Vic the first of the modern television antiheroes. I am one of those people. You might think, how could you root for a corrupt cop that lies, cheats, steals, and occasionally kills people. Easy. Michael Chiklis embodies the Los Angeles Police detective that stops at nothing to get his man and to support his family. Trust me, if you haven't seen it, Vic commits some pretty horrifying acts, but you sit on the edge of your seat and cross your fingers he gets away with it. He does it for his family, to provide for his three kids, two of whom are autistic. Vic does the unspeakable for love and justice....and sometimes greed. He does bad things, but does the end justify the means? If you watch any of the seven seasons of this incredible series, you'll ask yourself that more than a few times. Watch all seven episodes on Hulu Plus or Amazon Instant Video.
Dexter Morgan, "Dexter" - Out of all the characters on this list, Dexter has to be the epitome of an antihero. He's a serial killer for Pete's sake! And yet we love him and even want him to kill sometimes. He may be a murderer but he lives by a strict code and only executes people that truly deserve it, mostly other cold-hearted killers. Dexter can't change who he is. His Dark Passenger (what he calls his need to kill) isn't getting out of the car anytime soon. So he channels it into something.... productive? It makes you think. If he's going to kill anyway, would you rather it be a school teacher or a murdering pedophile? You'll find yourself rooting for Dexter to keep killing and not be caught. It's ok to be conflicted. That's what a well written antihero does to you. Catch up with the first 6 seasons on Amazon Instant Video. Season 8 premieres June 30th on Showtime.
Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, "Boardwalk Empire" - I'm including Nucky on this list because most people would say he fits the bill of an antihero. He's the protagonist. He does bad stuff, but usually to protect people (or get revenge). He's just not quite as likable to me as the others. Loosely based on the real life Enoch Thompson, Nucky was king of prohibition era Atlantic City. Well he was the county treasurer, but in a time when more politicians were corrupt, than not, he who holds the purse strings..... you get the picture. Nucky was not only a politician, but a businessman. One of those businesses being bootlegging. When Nucky crosses paths with other gangsters, because let's admit it, that's what he is, bullets fly. Somehow, you're always rooting for a man with a gun in his hand, but no badge. Like I said, after three seasons, he's not my favorite anymore, but he definitely falls into the antihero category. You can watch the first three seasons on HBO GO. Season four airs this September on HBO.
Jackson "Jax" Teller, "Sons of Anarchy" - The lead character in one of my favorite series, Jax is a member of the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club - Redwood Original or SAMCRO. This isn't a hang around some dude's front lawn fixing up your old Harley kind of motorcycle club. This is a gun running, porn producing, drug smuggling criminal organization. At the beginning of this tale, Jax is the club VP. He must commit a multitude of heinous acts in order to stay alive and oust his step-father from the president's chair. But mostly he does these things to keep his family and his club safe. Particularly in season one, we see how conflicted Jax is over what SAMCRO has become. It is for that reason, that Jackson Teller is a classic antihero. SOA is loosely based on Hamlet (my favorite Shakespeare play, maybe why I love this show). If you haven't seen any of this riveting drama, first smack yourself upside the head. When the sting wears off, stream all five seasons on Amazon Instant Video. Netflix has the first four. Traditionally, the most recent season is posted closer to the next season's premiere date, so keep a look out in late summer if you're a Netflix-er. Season 6 premieres in September on FX.
Walter White - "Breaking Bad" - Ever wonder what your chemistry teacher did outside of school? When he's not at the hospital for his cancer treatment, Mr. White is cooking up the best Crystal Meth the Southwest has ever seen. After being diagnosed with lung cancer, Walt turns to cooking meth in order to earn money for his family. He's more afraid of leaving them without a source of income than he is of actually dying. It's not long before this human doormat summons some courage and starts kicking some ass to keep his product on the market. But his need to provide turns into good ol' greed. After four and a half seasons, it's hard to tell how much good is still left or if Walter White has gone completely dark side. Amazon Instant Video has every episode. The first four seasons are streaming on Netflix. Season 5B premieres on AMC August 11th.
This is by no means a comprehensive list. Television loves antiheroes these days. I definitely recommend checking out all of the shows if you don't already watch.
Cesare Borgia, "The Borgias"
Ragnar Lothbrok, "Vikings"
Elizabeth & Phillip Jennings, "The Americans"
Nancy Botwin, "Weeds"
If I missed your favorite antihero, please share with the class and include him/her in the comments section.
- Jenna Sliter
- Hi, I'm Jenna and I'm addicted to great television. I'm on a mission to share with you what I think are the best of the best when it comes to shows and mini-series. Long format visual storytelling is my entertainment of choice. I've got a lot to say, so stay tuned..... P.S. I am under some sort of invisible legal obligation to state that I do not own any of the photos posted herein unless otherwise specified and if you see any of your images and would like me to credit you or take it down (‘cus you’re just a meanie), please contact me