The anatomy of the anti-hero

If you have read my Season 2 BATB Recap Announcementyou know that I had to momentarily step away from writing recaps to concentrate on my postgraduate work. So I decided to get started with the reading list of my Storytelling class. The first book was: “From the Beast to the Blonde (Marina Warner, 1995)” which is basically a cultural study of fairy tales … and yes, among them Beauty and the Beast. So, as you can see… it’s almost like the universe doesn’t want to let me step away from the subject!

Many books have been written about Beauty and the Beast and the tale has been adapted to the screen numerous times. Adaptations have been straightforward (CBS’s 80s TV classic Beauty and the Beast) or in disguise (Edward Scissorhands). The latest adaptation is CW’s Beauty and the Beast [supposedly a remake of the CBS’s 80’s classic], in which the Beast, Vincent Keller, is the victim of a failed military experiment and the Beauty is a NYPD Detective. As soon as the show premiered, critics attacked the CW show for casting a very good-looking guy as the Beast. He only “transformed” on occasion and looked like a perfect male specimen the rest of the time. In addition, he was more of an accidental hero, rather than a violent being. Many people weren’t pleased, but “Isn’t the whole point of Beauty and the Beast to look past the superficiality of physical appearance?” So, this guy was REALLY good-looking, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have a tortured soul/dark past! In any case, Season 1 ended with the abduction of Vincent by his makers. His memories were wiped and he was turned into the perfect supersoldier/killing machine he was meant to be. Fan reactions have been varied and they range from fascination, to outrage. Vincent 2.0 is not the righteous character he used to be, he is violent, he kills for unknown motivations and he even showed his uncontrollable side to Catherine (The Beauty) [GASP].

You may say that Vincent went from being a hero, to an anti-hero character. But does he really fit the anti-hero description? Anti-heroes are born in many ways. Sometimes they are created by the circumstances, sometimes they are a result of their experiences and other times they just can’t escape their own dark nature. I decided to step away from the Beauty and the Beast universe and take a look at three popular antiheroes on TV, each of them with a different source of darkness. My objective is to figure out how well Vincent 2.0 fits the classic “anti-hero” molds. What makes an anti-hero? What makes a Beast?
[You don’t need to watch all the TV shows mentioned below to understand the basic idea behind the characters] (*)

ANTI-HERO #1 - DEXTER – The man with no humanity

The Show: Dexter
The Character: Dexter, a serial killer who follows a ‘code’ [kill only criminals that deserve to die].

Why is he a Beast? Well… he IS a serial killer and a self-proclaimed psychopath, unable to experience human emotions. Dexter is probably the darkest character on television, because it is as close to “pure evil” as they have dared to go. Dexter is a killer and he enjoys killing, no excuses, that’s just the nature of his “Dark Passenger” from which he simply cannot escape. Yes, the code allows us to root for Dexter, he is killing bad guys after all; but also… we are behind Dexter because he represents “conquest”. We don’t expect redemption for Dexter; we don’t expect him to stop killing people. We like him because he has been able to make the best out of his own dark nature.

The Beast vs. Dexter: Vincent was never an “evil” character. Whenever he killed he did it by accident… until now. Now he kills for motivations unknown… but I wouldn’t say he does it because it is in his nature [unlike Dexter]. So no, I don’t believe Vincent has lost his humanity and actually turned into a killing machine. His makers [or puppeteers] clearly had that intention, but did they succeed? I believe not. They can erase memories, but they can’t supress feelings [forever]. Unlike Dexter, Beauty and the Beast is a story of redemption. 

ANTI-HERO #2 - JAX TELLER – The man born to violence

The Show: Sons of Anarchy
The Character: The president of a motorcycle club, an outlaw. [Even if you have never watched the show, you may remember Charlie Hunnam as the guy who was supposed to play Christian Grey on 50 Shades of Grey]

Why is he a Beast? Jax Teller has done it all: he cheated on his girlfriend (now wife), he murdered countless people, he went to prison, he forcefully injected heroin to his ex-wife and he even hit a woman; and I am not talking about an accidental shove… I am talking about beating the crap out of her and basically breaking her face… [The most shameful part is that I was partly glad he did it!]

The Beast vs. Jax: I thought about Jax Teller a lot while watching this season of BATB. What was going through my mind was that I’ve seen Jax do worse things than Vincent, yet he still remained a suitable “romantic hero” in my book. But also there is another commonality. Their anti-hero status was given to them, rather than being in their nature. If Jax hadn't been the son of a biker, he may have gone to law school. If Vincent hadn’t been turned into a Beast and then an improved Beast he would be an awesome guy working at a hospital. In a way, they are both victims of their circumstances rather than being the way they are by nature.

ANTI-HERO #3 - DON DRAPER – The man with no identity

The Show: Mad Men
The Character: Don Draper, an ad executive living in the 1960s NY. His real name is Dick Whitman and he stole the identity of his superior officer during the war.

Why is he a Beast? At first glance, there is nothing “anti-heroic” about Don. He is not a murderer or an outlaw; however he is a complete failure as a human being. He has humiliated, mistreated, cheated and lied to everyone around him. So what is the root of Don’s anti-hero nature? It is his lack of identity. He has been living a fabricated life for so long he lost touch with his true self. As a consequence he has been disconnected from everything and everyone, unable to form meaningful relationships, acting like a morally questionable man because he never established a set of morals.

The Beast vs. Don: Surprisingly, Vincent 2.0 falls right into the ‘Don Draper anti-hero’ mold. Vincent’s questionable behaviour is a direct consequence of his “identity” been taken away. Our identity and moral values are a result of all our life experience. Where can a man go if he is stripped from everything that made him a person? I think this is the most important thing to consider about Vincent right now. He is not the same guy… yes, he is still in there somewhere, but he needs to find a link to his past in order to regain his identity. To use a Lost metaphor: he needs a “constant” and in this case, the constant is Cat.

I am fascinated by anti-hero stories and apparently I am not alone. Audiences seem to be in love with morally ambiguous characters, yet they are rarely thrilled when a “good” character takes a “dark” turn. Vincent 2.0 may have some anti-hero traits: He is violent and has been stripped from his memories in an effort to detach him from his humanity. However, I still don’t believe Vincent falls under the same category as Dexter, Jax, Don or other antiheroes on TV (Walter White, Hannibal, Tony Soprano, etc). We seem to be willing to forgive and accept a lot of moral flaws in our human anti-heroes, yet we hold a character named ‘The Beast’ to a higher moral standard. The way I see it, Vincent never ceased to be a victim. Like Ron Perlman’s Beast, who couldn't change the way he looked, Vincent can’t undo his [more internal] transformation. He is different from other anti-hero characters because his beastliness is not innate or intrinsic, it is exogenous and imposed. Vincent might be a temporary anti-hero, but Beauty and the Beast is still a “tale of transformation”. In Marina Warner’s words:  “The Beast, formerly the stigmatizing envelope of the fallen male, has become a badge of the salvation he offers” And that is what is at the core of the story. This is not an anti-hero story, because we are not expecting some sort of atonement or demise for the character, we are expecting salvation [for which the ‘Beauty’ will be the source].

So, I know… no recaps yet… but after seeing all the different reactions to Vincent 2.0, I felt I wanted to share my views on it. I hope I got my point across and wasn’t utterly confusing! As usual, you are welcome to agree or disagree in the comments! Thanks again for all your support during my half-hiatus!

(*)If you are not a fan of Beauty and the Beast you may not like the fact that I am comparing a CW character with three of the best characters ever written, however I believe that the essence of storytelling is common to all stories out there, no matter how big or small. But just to clarify, I am NOT comparing the shows, just the characters’ archetypes.

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The TV Empress is a Media Management graduate, screenwriter in the making (and financial engineer in the meantime). She has serious plans to take over global television. You can follow the TVEmpress on twitter @TVRepublik

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  1. I'm also fascinated by anti-hero stories. Very insightful piece, and loved your take on Vincent.

  2. I also loved your take on Vincent...He is a man without an identity, which has disconnected him from his humanity.

    Random note, BATB should totally do some stunt casting (big name w/lots of fans...tween fans who spread shows and fervor like nobody's business would be best lol) for an arc, which I normally dislike, but anything to get the show a for sure renewal with some awesome eppy ratings.

    1. Yeah, I know... they could get some1 from TVD or smth... not that I wld necessarily like that but... it almost feels like the CW is not willing to put any effort to get better ratings... at this point our best bet is to boost online activity and hope for the best

  3. Very well written and timely!

  4. Enjoyed reading your thoughts on anti-heroes. I have also enjoyed your BATB recaps. But do you really think that Vincent 2.0 "kills for unknown motivation"? Isn't he getting the message from his handler that only he, Vincent, can rid society of these evil beasts and in turn, save innocent lives?

    1. Yes I guess his handler is telling him he is doing some sort of vigilante job... so you have a point... I guess I meant 'unknown' because we don't know the whole story yet... how much does V know... what exactly did they tell him about the Beasts and the experiments and himself and his life? So as of right now... there are a lot of ??? still... but I guess we DO know some stuff... haha I feel like that didn't make any sense...

    2. I guess what I am saying is that YES, I think V is doing what he believes is right... but we don't know the whole story yet...

    3. I agree with Mary Lake! His motivation is vigilante justice to save lives. I think he is doing what he thinks is right. He has been brainwashed to believe that though, but once his memory is back he might just see that as his new purpose in life. He obviously has a deep desire to help people so I know he would want a job that did that. I mean he was a doctor before a beast and he might end up feeling like being a beast gives him a certain obligation humans don't have to protect lives. I agree though...many questions we don't have answers to, which I like. I look forward to their slow unveiling.

  5. Interesting anti-hero article. Like the way u write - something to do with your post graduate i assume. Miss your recaps...a lot.

    1. Thanks, and I miss writing those recaps a LOT too! Right now I am doing an MA in Creative Writing and I have an MS in TV Management... so I like to think I am sort of qualified to write about television haha (at least that's what I tell myself) :)

  6. Miss your recaps also!


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