Breaking Bad

Have TV antiheroes like Walter White made us believe we can understand real-life villains like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev?

Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul in Breaking Bad.
On Breaking Bad, a cancer diagnosis launches Walter White (R) on the road from mild-mannered teacher to vicious drug kingpin. The show’s writers connect the dots for us, helping us process how a likable guy can do terrible things.

Photo by Frank Ockenfels/AMC

Warning, this piece contains Homeland spoilers.

This is how television crowds into our lives: I know I wasn’t the only one who watched the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing while guiltily making comparisons to Homeland. I thought back to the chilling scenes, in Season 1 of the Showtime series, when Nick Brody, the POW-turned-terrorist, donned a suicide vest and prepared to visit destruction on Washington, D.C. I remembered the carnage at the end of Season 2, when a bomb goes off at a crowded event, killing and wounding scores of innocents. The reality of a terror attack—the senseless deaths, the horrific injuries—was, among other things, a kind of rebuke, a reminder of how easily we lap up these entertainments.

But there’s another way TV has influenced our reaction to the Boston bombing, another screen impulse that has found its way into real life. It’s the urge to see a perpetrator—in this case, 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—as a person we can understand.

Understanding isn’t the same as sympathizing with him or condoning his terrible actions. And not every perpetrator of mass murder cries out to be understood. There has been no widespread urge to get inside the mind of Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, or Jared Lee Loughner, the Tucson killer, perhaps because both seem so mentally ill as to be, essentially, unknowable.* But in the aftermath of the Boston attack, in tweets and essays and the occasional bad poem, many people—horrified and angry people—have nonetheless tried to explain Tsarnaev’s transformation. They imagine him, almost wishfully, as a naïve, brainwashed boy, abandoned by his parents, caught up in the spell of his radical older brother.

Some of this might just be a form of maternal mooning, sparked by that widely circulated snapshot of a baby-faced Tsarnaev, carnation in his lapel, looking like every girl’s awkward junior prom date. But the quest to understand Tsarnaev isn’t so much excuse-making as a search for answers, and here I think it taps into something more newfangled than the maternal instinct. Some people chalk up Tsarnaev’s actions to evil, plain and simple. But for many of us, that’s not a satisfying explanation. We can’t fathom how a pot-smoking 19-year-old, widely liked by teachers and classmates, could place a bomb in a backpack a few feet away from an 8-year-old child. And so we look at his path from slacker teen to calculating killer and assume that it had some discernible arc, one that passed through some series of formative events. We imagine that his actions were preventable, if only something had gone differently or someone had intervened.

Maybe that’s exactly what happened—it’s still too early to know. But our desire to piece together this narrative, to find the origin story of Tsarnaev’s radicalization, is an irresistible urge, and one that I think has less to do with the boy in those snapshots than with a habit we’ve learned from watching TV. And not just any kind of TV, but the prestige dramas that have made the last decade or so a golden era in the history of the medium.

The character-driven dramas on “quality TV” are, by and large, serialized stories about monsters. This was the innovation of The Sopranos, which reinvented the televised drama by specializing in moral complexity and revolving around a particular type of antihero. We’d long had TV villains who we loved to hate, perhaps best exemplified by J.R. Ewing on Dallas—a character who was cheerfully and unequivocally bad, who never asked for, or expected, the viewers’ sympathy. Tony Soprano, by contrast, wrestled with his decisions—if not always his conscience—right before our eyes. He was a bad guy we were invited to understand.

This required more work on the part of the Sopranos viewer and had a way of inflicting on that viewer a kind of emotional whiplash. Just when you found yourself sympathizing with Tony the everyman, the man caught up in the mob because he was born that way (and with that mother), David Chase would jolt you with a vision of Tony the heartless thug, the man who finds time, on a college tour with his daughter, to murder someone with a wire. We cringed at his actions from time to time, but, often despite ourselves, we still saw shades of grey within him. We found some explanation, some psychological narrative that explained if not condoned his awful choices.

Tony had a psychiatrist to guide him—and us—through the process. But in plenty of Sopranos successors, it’s the show’s writers who connect the dots for us, helping the viewer process how a likable guy can do terrible things. Showtime’s Dexter is a serial killer because of the bloody trauma he witnessed as a child. On AMC’s Breaking Bad, a cancer diagnosis launches Walter White on the road from mild-mannered teacher to vicious drug kingpin. In the recent Mad Men season premiere, Matthew Weiner seemed to draw a straight-line between Don Draper’s womanizing ways and the time he spent in a whorehouse as an impressionable child, glimpsed in a flashback. And on Homeland, Brody becomes a true-believing terrorist—for one season, at least—after a child he loves is killed in a U.S. drone strike.

These backstories satisfy our curiosity, but they also let us off the hook, giving us cover to sympathize with the Very Bad Men who populate our favorite dramas. Yes, we know that Walter White let a girl overdose and die before his eyes and that Don Draper is a deserter and a serial philanderer—but consider what these poor guys have been through! And as the best writers have discovered, a good back story just makes for better television. Consider this season of HBO’s Game of Thrones, in which Jamie Lannister has shifted from one-note villain to sympathetic figure, thanks to an act of cruelty perpetrated on him, his unlikely fellowship with audience favorite Brienne, and the details we’ve learned about his cold, unloving father. In a sense, we’re rooting for Lannister, now—at least, for the chance that he’ll emerge from his current ordeal humanized and changed.

Few people, outside of a weird and ugly Internet fringe, are rooting for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, or suggesting there’s anything justifiable about his deadly act. Still, there is a frenzied effort afoot to explain his actions through some simple chain of events. Was he abandoned by his parents? Brainwashed by his brother, who was influenced by his mother, or by some mysterious Svengali?

This desire to find the story isn’t merely an effort to make some sense of Tsarnaev’s actions. The fantasy that we can piece together a comprehensible narrative, however disturbing, also springs from a hope that this tragedy might have been averted. If a young man could be so easily corrupted, might he also have been stopped? In Homeland, Brody never managed to follow through with his season one bombing plot, thanks to a conveniently glitchy suicide vest. After his failure to complete his act of terror, he connects with Claire Danes’ CIA agent, Carrie, who finds a way to burrow through the hate to his humanity, to undo his brainwashing. This is the other fantasy some of us are harboring when we look for a back-story in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s life: that the right person, at the right time, could have changed everything. And that the next kid might be stopped before he commits a monstrous act. If only life were more like TV.

Correction, May 2, 2013: This article originally misstated that Jared Lee Loughner was the Aurora shooter. (Return to the corrected sentence.)