Television: Suddenly the telly seems to be crawling with flawed heroes—from a serial-killing blood-spatter analyst to a high-school teacher-turned meth dealer. Arundhati Hazra dissects our fascination with the anti-hero

What does a serial-killing blood-spatter analyst have in common with a high-school teacher-turned meth dealer and a sharp-talking dwarf in a war-torn kingdom? Well, they are hugely popular characters (from Dexter, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones respectively), part of the growing tribe of anti-heroes that populate our screens and the pages of our books.

Once upon a time, the heroes were always good guys, men of principle who defended the weak and sacrificed themselves for the girl and fought tirelessly against evil. The heroes were perfect and emblematic of all the good and noble qualities we hoped to have, but their flawlessness became their biggest flaw. Audiences wanted characters they could relate to, characters who strayed yet were capable of doing good, characters who were not black or white but delicious shades of grey.

Indian literature has batted for the antihero since ancient times. Bhasa’s Urubhanga contains a sympathetic portrayal of Duryodhana, while Michael Madhusudan Dutta’s Meghnad Badh Kavya is a ballad to Ravana’s son, depicting him as a just, honorable man and not merely a wily warrior. While there have been anti heroes from forever — remember Karna in the Mahabharata and his modern day avatar in the angry young man, in recent times, cable television has thrown up a variety of protagonist with varying degrees of nasty. Breaking Bad’s Walter White, whose trajectory from meek chemistry teacher to a murderous drug kingpin elevated him to near-cult status. Even as White’s actions became more corrupt and reprehensible, viewers found it difficult to turn against the everyman who only took up drug-dealing to pay his cancer treatment bills.

What makes a show about a psychopath killer one of the most watched shows on television? Dexter fan Purujeet Parida believes it is because the protagonist makes the perfect antihero. “Dexter is a serial killer with a conscience, whose need to kill is tempered by a code that forbids him from killing innocent people. Viewers sympathize with him as they see him as a vigilante who steps in when the justice system is ineffectual. He starts off as emotionless, but over the seasons, he is shown to develop human emotions and form attachments with people, and slowly relinquish his urge to kill."

Samit Basu, author of the Gameworld trilogy, says, “I’m not hugely sold on out-and-out villains being portrayed as heroes, but I prefer to see characters in fiction that aren’t perfect, that come riddled with doubts and flaws and make mistakes and learn from them. I think this makes it easier for me to identify with them - I find perfect paragons of virtue and ability really irritating, and can’t wait for them to fail.”

Flawed characters are the hallmark of George Martin’s epic fantasy series, which forms the basis for HBO’s blockbuster show, Game of Thrones. Says engineer Avinash Rao, “The books work well at taking one’s notion of a character and turning it on its head. For example, Jaime Lannister began as a man who threw a child off a high window, but earned our sympathy as the series progressed. His brother Tyrion is also a good example of an antihero, wily and scheming yet good at heart.”

Truly, it is the season of the antihero.


Tyrion Lannister - A Game of Thrones

Dexter Morgan – Dexter

Gregory House- House M.D.

Walter White – Breaking Bad

Don Draper- Mad Men