Andrew Eaton-Lewis: TV’s archetypal male anti-hero

Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in Homeland. Picture: Contributed
Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in Homeland. Picture: Contributed
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HERE’s an argument the TV geeks out there may shoot down, but I’m going to make it anyway, just for fun. 2013 was the year when TV drama, as an artform, finally shifted its focus from men to women – as symbolised by the death of Walter White and the rebirth of Carrie Mathison.

From The Sopranos to The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, Dexter, House Of Cards and Breaking Bad, the most acclaimed TV dramas of recent times have all essentially been about male anti-heroes – men whose actions are often indefensible and who are magnetic to watch because of it. Breaking Bad has been the pinnacle of this, an almost perfectly structured epic in which, over five series, we witnessed the gradual transformation of ordinary, apparently decent teacher Walter White into a cold-blooded monster. It is unlikely to be bettered.

At first, Homeland looked like it might be in the same vein – the story of Brody (Damian Lewis), a war hero who might be a terrorist. As it turned out, though, Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison was more interesting, and durable – a brilliant CIA agent whose bipolar disorder actually seems to make her better at her job, giving her the intensity of focus she needs.

Now Brody is gone. At least I hope he is, because the alternative – his public hanging in Tehran being a clever trick – would surely stretch an already tired storyline beyond breaking point. I’ve lost interest in the Carrie and Brody show. I’m much more curious about how the brilliant CIA agent copes with juggling a new job in Istanbul with a baby she doesn’t want. It’s not a bright future, perhaps. There are shades of The Killing’s Sarah Lund, a cop who is fantastic at her job and terrible at life (parenthood in particular) – the exact qualities of the archetypal male anti-hero.

If Homeland gives Carrie the central role usually reserved for men, it’ll continue a trend. This year we’ve had female-centred US prison drama Orange Is The New Black; The Fall, with Gillian Anderson as a steely, charismatic policewoman (shocking colleagues by having casual sex the same way men do); Top Of The Lake, from New Zealand, featuring a great starring role for Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss; and Orphan Black, a Canadian sci-fi drama starring Tatiana Maslany. In the brilliant, haunting The Returned, the most compelling characters were women: Camille, the first of the dead to reappear; Julie, the traumatised nurse and her ex-girlfriend Laure; and the enigmatic Madame Costa.

I’m being selective here. Still, there’s something in the air (and I’ve not even mentioned Borgen). As brilliant as Breaking Bad was, it didn’t treat its women well. Making Marie, the wife of DEA agent Hank, into a kleptomaniac opened up all sorts of plot possibilities – all swiftly dropped in favour of new male characters. Anna Gunn, who played Walter’s wife Skyler, revealed this year that she’d had death threats from people who hated her character.

Clearly, there were misogynists among the show’s fanbase (Bryan Cranston, who played Walter, endured nothing similar, despite his character being a mass murderer). But the fault may also lie with male writers’ sexist inability to portray a female victim of abuse in a sympathetic light. Gunn thought Skyler had become a “kind of Rorschach test for society, a measure of our attitudes toward gender”. That’s fascinating dramatic territory to explore, more so than yet another tale of a man with issues. Walter White is dead. Long live Carrie Mathison.

Twitter: @Aeatonlewis