The Anti-Hero Reimagined as a Villain
Cinephiles have had a long-running obsession with the great anti-hero of the twentieth century, a tragic yet apathetic character who will, in the end, do the right thing and earn the love he was deprived of. The entirety of noire cinema attempts to humanise huge flaws that define humanity, ranging from apathy to uncontrolled rage. As such, these narratives also have the power to play as the defence for people who have irreparably harmed others and have been exempted from real justice.
However, recently, there is a stronger emphasis in our media to push for more objective justice designed to aid the victims rather than alienate them. The most iconic recent example for this antihero reimagined as the villain has been the slow and brutal devolution of Walter White, but there are two more well-written characters which are perfect for exemplification.
Before the second-half of the final season was released, the ending that Bojack will get, and the one he deserves, had been up for debate (in a very polite manner because it is one of the sweetest communities out there). As season 5 ended, many fans were in disagreement with Diane’s idea that flawed characters on-screen justify horrible behaviour by people without any concern for their victims.
The show didn’t present Diane’s concerns properly, since what this idea really means is that showrunners need to develop strong consequences for their characters’ actions since they have the power to influence and to normalise. On one hand, should an artist be held accountable for the misdeeds their art causes due to bad interpretations? However, art is very much a reflection of society, so it DOES hold some responsibilities.
Regardless, the writers at Bojack have never let a lack of consequences be an issue. Every single horrible thing Bojack does, he has to pay for it. For years, it was seen that Bojack’s actions were caused by negligence and apathy rather than malevolence and hate. However, his intentions should never really factored into the storm of fear and trauma he leaves behind when he doesn’t look back and keeps on running.
By his first interview, Bojack comes off as the great American anti-hero, a regretful victim of his addictions and the blinding vapidness of LA, who, in the end, came around and made the right decision by “admitting” to his guilt.
Bojack, being Bojack, keeps on pushing it until he is way over the edge and we come to the second interview. Not only does it have the most horrifying and sickening revelation that Bojack waited 17 minutes to get Sarah Lynn help, he openly admits in front of a heartbroken Princess Carolyn that Sarah Lynn was not like the “other girls” whom he never loved.
Everything that Biscuits brings up very much happened during the six seasons, in front of our very eyes. We do not have the ability to give Bojack any benefit of the doubt, nor do we get to assume that the victims got over their trauma. This interview is one of the most painful, yet just scenes in the entire show, and Bojack gets three hours before his world changes entirely.
At the end of the interview, we see Bojack admitting to everything. He wanted to be defensive and deny the interpretations made, but if Diane is to be believed, things will get better (after they get MUCH worse) if he allows the people in his life to be able to read him completely before deciding what he means to them. To Hollyhock, a negative influence that needs to be removed from her life, to Mister Peanutbutter, a friend nonetheless. The women of the main cast who have been hurt by him only progress once they let go of the power he has over them.
Funnily enough, in season 4, the show does the opposite for Beatrice and gets us to empathise with this tyrant. Two tragic yet awful characters, but one is, in the end, forgiven, and the other has to live with every one of his atrocities on his shoulders till the very end. Why is that? Moot question, since Beatrice isn’t forgiven.
Despite the 25 minutes of cinematic perfection that is Time’s Arrow, she still gets to live out her last days in an old-age home, in a terrible room, and no one to visit her. When Beatrice is alone and has power over no one, she will no longer hurt anyone. Bojack gets to experience that a year later in prison, the ecstatic relief of not hurting anyone. In the end, the show is about two tragic Horseman’s that end up with whatever can qualify for justice, when restorative action is beyond achievable.
The Last of Us
Few titles in gaming have ever explored love, hate, pettiness, attachments, trauma, abandonment and a plethora of emotions that one cannot put into words, better than The Last of Us series. Their early decision to remove any ludonarrative dissonance by making Joel an indubitably brutal and unempathetic person made the franchise what it is.
Even before his daughter dies, we see that Joel refused to give refuge to a scared family in his car. He was unwilling to take ANY amount of risk which could be bad for himself and his daughter. You can say that Joel’s origin story was that dreadful sentence said by the gunman, “Sir… There is a little girl… But… Yes, sir.”
Thus ended the legacy of Joel Miller, father and morally questionable person, and rose through its ashes, Joel the Survivor, because last names have now become obsolete. Most protagonists in a story always have something they want to live for, and keep fighting for. John Wick has the memory of his wife, Peter Parker has his morality, but Joel as it seems, doesn’t feel anything anymore except his most basic instinct to keep going.
After Tommy left Joel, it seemed Tess was the only person anymore that he had in his life whom he respected enough to look out for. It is doubtful that he was ever even looking out for himself. He always had an excuse to cross the limitations of humanity, it was to keep THEM alive and safe. Tommy assures us later that the time he spent with Joel, despite being the reason he is alive, was not worth the extremes Joel went to, hinting that he clearly kept pushing beyond the realm of necessity.
When confronted with her own mortality, Tess believed that her life MUST have to mean something, that her purpose was to get this hope for humanity to safety. Not wanting her last moments to be emotionally devastating, she pushed Joel away before he could make her death any harder.
Between the death of Tess and (debatably) his rainy car ride with Ellie, his motivation was less concerning Ellie or a world-saving vaccine. For him, the only people he ever had worth saving either left him or died. In a rare instance of a passive protagonist working well for a story, Joel found himself going out of pure obligation to the woman he loved at some level, whether romantically or not.
For better or for worse, Ellie, the girl who grew up without the nurturing hand of a parent to guide her, found herself stuck with Joel. This relationship that will later become interdependent did not just come to Joel, he had to keep pushing through for any reason to live for twenty years after one of the worst tragedies that can happen to anyone, losing a child, happened to him.
So now, at the end of the game, Joel, after a year-long trek through the United States, is asked to wait while the only one he loves has her brain killed. If he was willing to forsake a helpless family not wanting to risk the safety of his daughter, we already know that the safety of the entire world doesn’t mean anything to him over a second chance to go to the Museum of Wyoming, recreate a whole other set of memories, and bringing a semblance of the life he very much loved.
The game doesn’t argue that Joel’s motivations are mostly, if not entirely, selfish. When Joel gets into the hospital room, he creates another origin story, someone who will define her life through any and all pain she can inflict upon him.
The Last of Us series is a vicious cycle of loss and revenge that was doomed to repeat itself if Ellie had not managed to stop herself and address her trauma rather than guilt.
The game, rather than establishing Joel as a villain, an anti-hero or a justified survivor, tries to get us to abandon the traditional idea of categorisation and take control of the only variable that you can, you.