Anti-hero, n.: “One who is the opposite or reverse of a hero; esp. a chief character in a poem, play, or story who is totally unlike a conventional hero.” (OED)

The prefix tips the scales. Not the best among us, but the worst within us. And yet.

And yet.

For every self-destructive Don Draper, conscience-ebbing Claire Underwood, tortured Alec Hardy, and yin-yang yoking of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, the “and yet” speaks volumes. Of lost humanity and the presence of it still. Of a mirage of latent goodness or a sepulcher urging us to mourn some moral remnant. Hope for return, redemption, something to explain our drive to root for these characters, aside from the fallback rationale of how entertaining it is to see how (and how long) they can manage to escape reckoning.

Whether I read or watch these anti-heroes and anti-heroines, I stew in the complexity and ambiguity of the lives they lead. I do so less as an exercise in schadenfreude or in a gesture of cathartic commiseration but rather, subconsciously perhaps, as an act of insulating comfort and solace, as if reassuring myself of the realities I live.

To acknowledge the realness of post-lapsarian existence. Of middling and meddling in the thick of it. The god-forsaken tangles of compelling characters reflecting the (supposedly and all-too-seemingly) actuality of the world at large. So very often the tried-and-true, black-and-white hero(ine) just doesn’t seem to cut it. And so Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips trills out his weltschmerz:

Tell everybody waitin’ for Superman
that they should try to hold on the best they can.
He hasn’t dropped them, forgot them, or anything.
It’s just too heavy for Superman to lift.

This is a desperation that the anti-heroic seems to counter, replacing the salvific for the riveting, the deus ex machina for the self-wrought anagnorisis. A strange logic, but a language that I hazard many of us can speak, or at least listen to with sympathetic and highly attuned ears.

I know better, I tell myself. And yet. Doubt and comeuppance and cautionary tales and affirmation all bundled into one package, at any given moment both messy and pat. The drama plays out in a book, or season, or series; I rise and fall with the heaving of the beaten breast.

The photonegative of the image exists as a safeguard against the image’s ruin. When all else fails, come hell or high water, the photonegative—that fallback—gets tucked away for safekeeping, a moral litmus test held upside down yet legible in its own right. I show you a hero and someone can find a fault; I show you an anti-hero and we see resemblance, some shared condition, a double bind that binds us yet. And yet.

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