Why the urge to align with the good guys persists, even when the good guys don’t

Alyssa Rosenberg has a characteristically thoughtful post on the trend of TV shows which return to the clear designations of good guys and bad guys. It’s got me thinking about how some of my favorite characters who fit this bill actively serve as anti-anti-heroes within their own morally grey universes.

Sometimes we need the stark simplicity of white hats and black hats—if only to remind us of the first principles on each side, the values that continue to give “good” and “evil” meaning and set the boundaries inside which the grey areas exist. Just as we instinctively search our stories for the people to root for, sometimes, so too do those stories’ inhabitants.

Even within morally murky narratives, the most compelling characters can be the ones determined, even desperate, to join the good guys in worlds where none exist. Take Cary Agos, who’s long been one of The Good Wife’s most ethical characters. He praises the “moral clarity” of his new job as an ASA early in season two. But by the middle of season three his illusions have been eroded by a string of questionable behavior within the prosecutor’s office—including the lenient punishment he receives for violating an office policy when the same transgression cost coworkers their jobs.

Jesse Pinkman spends much of Breaking Bad’s fourth season torn between his corrosive father figure, Walter White, and the seemingly more nurturing but ultimately insidious Gus Fring. Still trying to repair his soul after murdering Gale, Jesse’s options are reduced to figuring out the least evil partners possible. And yet, the social unit Jesse would truly prefer to nestle into is the quiet family life shared by Andrea and Brock.

In the Song of Ice and Fire series, [MILD SPOILERS AHEAD for those who only know the series through watching Game of Thrones], Brienne’s loyalty first to Renly and then to Catelyn is partly rooted in her belief that these are honorable people, and worth serving. But as her sojourn with Jaime Lannister in A Storm of Swords progresses, she finds herself grappling with competing goods. Jon faces a similar struggle in his efforts to integrate the wildlings into Westeros in A Dance with Dragons. Seeing multiple sides in a conflict—while being unable to reconcile them—can severely bollocks up one’s desire to fight on the side of unequivocal right.

It’s easier to relate to these characters than to the solitary shining knights of old. The need not just to do right, but to connect with others who do right, is natural. We don’t have impervious egos—we define ourselves partially by how others see us. And it’s often easier to assess others’ moral character than our own, which is always challenged by darker impulses and self-doubts.

Keeping the company of those we deem “good” helps us accept that we’re also good. Anti-anti-heroes don’t only seek moral purchase against a slippery slope of relativism and compromise. They also need to know that they’re not alone.

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