The Anti-hero’s Descent. An Analysis on Scarface and Breaking Bad.
What is the thing that the hero wants? The Elixir? The Goddess? The Journey? NO! What he wants is… transformation. The Hero’s Journey by today’s standards has been beaten to death and audiences are not only aware of it, but its structure has become a cliché on itself. Every time The hero’s journey is used you can feel the pacing and you anticipate the beats before they come. However shows like Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul are using a new format. From Classic Movies like Scarface, The Godfather, to new movies like Training day and Nightcrawler. Comic books like Watchmen Manga like Death note and even games like The Walking Dead are beginning to create a new kind of Hero’s Journey; I like to call it “The Anti-hero’s descent”. How this is different from the hero’s journey is the focus of this essay. This new type of“Hero” suffers a transformation in front of our eyes and makes us question the decisions of our protagonist to a point that we have to say “How the fuck did we got here?”
Between the hero and the villain they say the villain has to be more interesting in order to make the protagonist shine when overcoming him, but what if we had a villain so compelling the hero doesn’t even matter? Is this too alienating? Movies like Scarface, Taxi Driver or the Godfather show us that there is always an interesting story to show how these men fall from grace. This is obvious. We are intrigued when we see someone falls, but what if we were put ourselves in the shoes of these “villains”. It seems that drama prefers to see a real tridimensional man or women fighting the good fight only to fail and be corrupted. In several of these stories there is a common goal of fighting for something bigger than themselves, something morally right that is worth all of the immoral actions, something that at the end of the day is going to justify for all of the atrocious things that they are committing following on the famous “The ends justify the means”.
Consequentialism is the ethical justification to this this actions. This ethical way of seeing the world is justifiable with logic but it somehow feels bad because they know there is an unethical way for their reasoning.
We as the audience seeing the protagonist debase his moral grounds can also see the merit of doing this and because we are seeing the world through his eyes we are vicariously experimenting this immorality. We examine ourselves and then we have a terrible thought: “I would probably have also done what Walter White did”. This is the moment when writers succeed because they’ve put you on the same moral roller-coaster and now you are going for a memorable ride. In Breaking bad this point was shown on the very first episode when he is diagnosed with cancer. The audience is put in a position where they recognize the man is between the wall and the sword and we put ourselves in that same position to wonder what would our actions be, and because of excellent writing we also come to the same conclusion as the anti-hero. This at first doesn’t seem to be a problem, but then we realize our hero keeps going down in this descent.
I modified Christophers Vogler hero’s journey to fit my new Anti-hero’s descent. If you noticed there is not that different from The Hero’s Journey, in fact one would say that every step is the complete inversed step. This will be useful to retrace Brian DePalma 1983 Scarface structure and analize several other story structures.
Although Tony Montana is not a character that begins as a relatable character is HE IS the Archetypical Antihero. Breaking Bad’s showrunner Vince Gilligan always said in the pitching meetings that he wanted to turn Mr Chips in to Scarface. Vince Gilligan had him as the end goal when creating Breaking Bad and there is a reason. Tony Montana is the archetype for the antihero he even has a unique seen where he understand that the world needs characters like him: “You need people like me so that you can point your fucking fingers and say that’s the bad guy” But then we get to know him and we see some similarities and that is where things get exciting.
The Cruel World
Instead of an Ordinary World we have the Cruel World. It’s not that the Anti-hero wants to change it’s that the world is forcing him to change and this is because the world is cruel. This is an important change because the world itself is the antagonist. In Scarface it’s not a coincidence that the filmmaker decided to show real life footage of the Cuba immigration problem that Florida was suffering in the early 80s. This is to show that the protagonist is not living in a comfortable world compared with the hero’s journey where he starts in the “ordinary world”to begin with.
Forced to Adventure.
In Breaking Bad is Cancer, in Scarface is escaping the immigrant camp, in the Godfather is the Vito Corleone assassination attempt. This is the most influential step in the Anti-hero’s descent because it forces the audience member into committing with our protagonist premise. We can all develop cancer at any time, and we can all imagine defending our father from mob killers. Scarface is the weakest example because most of us aren’t Cuba seeking asylum killers but we still feel empathy towards the disenfranchised immigrant. The stronger the Forced to adventure is the stronger the audience is relatable to our anti-hero. This is why Breaking Bad is the epitome of the Hero’s Descent.
Acceptance of the Immoral
After our introduction with the anti-hero he or she soon starts to realize that to advance in life he needs to betray their own moral code. In Scarface this step is missed. Tony Montana is already an assassin when the film starts, but in films like Godfather or Godfather II we see that either Vito Corleone or Michael Corleone need to leave behind their core moral values in order to advance or defend their status. In the Godfather this moment is achieved when Michael kills Sollozo and McClusky with the toilet hidden gun. And in the Godfather II this moment Is achieved when Vito kills Fanucci in the neighborhood festa. In Breaking bad this moment is shown on the first few minutes of the pilot episode when we see a Walter White confessing to his family that he loves them and immediately taking a pistol and preparing himself to unload against the police.
Meeting the Corruptor.
In the Hero’s Journey there is a stage called meeting the Mentor. It’s almost the same except that instead of meeting the wise man hidden in the cave we meet a man that poses the secrets and the way to success. This man normally holds a high position that the anti-hero envies. In Breaking bad Gus Fring is the man that shows him the way to make money out of his talents and ultimately the man to take the crown from. In Scarface Tony meets Alex Sosa the drug-kingpin that is going to facilitate all of the money he desires. Both of these characters not only become their corruptors but they will also have another function down the Anti-hero’s descent.
Crossing the threshold vs Multiple thresholds.
If you see at the chart you see that some of the steps down the descent are similar except for the passing the threshold. This is because every step itself is a threshold on itself and this technique keeps the audience excited to see how low morally speaking the character can descend. For Breaking bad this was a new technique where we can’t really distinguish at what point he made the atrocious action that made him a monster. Was it when he killed Gus Fring with a bomb? Was it when he let Jane die. Or was it on the pilot episode when he said to Bogdan “Fuck you and your eyebrows.”
On a Personal Note:
To me something unique happened. I started watching Breaking bad since the start and quit not because I wanted to, but because the channel that ran breaking bad changed its programming. I saw the first two seasons and stopped watching for several seasons. One day on a different channel I noticed new Breaking bad episode war airing on TV, then I saw a perturbed Jesse Pinkman walking with a gun in hand towards a mysterious park trying to kill two drug dealers, when a recognizable van came and ran over the two hit-men and Walter White killed in cold blood the second. I couldn’t recognize that he was Walter white. I had missed the chain of events that led to this transformation. I didn’t know that the drug dealers were using kids, I didn’t even knew who was Gus Fring. Seeing it cold made be un-bias from the Walter White transformation. This is why the writers needed to have a justification for each threshold Walter White had overcome. When Walt let Jane died they had to have her blackmailed him. When we saw Walter White choke Crazy Eight with the bike lock we had to have a hidden blade made out of a dish. And when we saw Heisenberg bomb Gus Fring we had to had Four seasons behind the bombing. This is unique to this series and its unique from the other media; because of its length it allows the audience to empathize with the anti-hero who by the time the series comes to an end it could very well be, what we normally consider a villain in a different story.
The writers were intelligent enough to have every single immoral action to be counter with a moral justification on its opposite and this is where it gets ugly because we as an audience could see ourselves also justifying Walter Whites actions.
“The hero is crowned as the new Evil King”
Kurt Vonnegut once gave a lecture on story lines. He made it clear that a story has to have ups and downs. The shape of these stories is a descent, but the descent is for the morality of the character not hes economic or social position, in fact, Instead of the innermost cave that the normal Hero’s Journey has, where he or she is at his most vulnerable position, it’s the complete opposite for the “Antihero descent”. The same position on the cycle has the coronation of the Anti-hero as the new Evil king. In Scarface Tony Montana kills Frank and its crowned the new king-ping of drugs and this is especially true when he goes to Michealle Pfeiffer to claim her as his queen. When The Zeppelin banner reads “The World is yours” is our cue for our “Evil King coronation.” moment. This is necessary to highlight that the hero’s has officially become the most powerful man and that down is the only way to go after getting such a high position.
“The King meets the Kingslayer”
After the coronation of the new King the Kingslayer enters the scene. This Kingslayer is normally someone who is already close to our Anti-hero and in most of the times is the one who knows the Anti-hero’s so well that he knows his weakness. In Breaking Bad this character is Jesse Pinkman. In Scarface it’s also the “Corruptor” Alex Sosa. The ultimate fall of the anti-hero in Scarface comes after committing the “ultimate mistake”. After Tony is sent to kill the “Whistle-blower” with also breaking bad cast member Mark Margolis (The bomb specialist) he gets the self-realization how low he’s come when they are about to blow the car filled with a family with children and at the last moment in a moral driven decision he decides to kill the bomb specialist. This is Scarface “Ultimate mistake” because it causes a chain reaction that ultimately destroys Tony Montana. In Breaking Bad this is the Walter White poisoning Brock with the Lilly of the valley. This action produces a chain reaction that leads Jesse Pinkman to confront Walter white. When Jesse learns Huell was able to pit pocket the ricin cigarette easily the same way he pit pocketed the marihuana cigar he realizes how low Walter has become. Walter’s self-realization in Breaking Bad doesn’t come up until the last episode. When he confesses to Skilar that all of the things he did wasn’t for the family but for himself. “I did it for me. I was good at it”.
The Final Duel. The Family vs the Legacy
In Scarface the final Duel comes when Sosa sends a whole hitman squad to Tony Montana mansion and Tony confronts his whole legacy when Gina Montana starts shooting at him. Tony does not kill her; the hitmen are the ones that kill her. Its Tony Montana’s legacy the thing that kills the only person who he ever truly loved. In Breaking Bad Jesse Pinkman and Hank Schrader confront Walter White but it isn’t Walter White who destroys Hank but Jack another placeholder for Heisenberg’s Legacy.
Scarface doesn’t have the atonement stage and it finalizes as a tragedy with Tony Montana floating next to the “The World is Yours” monument. It mirrors the Ozymandias episode and poem where we can see that there is nothing left standing for our antihero to be remembered. Yet in Breaking Bad Walter White seeing there is nothing left but to die he decides to make the last sacrifice and atone his sins by returning the money to his family and exacting revenge against Jack’s crew knowing that he didn’t have too much time left. Jesse’s escape is the embodiment of Walter’s last effort to atone.
This story structure has a deeper impact into our feelings because we see ourselves in this anti-hero in spite of him being morally corrupt.