Monday, June 13, 2016

The Antihero Marriage in Media of Late

Spoiler-y warnings for Gone Girl, Fates and Furies, The Americans, and House of Cards.

In the last fifteen years or so, the antihero has seen a rise in popularity. Tony Soprano and Walter White led the charge and it's more or less a standard these days. A lead protagonist has always needed a  chink in their armor, but they've typically held the moral high ground within the confines of the movie/book/series. Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) can leave a wake of dead bad guys in pursuit of rescuing his daughter in Taken despite his (very) questionable methods. Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) can cause loads of destruction but he's hell-bent on discovering the truth and holding the CIA and American government accountable for their actions and thus justified in his actions. So the hero is still very much alive. But there's just as many Dexters (Dexter, Michael C. Hall), Don Drapers (Mad Men, Jon Hamm), and Nucky Thompsons (Boardwalk Empire, Steve Buscemi) to fill out the antihero column where, ultimately, they have immoral and objectionable aspirations or methods despite often times having the audience's sympathies.

I just finished Lauren Groff's 2015 novel, Fates and Furies and it was excellent. A story of a marriage (Mathilde and Lotto) told over the course of decades. First half of the book gives Lotto's perspective and backstory and I would characterize it as moving and intimate and sweeping. The latter half is told from Mathilde's perspective and the novel turns dark and tormented and revelatory. Neither husband nor wife are pure or selfless though both love the other in their specific way. Upon completing the novel, I started to think more about the antihero-marriage.

Call it gender equality or just the natural progression of themes within popular media, but I've seen a number of examples of the antihero-marriage over the last five years. The most obvious comparison to Fates and Furies would be the 2012 novel and 2014 movie Gone Girl. In both books, both partners are equally responsible for betraying and harming the other yet find a strange, demented form of equilibrium in order to move forward in the relationship. These stories are primarily about the marriages themselves though certainly contain their fair share of crimes, manipulation, and mystery to magnify the emotional love and hate the partners have for each other.
Gone Girl's Amy and Nick Dunne
In the realm of television, FX's The Americans has a nice blending of marriage with spy work. As Russian spies living as Americans in the 1980's, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) negotiate their needs and desires for their relationship though their spy work also and simultaneously takes center stage in terms of plot progression. This might be the one example of a couple that truly loves each other. A less optimistic version of marriage is showcased in Netflix's House of Cards which follows Frank (Kevin Spacey) and Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) in Frank's rise to the presidency. While both Frank and Claire are seen as equals throughout the first few seasons, season four specifically and especially showcases both of them as lead protagonists where their ambitions lie outside of the marriage and their partnership is based purely on political and power advancement. They know that they are at their most powerful when working together as a team, remaining together as a means to an end rather than any sort of emotional support or commitment to each others.
The Americans' Philip and Elizabeth Jennings
In many of these examples, there are fairly specific traits for the men and women. The men are primarily concerned with advancing in their careers, finding meaning and fulfillment through external means. Fates and Furies' Lotto seeks to become a meaningful playwright. House of Cards' Frank rises to the presidency and must find ways to maintain his position. In terms of their relationship, they are more prone to be guilty of inattention (Lotto) or philandering (Nick from Gone Girl). The women, conversely, are often committing the larger crimes though are sly and calculating. Gone Girl's Amy is culpable of a plethora of murders and set-ups. Fates and Furies' Mathilde has the more contorted backstory and is thus capable of more egregious offense against her partner. The Americans is perhaps the one example where both Elizabeth and Philip have equal ownership and power in terms of their roles as spies and in terms of their marriage to each other.
House of Cards' Frank and Claire Underwood
Aside from The Americans, these antihero-marriages all give fairly pessimistic views of partnerships. I think there are still examples of hero-marriages in popular media. Friday Night Lights and Parenthood quickly come to mind as prime examples though both shows have vastly different tones than the other examples. I'm interested in where the antihero-marriage goes in popular media in the future. And I'm wondering if there are many examples of the female antihero? A quick Google search results in some of the above mentioned women though I would contend that they are co-antiheroes due to their partnerships. UnReal's Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) appear to be more independent. Overall, fascinating progression, no?

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