Between the season three finale of Homeland and the final episode of Breaking Bad, TV dramas seem to be letting their anti-heroes drop like flies. And since, many moons ago when the Sopranos began what we like to call the TV revolution with the psychological depth it gave to all of it’s characters, but particularly the anti-hero that is at the heart of the show, conflicted mob boss Tony Soprano. And so, now that the anti-heroes that have began to show what it is that makes the TV revolution what it is are being killed off, the real question becomes, what’s next?
I think that the next natural step in the TV revolution – if we’re still calling it that – is for the focus to become even more centred on female characters. From The Sopranos onwards, women have been integral to this new wave of TV drama, from Carmela Soprano and Dr. Melfi to Ruth and Claire Fisher in Six Feet Under, they’ve always been there and they’ve always been important, but they’ve always been a step or so away from the spotlight. Even in Homeland, which very much revolves around Carrie, much of the dramatic action – and more questionable decisions based around the writing of the show and characterisation of Carrie – has been linked to Brody. Of course, that’s not the case based on where Homeland left off at the end of it’s most recent season, and, as important as Saul is, he is and will in theory remain to be a supporting role rather than stepping into the story’s centre with Carrie.
This female focus, this idea of a female character either leading the show alone or along with a male character, appears to be a little more common over the last few years, between female led legal dramas like Damages and The Good Wife, and the twin-lead dynamic that lies at the very heart of Masters of Sex, the idea of the anti-hero as we knew it, which is to say a conflicted, morally questionable man balancing multiple lives like Tony Soprano, Dexter Morgan and Nicholas Brody, appears to be changing. I suppose it’s something like the shift in the focus of tragic drama, between the great men of Shakespeare, kings like Lear and Richard, to the women of Jacobean tragedies, the eponymous Duchess of Malfi, or Beatrice in The Changeling. It seems like a natural progression now for women to take centre stage.
And this impacts much of the dynamic that lies at the heart of the conflicts that these characters have; where the men perhaps lead double lives (William Masters does, for instance), there’s something about the women that is more about the elements of themselves that they see in and want or don’t want to hand over to others, like Elizabeth’s relationship with her daughter in The Americans or elements of herself that Patty sees in Ellen in Damages. Here it’s more a case of mirroring than doubling that’s important. However, it is worth noting that, much like Masters, her cohort in the sex study that drives the first season of Masters of Sex, Virginia is also leading a double life of sorts, balancing work and home life, particularly once her relationship with Masters gets, to put it mildly, complicated. This seems effective in that it not only allows Virginia’s character to develop, but in relation to the notion of anti-heroes, in her sharing plots that tended to be given to male characters, we see both the way in which female leads are sharing the spotlight with their male co-stars, in doing so it also shows the ways in which anti-heroes and TV dramas more generally are shaking off the old stories and dynamics. Along with this, since the anti-heroes of yore have begun to die off, there is a tonal difference in the shows, especially, it seems, the ones that have female characters near or at their core. Masters of Sex, for instance, which could very much be the show that ushers in a new wave of characterisations, isn’t afraid to actually have jokes, to lighten the mood of it’s subject matter, it doesn’t seem compelled to be crushingly bleak or perpetually morose simply because it’s a TV drama in the 21st century.
Of course, it’s worth noting that, in spite of the passing of Walter White and Sergeant Brody, the anti-hero isn’t officially “dead” by any means; Ray Donovan seems to be trying with all of it’s might to essentially be a West Coast version of The Sopranos, and Game of Thrones has more pessimistic, morally conflicted men than you can shake a stick at, but it’s not just the shows that are starting that seem to be impacting the landscape of TV (with Masters of Sex starting it’s second season in a few months), but also the ones that are ending. Of course, Breaking Bad finished recently, next season spells the end for both Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men, and of course Homeland needs to restructure itself in the wake of the events in ‘The Star,’ so it seems that more than anything, it seems that there is a fast approaching void that will need to be filled, and it seems that, rather than simply rehashing the same old tropes that have been used in varying shades for the last fifteen years, the things that carry the banner as these shows take their final bow seem to be taking the form of an entirely different beast.