Culture

The Everyday Criminal Mastermind

Our country follows all sorts of trends, and the entertainment industry is arguably more trend-driven than anyone. Even screenwriters have trends of their own – certain types of characters start showing up, coinciding with certain cultural beliefs and trends on a larger scale. For example, we’ve seen a recent surge of morally upright characters, in contrast to an increasingly morally ambiguous culture. We’ve also seen a significant uptick in irreverent humor, in contrast to the recent rise in political correctness and policing of words. It’s not to say that this has never happened in film, literature, or theater before – just that they are suddenly becoming remarkably popular.

Another trend of late has been the “Everyday Criminal Mastermind.” The audience follows a man or woman who is not the virtuous Jon Snow or Jack Ryan action hero, but is a very, very (borderline stereotypically) regular person. They are the epitome of “boring.” Usually after a dark, almost comical series of events, this average Joe winds up becoming a criminal mastermind.

Of course, most of you are probably already thinking of AMC’s Breaking Bad, where the well-to-do high school chemistry teacher and family man becomes a prolific and brutal meth dealer, responsible for murdering drug dealers, civilians, law enforcement officers, and a family member. He’s just about the last person you would think capable of such things, and yet he thrives off the chaos, the bloodshed, and the criminality. Characters like Walt often at first feel terribly guilty, only to discover that it’s not guilt they’re feeling at all – it’s just nerves that they might get caught.

Another contemporary example is still still running; Netflix’s Ozark depicts the story of Marty Byrde, an accountant who winds up laundering large amounts of money for a cartel. He and his wife team up and, like Walt, they are constantly putting out fires just to keep their heads above water. They find themselves up against country criminals in the Ozarks, cartel members, local and federal law enforcement – and using the very few tools at their disposal, they are (relatively) successful.

Other examples include Weeds, both the movie and show Fargo, and of course the spin-off from Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul. HBO’s Barry has many of these elements too, though the anti-hero of that story isn’t exactly coming from a regular background.

People have certainly shown that they like these stories, but why do people resonate with them?

Well, the obvious answer is that we resonate with the characters who lead regular, normal lives. No matter how exciting our lives may be, aspects of it will always seem normal and boring to us – things become familiar, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s something we relate to. We see Walter White, whose life is overcome by the mundane, and he appears to lose sight of the things precious in his life (his family); we can understand that, even if our life doesn’t mirror his.

Similarly, everyone has that nagging feeling in the back of their heads: what if I just said “screw it” and took what I wanted? What if I just hopped onto some criminal enterprise and shrugged off all things virtuous altogether? It’s a fun thought exercise, that’s for sure. I am reminded of H.L. Mencken: “Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.”

On the face of it, a life of crime certainly has its perks: sex, drugs, power, all fueled by lots and lots of money.

But on a deeper level, there are things we truly desire that these romantic versions of lives of crime could offer. We long for a life where our decisions matter a great deal, where we are yanked from the mundane and into the meaningful, even if that meaning is terrible and cruel. We feel stressed by daily decisions that – in the whole scheme of things – don’t matter a whole lot; the idea of being stressed over something that could make you millions and earn you an empire sounds a lot more appealing. A part of us wants to shirk our moral compass and make every decision purely based on self-interest. A part of us wants to live a few years in the fast lane instead of decades in a cubicle.

Of course, we don’t actually do it because we know these things are fiction, and it’s more likely that acting in such ways would be far more stressful than beneficial and would likely just put you behind bars or in the dirt. To be fair to the stories I listed above, they typically do not have happy endings for the characters or their loved ones. And of course, most of us have some moral boundaries, and murder for money or power is not exactly our cup of tea.

Still, these stories are fun, in a strange sort of way. We live vicariously through these dark fantasies, and along the way we discover how much crime “pays” – another truth we all know deep down. It (might) offer a whole lot of money at the low price of your soul.

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clluelo
Member
clluelo

I guess that is why I don’t watch those shows, never enjoyed them

Mason
Member
Mason

Love that closing sentence Luke. Perfect distillation.

yankeepapausmc
Guest
yankeepapausmc

Master Luke,

As a purely intellectual exercise, I considered the (extremely low risk/high return) career as a TV preacher. Some of them promise to pray for your individual loved one (money enclosed “appreciated…”) Staffers just rip through letters, removing checks/cash… tossing letters unread. Very low overhead.

Sadly, I ascertained that I was not qualified. Would suffer from fits and seizures of morality, ethics, conscience, etc.

-YP-

clluelo
Member
clluelo

Yea, those ethics and morales get in my way also !

georgehand
Member

Yank Pop,
Warren Steed Jeffs went on the lam funded mostly by bags of letters from his followers. When he needed cash he ripped open the mail and pocketed the greenbacks, discarding the letters themselves.
geo sends

Mic-Mac
Member
Mic-Mac

Admittingly, I do like watching these shows; Breaking Bad, Narcos, El Chapo, and a few others. As life quickly goes south and life ends violently for many of the characters, I remind myself that they chose that life knowing the consequences. The true-life stories always make me ask “why would anyone want such a life, especially when they have families?”

georgehand
Member

Luke,
I saw a docu last night on Flix about the real Walter White that Breaking Bad was centered on. He is alive and well and living a celeb life these days. Yeah, and how many lives did he destroy with his meth?
Diggin’ your scene with a gangster lean,
geo sends

JoniS
Guest
JoniS

I confess to having never watched Breaking Bad, but I didn’t know the story line and the characters. I was huge fan of Sons of Anarchy. I haven’t watched the offshoot yet. I think I like these shows because after years of driving in traffic the feed my fantasy of just going beserk one day and ramming people. Would I actually do this? No. I like my car and my freedom. And my moral compass. I make myself smile when I’m stuck in traffic. It lowers blood pressure and makes everyone else around me wonder why I am smiling. I… Read more »

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