When we think of TV protagonists, we usually picture a hero – a morally righteous person seeking to make the world a better place. And when they don’t start out that way, we expect to accompany them on a journey of self-improvement, in which they discover important things such as love, happiness and the true meaning of friendship.
But not every main character takes that journey. In this article, I examine four protagonists whose redemption arcs never came – Tony Soprano, Jackie Peyton, Greg House and Bojack Horseman.
Let’s start with Tony Soprano. He’s a powerful mobster and a borderline (if not outright) sociopath who shows as little conscience when cheating on his wife as he does when ‘whacking’ a member of his own family. And yet he’s also a man who has regular sessions with a therapist because of a panic attacks, who gets upset by the departure of a pair of ducks living in his swimming pool. Thanks to James Gandolfini’s excellent performance – indeed, in each of these four cases it is the quality of the writing and acting that brings such depth and nuance to the character – we can’t help but like Tony Soprano on some level. And for a naive, first-time viewer of The Sopranos, surely this all means that, deep down, he’s good person with the proverbial heart of gold?
Except, of course, that he isn’t. There comes a point when watching The Sopranos where you have to wake up to the fact that Tony is an arsehole, and he’s going to remain an arsehole. He isn’t going to have some magical attack of conscience whereby he starts making amends of his misdeeds. Even if he wanted to, he can’t – his entire way of life is too deeply mired in his shady, criminal life. We forgave him killing the likes of Ralf Cifaretto, because, let’s face it, we all hated Ralf. But when Tony helps his beloved nephew and protégé Christopher to an early death, we have to re-evaluate our loyalties. Just as Melfi realises that she’s been fooled by Tony’s charm and smooth talk into believing she could help him, so do we as the audience have to accept that he is never, ever going to change.
The Sopranos is not about charting Tony’s redemption, and it was never meant to be. And for me, that’s why the cut-to-black ending is appropriate rather than infuriating. It doesn’t matter if Tony and his family get whacked in that restaurant or twenty years later. It doesn’t matter if we stop watching them now, or at some point in the future. We’ve already seen it all – and nothing is ever going to change.
The eponymous Nurse Jackie seems like a good person. She’s an excellent nurse who does her best for her patients, even if it means bending the rules. She has no time for the stupidity of doctors, and she’s a stern but fair mentor to student nurse Zoe.
But of course, that’s not all there is to it. Having once hurt her back, Jackie is now dependent on pain medication, and her addiction shapes her entire life. In the very first episode, we see her fucking the hospital pharmacist – an extramarital affair, it turns out, which she conducts in order to get access to free medication.
As viewers, we’re presented with a struggle. Jackie, like Tony, is a likeable character, but at the same time we can’t overlook the fact that she manipulates and deceives everyone around her. The only way our dilemma could be resolved would be if Jackie realised the error of her ways, and set about trying to get clean.
Which she does – several times. But of course, each time it doesn’t last, and instead the entire series is not so much about Jackie’s redemption as it is her slow crash and burn towards an inevitable conclusion. When I think back to a scene where Jackie confesses to friends and family that she desperately needs help, I honestly don’t know if she really meant it, or if she was just telling them what she knew they wanted to hear. This is, after all, the woman who tricks her own AA sponsor into falling off the wagon just so that Jackie can check her into rehab.
Just like Jackie, House suffered an injury that ultimately left him addicted to pain medication. In House’s case, however, there’s never any doubt that he is an arsehole through and through. A genius, to be sure, but no less of an utter bastard because of it. He’s outrageously rude and difficult to everyone he meets, but because of his success rate in curing patients, he gets away with it.
Although House is a great character to watch, our reasons for wanting to see him become a better person are slightly different. With Tony and Jackie, there was a need to resolve an internal dilemma – we liked these people and wanted them to succeed, but couldn’t reconcile that with their morally dubious and outright criminal behaviours. How could we, as good, upstanding citizens, support such manipulative arseholes? The only way we could justify it was if they managed to redeem themselves, to prove themselves worthy in our eyes.
With House, the issue is more about just finding his behaviour difficult to watch. By and large, we consider ourselves to be nice people, and we’ve been brought up to be polite to others. When we see House being so rude to others, we can’t help but feel awkward about it. Yes, it may be happening between fictional people with no relation to ourselves, but a transference effect means that we get hit with all the attendant emotions anyway.
In the latter half of the show’s run, it seems as if House might finally be getting his act together. He is forced to come off the drugs after experiencing increasingly intrusive hallucinations, and even finally gets together with Cuddy after years of sexual tension. But it doesn’t last, and House is eventually found on the downward spiral again, ultimately crashing his car into Cuddy’s house.
I first conceived of this article after watching BoJack season three, which ends with BoJack’s irresponsible actions causing the death of Sarah Lynn. Unlike the other shows on the list, however, BoJack has yet to finish airing, and certainly in season four he seems so preoccupied with the damage he does as to tread more carefully.
Maybe BoJack will be the one character on this list who ultimately finds redemption, but it’s definitely far too early to say. This is, after all, the horse who sabotaged his flatmate’s success because he couldn’t bear the thought of being left behind. The horse who came onto the daughter of an old flame, who has repeatedly and self-acknowledgedly sabotaged all of the good things in his life. Right now, he’s at a point where he’s too afraid to even let anything new into his life, lest he ruin it as well.
I identify a lot with the themes of depression and being stuck presented in BoJack. Because I know what it’s like to feel trapped and unable to get on with your life, I cheer on characters in similar situations who manage to slowly improve their lot. I’m always behind a character when they get out of their room and get a part-time job, and start taking the opportunities that life presents to them. Conversely, when they sabotage themselves, or ruin or deny those chances, it makes me sad and frustrated. I feel the same way with BoJack. I want to see him taking on new jobs and having new relationships, but usually he can’t help but ruin them.
Unhappily Ever After
Throughout this article, I’ve spoken about why we might want our TV anti-heroes to undergo their own personal redemption arcs. Often, their bad behaviour is painful and awkward to watch, and we want them to stop. Sometimes, we need them to prove that they are good people, so we can feel justified in liking them. Hopefully, we as viewers are also generally nice people who want to see the characters we like achieve happy and fulfilled lives.
But as we can see, that often doesn’t happen. In fact, for characters like these, it usually can’t happen. It’s not just that these characters are likely too far gone to ever redeem themselves – we as audiences could probably be forgiving of the most heinous crimes if we saw a glimmer of hope. It’s more that, if they did walk the path of redemption, what would be left?
The drama in all of these shows relies on their main character being broken people. Sustaining that brokenness for many seasons is often difficult – that’s why they tend to spiral into worse and worse situations, to keep us interested and coming back for more. And conversely, what would turn us off more than if those people fixed themselves, became inoffensive, even nice?
In one episode of House, Wilson suggests that House is afraid he would be nothing without his tortured genius. Would we, as the audience, find ourselves agreeing with that? Could we bear to watch a reformed and contrite Tony Soprano, or a genuinely recovering Nurse Jackie? We might find it a novelty for a few episodes, but it would not sustain our interest for long. We were drawn to these shows exactly because the main characters are dark, conflicted and morally ambiguous. As long as we enjoy watching their pain, they can never expect redemption.