An awesome writer named Chuck Wendig recently wrote a blog post on his site, terribleminds, about how the best antagonists are the ones you love to hate, or hate to love. Check it out. Be aware, however, Chuck works in profanity the way some artists work in oils (Thank you, Ralphie “Christmas Story” Parker.). But his advice about the writing craft is spot on. And his books are even better.
Anyway, the blog post got me thinking about characters you love to hate/hate to love. TV drama has produced two legendary poster children for these antagonists: J.R. Ewing from the legendary seventies/eighties nighttime soap “Dallas” (and the reboot airing on TNT this summer), and Walter White from “Breaking Bad”, a show many have called the best drama on TV. Ever.
J.R. Ewing was an unscrupulous, Texas oil baron who would do anything – lie, cheat, blackmail, screw over his own family – to protect his oil company. Walter White was a brilliant chemist stuck in an underpaid high school teaching job diagnosed with cancer. Desperate to provide for his family, he embarks on a new career; meth manufacturing. Over four seasons of lying, dealing, manipulating, and killing, Walt has degenerated into an unrepentent criminal.
J.R. was the original character “we love to hate,” yet, when he was shot, the question “Who Shot J.R.?” consumed American culture in a way that “Misfits of Science” could only dream of. Walt debuted as a fifty-year-old doormat and last season declared, “I am the danger.”
I wanted to get inside the heads of these two men. Imagine my luck when both happened to be in town last week and accepted my invitation to dinner. What follows is some of our conversation.
ME: Once again, guys, thanks for sitting down with me. I’m a big fan of both your shows. Why don’t we order and then we can get to the heart of the matter. What’ll you have J.R.?
EWING: Steak, my boy. T-bone. Rare.
ME: And you, Walt?
WHITE: Well, I’ll just go with a PB & J. Crusts cut off please.
ME: OK, then. Wine, anyone?
J.R.: Fill ‘er up.
WHITE (squinting, slight nod): Fine.
ME: Gentlemen, you’re both very busy, I know…
J.R.: Well, you got that right. That oil’s not going to pump itself.
WHITE: I’m in no rush.
ME: So you don’t mind answering some questions, Mr. White?
WHITE: I didn’t say that…but Walt is fine.
ME: Right, then. I’ll get right to the point. You’re both classic “characters we love to hate.”
WHITE: I’m not sure I agree with that premise…
J.R.: It’s all just business, son…
ME: Mr. Ewing, you enabled your wife Sue Ellen to become a drunk, had her committed and even once had yourself committed for a business deal. You’ve blackmailed your associates, consorted with shady thugs, and sold out your family in the name of Ewing oil. You’ve set your own son up to fail and have tried to steal your family home out from under your brother.
J.R.: Well, when you put it that way…
WHITE: Family first. Business second.
J.R.: Steady, Heisenberg. Cancer faker.
WHITE (angry, but controlled): I did not fake my cancer. If you’ve ever been close to death, you’d know that’s not something to take lightly.
J.R.: I’ve been shot like, what is it? Five times already. But I always come back.
ME: You haven’t been shot, have you, Walt?
WHITE: No. I’m careful. No unnecessary risks. No putting the family in harm’s way.
J.R.: So, that makes you dad of the year.
ME: That’s a good point, Walt. You didn’t like to your wife and son about the cancer, but you’ve lied about everything else. The drugs. The murder. Everything. You once stripped down in a grocery store and claimed to have been in a “fugue state” to cover having disappeared for two days because of a problem with a rival drug dealer.
J.R.: Can’t believe I’m having dinner with a small time drug pusher.
WHITE (calmly): I made $7 million last year. Last I heard, you lost your oil company to your greatest lifelong rival Cliff Barnes and were living off you brother who despises you.
J.R.: Well, my son…
WHITE: Hates you too.
J.R.: He’s still got some maturing to do.
ME: What about Walter Jr., Walt? And baby Holly?
WHITE (smiles a little): My son, he goes by Flynn, by the way. He’s wonderful. Holly is an angel.
ME: Think you’ll ever take them into the “family business”, so to speak, like J.R. has with John Ross?
J.R.: The whole point of being in business, after all is to build up a legacy for the family.
WHITE: No. Next question.
J.R.: So why do what you do then?
WHITE: Because I can.
ME: You’re not afraid?
WHITE (shrugs): I’m the one who knocks.
J.R. (raising his glass to toast): Now THAT, I understand. The world is littered with the bodies of people that tried to stick it to ole J.R. Ewing.
ME: So, then, is all this just about…power?
(J.R. and Walt toast each other.)
J.R.: Now you’re gettin’ it, son.