The Nature of Fictional Evil

When I was a small child, enamoured of Star Wars, my mother posed the question: How can we tell which side is good, and which evil? I remember the question clearly, but I can only guess at my answer: Darth Vader exudes an evil vibe, and casually kills those who oppose or fail him – pegging him as evil isn’t hard. It isn’t always so clear-cut, and a lot of modern drama is specifically designed to live in a zone of moral ambiguity. Is Tony Soprano evil? Stringer Bell? Heisenberg? Even if Heisenberg is, what about Walter White? 

Tony Soprano’s ambiguity is explained by Robin D Laws as a dramatic conflict, between being a family man and being a Family Man. Home versus Business. I’m not sure that Laws draws a moral distinction in either, but the general values of society would suggest that his family aligns with positive moral ideas, his criminal associates with negative ones. How we resolve an overall judgement might be determined by a weighting of these two “Dramatic Poles”. Yet, I think we can look at Tony Soprano in both modes as expressing a fundamentally undesirable personal characteristic: a sense of entitlement. Tony Soprano feels entitled to the support of his wife, the love of his children, and a kick-back from every criminal enterprise in his domain. All his actions are pervaded by the notion that he deserves more. His view of the world is completely asymmetrical. There is a certain fundamental selfishness that underpins the character, and if that doesn’t make him exactly Demonic, it certainly rules out that he’d ever be considered for the side of the Angels.

I think this is one of the things that makes The Wire so much more compelling than other shows of similar craftsmanship. I like The Wire better than The Sopranos because the characters that you might think of as evil are generally self-aware about their own imperatives. Stringer Bell doesn’t feel like the world owes him anything – that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want whatever he can get, just that he isn’t blind to his own nature in the way that Tony Soprano is. The characters act out of self-interest, but not out of a sense of entitlement.

Darth Vader is the same. He makes deals, such as with Lando, but he feels able to change those deals whenever he likes because of his greater power, and because he feels that being a Sith puts him above others in a morally absolute way. Not an easy man to work for, or do business with.

Taking this perspective can help explain the moral character of some fairly difficult literary figures, such as Londo Molari. I have met few fans of the show that don’t love Molari, but that can be a difficult position to justify sometimes. He is the liaison with the Shadows, who are clearly evil, and he is the finger-man in the warn with the Narn. There is no way to evade his culpability in the atrocities committed by his regime. In gross plot terms, he exhibits the kind of overtly evil behaviour for which we would condemn a Darth Vader. However, the clues to his morality are also clearly on display if you’re looking for them, and are even spelled out explicitly in A Voice In the Wilderness, when Londo is described as meeting the Third Principle For Sentient Life: Self Sacrifice. When, a season later, we see Londo watching the mass-drivers destroy Narn, we recognise that he has sacrificed himself along with the Narn, for the good of his people. His ultimate fate as the Puppet Emperor is the finishing touch on a sacrifice that began when he first met Morden.

Londo may do overtly evil things, but they derive from the opposite of entitlement: self sacrifice, and so while we disapprove, we can understand, even sympathise, with the steps that led to his terrible actions. Londo’s Road to Hell is one that was paved with Good Intentions.

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