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Am I the Bad Guy?

In "Little House on the Prairie," the principal characters, Charles and Caroline Ingalls, could do no wrong. And if they ever did, they made reparations by the end of the 60 minutes. They are the good guys; Harriet Olesen is the bad guy. Easy peasy.

But this post is not about an anti-hero. This post is about the bad guy in your story and the bad guy in you.

That's right. I'm talking about your sh*tty qualities: the parts of you that are less than perfect.

LHOTP is not a fair example of the do-gooder protagonist. Along with its buddies "The Waltons" and "Leave it to Beaver" it has the quintessential "cheese" factor of family goodness. The lines are clearly drawn. Sure, even Harriet Olesen has her okay moments, but still: Charles = good; Harriet = bad.

But what happens when it's less obvs who the bad guy is? "Breaking Bad" and "The Americans," two excellent one-hour dramas, get close to greying the black-and-white of hero and bad guy. Analyses of "Breaking Bad" label Walter White an "anti-hero," but even that may be too kind. The show leaves us wondering, "Am I rooting for the bad guy?" And in "The Americans," we're sometimes left wondering if the Russians were on the right side all along.

Thanks to having Covid, I just finished binge-watching the Netflix series Ozark. Marty and Wendy Byrde are the parents: the Charles and Caroline Ingalls of the show. (That is, if Charles and Caroline laundered money for a Mexican drug cartel.) While watching "Ozark," I kept asking myself, "So is Wendy the bad guy, and Marty the good guy? And if Marty gets rid of her in the story's structural climax, will the world be set straight?" Of course this bias has nothing to do with my decades-long dislike for Laura Linney (note: there is absolutely no basis for my dislike of her- I don't know her personally and I think she's a fine actor) and my lifelong love of Jason Bateman (note: there is absolutely no basis for my love of JB- I don't know him personally, and he definitely pawned me off on his friend when I hit on him at the Bowery Bar in the 90s.)

Things got even more confusing when I would watch other characters in "Ozark" tell Marty he was evil, and I was like, "They must be the bad guy because they think our hero is bad!" And then it dawned on me- in a show with such complicated and well-developed characters, it's just not that simple.

One morning, while I was basking in the sunshine in my Covid quarantine, my husband curtly informed me that I had put trash in the recycling bin. He was (understandably) not thrilled, as he's the garbage man in the family. My first thought was, "Why does he have to make me out to be the bad guy? I'm not bad!" And I thought of all these reasons why it was an easy mistake to make, and any perfect person, such as myself, could have made such an error, and how it's probably his fault anyway. And then I walked over to the recycling bin in question, to see if I was justified, and the damn thing was halfway filled with cans only. Clearly cans only. I was the bad guy.

I know, I know, I'm being a little dramatic. I'm a good person. I have my flaws, but a good person all the same. And yet I am still capable of taking something that is so obviously garbage and dropping it in a bin that is so obviously recycling.

A good guy can do bad things.

I surprised myself when I realized that Wendy Byrde was not the "bad guy." To almost everyone else in the story she was, but from our perspective (and from the perspective of the protagonist Byrde family) she was ultimately a "good guy."

To professional garbage men, I might be a "bad guy." But to my protagonist family, I'm a pretty good guy.

Just because you stole donuts from the supermarket, or lied to your friend, or laundered money for a Mexican drug cartel, it doesn't necessarily make you a "bad guy." And just because your protagonist is your protagonist doesn't mean they don't do bad things.

Make your protagonist (at least) a little bit bad. Because if they're not, they won't be real like you.


Post-script fun facts:

  • Jason Bateman (Marty Byrde, "Ozark") was also in "Little House on the Prairie" as James Cooper

  • Julia Garner (Ruth Langmore, "Ozark") was also in "The Americans" as Kimberly Breland.

  • Richard Thomas (Nathan Davis, "Ozark") was also in "The Americans" as Frank Gaad, and "The Waltons" as John-Boy Walton.

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