Here’s an uncomfortable truth about people: There are times when we want bad things to happen. Not consciously—at least for most of us—but in a deep, dark cavern of our animal brains. We have a slight, tangible craving for death, destruction and chaos.
Let’s start with a relatively harmless example. You’re at a high-school baseball game. The player at bat hits a foul ball, and you watch it fly toward the parking lot. When the ball is at the peak of its parabola, you have a flash of insight: It might hit a car. In that first moment of realization, what is your deepest desire? Which outcome do you really want?
If somebody paused time and gave you a choice—do you want this ball to smash a window, or land harmlessly on the pavement—most reasonable people would choose the path of least destruction. We’re stable folks who want a stable society, and we’ve been trained through years of evolution to create order and promote community. In general, we wouldn’t wish random difficulty or pain on anybody. That’s why we don’t run around murdering people all the time.
But back to that moment, as the ball starts its descent. This is real life, and nobody is stopping time for your benefit. You can’t intellectualize or equivocate. So be honest: What do you feel?
Speaking only for myself, I know there’s a part of me that hopes fervently to hear the shattering of a windshield as the ball plummets to earth. At that instant of first realization, there’s only space in my brain for two elements—ball and car—and my gut reaction is that I want those two elements to collide. I want that thrill. Sure, I’ll feel guilty if it actually happens, but guilt comes later. And if the ball lands safely between two cars? My immediate emotion isn’t relief; it’s disappointment.
Forget baseball, because a shattered windshield is pretty minor in the grand scheme of disasters. What about two strangers gearing up for a fight on the street? With time to think, I’ll do everything in my power to stop them without endangering myself (yes, I’m selfish), but—and again, I’m trying to be totally honest here—the initial idea that they might exchange blows is exciting.
There are a thousand examples of this desire that we call “bloodlust.” It’s not the perfect word, since blood isn’t always in the recipe, but it works as a catch-all for the hidden desire to watch things collide.
Ask yourself this: Why do people at a Nascar race root for a crash, though they’d be horrified if someone was seriously injured or killed? Why do we gather in fascination when a fire burns a home to the ground, and save our empathy for the aftermath? Why is it so viscerally satisfying to turn on the news during a war and see the green night-vision footage of a bomber hitting its target on enemy soil, even if you feel deeply depressed by the reality that tomorrow’s footage will include the bodies of innocent victims?
The answer to those questions is, “I don’t know.” Maybe it’s evolutionary; maybe the amount of fighting required for survival in the early days of humanity made these faint traces of bloodlust valuable. (And, okay, maybe it’s worth mentioning that this atavistic urge is probably stronger in men, who still reign after all these centuries as the least sensible gender.) But the origin doesn’t really matter, because we can’t change it. What matters is that it exists, and that it probably propels us all on a subconscious level to do some pretty stupid things.
Which is why art can be such an important mitigating factor. It’s fashionable in some corners to blame youth violence on video games, or movies, or rap lyrics. Even as adults, there’s a good deal of hand-wringing when it comes to how we face evil on screen. Breaking Bad provided a good recent case study when loads of critics and viewers wasted their precious time struggling with what it meant to be rooting for Walter White. He was, after all, a man who ruined lives through drugs, murder, betrayal, and etc. In real life, he would be a menace and we’d want him locked behind bars. But in the show, we couldn’t help taking his side; he was just so damn interesting! Did it make us complicit in his crimes when we rooted for him to escape all retribution and continue laying waste to the southeast?
NO, IT DID NOT!
Pardon the caps and exclamations. That probably wasn’t necessary, and I’m sorry if I startled you. But the truth is that I wanted to take those anxious critics and shake them by the lapels until the baggage of their reservations hit the ground with a resounding thud.
“This is your chance!” I wanted to yell in their terrified faces. “This is where you indulge that buried bloodlust you’ve been cooping up your entire lives! You no longer have to consider the welfare of your fellow man! This show matters to you because it’s a great show, but at the same time there are no stakes. None. Zero zip nada zilch. Why? Because it’s a television show! That’s the beauty of this operation, Mr. Concerned Viewer. You have total freedom now. You are completely liberated to root for Walter to decapitate every one of his enemies one by one because nobody is actually dying? Do you hate Skyler? Do you hate Flynn? Do you hate Hank? Root for them to die. Seriously, do it. Root for them to get killed on camera, because that is your right as someone who partakes in a work of art that has zero real-world implications.”
As you can tell by that fictional rant (another benefit of made-up scenarios: In real life, I probably would have been arrested and committed in the middle of that monologue, but instead I’m still sitting here at my desk, happy as a clam, eating Corn Chex), I don’t see art as something that inspires us to horrible acts, but rather as a safe place to let our dark impulses run free. It’s an escape outlet, one which is far more likely to diminish the pent-up frustrations that cause actual tragedies than it is to instigate them. I probably take art more seriously than the majority of my peers, but I despise the notion that you should ever be ashamed of the feelings it inspires. That’s where censorship comes from, because it’s only a short logical leap from questioning your feelings to wondering if maybe those feelings should be legislated.
Not that I’m calling the Breaking Bad hand-wringers would-be censors. I get where they’re coming from. I’ve had moments like that myself, where I think, “Shane, what deep sickness of the soul makes you wish anything but swift punishment for Walter White?” But the fact is, I’m glad I’m asking the question. Maybe I’ll learn something about myself, and if not, I’ll at least recognize some buried instinct that should probably be tempered out there in the real world. That’s one purpose of art: To teach us about ourselves in a safe space, where we don’t have to risk anything except a little self-criticism. We should be grateful that somebody is shining that light for us. Art is wonderful.
While we’re on the topic, here are some other things that are okay to root for in modern television:
*It’s okay to root for Jaime Lannister to survive and thrive in Game of Thrones, even though his first act on the show was the attempted murder of an innocent child.
*It’s okay to root for Don Draper to cheat on his wives in Mad Men, even though real-life adultery is a negative force that can only contribute to someone’s destruction.
*It’s okay to root for Piper to kick the evangelical wacko’s ass in Orange is the New Black, even though it means she’ll be in jail longer and it’s probably not a healthy reaction.
I could go on. At the heart of bloodlust is a fascination with conflict, whether that conflict is between a baseball and a windshield, a fire and a home, or two people who want to kill each other. And conflict is also at the heart of drama. It’s the sine qua non, and we shouldn’t feel ashamed when it reels us in.
Which brings me to The Walking Dead. The new season starts on Sunday, and while I’m never sure whether this is a legitimately good drama or just the guilty pleasure of all time, that inner debate doesn’t diminish my excitement. I want to see some zombies get kilt, you guys. But you know what else I want to see?
I want to see my favorite character, The Governor.
[Warning: Spoilers from previous seasons ahead!]
As I describe The Governor, you’ll probably get the creeps. He lost his family in the zombie apocalypse, but rather than struggle to fight evil and pursue the path of righteousness, he succumbed to his demons. He kept his daughter alive in case anyone came up with a cure, which is kind of sweet in an awful way, but he also surrounds himself with the preserved heads of his enemies, kills anyone who presents even a slight threat, and masks it all with a disturbing veneer of southern chivalry.
He was so charismatic, in fact, that he became the leader of a town called Woodbury, which was actually a pretty nice place by dystopian standards (like a lot of tyrants, he’s good at the details). His people looked to him as something approaching a messiah. But when he finally lost to Rick and the gang in the big battle at the end of last season, he responded to the low morale of his people by murdering most of them in a blind rage. He’s a crazy, evil sadist, and in real life he’d be a holy terror.
But in Walking Dead life? He’s amazing. And that’s due largely to David Morrissey, whose portrayal is so confident, so eerie, and so oddly charming that I’m ready to declare him the second-greatest Morrissey in world history (after Stephen, of course). In a show with more than its share of bad actors (Rick and Andrea, please step forward), Morrissey is a virtuoso. He’s the perfect villain, and everything is more alive, more electric, and more interesting when he’s on screen. I want to see him burn everything to the ground, and I was secretly thrilled that he didn’t die at the end of last season.
And for the record, the show runners felt the same way; like the magnetic Walton Goggins (Boyd Crowder) in FX’s Justified, Morrissey was originally signed for a short contract, but was so compelling that they knew he had to stay. It’s not totally clear how much screen time he’ll get this season, but if there’s any justice, The Governor will figure prominently. You can bet that I’ll be rooting for him, and I won’t waste even a second feeling guilty. Call it bloodlust, or just a love of conflict, but we need The Governor. He puts us in touch with something dark in our souls, and lets us analyze and confront that submerged wickedness from the safety of our couch.
Make no mistake: This is therapy. The more we explore the ominous appetites of the id, the more likely we’ll triumph over them when it really matters. The artistic villains of the world are reinforcing our morality, one atrocity at a time. How can you not root for that?