The Criminal Character: Tommy Shelby, Walter White & The Audience Who Loves Them

Movies and TV have made the gangster kind of…sexy.

Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders. Tommy Darmody in Boardwalk Empire. Billy in The Departed (no, not a gangster, but pretending to be one). Ray Liotta in Goodfellas (yes, I’m serious…) Johnny Depp in Public Enemies. Nucky Thompson in Boardwalk Empire…

No. I’ll stop right there. Sorry Steve Buschemi, but ewww. Not even for a second.

The gangster as presented in movies and TV is physically magnetic and alluring, fodder late night fantasies. The bad boy who needs a good woman to tame him. The man who takes what he wants, without hesitation. Who comes home from his latest brawl with boo-boos that need to be mended…

But the appeal of the gangster is far deeper than that.

I was pondering this question as Cillian Murphy strutted down the gritty streets of early 20th century Birmingham in the second season of Peaky Blinders. I’m now in the fourth season and I absolutely love this series, like everyone else. And it dawned on me that I’ve been this place before–enraptured with a story about gangsters.

Some of my favorite movies and TV series revolve around this law-breaking characterBoardwalk Empire, The Departed, Public Enemies, Goodfellas, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, The Untouchables, Breaking Bad. Even Oscar (and if you haven’t heard of or seen this movie, your life is not complete).

I have a thing for criminals, apparently.

As I was admiring Tommy Shelby’s beautiful face, I asked myself: why? Why do I enjoy movies and TV shows about criminals? Why does anyone, because I am definitely not the only one.

Gangsters Reach for the Stars…By Breaking the Law

The first answer that came to my mind was that the gangster–or generally, the criminal–as dramatized in movies and TV, rises above society’s rules to take what he wants in life. We enjoy watching his successes because we, here in the real world, are tamed and obligated by those same rules.

And the gangster, of course, wants exactly what we want: happiness, achieved when our dreams are fulfilled and our daily struggles are over.

The beautiful house and a comfortable life. Freedom from a hated job, and the obligation to work that hated job. The safety and contentment of the people we love, and providing for those people. The ability to snap our fingers and get what we want or do what we want. Money often achieves all of these things.

In our normal, everyday lives, there are obstacles everywhere, preventing us from reaching these goals. We can’t get the job we want because of nepotism in the workplace. The bank won’t give us the loan we need to buy the nice house. Rules prevent us from moving forward as quickly or as easily as we want.

The trouble is, we all have our place in this world, based on where we were born and into what family and circumstances. Often, we only have so far to move from the place we start from, especially if that starting point is closer to the gutter. How far we go depends on our grit and determination. Only the extraordinary person can rise above challenging circumstances to reach their apex of their dreams. Legally, that is.

Not so for the gangster. Those rules don’t exist for him. He rises above society and its trappings to make his own rules and capture success on his terms. That is very appealing. Seen from this viewpoint, a life of crime is a kind of freedom (fictionally speaking).

Take Walter White in Breaking Bad. He spent his whole life doing things the right way, following the rules, even as he faced a terminal cancer diagnosis. Society put up a wall that he could not climb. So he went around that wall.

On the other side is something we rarely enjoy in real, everyday life: being on top and in control, a master of your own fate.

How Movies & TV Explore Light & Dark, Good & Evil, & Everything in Between

In all the gangster-themed TV and movies I’ve watched, such characters are used in two ways: to expose man’s utter cruelty and inhumanity, or to confuse the audience by revealing his many contradictory sides.

The gangster can do very bad things. But he’s also human. He wants what we want, and despite his evil acts we can empathize with him. It may be uncomfortable to admit, but the bad man can also have a good heart.

Richard Harrow in Boardwalk Empire is a serial killer. Let’s not mince words. He’s killed dozens of people and does so seemingly without hesitation or remorse. But when he’s alone in his room at night, he cuts out pictures of happy families and pastes them into a scrapbook, dreaming about what he believes he can never have: a normal life. Service in World War I stole that normal life from him, turning him into a sniper who couldn’t switch off that killer instinct when he got home. It also gave him a ghoulish face wound, which he covered up with a rather eerie prosthetic mask.

He’s a fan favorite, I believe because he was a contradiction. He had an evil side and yet he was a tender, broken man, who loved and cared for a young orphan, fell in love, and created a little family just like he dreamed. We rooted for him.

For this very reason, I’m excited for Tom Hardy’s upcoming Al Capone flick, Fonzo, which I expect will paint an unexpectedly sympathetic side to a famous psychopathic gangster.

This contradiction of good and evil is fascinating, because it lies in all of us. We all want simple, normal things, to be surrounded by people we love and to protect them,  and to achieve our dreams. But we could also become killers, if the circumstances were right. Light and dark is in all of us.

Of course, fiction gives us a miraculous gift: the ability to see and analyze all these different sides and hidden motivations. We aren’t afforded the same access in real life. We rarely know why people do things, and so are resigned to watch life unfold from the outside and shake our heads, utterly confused by the events around us.

But stories give us a good window into understanding inscrutable people. It allows us to empathize, to walk in the shoes of someone we normally wouldn’t understand, to find common ground.

And yes, it’s possible to find common ground with a criminal.

Featured image courtesy United States Bureau of Prisons [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Your Turn

Can you think of any other reasons why the gangster character is so appealing? If you  disagree, I’d love to hear why. If you have a favorite fictional criminal, tell me about him or her.

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