A Study in Scarlet: Embracing Life While Arranging Death

Scenes from The Godfather, Breaking Bad, and Narcos explore killing time. Literally.

No one is entirely evil. That’s the problem with evil, it’s all too human and as such it’s never the only facet of a person, but rather is balanced by some amount of goodness or empathy, however minuscule. And in the realm of evil that exists outside mental illness – that is sociopathy, psychopathy et cetera – evil, like greatness, isn’t necessarily something people are born with as much as it is something thrust upon them by environment, upbringing, or duty. Take fictional mafia boss Michael Corleone from The Godfather, real-life drug lord Pablo Escobar as depicted on Narcos, or chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-cook Walter White of Breaking Bad fame: none of these men are evil, per se, as much as they are in professions that make them do evil things. Yes, it’s true that each of these men elected, to one degree or another, to be in said professions – Corleone the least of them, as his profession is inherited – but that doesn’t change the parts of them who came before they were crime bosses or kingpins, the parts of them that remain decent and that in times of the necessary evil their jobs dictate, flare to the surface.

These sparks of goodness in the midst of evil are what most define characters like this and these men in particular, and are what make them plausible as protagonists despite their unlikable descriptions. Such moments define their humanity, they reveal the tough exteriors to be just that, exteriors, while inside beat normal human hearts that strain and even occasionally ache for the things the worlds in which they live force them to do.

More: Empathy for the Devil: Nightcrawler and the Antihero

To illustrate this conflict of conscience, editor Mikolaj Kacprzak has selected three comparable scenes from The Godfather, Narcos (season 2, episode 2), and Breaking Bad (season 5, episode 8). In each, the protagonist is killing time while executions he arranged and hired out are taking place. How these men conduct themselves away from the action as it all goes down reveals more about them than if they had committed the crimes themselves. Michael Corleone stood as godfather during his sister’s son’s baptism as the Five Families War came to a bloody end with the execution of all the rival bosses; Pablo Escobar danced, sang, and canoodled with his wife Tata as miles away in Medellin police officers were executed in scores under his orders; and Walter White stared through, or into, his reflection in a window of his empty house as in a federal prison threats against him were eliminated in a highly-choreographed mass murder.

The former two men celebrate life while commanding death – perhaps to push their nefarious deeds from mind, perhaps to cancel out the emotional weight of them – and the latter contemplates the kind of life his has become. Though their responses vary, the implications of each are the same: the evil that men do isn’t always of their will, even when seems to be; there are men inside monsters as there are monsters inside men and it is the juxtaposed balance or imbalance of these warring personas where the character ultimately exists.

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