A tragic hero for the modern day screen

There are few well-written, tragic characters on the screen these days.  While we often sympathize with characters who suffer terribly, we feel a familiar pity for them, and only rarely go through the catharsis meant to be induced by tragedy: shedding an embarrassed tear in a movie theatre, or sobbing uncontrollably in the comfort of our own home. We are comforted by this “release” of our emotions, or even by the reminder that our own circumstances aren’t so bad after all.
So what is the difference between tragic characters who are “familiar” and those that tap into true emotion? Do universally tragic characters exist? And what determines whether that character will resonate on a personal level? Going back to the classics, a tragic character is defined by his or her tragic flaw, and also by his or her potential for greatness. They must “fall” from an elevated place in order for the tragedy to be more fully realized. Typical tragic characters from the classical cannon are Oedipus, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, while more modern ones can be found in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, or in many of Ernest Hemingway’s novels.
One of the best written tragic characters is Shakespeare’s King Lear. With Lear, we feel a deeper sense of pity than with other characters. Perhaps it is his age, or that he was once a great leader who lost it all in the end, including his own mind. Or maybe it is the undying faith of his daughter Cordelia, who even after he exiles her, returns to save her father from the torment of her sisters. This in itself is an indication of the man Lear must once have been – a loving father, a powerful soldier, a husband. Regardless of what it is, this character taps into a different, more profound sympathy that is difficult to put into words.
Even though Shakespeare was writing hundreds of years ago, modern tragedies tend to focus on similar topics: war, family relationships, death, and loss of purpose or identity. Boardwalk Empire, now in its second season, is not a tragedy in the classical sense, but it has its fair share of tragic characters. The most moving of these is Richard Harrow, played by British actor Jack Huston. Similar to Lear, Harrow evokes emotion more deeply than what we are accustomed to. Aptly named, as he is truly harrowing, this supporting character is a young WWI veteran who ends up in Atlantic City after he is befriended by one of the main characters, Jimmy Darmody.
Once a dapper soldier, Harrow is also one of the most recognizable characters, as he wears a mask on half of his face to cover up a tragic war injury. Despite the attempt to make the mask “match” the rest of Harrow’s face, it is poorly made, and his face looks slightly askew. The face plate is held in place by his glasses, and has hair to match his moustache – it is made somewhat ridiculous, evoking even more sympathy for this sensitive young gentleman who fought honourably for his country.
Harrow rarely looks people in the eyes, and struggles to speak, drink and eat, embarrassed by his affliction. Even though he is more comfortable without it, Harrow is fearful of removing the mask because of the effect it has on other people. While sleeping mask-less on a couch in the female protagonist’s home, her children run out of the room screaming in fear.
Yet, we can see that Harrow still cares about his appearance: he dresses nicely, takes good care of himself, and is physically fit. And the only thing he wants out of life is the love of a family. This is where writers Nelson Johnson and Terence Winter have done an expert job in tragic depiction – Harrow travels light, but is never without his talisman. It is an old book, plastered with magazine images of families: wives cooking dinner, children playing with their dads. A woman with which to share his life is Harrow’s ultimate dream, a dream that his friend Jimmy, with his wife and young son, takes advantage of again and again. Similar to Lear, Harrow desires a simple life after all he has suffered. But the audience knows deep down how difficult this will be for him to find, and we see that Harrow knows it when he attempts to take his own life.
It would be very easy to make this character more laughable than tragic; however, Jack Huston is a superb actor who captures the gentle, fragile and kind nature of Harrow, while creating mannerisms that never fail to highlight the difficulties of this man’s life.
It is rare to feel so genuinely for a television character, but Johnson and Winter have managed to achieve this with the character of Richard Harrow. They have written an uncommon tragic hero who is so very real, and who achieves a deeper connection to human suffering. He is just one example of how far television writing has come in recent years.

Women in the 1960s according to Mad Men

I have a slight addiction to watching television shows on DVD, and my most recent obsession is Mad Men. Although I watched the first season when it first came out in 2007, I was put off by the protagonist, Don Draper. He came across as having little to no redeeming qualities, and I found him hard to identify with. But with all the buzz and awards attributed to the show, I decided to give it a second chance. Now, I can’t get enough of it, and find various excuses to watch it instead of doing work, and to bring it up as a point of conversation. Sadly, many people haven’t seen it! Perhaps I can convince you otherwise.

As a starting point, I think it’s important to note the time period in which the show is set: the 1960s. It was an era jam-packed with historical significance; the unprecedented changes in race relations, politics, fashion, gender roles, science and technology, and social customs make a perfect recipe for any dramatic screenwriter. Yet, it would be very easy to do this all wrong. For example, the movie Down with Love. Despite the fact that I really do love this movie, it satirizes the drama of the 1960s, particularly Betty Frieden’s The Feminine Mystique, with a fairy tale ending in which female empowerment is complete.

However, Mad Men takes a more realistic look at the challenges of womanhood at the time, identifying how difficult it is for many women to take control of their desires (both physically and intellectually), in a society still mostly ruled by men. Perfectly sexy Joan Holloway is the “ideal” secretary: she is discreet, pro-active, and has a rack that makes Pamela Anderson look bad. The ad men therefore love her, and many of them tumble over their words just looking at her. Joan’s character takes control of all situations according to her job description, but when she is asked to help with reading television scripts as a favour, this task is quickly taken away from her when they hire a male associate to do the job. Although we see that both Harry Crane and his clients acknowledge her job well-done, Joan is still put aside and plopped right back into her place as a secretary.

Women also struggle with their sexuality, and the many mixed messages in the media do little to help this. Peggy lacks Joan’s sex appeal, and strives to be more like her. When she asks Joan for advice, she tells her to stop dressing like a twelve-year-old girl, while the one “outed” member of the ad team cuts Peggy’s hair without her permission so that she can look sexier. Meanwhile, Peggy is on the creative team, writing copy for advertisements, yet still feels that she must portray sex appeal in order to be accepted. She even sings “Bye Bye Birdie” in front of the mirror, mimicking Ann-Margret whom all the men at the agency love, in her attempts to change.

These are only a few examples of the many nuances and social commentaries seen in the show, and despite my bias Mad Men certainly appeals equally to both sexes. The men will be drawn to the male camaraderie of the advertising world – a world filled with whiskey and women – while women will be drawn to the variety of female characters who struggle through a stereotypical men’s world, but with the luxury of having fabulous outfits.