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.