Television has entered a new age of antiheroes: Whether played for laughs or deadly serious, viewers can’t help rooting for a generation of morally gray troublemakers whose transgressions can be more appealing than appalling, viewing them as misguided underdogs who’ve lost their way. Yet, goodness still seems within their grasp, and for the actors who play them, redeeming these rogues is sometimes a tantalizing prospect — and sometimes beside the point.
“Loki’s” Tom Hiddleston relishes exploring redemptive possibilities for the fan-favorite Norse god of mischief (who occasionally flirts with altruism) that he’s played for over a decade in Marvel Studios films and now on Disney Plus.
“I understand the audience sees good in Loki — they want him to get past his internal and external obstacles,” he says. “They want him to repair that relationship with his brother and step into the hero that he can be.”
Although Loki long masked his alienation by casting himself as a grandiose, conquering villain, feeling compassion from allies Mobius (Owen Wilson) and Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) makes him reconsider his destiny, says Hiddleston.
“He realizes, ‘Actually, I can choose my path and choose to do the right thing. Or I choose, at least, not to repeat the same old tricks that I repeated over and over in a cycle of trust and betrayal.’ It’s exciting to retain all the characteristics that makes Loki, Loki, and at the same time to play slightly different music within him,” he says.
When reprising his signature role in “Dexter: New Blood,” Michael C. Hall was intrigued to pick up the titular serial killer Dexter Morgan years later as an isolated being who is now both less willing to rationalize his dark compulsions and remorseful of the consequences — the death of many of his loved ones — of his actions.
“He’s someone who’s been contending with the collateral damage of his behavior,” says Hall. “If Dexter were a total sociopath, he would’ve disappeared from Miami and just continued killing. But the fact is, he hasn’t. He has some sense of responsibility that he’s taking. He’s telling himself a story about himself that is quite different from the one he was telling when we met him way back when. He does refer to himself as a monster, but an evolving monster.”
Whether redemption is on the table for a character such as Dexter still remains to be seen. Hall notes that he is “contending with a desire to cultivate some access to purity and then a shadow desire to just completely surrender to his dark impulses in a way that he never has.”
One character who unfortunately doesn’t stand a chance at redemption is Murray Bartlett’s Armond in “The White Lotus.” The hotel manager died before he could make amends for careening down a slippery slope of drugs, lies, sexual transgressions and an act of aggressive defecation. Still, he demonstrated “vulnerability underneath, a real struggle with his own demons and a total frustration at the insane world that he’s in, taking care of these really obnoxious, privileged guests,” Bartlett says. “He’s a symptom of that system that we can all relate to. He’s representative of this part of us that says, ‘Whoa, this is madness, this societal game that we’re keeping up that’s not good for anybody, really. I forgive him because I completely understand it.”
In playing “American Rust’s” compromised sheriff who crosses multiple moral and ethical lines in the name of love, Jeff Daniels says he’s never called upon to overtly court audience favor.
“[I’m not] stopping to remind the audience, ‘Remember, you like me, right?’” says Daniels. “I really like the guys that are all in and you’re pulling for them to maybe get away with this: ‘Oh my God — I’m pulling for a guy to get away with murder!’ We want you to want this guy to get away with it — and that’s wrong for the audience, but it’s right for the story.”
What complicates matters is that Daniels’ character still has a “good heart, good intentions and love for Grace,” the actor notes. “That doesn’t change, no matter what happens or what he does.”
On the flip side, Nick Mohammed’s Nate in the second season of “Ted Lasso” lashes out at his boss, the titular Ted (Jason Sudeikis) as a result of “really hurting for a load of reasons — ultimately, probably because of the toxic relationship with his dad.” His heart may have darkened a bit, and revealing that was “nerve-wracking, anticipating the audience reaction to it, but equally quite thrilling” for the actor.
But Mohammed doesn’t believe Nate is a lost cause: “He tears up a lot, he stares at himself in the mirror a lot. I think that that is him looking at himself thinking, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ And if he’s thinking that, then maybe he’ll see that he’s not doing the right thing and come back to the good side.”
While these characters have been partially pushed to bad behavior by external circumstances, Oliver (Martin Short) on “Only Murders in the Building” is a narcissist, which leads to a neglectful parental dynamic and unloading a barrage of barbed put-downs.
“Playing a jerk while pretending to not be a jerk is a great level to play,” Short says, recalling a long string of “asshole” characters from “SCTV’s” Jackie Rogers Jr. and “Saturday Night Live’s” Nathan Thurm. “The trick is, how do you convey that this is the plight of a narcissist, but not an evil narcissist? He’s preoccupied with himself and his career and under pressure because he’s going broke, but you have to believe that when he’s with his son, he loves his son, and his son loves him.”
Bonding with the next generation can help turn a former antagonist into a more well-rounded character, as is the case with “Cobra Kai’s” Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). He isn’t “consciously trying to find redemption as much as he’s trying to find himself without the Cobra Kai blanket on him,” the actor says. “He’s trying to rewind time and go back to the belly of where this all started and undo all these knots.”
A turning point comes when Johnny realizes he no longer needs to subscribe to the “No Mercy” credo. “What a great thing to play: somebody becoming conscious of himself,” Zabka says. “He just wants his kid back, he wants love, and he wants to run a dojo without any interference — [to] live a nice, simple life. But he’s got a long way to go there.”