Thursday, October 29, 2015

Twisted Love: The Sharpes of Crimson Peak

Spoilers Alert!

For the film Crimson Peak director Guillermo del Toro said he wanted to take the classic Gothic Romance story and twist it.  As an example he pointed out that it’s not necessarily the woman who needs rescuing by the man, but the reverse.  Whether he realizes it or not he also put twists on the classic concept of the serial killer couple.  While the one in Crimson Peak realistically follows the basics of how these sorts of pairings function it also subverts the cliches found in most fictional portrayals for a fresh take. …But before I continue please note, if you’ve not seen the film, there will be lots of spoilers to come…

…Seriously, I’m going to reveal plot points and secrets…

…Last chance…

Okay, if you read past this, it’s your fault!!

At its most basic Crimson Peak is about a young American woman, Edith Cushing, who falls in love with a man named Sir Thomas Sharpe, marries him, and moves into his super spooky rundown mansion with him and his sister, Lucille, in England.  There Edith starts seeing way too many ghosts for one’s own comfort or sanity and decides to investigate.  It’s a pretty straightforward plot honestly, but what Edith discovers is anything but.  Without realizing it she’s stumbled right into the web of a serial killer couple.

To keep themselves afloat in their dilapidated castle of Allerdale Hall the Sharpe siblings have turned to an effective, if unorthodox, method of gathering funds.  Thomas woos and marries wealthy women with no familial or social ties, brings them back to Allerdale Hall, and the two bilk them out of their inheritance as his sister poisons them.  By the time the women are dead the Sharpes have all their money and the bodies are tossed into vats of liquid red clay for disposal.  When the money runs out the two do it again somewhere else.

The method of seduction into marriage and then murder has been used frequently enough by other killers that there are names for it - females are known as black widows and males as bluebeard killers.  Females more frequently use this method and rarely does it involve two people working together, but there have been two major cases of it recorded - in both cases the two were women and, in one, sisters.  The sibling black widows were Catherine Flanagan and Margaret  Higgins who killed not just husbands, but other relations and lodgers in their home, for what was basically insurance money.  Interesting trivia: Catherine and Margaret were actually active just about twenty years prior to when the majority of Crimson Peak takes place - the sisters killed in 1880-1883, the Sharpes are killing up until 1901.

In the vast majority of killer pairs there is a dominant person and a more submissive one; the dominant drives the murders and calls the shots - when, where, how, who - while the submissive, well, submits.  In the case of male-female killer couples the dominant is typically the man, but that is decidedly not the case with the Sharpes.  While it does seem that Thomas picks the women - when Lucille questions his choice in Edith it’s implied that he also picked previous brides-to-die - that’s about all he does.  It is Lucille that is consistently pushing things forward, insisting they must go through with their plans immediately, and that they have to keep doing it over and over.  She's the one who insists on staying at Allerdale Hall, that the only way to keep going is to do these murders, and that Thomas has to stay with (and loyal to) her.  Just like the men in these murderous couples - such as Gerald Gallego who bullied his wife, Charlene, into luring girls to kidnap and be his sex slaves - Lucille is the one driving the murders with demands Thomas bring in new victims to satisfy her darker desires.  She's the dominant; her needs are taking precedence over Thomas’.  (It’s likely she is also the one that instigated and continues their incestuous relationship since their pre/early teens…she killed her mother to keep it going, after all.)

Another unique aspect of their murderous relationship is the roles taken within the context of the crimes themselves.  No matter the motive it is the male that most often commits the actual murder while the woman most often lures the victims, but with Thomas and Lucille the opposite occurs.  One could claim that it is Lucille who murders the women only because poison is used - which is considered a more “feminine” method given it’s hands-off, requiring no physicality - but she doesn’t just poison.  She hatchets, bashes, and stabs victims; Lucille seems not only skilled at violence, but to enjoy it.  Even without Thomas I’ve little doubt she’d have developed into a serial killer between the cold, hard, logic of her murders and the enraged outbursts of violence when things don't go her way.  She also does something that serial killers are well-known for…she keeps trophies.  In a private drawer Lucille has a collection of hair clippings from each of her victims.  She may claim to Thomas and others that it’s all about the money (and not getting caught), but the fact is Lucille enjoys killing.

Thomas, on the other hand, is not truly capable of any violence on his own.  When told to get rid of a previous victim’s dog he puts it outside rather than kill it outright; even when pressed by Lucille to kill someone he asks the victim where to stab that won’t actually be fatal.  This alone sets him apart from most submissive partners found in killer couples as there’s rarely a case in which the submissive doesn’t take part in the violence in some way.  While they may later claim they were so terrified and abused by their dominant counterpart that they had to go along it's been shown time and time again that they were equal contributors in the victims' sufferings and deaths - including the female perpetrators in the Barbie and Ken Killers (Karla Homolka and Paul Bernado) and Moors Murders (Ian Brady and Myra Hinsley) who were both proven not only to be spurring on, but very active in, the violence.  To his credit Thomas never participates, encourages, or seems to enjoy any of it.  In fact he’s most frequently trying to convince Lucille that they don’t have to kill anyone.  If it were up to him he’d get funds through legitimate investors in an invention he hopes will dig up rare red clay under Allerdale Hall that he can then sell for a profit.

So why does the empathetic, passionate, guilt-ridden Thomas Sharpe go along with his serially homicidal sister?  He loves her.  That he loves Lucille so much gives a final, ironic, twist to the serial killing pair that are the Sharpe siblings; there is some genuine love between them.  The problem is, in the words of Lucille Sharpe herself: “Love makes monsters of us all.” 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Sinister is Sexy

Onscreen sinister is sexy, whether we care to admit it or not.  Villains in TV and movies are fascinating to watch; you can’t take your eyes off them.  (Casting may help, true, but Hannibal Lector is entrancing played by Mads Mikkelsen, Anthony Hopkins, Brian Cox, or Gaspard Ulliel.)  But why?  Why do so many of us fall for the villain even when he or she is so...well...villainous?

Please note: I’m not talking about the villains in slasher films like Jason Voorhees or Freddie Kruger, but the ones that lean towards sane, sober, and sociopathic; the ones that could actually exist, in one form or another, in the real world.

Cleverness: Never seen a good old-fashioned villain without a great amount of intelligence.  Makes sense, sociopaths tend to test above average on IQ tests and have a unique read on situations and people that can make them seem like geniuses.  On screens big and small villains are shown exercising their brilliance whether by orchestrating murders, forcing heroes to solve multiple puzzles to save others, or even getting people to question their own sanity.  It isn’t so much the things they do that we enjoy, but that they can do them…they’re clever enough to organize and execute these grand schemes.  In Nightcrawler the protagonist (but no less villainous) Louis Bloom is able to cleverly navigate his way from thief and amateur videographer to the leader of a fast-growing freelance videoing company for L.A.’s local news…the things he does to get there are pretty awful, but one can’t help but admire the skill with which he does them. 

Showmanship: What’s the use of intelligence if you don’t show it off?  Steal the Crown Jewels, have high society come to a dinner of your victims, get away with multiple murders, or just blow some shit up!  Even the more subtle types have their moments: Game of Thrones’ Littlefinger goes bold in pulling his knife on Ned Stark and shoving Lysa Arryan to her death.  Villains do some outrageous things, sometimes successfully and other times not so much, but either way the audience gets a great show.  In the words of Batman Forever’s The Riddler “[Two-Face’s] entrance was good, [Batman’s] was better.  The difference?  Showmanship!”

No Fear: Pretty much everyone feels fear, it’s part of human nature.  It’s what kept us alive when we were running around the wild in nothing except fur pelts and still keeps us safe now.  It’s also something sociopathic villains tend not to experience or hold strictly in check if they do.  No running around screaming in panic for these ladies and gents; they face danger, even death, with their middle fingers raised high and a smirk on their face.  When pinned precariously at the railing of a bridge in BBC’s Luther Alice Morgan responds in an almost placid voice: “So go on…Kiss me.  Kill me.  Do something."  And then there’s Jim Moriarty who, after realizing what he must do to win, blows his own head off.  He’s not scared of death, he accepts it and uses it as a final move in his battle of wits against Sherlock - an act that startles the typically unflappable Holmes.

Wish Fulfillment: Ever wanted to punch your boss, key your ex’s car, or tell some obnoxious loudmouth in a theatre to shut up?  If you’re like most you ultimately backed out, but these villains wouldn’t…or, if they did, it's only because there's something far worse/more aggressive planned - like Hannibal who kills and eats those who offend his sensibilities.  Most people care about appearances, the legality of acts, or (if nothing else) their own safety and keep their impulses in check.  Sociopaths don’t really have that same sense of care and villains certainly don’t.  So the Average Joe or Jane can watch a show or film and revel in a villain cutting someone down - whether verbally, psychologically, socially, physically, or a variant of the four - without any risk to themselves or their reputation.  They get the vicarious thrill of power, winning, and revenge as they watch; they see Khan crush an enemy’s skull and, however subconsciously and briefly, imagine the skull of their own enemy.

Your Fear: Biological reactions to fear and sexual activity have some overlap: Increased pulse, labored breathing, wide eyes, open mouth…the description covers both.  Two chemical releases - norepinephrinee and dopamine - occur in both resulting in an adrenaline rush.  It’s why we go on roller coasters and in haunted houses, to get that rush, because sometimes fear is fun.  Why do you think a scary movie is suggested for date night by those trying to get lucky?  It’s not just that the date might jump into their arms or lap.  Villains do the same; when they make a sudden attack or hold people hostage in a tense kidnapping or standoff they give us that rush of excited fear without any actual risk to our safety.

Charm: If you are charming it pretty much means you’re likable.  Good, evil, or somewhere in between, others tend to want to be around the person who’s friendly and complimentary.  Even when certain people seem fake about their kindness they’re more tolerable than the pessimistic grump.  Along with charming many of the onscreen villains tend to be amusing - whether intentionally or simply by being their own twisted selves.  Between a serious, stern, hero and happy-go-lucky, warped, villain people might just go with the villain.  

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Secret Psychopath: House of Cards' Claire Underwood

In the previous post I discussed how a psychopath like the Joker can fly under the radar by playing crazy.  I also mentioned that that isn’t the only way a psychopath can go unnoticed by the rest of society; they can also play subdued.  This is how most function without notice, by appearing and behaving like the average, everyday, person.  They have jobs, families, friends, and show the appropriate emotions at the appropriate times.  Admittedly there are still moments they slip into their more cold, calculating, and ruthless nature, but those times are often dismissed as a single event (even when it’s a repeated one) or a quirk.  …This seems to be what House of Cards’ main female protagonist - or will that be antagonist now? - Claire Underwood is able to do.

Claire's potential psychopathy is almost immediately dismissed in nearly every other discussion about her, which speaks to how well her psychopathy might be hidden.  Of course it’s easy to hide when your husband - Frank Underwood - is a man who kills by hand without compunction and drawls out charming asides that sound right out of Machiavelli’s The Prince.  Just because she’s not the most psychopathic doesn’t mean she’s not a psychopath.  All one need do is go down Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist to see that, at the very least, Claire has a surprisingly high number of the traits.

Glibness/Superficial Charm:

There is no doubt that Claire can be very charming when she wishes to be.  She is able to befriend those her husband can’t or shouldn’t for whatever reason and almost instantly become their best friend and closest confidante.  By season three it’s said Claire is more popular with voters than Frank.  The thing is, it’s all surface.  Claire’s kindness, her gentle demeanor towards others, her one-on-one talks of apparent openness and honestly, are generally only done to aid in her and/or Frank’s benefit.  She uses the secrets she’s told against the confessor and others and accumulates favors for herself and/or Frank through those friendships.  Once a person no longer proves valuable Claire loses all interest in turning on the charm for them.  (Please note that even if what she’s doing appears to benefit Frank more her mindset is consistently: what benefits Frank will ultimately benefit me.)

Grandiose Sense of Worth:

Others have suggested that Claire is actually a narcissist, which alone indicates that she has this trait.  While not someone constantly boasting her greatness or needing reassurance that she’s fabulous, like an actual narcissist would, Claire certainly believes it herself.  With no experience at all she insists Frank make her an ambassador - even when it means circumventing the standard Senate hearing - and is certain she’ll be great at the job.  When she’s not Claire proceeds to blame others and outside circumstances for her failings throughout her time holding the position.  When Frank later declares he never should have made her ambassador she counters: “I never should have made you president.”  …True, she had a major part in his success, but so did he.

Need for Stimulation/Prone to Boredom:

When discussing Frank’s marriage proposal Claire quotes him as stating: “Claire, if all you want is happiness, say no. I'm not gonna give you a couple of kids and count the days until retirement. I promise you freedom from that. I promise you'll never be bored.”  …For some that might not be the best way to go, but for Claire it was perfect.  She never wanted the simple life, or even happiness if it meant that she wouldn't be living a stimulating life.  Given the wording Frank’s proposal suggests that a boring life, or even just a simple one, was something Claire always worried she’d end up with; she needs excitement and stimulation.

Pathological Lying:

Claire lies directly, by suggestion, or by omission whenever she thinks it’ll benefit her.  She lied to the (previous) First Lady by suggesting that there was something untoward between her husband and a secretary to throw their marriage into turmoil, paving the way for Frank to take the presidency right from under them.  She lied to the public about her relationship with another man, Adam, to cover a potentially scandalous affair — Frank knew and didn’t seem to care much, but both understandably doubted the American public’s capacity for acceptance.  When the press discovered she’d had an abortion she claimed it was related to being raped and, from there, built an entire political movement concerning sexual abuse in the military.  (She’d been raped, yes, but the abortion occurred as the result of different circumstances.)  By the end of season three Claire even states that both she and Frank have been lying to themselves and each other…while not specific it’s easy to presume she’s referring to what each expected to get out of the other and their relationship on whole.


This one rather folds into the superficial charm previously discussed given charm is what is most often used by a psychopath in order to con and manipulate.  Claire has no trouble using others to get what she wants and then dropping them when they are no longer useful.  From coworkers to lovers Claire has manipulated many into doing her dirty work or taking the fall from grace for her before discarding them for the next person or organization that’ll be of use to her.  Speaking of organizations I have a theory that her fierce dedication during the time she ran a non-profit aimed at building wells in African villages was all something of a long con…not only does it look good for her to have a life and career independent of her husband, but the better she does running such an organization the more she can promote her philanthropic success in future campaigns (for herself).  

Lack of Remorse or Guilt:

One of the keys to spotting a psychopath is their lack of remorse for what they do.  Frank is very clear in his lack of remorse, even if you suspect he has it he usually gives a snide aside to the camera to assure you he does not.  Claire is not as obvious, in fact there are times when she does seem remorseful - like when gay activist, Corrigan, killed himself in Russia - but that doesn’t necessarily mean she is.  What is read as remorse could also be a sense of defeat, frustration, or disappointment.  The problem is Claire gets no talk-time with the audience so, unlike her husband, we honestly don’t know what she’s feeling.

What is known is that she’s capable of doing pretty terrible things without any problems.  She’s not pushing people in front of trains, but she is pushing them to their emotional and mental limits…often times beyond.  She destroys the lives of her former lover, the (previous) First Lady and President, and even a fellow rape survivor to get ahead without thinking twice or looking back.  When a former employee at her non-profit dares to challenge her she cooly declares: “I’m willing to let your child wither and die inside you if that’s what’s required.  Am I really the sort of enemy you want to make?”  The answer is no, she is not, and more than that anyone who doubts the validity of her threat(s) probably hasn’t been paying close enough attention to Mrs. Underwood.

Shallow Affect:

Claire is known for her chilly demeanor so she certainly shares the flat affect that psychopaths are known for when they aren’t turning on the charm.  Most find her even colder than Frank much of the time and even when speaking about traumatic aspects of her past (such as her rape in college) Claire’s not one to get all that emotionally expressive.  Perhaps she would be more so if she got to break the fourth wall like Frank does, but it seems equally possible that she wouldn’t.

Callousness/Lack of Empathy:

Previously discussed traits such as her ability to manipulate and lack of remorse rather speak to her callousness and lack of empathy.  If she were truly empathetic she wouldn’t be able to do those things.  She’d feel too terrible as she shared the emotions of those she used, bullied, and ruined the lives of.  Even when she might share an experience, theoretically know how the other person might feel, she’s still not empathetic enough to not use them to her advantage…like when Claire pushed a fellow rape victim into telling her story so she could make her own political progress.

Parasitic Lifestyle:

This one’s a little tricky since Claire and Frank found one another while still young and, at least for much of the time, seemed to have a more symbiotic relationship.  They fed off one another, but it was balanced so that neither was really parasitic with the other.  Now that Claire’s discovered she’s no longer getting what she wants and/or needs from Frank and is leaving him we may see how she functions without a relationship like theirs.

Poor Behavioral Controls:

Frank is seen exploding in a rage more than a few times, but there are only two or three times total that Claire’s control over her behavior slips.  The first is at the Senate hearing for her confirmation as ambassador when she is not allowed to speak and snaps at one of the senators.  The second is her verbal slapping of Russian president, Petrov, for his upholding anti-gay laws in his country during a press conference.  The third is more of an almost when, while giving blood, she rambles and comes just shy of revealing things about her marriage she probably shouldn’t.  None of these are extreme and most are understandable - it’s easy to see anyone in her position doing the same things.  For the most part Claire doesn’t really have this trait as she tends to express herself in more subtle ways - like shutting the door for even more privacy - and even when behaving somewhat impulsively there’s a measure of control to it, as we’ll discuss later.

Sexual Promiscuity:

I’m not a fan of this one in general for it’s vagueness as to what might constitute promiscuity.  It can be seen as subjective and naturally brings up the classic what is promiscuous for a woman may not be considered promiscuous for a man issue.  That being said it’s on the list so let’s tackle it.  For a definition we’ll go with the Webster’s dictionary definition of not just “many” sexual partners, but picking those partners indiscriminately.  It’s hard to say what she was like prior to meeting Frank, but even while with him the trait at least partially fits just as it fits Frank.  One can argue she’s discriminating with her lover, Adam, given they appear to have enough of a history together she knows she can trust him.  No one can really say that concerning the threesome with her husband and their bodyguard, Meechum, though - she knows less about Meechum than Frank and Frank really doesn’t know much.  (It might also be of note that with both Adam and Meechum Claire seems capable of keeping emotionally detached so that, when no longer helpful, she can drop them without a thought, which does not necessarily qualify her as promiscuous, but may increase the likelihood that she is.)

Early Behavior Problems:

Given we don’t know much of Claire’s pre-Frank past it’s hard to say.  She could’ve had troubles, but it’s also possible that she didn’t.  It’s impossible to tell with the limited information we have.

Lack of Realistic Long-Term Goals:

Are any of us certain what Claire's long-term goals are?  We presume that she wants to be president herself one day, but I’m not sure that’s so unrealistic…after all Frank did it.  That being said, after all that’s occurred in Frank’s presidency thus far, it’s hard to imagine that the American public would vote either of them into office.


At first glance Claire doesn’t seem impulsive at all, but she does have her moments.  One of the clearest examples is in the first season when she disappears to Adam’s apartment and stays for a period of time.  While still a semi-calculated move (hence preventing it from qualifying for poor behavioral control) it’s not one she prepared for or told anyone about.  Claire just did it.  As mentioned previously Claire also impulsively went off-script at a press conference to condemn Russian president, Petrov.


Claire is responsible when she wants to be, when it benefits her, but otherwise she isn’t.  When a vast majority of her staff at the non-profit needs to be let go Claire pawns the responsibility off on an employee…who she then fires.  Once the focus of her responsibilities are for Frank’s benefit more than hers she sorta starts slacking.  She’s less inclined to go through with promised campaign stops and, eventually, she stops altogether and without warning to anyone.  She even stops taking her husband’s calls. 

Failure to Accept Responsibility for Own Actions:

There are probably multiple reasons why LGBT-rights activist Corrigan commits suicide, but the nonstop insistence by Claire that he read the statement prepared for him didn’t help things.  It wasn’t all Claire’s fault, but it wasn’t entirely Petrov’s either although she certainly seemed to think it was.  Same holds for the Senate hearing on her potential ambassadorship: some did attack her (even after saying they wouldn’t), but she wasn’t in any way prepared or experienced enough for the position either.  What would be interesting to see is if Claire’s sense of responsibility will change now that she’s separating from Frank - will she still acknowledge the things she did during their time together or pass the blame off on Frank with claims of “I only did it for him”?  ...Honestly, unless it suits her better to throw him under the bus, I doubt it.

Many Short-Term Marital Relationships:

Claire notes that she had many proposals, but as far as we’re aware Claire’s only ever been married to Frank so it would seem this aspect of a psychopath is not something she has.  Whether that changes or not over time is impossible to say just yet.

Juvenile Delinquency:

Again, we don’t know enough about Claire as a young woman or child to speak with any authority on even the possibility of her having this trait or not.

Revocation of Conditional Release:

We’re not aware of her ever having been released from anywhere on any condition so this one’s probably a no.

Criminal Versatility:

While there’s no mention of Claire having a criminal record (expunged or otherwise) and none of the things she’s done have quite reached the level of being illegal she might still qualify.  Many things she’s done have been amoral - lying, intimidation, using others, betraying those around her - and, under slightly different circumstances, could be viewed as criminal acts.  She also likely knew about the murders of Peter Russo and Zoe Barnes, which would at least make her an accessory after the fact.

Because Claire is far more closed off and subtle than Frank it’s difficult to determine if she would qualify as a psychopath - she may be or she may fall just short of the official diagnosis.  But House of Cards writer, Beau Willimon, was once quoted as saying: “In many ways, I see Claire and Frank as the same animal: two people who are liberated in so far as they don’t bind themselves to any ideology or ethical standards. As people who do not feel they have to play by the rules, they really are completely self-serving – and they think that’s OK.”  …That statement heavily suggests that both Underwoods have the same potentially pathological psychology and, given many have (rightly) declared Frank a psychopath, then Claire would be one too.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Secret Psychopath: The Dark Knight's Joker

Psychopaths are not easy to spot; in no small part because they are masters of disguise, skilled at fitting in even when they stand out.  With the ability to read a room and the expectations of those within it they can follow social norms to fly under the radar or openly defy them to whatever advantages there might be.  Whichever they choose though rarely are psychopaths spotted for what they are.  It’s only if you look closely, dissect with a rational mind, that you can see beyond the surface behaviors to the true person beneath.  It holds in real life and it holds in the fictional world…there are a number of characters in TV, film, and comics that hide themselves behind either subdued or over-the-top behavior so that you don’t notice who, what, they really are.

The most likely to be missed are actually the ones that present as outrageous.  Those so wildly over-the-top that you can’t help but presume they have some severe mental issues.  Those like the Joker, who’s been labeled with everything from schizophrenia to general psychosis to just plain crazy without any diagnosis.  While understandable given the clown get-up, cackles of laughter, and tendency to really enjoy causing chaos whenever he can none of these diagnoses are accurate.  The truth is the Joker’s a psychopath.  A cunning, happy to subvert the status quo, creatively violent, remorseless, psychopath.  He knows the things he does are wrong, he just doesn’t care.  Murdering others, blowing up places, and generally terrorizing an entire city aren’t things that bother him and neither is the concept of any potential consequences for his actions.

Of course the Joker could do everything he does without the “crazy” clown get-up and giggles, but I think that’s where he’s actually the most cunning.  For starters it’s a built-in defense should he get caught and brought to court on charges - “I can’t be held accountable, look at me, I’m clearly insane!”  This defense is used even outside the courts when the Joker visits Harvey Dent after the explosions he caused that mutilated Dent and killed Dent’s love, Rachel Dawes.  When Dent declares that, physically there or not, the Joker is responsible as it was his plan the Joker replies: “Do I really look like a guy with a plan?  You know what I am?  I'm a dog chasing cars.  I wouldn't know what to do with one if I caught it!  You know, I just... *do* things.”  On the surface it’s a good argument because the Joker genuinely doesn’t look like he’d be capable of any sort of plan.  The truth is though the Joker is more than capable of incredibly complex plans as evidenced by the opening sequence of the film as well as the ferry “experiment” he set up pitting criminals against everyday citizens.  (Even while that one didn’t work it wasn’t an issue with a faulty setup, but instead the Joker underestimating the humanity of those in Gotham, law-abiding or not.)

The Joker’s surface appearance and behavior frequently leads to misconceptions by those around him that he can then use to his advantage.  The mobsters of the city don’t take him seriously to start, dismissing him as a nobody, a wack-job, and a freak.  They see him as useful in hiding their illegally obtained funds, but not as a threat.  Because of this the Joker is allowed to live, plot, and scheme for a significant period of time before any of the mob bosses decide he is more threat than asset and by then it’s too late.  By then the Joker’s obtained significant influence over the criminal underlings so that they turn on their bosses.  Even Batman initially makes the simplistic categorizing of the Joker as a just another criminal, one that’ll be easily captured once he figures out what the Joker wants.  Alfred has to point out that the Joker is not that sort of criminal, he’s not someone with a clear or even logical motive that can be manipulated to catch him.

Interestingly though, not even Alfred is completely correct.  He suspects that the Joker might be doing what he’s doing because he considers it “good sport”, which isn’t entirely accurate.  The Joker himself explains that he wishes to upset the order of society, to cause chaos, in order to prove (he presumes) people are only as good as their surroundings allow.  It’s still not the usual, still an intangible, thus still not something that Batman can easily exploit to stop Joker, but it is a motive beyond just some twisted fun.  The Joker is unlike any of the other criminals Batman has gone up against up to that point - he is intelligent, determined, unpredictable, and delights in the terrible results of the things he does.

There is also a more metaphorical reason for the Joker’s bizarre costume and behavior…it both calls attention to and subverts Batman as an icon.  It’s unlikely anyone or anything will get Batman’s attention faster than a “crazy clown” cackling as he terrorizes the city and it’s equally unlikely that said crazy clown will make people think of anything other than that other costumed citizen of Gotham.  Both men are hiding their true identities, both use theatrics to shock, and both are physically aggressive so that the only true difference between them is motive; the Joker to deconstruct the city and promote chaos and Batman to try to keep order and safety.  A key difference, but one potentially overlooked by terrorized citizens.

Up until the Joker appears in the Gotham of the Nolan trilogy the man in the costume was the hero while criminals stuck to either mob suits or functional, bland, outfits.  With the introduction of the proverbial Crowned Prince of Chaos that’s no longer the case; now the one hiding behind a cartoonish alias and mask can also be a terrorist.  This leads to Batman’s hero status being questioned: What do we really know about the Bat-Man?  Wasn’t he involved in a number of destructive and dangerous events around the city?  If this man’s presence can cause someone like the Joker to appear, do we really want him in our city?  Suddenly the few who’d been questioning Batman’s presence - both in need and helpfulness - become the many.  He’s no longer an unchallenged icon of vigilante heroism after the Joker…now he’s something darker, more suspect, and ultimately the one being hunted for multiple murders.

After doing enough damage that the golden boy and white knight of Gotham, DA Harvey Dent, must be killed by Batman after going murderously mad and Batman himself becoming public enemy number one the Joker is finally caught.  If identified as a psychopath he’d be deemed legally sane and thus responsible for all the crimes he committed…at the very least this would mean life in prison.  But because of his presentation, because of his bright clothing, wild makeup, and delighted giggles at terrible events in humanity, the Joker does not present as sane.  As such he is wrongly found insane and instead of prison is sent to the mental institution, Arkham Asylum.  Some might argue that the asylum is the worse place, but given how frequently people escape from there it seems the better to me.  So, again, the outrageous presentation works for the Joker.  He knows this.  It’s why he almost never shows his true self - a cunning, manipulative, psychopath completely aware of himself, his actions, and the consequences of those actions.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Oh Poor You, Poor Me!! - Tony Soprano and Borderline Personality Disorder

The Sopranos was THE television show of the early 2000s.  Everyone watched it.  They discussed, debated, examined, and quoted it (“Oh, poor you!” and “Toodle-fucking-oo?” were particular favorites in my family).  There were show-based teeshirts - still have my Satriale’s Pork Store one - and cookbooks.  At the center of it all, the man at the top of the mob-chain and patriarch of the titular family, was Anthony “Tony” Soprano.  Tony could’ve been the classic mobster with a simple psychopathic personality, but the writers (and Mr Gandolfini’s wonderful portrayal) made him so much more.  He was a complex man and became an icon for TV’s anti-hero.  He was also possibly the first male with borderline personality disorder in pop culture to go mainstream.

In order to show what I’m talking about I’ll go through the nine key symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder (of which one need only have five in order to be diagnosed according to the National Institute of Mental Health) and show just how mobster Tony Soprano fit them.

Extreme reactions — including panic, depression, rage, or frantic actions — to abandonment, whether real or perceived

The concern over being left or abandoned was nearly constant in Tony Sopranos’ mind and at times so intense he suffered panic attacks and blackouts.  Throughout the show he tried to preemptively prevent others from leaving him - his crew, his friends (mob and non-mob alike), his wife, his girlfriends, his children, his therapist - and when they appeared to make moves towards that choice he grew both furious and desperate.  When his therapist, Dr Melfi, tried to end their therapy he alternatively flipped out and tried to tempt his way back into her care via gifts and visits to her office…sometimes he used both methods in the same interaction.  After his wife, Carmella, declared she wanted a divorce - and disclosed a crush on a member of his crew - Tony exploded in a rage, punching a hole in the wall beside her head.  He even seemed upset when a flock of ducks in his pool took off, his face draining into utter, dejected, emptiness as he watched them go.

A pattern of intense and stormy relationships with family, friends, and loved ones, often veering from extreme closeness and love (idealization) to extreme dislike or anger (devaluation)

The most obvious relationship that played out this way was the one Tony had with his mother, Livia.  “She was a saint…fuck her!” was his often uttered feelings concerning her.  Now admittedly she had her own severe emotional/mental issues (Dr Melfi suggested Livia herself was a borderline), but that sort of same-breath love/loathe way of approaching others wasn’t something Tony just had with his mom.  He felt the same about nearly everyone.  His crew was made up of the best and most loyal guys around, until they were ungrateful pricks up his ass and trying to stab him in the back all the time.  His wife was amazing, until she made him put with her whiny bullshit.  His kids were great and he was incredibly proud of them, but they were also spoiled brats he wished he could smack some respect into.  His therapist really got him and was also a bitch who didn’t understand at all.  There were countless times Tony sang the praises of a person in his life only to declare “fuck him/her/them” and then backtrack into complimenting them once more; sometimes virtually in the same sentence.

Distorted and unstable self-image or sense of self, which can result in sudden changes in feelings, opinions, values, or plans and goals for the future (such as school or career choices)

For the most part Tony knew who he was in the sense of being a mob boss and family man.  How he felt about his success in those roles was another matter.  He swung between feeling fantastic and fully in charge of everything and everyone in his world to feeling stressed out and overwhelmed whether anything actually changed or not.  He was the cock of the walk until he was barely able to function from self-loathing and depression.  ...Doubt he hated himself on occasion?  This was his reaction to finding out his son, AJ, suffered from depression: “It’s in his blood, this miserable fucking existence.  My rotten fucking putrid genes have infected my kid’s soul.  That’s my gift to my son.”

Impulsive and often dangerous behaviors, such as spending sprees, unsafe sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, and binge eating

Though not directly mentioned amongst the list of behaviors I believe the fact Tony was impulsively violent to the point that he killed more than one person in a rage counts. True that it might not seem a problem for a mob boss, but some of those he killed were connected to other mob families so it was generally bad for business and had the potential to cause a mob war.  (It’s a big no-no to kill a made guy without a sit-down with all pertinent parties, worse when the man isn’t directly/fully under your command, and when they aren’t even in your family it’s just not done.)  It wasn’t just violence that Tony was impulsive about either, one of his other major indulgences without consideration for the risks was women.  He bedded a number of women who were not his wife, but were emotionally and mentally unstable in ways that could’ve proven dangerous to his marriage, family, and even business depending on what they knew about him.  …Tony also did his fair share of impulsive and excessive drinking, gambling, and eating.

Recurring suicidal behaviors or threats or self-harming behavior, such as cutting

Admittedly there was never an incident in which Tony attempted suicide or self-harmed in the manner of intentional cutting or similar acts.  In fact, outside his generally dangerous behaviors and indulgences previously mentioned, he made no acts that would be considered suicidal or self-harming.  However, he threatened suicide and wondered aloud in therapy what the point of “it all” was more than once.

Intense and highly changeable moods, with each episode lasting from a few hours to a few days

There were times Tony had such intense waves of anxiety he would pass out.  One minute he was cracking jokes at a backyard BBQ or chit-chatting at a fancy clubhouse gathering and the next he was hyperventilating into unconsciousness.  Waves of anger were similarly displayed with Tony jovial one moment and exploding into a violent rage the next - often over minor incidents such as having food he wanted eaten before he got to it or a bartender saying something he considered stupid.  These sudden changes in emotion could last for a few hours to couple days before they switched with a new stimuli - like a stupid comment throwing him into a rage, sometimes just a juvenile joke was enough to lighten a day-long melancholy.

Chronic feelings of emptiness and/or boredom

All one must do is recall what Tony said when he described his depression: “This isn’t painful.  Getting shot is painful.  Getting stabbed in the ribs is painful.  This shit isn’t painful.  It’s empty…dead.”  Beyond that it can be seen in his facial expressions; when alone or thought others weren’t looking Tony’s face often seemed an alternating mix of deep thoughtfulness, dark depression, and blank emptiness.

Inappropriate, intense anger or problems controlling anger

Tony’s violent rage has already been discussed at length concerning episodes both at work and home.  That the triggers for the violence could be for the smallest infractions, perceived or actual, has also been covered.  It’s clear that Tony let his anger rule his actions more than once at work, at home, and in therapy.  He punched in walls (home), broke tables (therapy), and once got into a physical altercation with AJ over feeling disrespected.

Having stress-related paranoid thoughts or severe dissociative symptoms, such as feeling cut off from oneself, observing oneself from outside the body, or losing touch with reality.

One could say Tony had paranoid thoughts given he often worried about those around him betraying (and killing) him, but given his profession it’s not an unreasonable concern.  Even if you take into account these worries came up more frequently when Tony felt stressed or anxious, it’s still valid.  There were times when Tony would zone out, which could be seen as a dissociation, but given he never mentioned feeling cut off from/outside of himself it’s hard to say…he could’ve just been daydreaming or lost in thought like so many others.  Thus the closest and clearest time Tony ever came to losing touch with reality was during a deep depressive episode when he hallucinated a beautiful foreign exchange student visiting next door named Isabella.  Not only did he imagine her, but as he listened to her speak he said he found himself back in rustic Italy with her breastfeeding an infant named Antonio.  …While Dr Melfi declared the whole incident a side effect of his prescribed lithium and he didn’t have another experience like that after he stopped taking the medicine, one never knows.

Throughout the show Dr Melfi and other characters made suggestions and references that Tony was a sociopath; this is understandable, but not quite accurate.  Understandable in that he did have some antisocial characteristics - especially violent criminality - and as such it likely led to the default assumption of him being a sociopath like other criminals of that ilk.  Once you presume Tony is a sociopath all his other issues can be dismissed as manipulative malingering; the problem is that Tony was not malingering in his issues, as was shown in the day-to-day activities of his life.  His emotions were that intense and mercurial, he honestly felt depression and guilt (at times), and while he could be manipulative to get what he wanted, what he often wanted was to not to be abandoned or otherwise rejected...things someone with borderline personality disorder, not sociopathy, would want.