Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published July 13th 2020
Bad guys can get it done
When it comes to story-telling, what pop culture has given us, more than anything else, is the concept of "Happily Ever After", or at least "Happy For Now" as the ending for our tales. This has even meant that old stories are re-written to fit this trope. Look at the classic tale of 'The Little Mermaid' where the titular mermaid had her tongue ripped out, her tail sliced painfully in two to form legs, and she ended up alone and dead. Even HC Anderson softened the story by making a potion change her, adding a sort of happy in death ending and adding Christian motifs. But compare that to the Disney version with its happy ending, distinct bad guy and everything turning out hunky and/or dory… Totally different.
However, there are still times when creative types allow the bad guy to win. This was curtailed somewhat by the Hayes Code in the USA which demanded popular culture to reflect what the government of the time decided was "good", lasting from the 1920s to the 1960s. It took a long time for the world of pop culture to get over this and realise that not everything is going to come up roses for their characters. So here are a few examples of times when the bad guy won.
Randy Savage - still the best winning bad guy in the business.
Now, why this column now? It came about because of a discussion I had with a few writers about how in the real-world bad guys win or get away with things, which is the opposite of most pop culture story-telling. I had a huge political screed written here, but that's not the point of this. This is pop culture sometimes reflecting a little too closely reality.
Now, I have decided to limit myself to stuff released since 1985, to try to make it at least a little modern (the date reflects the date of birth of person I was discussing this with). This does, therefore, exclude the all-time bad guy winning film – Chinatown. I am excluding remakes, films or TV shows based on books written before 1980, and no middle chapters of trilogies (like Empire Strikes Back) where the good guys go on to win at the end of chapter 3, or prequels leading to other films where the good guys end up winning (like Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith).
Four more rules: 1) I have to like the work. 2) The original had to have been released as a standalone, no matter what the sequels indicated. 3) There has to be a definite bad guy; no shades of grey. Animals (or even monsters) acting on instinct are not bad guys.
4) The bad guys clearly come out on top or no-one comes out on top. This does exclude my favourite book Christine, as there is only a hint at the end that the bad guy is back and winning.
And, for what it's worth, I did look at every form of pop culture in my various collections.
So… the list! (Chronological order.)
Brazil (film, 1985)
Based sort of on the concepts of Orwell's 1984, but with the world a heartless bureaucracy. The main character, in the end, is tortured until he goes insane and so the torture no longer has any effect on him. He might be happy in his own mind, but he stopped nothing, the bad guys effectively silence him and he is completely lost. The bad guys, the "state", wins. There is a version where he escapes… but that's not what director Terry Gilliam meant. He said so in enough interviews.
Watchmen (comic series, 1986-7)
Yes, I've talked about the film before, but the comic series is where it started. I bought the single volume edition in the early 90s, and yet I was actually a little happy that they changed the ending of the 2009 film. In both cases, though, the bad guy, Ozymandias, does kill millions of people to bring peace, but at a cost of fear and corrupting of humanity. And, worse, the other heroes can see his reasoning and let it go… except Rorschach, but he is killed off anyway. Yeah, depressing, downer ending.
Blackadder The Third (TV series, 1987)
Blackadder is the bad guy, trying to always get rich, get power and get everything else. Set during the Regency of King George III in English history, Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) is the butler of the Regent Prince George(Hugh Laurie). Although the Regent, who is clearly stupid and incompetent, treats him badly, Blackadder does make things worse. However, at the end (spoilers!), the Regent is killed and because George III is insane, Blackadder becomes Regent and, so, eventually, King George IV!
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (book, 1991)
The main character Bateman gets away with murder. Literally. And Ellis has not written him as anything even close to a sympathetic character. This is a nasty piece of work and he lets you know it. And the book ends with Bateman sharing drinks with his friends. I was not a huge fan of the film, but it certainly wasn't terrible; the book, though, is so much better.
Se7en (film, 1995)
But, you might say, the bad guy was killed in the end! Sure… but it is what he wanted, what he was building up for. And he won, because he got Mills (Brad Pitt) to kill him, so corrupting and ruining him, especially after killing Mills' wife. So, while he died, he got everything he wanted. He won. And the film is truly disturbing for it.
The Usual Suspects (film, 1995)
We hear the story of a series of strange events resulting from a police line-up, ending with a gun battle that kills all but one of the criminals, named Verbal. It his story we hear, and the police are trying to find the boss, the infamous criminal mastermind Keyser Soze, who apparently set out to kill them all as revenge. And, in the end, Soze gets away with murder. Simple. The twist at the end is one virtually no-one sees coming. Good film as well.
HHH v Booker T (WWE wrestling programme, 2003)
Yes, in wrestling, a lot of the time the bad guy wins and then goes on to another programme in which he eventually loses. But this one left a bad taste in the mouth for a number of reasons. HHH, the world champion and lead heel (bad guy) was facing former WCW champion and face Booker T. Some of their confrontations were uncomfortable, with HHH's abuse bordering on out-and-out racism… and some other aspects of the feud crossing that line totally. Then in the blow-off match at Wrestlemania XIX, not only did HHH win, but he hit his finishing move, then took a stupidly long time to cover Booker T for the pin. Bad guy bullied, racially vilified and still won, and they wonder why people treat wrestling as second-class. I enjoy WM-XIX, and most of this match is good, but the whole racism thing… nope.
No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy (book, 2005)
Are there actually any good guys in this book? Maybe the sheriff Bell, maybe Moss, but they also do things or did things not exactly heroic. And the winner is the hitman Chigurh. Sort of. This is a well-written and rather tense story, but the bad guys win and the good guys die and… yeah. The film from 2007 was also damn impressive, as well. Both are well worth it.
Valkyrie (film, 2008)
Based on a true story about a group of German officers who tried to assassinate Hitler with a bomb during World War 2. History tells us that the bad guy – Hitler – won. The film does not change history. What gets me is that there are some of the Nazis you actually feel sympathy for, and it is certainly one of my favourite Tom Cruise performances. But the bad guys well and truly win here.
'Blockade Billy' by Stephen King (short story, from The Bazaar Of Bad Dreams, 2015)
Stephen King had a number of times where the bad guy won, and this is one of the more recent. A baseball player arrives at a team, is very talented, but it seems he killed people, and then he commits another crime and the team's luck suffers. The bad guy is portrayed as quite sympathetic throughout, but he killed people, even if he had reasons that at the time would not have been taken seriously. Yes, he is arrested at the end, but even after this, the team goes through extended bad luck. I enjoy the story, but it felt like no-one really won.
There you are – 10 times the bad guy won or a bad situation came out as the final ending. Not everything has to have a good ending or HEA/HFN ending to be a fine piece of work. They might not be as satisfying, but they do serve a narrative purpose. Honestly.