People have always harbored a certain fascination with tortured protagonists. Over the last few years, however, television studios have latched on to the concept of the guilt-ridden hero, the hero who struggles internally and externally, and who — often isolated — find themselves counted amongst their greatest enemies.
There is no better example of this allure than the world’s recent obsession with Breaking Bad. Throughout the series, the show’s protagonist undergoes a transformation from mild-mannered Walter White into the murderous, manipulative kingpin Heisenberg. Driven at first by his desire to provide for his family, White begins manufacturing methamphetamine.
As the show progresses, his motives become less noble and his intentions fundamentally change. By the end, he is a shell of a person. Deserted and friendless, he yearns for a return to the simple things that he once treasured: the love of his family, the kindness of a friend.
Another prime example is this year’s True Detective. Starring Matthew McConaughey as Detective Rust Cohle, the show provides viewers with a glimpse into the life of a man whose life is completely rudderless. Cohle’s life is not his own, he knows it, yet he allows himself to drift because he “lacks the fortitude for suicide.” A self-professed nihilist, Cohle’s regret stems from the death of his daughter, the collapse of his marriage and his struggles with addiction. Cohle’s story is at once heartbreaking and fascinating because he is a hero stripped of traditionally heroic qualities but made valiant through his personal trials, and his steadfast refusal to succumb to his demons.
On this list, we’ve collected seven examples of tortured heroes. We’ll take a look at heroes who struggle with the consequences of their past — and future — actions. From the original friendly vampire tormented by his dark past to the temporal woes of two of television’s favorite time travelers, we examine seven television characters driven by guilt.
The character of Angelus — usually shortened to “Angel” — from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is principally built around the concept redemption. After becoming a vampire in the 18th century, Angel made a name for himself by embarking on a transcontinental murder spree that spanned over 100 years. He feared even by the “big bad,” The Master, who considered him, “the most vicious creature [he had] ever met,” Angelus eventually found himself on the receiving end of a gypsy curse that restored his human soul.
For the remainder of Buffy the Vampire Slayer — and Angel after that — Angel sought to atone for his sins. Battling other vampires, demons and monstrous aberrations, his actions were always fueled by an overriding sense of guilt and a singular desire to right the many wrongs committed in his past.
6 The Doctor
The Doctor, from BBC’s Doctor Who, perfectly represents a character plagued by survivor’s guilt. Believing himself to be the only Time Lord to survive the Last Great Time War, the Doctor employed a weapon called “The Moment” to bring the war to a close. As a result of triggering the Moment, the Doctor effectively convinced himself that he had doomed his entire race as well as obliterated countless galaxies.
Of the many iterations of the Doctor, the Tenth Doctor perhaps best exemplifies the character’s struggle with guilt. Described by the Moment as “the man who regrets,” a recurring theme of the Tenth Doctor’s story is isolation. As a coping mechanism, the Tenth Doctor is ever careful to remain distant from his human companions who — due to his longer lifespan — he believes will inevitably leave him.
One of the most tragically lovable characters ever, Hugo Reyes — called “Hurley” — from ABC’s Lost illustrates a character guided by hope but driven by guilt. Depressed over the collapse of a deck that he attributed to his weight, Hurley’s mother ships him off to the Santa Rosa Mental Health Institute. Upon his release, Hurley — working at a fast-food chicken joint — played a string of numbers in the Mega Lotto Jackpot that he’d heard from a fellow patient at the institute.
After winning $114 million, Hurley becomes convinced that the numbers are cursed when a series of unfortunate events — heart attacks, meteors and lightning strikes — begin to befall those close to him. Hurley’s guilt causes him to blame himself for Lost’s central plot device — the crash of Oceanic Flight 815 — and acts as a catalyst for his character’s development throughout the series.
Mr. Gold, the man who would become Rumplestiltskin in ABC’s Once Upon A Time, desired nothing more than to be a father to his son. Ever since his own father abandoned him, leaving him in the care of spinsters, Rumplestiltskin sought to keep his family together. When his wife is taken by a pirate captain, Rumplestiltskin attempts to rescue her, however, his cowardice causes him to become the town’s laughingstock.
Throughout his character’s arc, Rumplestiltskin is pulled in opposite directions. After gaining the power of the Dark One, he is able to keep his cowardice in check, however, his obsession with his newly found powers overrides his desire to maintain his family. When given the opportunity to live with his son — free and in a land devoid of magic — he is unable to relinquish his power and, ultimately, abandons his son in a decision that comes to define his character as he seeks to rectify it throughout the series.
3 Agent Fox Mulder
Fox Mulder’s story begins with the abduction of his sister, Samantha. Tasked with babysitting her on the night that she vanished, the young Mulder never quite overcame his guilt over her disappearance. He regularly closed his eyes when entering his room while harboring the hope that — when he opened them — she would be there, waiting for him as if nothing had happened.
From that character-defining event, many of Mulder’s actions on The X-Files can be explained. His search for Samantha and his belief that aliens abducted her compelled him to open an X-file concerning her disappearance. His obsessive need for answers drove his partner, Dana Scully, to question his ability to objectively handle his assigned cases on several occasions.
2 Hiro Nakamura
Perhaps the most traditionally heroic hero from NBC’s Heroes, Hiero Nakamura wanted nothing more than to be an honorable, upstanding exemplar of the show’s superhuman cast. Abiding by a strict moral code, Hiero approached every problem with the eyes of a modern day Don Quixote — a fact that the show’s final season explored — and afforded every individual, even villains, a chance to do the right thing.
To his dismay, however, his use of his abilities — manipulation of the time-space continuum — caused a number of unintended consequences for tangentially related characters. In the show’s final season, a bedridden Hiero compiles a list of wrongs that he feels must be righted. Risking everything — his own life included — he sets about traveling through time and space in an effort to rectify his unintentional wrongdoings.
1 Stephen Holder
Stephen Holder, the partner of Detective Sarah Linden in AMC’s The Killing lives with constant reminders of his guilt. Surrounded by murderers, liars and addicts, Holder — himself an addict — admits in a solemn Narcotics Anonymous meeting that he hit rock bottom and once stole a beloved gold coin that belonged to his nephew.
Driven to make up for the error of his ways, Holder makes repeated attempts to contact his nephew. Often thwarted, Holder maintains his resolve throughout the series and eventually — while hospitalized — has the opportunity to return the stolen coin. The gesture, however, seems to have little effect on his state of mind as he — and Linden — continue to spiral out of control in their pursuit of justice.