It was 2:30am and Ray Liotta melted onto the screen: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” He had died the day before. The thing, however, about watching Goodfellas enough times – about watching mob movies in general – is that they all play out like a Greek Tragedy. Nearly every film Martin Scorsese has made features an Icarus-type protagonist; a leading man who, in his journey to ascertain wealth, status and success, flies too close to the corruptive sun from which he feeds, spiralling down into a moral or material furrow where he is eventually consumed. It’s an old song: a chemistry teacher creates the largest illegal drug enterprise North America has ever seen and, in the process, becomes inadvertently responsible for the deaths of over 200 people, as he himself lies dying, half-crazed and alone in a meth lab; a Wall Street banker gets disgustingly rich ripping off New York yuppies before being sentenced to a surveillance-heavy life of banal business-mentoring seminars; a young rapper composes a chronicles his increasing struggles with mental health and substance abuse after a breakneck shot to stardom, prophesying his own demise at the hands of addiction (that was Swimming by Mac Miller, for those not in the know). Popular culture in the Western World is dominated by the glorification and infatuation with the downward spiral. Our joy in watching others plummet is a perplexing social, cultural and artistic phenomenon, begging the question: If we were to unravel the traditional narrative formula of the spiral, what makes it so captivating?
1. The Everyman
In an article for the American Motion Picture Association, Psychologist Howard Sklar talked about the necessity of the character bond in storytelling. According to Sklar, the character bond is about conjuring a fine line between sympathy and empathy that allows audiences to see a glimmer of their own identity in a character. He uses Bill Murray’s character from Groundhog Day, who, through a series of hardships, evolves from an irritating egomaniac into a sympathetic figure. “It’s not so much that we see him differently or that we misunderstood him earlier but that we see the process he goes through, which allows [us] to go about revising our beliefs about him,” says Sklar.
The exact opposite of the Groundhog Day process is at play in the downward spiral, making for a far more intense and complex narrative study. The world of the downward spiral is typically terrifyingly exuberant; Jay Gatsby’s lavish parties, the intoxicating slurry of neon casino lights as Hunter S. Thompson drives into Las Vegas, Walt’s bed-sized mound of cash in Breaking Bad. It is completely unfamiliar to your average film-goer or book-reader. More so, belying the flashy presentation of this new ‘world’ is a rotten underbelly which will eventually make itself known to our naive protagonist, ultimately triggering their downfall. The glamour comes at a price. Instead of growing to empathise with our character – who will eventually fall victim to the spiral – like in Groundhog Day, the author allows the audience to see shades of themselves within that tragic hero immediately after the story kicks off. Then, when the morally abrasive world of the spiral chips away more and more of their humanity, the audience will be anointed with the gift of disgust, learning to lovingly despise someone in which they once saw their own spitting image. Look at Walter White in the first episode of Breaking Bad – a mild-mannered member of an average family earning a standard salary. He is universal. The everyman.
Without wanting to remind you of the Hero’s Journey, this element of relatability is like when the Hero is still in the known world; Luke Skywalker gazing at the two suns while he’s home on Tatooine. In order to prevent losing the audience entirely, we need to start with a comfortable situation and character that is easily understood. It’s a point of reference before their introduction to the new, darker world which will eventually corrupt our protagonist. They need to bear witness to all the glitz and gaudiness that are native to these exotic circumstances, with the reassurance that our hero is feeling as they themselves would. This causes all the more heartbreak when our everyman eventually goes down the villainous path that this ‘new world’ advertises. What if, in Goodfellas, Ray Liotta was a psychopathic, coldblooded killer from the get-go and we didn’t relate to him sweating over every shady choice? In fairytales, nobody feels for the wolf when he gets his comeuppance because he was never human to begin with – we certainly wouldn’t be so moved if we saw him spiral.
2. The Mephistopheles Motif
French-Swiss filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once said: “he who jumps into the void owes no explanation to those who stand and watch.” Godard made many films about the downward spiral.
The concept of “the void,” is not exactly a place. Rather, it’s a state of mind or a way of being. This “void” represents something that we ordinary folk find difficult to understand, either because it bends the morals of our upbringing or because it is so far removed from the status quo of our acceptable Western lifestyle that it appears almost alien. The void is every gangster movie protagonist’s nosedive towards becoming a psychopath; it’s Tony Montana’s raging cocaine addiction, it’s the darkness beyond the ledge on which our hero teeters in this new world of excess and luxury. As Godard predicts, eventually, they’ll be tempted to jump.
However, I disagree with the second part of the quote. While the hero doesn’t owe us an explanation for that first plunge into immorality, in order to create a compelling narrative we need to understand why they made the leap which will eventually become their undoing.
Entering the void marks the part of the story in which the hero departs from the mould of the ‘everyman’ and becomes something far more twisted and complex. However, in order to make this narrative shift more feasible, they need a sort of temptation or, better yet: a role model to facilitate such a fall from grace. Enter the Mephistopheles. Mephistopheles was a character from the Elizabethan tragicomedy Doctor Faustus, written by Christopher Marlow. Faustus contemplates the sale of his soul to the devil, the first beat of the hedonistic butterfly wing that will eventually see our hero sentenced to eternal damnation. Mephistopheles – a sort of demonic ambassador – appears to tempt the doctor with a vision of all the sinful pleasures and forbidden powers he might receive if he agrees to the deal. The name Mephistopheles has since become synonymous with this role; a middle-man between the known world and the purer evil that lies in wait of our protagonist when he crosses over the threshold of moral ambiguity. The interesting thing about the Mephistopheles – and what I believe makes this such an addictive archetype in modern media – is that they still possess a fraction of the relatability which we see in our soon-to-be-ex-everyman. They’re not necessarily evil nor necessarily the direct cause of that character’s downfall. Instead, they are characters who have touched the void but are not consumed by it.
Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad is the perfect example of a modern Mephistopheles. At the beginning of the show he’s an addict and a meth dealer who certainly appears more keen to harm others than Walt is. We don’t fully understand him and we don’t fully understand the world he inducts our ‘hero’ into, but his humour and good naturedness give him the humanity that we can empathise with. He’s an accessible enigma and this is what makes him such a playful, interesting character. We relate to him enough to be able to transpose our own experiences onto his but we keep him at the arms length of our comprehension. He also represents the dark, yet enticing potential we dare not fulfil. He is a thousand, delirious musings of who we could have been if we only had the guts to unshackle ourselves from the laws and social conventions to which we abide. And that secret yet undeniable appeal that the Mephistopheles has over even the most inveterate individual is all the audience needs to believe that our hero, too, might take that dance with the devil and spiral into the depths of depravity.
It all relates to the French term, ‘l'appel du vide;’ the call of the void. Because we are so tempted to become like the Mephistopheles there is no doubt that the everyman, who is essentially a reflection of ourselves, might too heed that holler from the chasm which will signify his slip into deplorability. It’s this call, I understand, that is such a huge part of what bewitches us about these stories – the razor’s edge of it all; not only how little time it takes for our narrative mirror to descend into a wicked metamorphosis but for the audience to believe that’s all plausible. What does that say about us? How quickly Ray Liotta goes from good-kid-wrong-crowd to irredeemable psycho. At the start of Season One, Walter White is drearily-moustache-clad and self pitying on a midlife-crisis exercise machine. By the end, he’s the accomplice to and perpetrator of several grisly murders and a schooled meth cook. The Episode Eight end credits song aptly croons “Who’s gonna save my soul now?”
3. The Void, the Antagonists, and a Healthy Dose of Schadenfreude
According to Niezche: “If you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you." This is really what the story of the spiral amounts to; it’s a psychological experiment into how far a character can delve into that abyss before we stop hearing echoes of ourselves. Of course, this study infers that there comes a time in the narrative arc of a downward spiral in which our hero becomes more unrecognisable than even the Mephistopheles. The final, subverted stage of the hero’s journey sees them shed even the warped flickers of relatability they still possessed when they passed over from the role of classical protagonist to something a little stranger than good. The hero, here, mutates once more, entirely, into the void they once railed against. It usually occurs around the third act and signifies that they have tumbled below the point of no return. It’s the part where, cradling Spider’s body in his hands, Ray Liotta passionlessly notes “He’s dead,” as if Joe Pesci’s crime warrants merely a light scalding; it’s when Dorian Gray murders Basil; it’s Kanye on Alex Jones or, on a lighter note, McLovin firing potshots at a stop sign in Superbad. Our fractured heroes seal the fate of their own stories, forcing us to question why we were ever their advocates.
Sometimes, however, before a hero embarks on this dark route, the author will treat the audience to another sample of the void in the form of an antagonist. Characters like Gus Fring or Lorne Malvo from Fargo are the final attraction of these spiralling stories. They are the living embodiments of the abyss that will grow to govern our protagonist’s soul, an almost foreshadowing of the wrongful path inevitably in wait of Walter White or Lester Nygaard in the first or second acts. These characters are typically the unflinching, enigmatic psychopaths that make even the Mephistopheles quiver in their skull capped boots. And that’s the most fascinating part of the spiral - we are enthralled by their evil because they are the ones we are least capable of understanding.
In an article for Psychology Today, behavioural scientist Coltan Scrivner unpacks contemporary society’s glamorisation of the male serial killer. He says the reason for our intrigue comes from a very primal, lizard brained place in our psyche. Instinctually, we are drawn to investigate the lives of things we fear and don’t understand, because, like a caveman stalking a sabretooth tiger, if we know about their territorial movements, the times of day they leave to hunt and the times of day they sleep, we have a better chance at survival. In a contemporary age, that original, nosy human proclivity has developed into an insatiable, pop-culture centric appetite for all things depraved. If we bring that once-predacious darkness into the light and doll it up in a franchise of blockbusters then we have nothing left to fear.
This theory is the basis of why we are so nauseatingly seduced by these representations of ‘the void,’ in the story of a downward spiral. When our hero spirals it’s almost a pathetic thing; we find it both delicious and difficult to watch because we can see how easily it could happen to us, too. That’s because we know them. We know where they came from, and we know the steps they took to vilify themselves. If the tragic hero is something stranger than good, then these antagonistic forces, these psychopath characters who seem so commonplace in that type of narrative, are presented to us as readymade; they’re something stranger than human. When the Coen brothers were directing No Country for Old Men, they insisted sadistic hitman Anton Chigurh’s accent be intentionally hard to place. That’s because they didn’t want him to be associated with anything other than the lives he reaps; and death is universal and anonymous. The Coens understood that leaving Chigurh a mystery and letting our imaginations fill in the gaps made him scarier and less like us. Look at Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci in Goodfellas; both gangsters, both criminals, both killers. Why is Liotta the sympathetic one? Pesci is the antagonist because he doesn’t have an origin. He simply appears as a wholly formed emissary of the abyss or an almost placeholder before we see the more beloved character assume that title. The author might even decide to give these characters multiple conflicting backstories from the mouth of an unreliable narrator because that makes them even more strangely alluring.
Pleasure derived by someone from another person's misfortune.
Historically, the Choose your own Adventure novel proved that we loathe to see reflections of ourselves suffer, and reality TV has taught us that we love what we loathe. It’s a weird, masochistic tightrope in modern media and downward spiral stories may just be the missing link. The fate of the original villains in these stories are almost all the same; they die at the hands of the hero and our protagonist then sink to the murky Mariana’s Trench of moral bankruptcy that the antagonist once occupied. Walter White literally and figuratively fills the void of a meth empire that Gus left behind and Ray Liotta becomes Robert De Niro’s sociopathic protege. The heroes are no longer at all reflections of us but simply imitations of those antagonists we love to loathe. It’s always the last act of the spiral and here, the attraction changes from uncovering the mystery of the void to mournfully hoping our fallen heroes get the karma they deserve. What’s so interesting to us is the psychological conundrum it offers: we now genuinely enjoy watching the ex-hero flail with all the newly-established occupational hazards that come with being the wolf. That’s why the antagonist is so important, we don’t mind hating the hero because they’ve become nothing more than a replacement for that other evil. At this point, it’s pure schadenfreude, but there’s a duality in that we do remember them as who they were at the start of the story. It’s the moral entanglement for us, who were so closely tied to these characters on their journey, and for them as our representations, grappling with the wreckage of their own wrongdoing that breeds quality film, literature and television.
At the end of Goodfellas, Ray Liotta believes entering the monotonous life of a witness protection program is the only way to survive the wrath of a mob family he has pissed off. His last line is: “I’m an average nobody, I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” It is undeniable that the downward spiral presents an agonising allure to the purveyors of any and all 21st Century Western Media. The desire to hear and tell stories of moral and psychological ruin questions everything we think we know about our own moral compasses – which may be exactly why we adore this narrative arc. There is a quote from Voltaire: “A society gets the criminal it deserves.” Sometimes, I’m inclined to believe him.