*This essay focuses solely on TV sociopaths instead of real-life sociopaths, and all my observations are based on accumulated hours of unhealthy Netflixing.
Sociopathy comes in different levels, consequently sculpting sociopaths of various categories. While fictional universes like Game of Thrones provide us with a truckload of sociopaths to hate on (Joffrey Baratheon, Petyr Baelish, Ramsay Snow), today we pan our focus toward the likable sociopaths.
I’m talking about the femme fatales and the deceitful sons of bitches. I’m talking about the likes of Joe Goldberg (You), Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock), James Moriaty (Sherlock), Amy Dunne (Gone Girl), Emily Nelson (A Simple Favor), and Villanelle (Killing Eve). Why are we obsessed with the way they function and why do we—almost unhealthily—root for them and even want to be them?
First, let’s take a look at the characteristics of likable sociopaths. There is no denying the fact that a lot of these sociopaths are carved out by television to appear charming and charismatic, with most of them being considered better looking when held to society’s beauty standards. Just this combination alone allows them to be manipulative because it is psychologically proven that we are more prone to letting our guards down around people we consider to be ‘pretty’ or ‘good-looking’. This has to do with the halo effect where we associate good-looking persons with positive attributes, making us forget their dangerous nature.
Aside from that, TV sociopaths are portrayed to hold themselves in higher regard relative to the average people. They see themselves as superior to others and are in full acknowledgment that they are different. A classic example of this would be Sherlock in the very first episode of the namesake series as you can watch below. Sherlock gets slightly frustrated and surprised when the minds of others aren’t able to churn at his speed or when Scotland Yard simply fails to keep up.
And if we tune in to 1:08 of that Sherlock scene, we come to unlock yet another key trait of sociopaths: their lack of empathy and remorse. When Watson mentions that the victim might have been threatened with the death of her stillborn daughter from 14 years ago, Sherlock responds: “But that was ages ago, why would she still be upset?”
Most of us have no problem understanding why a mother could still be triggered by the death of her child from over a decade ago, but Sherlock doesn’t quite understand. He cannot display empathy when needed (although we do see him learn and grow with the help of Watson as the show progresses).
Running on a tangent, it also seems like a lot of our favorite sociopaths are geniuses. I mean, not everybody can kill whoever they like and get away with it, can they? Once again, Sherlock best displays this characteristic by using his brilliance to solve cases that the police are unable to figure out. However, sociopathic intellect is a double-edged sword and we watch the detriment of it play out in the battle between Sherlock Holmes and James Moriaty.
Moreover, TV sociopaths will break the rules and defy the norms without feeling the slightest hint of guilt. To them, it seems like everything is a means to an end. It does not cross their mind the consequence of their actions, nor do they ever stop to care about those impacted by their every decision. This translates into amorality, a complete disregard for societal constructs and judgment that separates them from the rest of us.
The way sociopaths think is: If I make this decision, does it bring me closer to the solution I’m seeking? If their answer is yes, they will take that action without regard for the consequences that others might have to bear on their behalf.
Will caring about them help save them? Then I’ll continue to not make that mistake.Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock
Amorality is defined as “having or showing no concern about whether [a] behavior is morally right or wrong”. This makes sociopaths dangerous because instead of being completely oblivious of societal morals, they are simply indifferent to them. Due to this lack of care for aftermaths, sociopaths get bored all the time and turn to seek new thrills. Again, we can look back to the first episode of Sherlock where Sergeant Sally Donovan says in regards to Sherlock: “You know why he’s here? He’s not paid or anything. He likes it. He gets off on it. The weirder the crime, the more he gets off. And you know what? One day just showing up won’t be enough. One day we’ll be standing around a body and Sherlock Holmes will be the one that put it there.”
Being unbridled by the rules enables sociopaths to play the long game and plan ahead; they move from step one to step two no matter what the outcome of the first step turns out to be. Without having to care too much for the world, both Sherlock and his nemesis can focus on their jobs and schemes, unbothered by the changes in their surroundings.
In some cases, sociopaths can also come off as immature, unbearable, and even egotistical; but since we are looking at the likable ones, I won’t be diving into details of that.
For a quick sum-up, commonly seen traits among TV sociopaths are:
- Charm and charisma
- The tendency to have higher opinions of themselves
- Lack of empathy and remorse
So, why do we love sociopaths?
It’s human nature to want what we cannot have; something like the concept of “money smells best when it isn’t yours”. So, what is it that sociopaths have that we don’t? Their own game.
We are all pawns in a larger, international cosmic game, every one of us simply clinging onto the hope of reaching the other end of the chessboard, climbing the squares one god-forsaken step at a time. But sociopaths? They aren’t playing the same game(s) we are. They are the center of their own universe; a sociopath moves whatever piece they like, in whatever fashion serves them best—no matter what that means for those around them.
On-screen sociopaths give us a glimpse into a life without consequences, a glance at what happens when you stop giving a fuck. Because when you rip off that veil of morality and wear it as a cape, you become invincible. You become free. And who doesn’t want to be free?
That is the first explanation for why we admire TV sociopaths. The second reason is that shows often create a gripping enough backstory for their household sociopaths, whose childhoods are structured and scripted in such a way that makes us feel they had no choice but to grow up all too quickly into the person that we see on screen.
Let’s put this into an example with Joe Goldberg from You, who is widely romanticized by viewers for the wrong reasons. The actor, Penn Badgley, had to vocally remind viewers that Joe is a murderer and shouldn’t be idolized or chased after in any context. When we take into account Joe’s childhood and how he was neglected in his youth, we subconsciously justify his behavior. We start questioning: “What if he does what he does to prevent those he loves from leaving him?” And momentarily, it seems as if Joe isn’t stalking Beck, he is simply protecting her (of course, there is a clear difference between stalking and protecting and I am not encouraging the former).
Recent renditions of Joker do the same. Most will classify the Joker as a psychopath because we can’t see any remorse coming from him and all he ever shows is his lust for damage and chaos. However, the 2019 film allows us leeway into the traumas that eventually shape him and for a moment there, his actions aren’t driven by complete madness; for a brief second, the Joker is treating the world the same way the world had treated him.
Scriptwriters also tend to give these characters an edge that makes them appear slightly more human-y than sociopath-y. Take, for instance, Dexter Morgan, who grows to be a killer who only takes the lives of those who have done unto others harm. In fact, many sociopathic killers seem to operate via the same code, which paints them as some sort of anti-hero rather than a full-on villainous killer.
Outside of their maniacal actions that we would normally disagree with, TV sociopaths aren’t written to be completely non-feeling. They still care for the selective few around them; in fact, it is often this need to protect their loved ones that drives them to do the things they do. Look at the way Joe cares for Beck and Love, Dexter cares for his girlfriend, Emily Nelson cares for her child, and even Tony Soprano who becomes a family man under the roof. We can relate to this—going to the ends of the world to shield loved ones from harm. This is yet another key as to why we root for TV sociopaths: We find something familiar and latch onto that.
I have come to realize I’m more biased toward powerful female sociopaths too, simply because they exude this divine and goddess-like confidence that most can only dream of achieving. Women who fall into this category are called ‘femme fatale’, which is French for ‘fatal woman’. The Wikipedia definition for femme fatale is “a stock character of a mysterious, beautiful, and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers, often leading them into compromising, deadly traps”. A trait shared by many in this trope is the rejection of motherhood, and here is where I have a bone to pick.
This trope perpetuates the notion that if a woman taps into her confidence, sexuality, and power, they become duplicitous, fatal—even malignant. It shows that women can only either be dainty housewives or ruthless criminals, but never something in between.
Yet, we love these women because they defy the stereotypical norms that society has placed upon them. They reject traditional and patriarchal roles and values. Better yet, these characters use feminine features that are often considered taboo or scandalous to their advantage and rise above, becoming so in tune with their abilities that they are awarded unprecedented liberation.
Take a look at Amy Dunne from Gone Girl. Forced into roles she never wanted to play. The obedient wife. The successful daughter. Living up to be ‘Amazing Amy’ was tough enough, but now that she’s married to Nick, she has to play the part of ‘cool girl’, continuing to be someone she isn’t. If she ever settles back into her own skin, then she would disappoint her parents and disinterest her husband. When she has had enough, she gains the courage to fake her death and makes her husband the scapegoat. Nick’s lackadaisical part in the relationship doesn’t justify the cruel methods through which Amy chastised him, but understanding his neglect toward her makes us go: “Oh, Nick was a shitty husband, he should’ve paid more attention and allowed Amy to be who she truly is” instead of “She’s a raging psychopath who just wants to see her husband burn”.
Ultimately, TV sociopaths project a life we all dream of. Untied by laws and constructs, unrestricted by consequences, free to roam around and do whatever we wish to for as long as we live. No nine-to-five’s, no boredom, always the thrill.
but we see only what we want to see
This applies when we’re looking at TV sociopaths. We long for their frivolous lives and brilliant minds. The taste of living on the edge and truly being in control over every moment. We can only imagine how it would be like to grow up that pretty or that handsome, to have charisma naturally handed down to us, and to be able to charm our way through everything.
Because why wouldn’t we want that? Sociopaths seem to have it all, don’t they?
If we zoom in on the positive aspects of their lives, everyone wishes they were king of their own game just like sociopaths are, but there is no negating the duller and dimmer parts of their lives. We don’t see the loneliness that comes with being a sociopath. Nor the emptiness. Nor the constant looking-over-the-shoulder. Nor the trauma most of them go through to become who we see on screen. Nor their silent screams begging for our normalcy.
Fiction looks good on paper and screen, but real-life translations are unpredictable. Keep it in your mind that when there is a fan base for villains or anti-heroes, it is solely because they are well-written by the industry. Just because somebody is good at being bad does not mean we should throw caution and logic to the wind to obsess over them. While this trope may present entertaining and intriguing lives to us, it’s important to know where to draw the line.
Never aspire to be like somebody simply because they have things that you don’t. We are all in ownership of something that somebody else wants, we just can’t see it.