Within the first minute of “Welcome to Pope’s House,” the initial episode of the 2017 investigative series and podcast The Pope’s Long Con, journalist R. G. Dunlop introduces listeners to subject Danny Ray Johnson. In 2017, Johnson was a practicing minister and recently inducted Kentucky state representative enjoying his newfound popularity in the public sphere. Over the course of the series’ five installments and disturbing epilogue, listeners are treated to an intriguing probe into Johnson’s claims, and his stunning fall from grace.
In clips from various interviews and speeches, Johnson boasts of having overseen some of the damage control that followed the 1992 Los Angeles riots, of having occupied the role of ambassador with the United Nations, of having served as chaplain to two U.S. presidents. Notwithstanding the foreshadowing within its title, The Pope’s Long Con is a Peabody Award–winning joint effort between the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and Louisville Public Media, profiling an undeniably charismatic and, to those whom he ministered on a weekly basis, a trustworthy and personable individual. According to Dunlop, Johnson “crafted himself into a modern-day American patriot. He’s pro-gun, pro-God and pro-life. He’s a biker, he’s a preacher, he’s a self-proclaimed hero. And in November 2016, he rode the Donald Trump train into public office as a state legislator. The story of Danny Ray Johnson’s life is like something out of Forrest Gump. As he tells it, he’s been right there for some of the country’s biggest moments.”Most of us can hardly imagine carrying out those despicable acts that our most prominent tragic heroes—both fictional and real—have either been accused of or have been found guilty of committing.
Interviewees throughout the series testify to Johnson’s extraordinarily infectious panache. In the third episode of the series, one former church attendee states, “I thought that he was taking a lot of people that normally wouldn’t go to church and getting ’em to church, which was an awesome thing.” This individual, however, immediately qualifies: “But I didn’t realize how backwards he was.” This is ultimately the conclusion of The Pope’s Long Con as well: Johnson, despite his rare dynamism, kept some severely incriminating skeletons in his closet that led him to commit suicide.
The trajectory of Danny Ray Johnson’s life, from his position as beloved local religious leader and elected public official to his devastating end, is both at once familiar and peculiar. The demise of the public figure is not an infrequent recurring phenomenon, of course: our entertainment, politics, and sports are rife with exemplars whose choices and behavioral patterns have resulted in some measure of personal and professional ruin. But such individuals—our O. J. Simpsons and Eliot Spitzers and Harvey Weinsteins—are uncommon simply by virtue of the status they at one time enjoyed: via flourish, know-how, privilege, and/or talent, they wielded an extent of influence and commanded a degree of preoccupation that few of us will ever attain. In the sordid aftermath,when all is exposed, we often shake our heads and say something to the effect of truth being stranger than fiction. A closer look, however, reveals that these supposedly extraordinary characters really come at a dime a dozen, fulfilling a specific and universal archetype that has informed our collective storytelling for millennia.
The tragic hero—a trope delineated by Aristotle and rendered timeless by William Shakespeare—is inherently a misfit: the paradigm requires a protagonist who, upon his or her introduction to the audience, has already somehow transcended the status quo. We learn right off the bat in each of their titular works, for instance, that Hamlet was a prince, Othello was an esteemed military officer, and Romeo was an heir to nobility. But another hallmark of the tragic hero is some insurmountable character flaw, which, when revealed, starts a catastrophic series of events that inevitably culminates in the character’s downfall. This uncommon ability or elevated standing, then, establishes from the get-go a chasm between the protagonist and the audience. Most of us cannot fully empathize with or intimately relate to such an individual—but this person also subverts our most basic assumptions: we naturally react with alarm when a character whom we’ve deemed out-of-the-ordinary still meets a tragic end. That is, if indecision or misplaced trust or teenage impulse (as could be the case with Hamlet, Othello, and Romeo, respectively) led to the downfall of such individuals, how much more susceptible am I—average, unremarkable—to meet a tragic end if I were to make the same mistake?
Of course, such a dramatic undoing also makes for a pretty low bar. The litany of transgressions for which any given tragic hero is responsible probably upstages whatever offense most of us would deem our worst. We tend to throw around the old “sin is sin” aphorism, but the very obvious reality is that most of us can hardly imagine carrying out those despicable acts that our most prominent tragic heroes—both fictional and real—have either been accused of or have been found guilty of committing. Sure, our convictions regarding the extent of human depravity stipulate a preemptive “there but for the grace of God go I,” but the chance that most viewers who just attended a performance of Hamlet will at some point find themselves fighting the temptation to, say, carry out an act of regicide is probably pretty slim. In this respect, too, the tragic hero presents us with another irony: not only are these characters exceptional, but so too are the conflicts that undo them.
A more contemporary example, Walter White of Breaking Bad, reinforces this dynamic. Over the course of five seasons, creator Vince Gilligan and his team of writers utilized the character, a one-time wunderkind and overqualified high school chemistry teacher turned drug lord, to explore the consequence of ambition. White’s transformation is impeccably calculated, and, as any tragic hero’s arc should, nauseates. Throughout the series’ duration, critics and audiences considered the parallels between White’s downward spiral and those of other specimens—particularly Shakespeare’s—of the trope. As the series approached its finale in September 2013, David W. Brown recounted for The Atlantic the scope of White’s degeneration:
“Walt’s body count is no less impressive [than Macbeth’s], and his fall no less severe. He kills Emilio and Krazy 8 in self-defense.… Through his willful inaction, he kills Jane, Jesse’s girlfriend. He plows his van into two drug dealers who are confronting Jesse, shooting one of them in the head.… Things get easier for Walt as the show progresses. When Gale, Gus, and the prison inmates are killed, it’s only out of Walt’s self-interest that they die. Indeed, by the time Walt is ordering the deaths of prison inmates, the act is clinical—lives reduced to loose ends that need to be tied. Only once does Walt kill for no reason but his passion. He shoots Mike, basically, because Mike was mean to him. It’s notable that in the aftermath, Walt seems to lose his taste for blood, but there’s no measuring how far he’s fallen. Like Macbeth, Walt sets aside his basic humanity when he poisons Brock, and later, visits Brock and Andrea at home as an intimidation tactic against Jesse. Once you’re rummaging through your flower garden for just the right poison to use on a child, you’re officially evil.”
In light of that spate of crimes, the eventual result of Breaking Bad was foreseeable: the perversion of Walter White’s moral compass would inevitably lead to his destruction. And in enthralling fashion, true to form, it did. In another Atlantic article written shortly after the series ended, Rich Bellis reflected, “[Shakespeare] wasn’t discussed much at first, but as Walt’s doings went from merely bad to downright evil, Shakespeare began to come up more regularly.… Like the prophecy that opens Macbeth, Walt’s cancer diagnosis sets him on the road to an escalating sequence of paranoid power-grabs, leading to the deaths of those closest to him followed by his own.”Simply upholding these tragic hero figures as warnings ultimately cheapens our understanding of both human depravity, and, more consequently, the extent of grace.
Granted, nobody watched Breaking Bad to remind themselves to keep their ambition in check, and, presumably, that in itself isn’t why Gilligan thought the story was worth telling either. But in Walter White and other embodiments across pop culture, the tragic hero abides, in order to dissuade the audience from perpetrating the same moral failures. And though most of us, thankfully, don’t need to be dissuaded from carrying out those specific acts, thinking ourselves immune to same underlying capacity for evil is folly.
Despite its ubiquity, the tragic hero demands very little from us, at least with regard to our embrace of a comprehensive moral code. Comparatively, most of us are not really that bad because, clearly, Macbeth, Walter White, et al. are really bad. Perhaps the grievousness of their transgressions is what really renders our tragic heroes as misfits: their downfalls are not preceded by the everyday infractions regularly accounted to most of us. One TED-Ed Animation, which profiles the Greek tragic hero Oedipus, ends with a tongue-in-cheek allusion to this mindset: “Never has there been a more salient reminder that no matter how bad things get, at least you didn’t kill your father and marry your mother.”
But simply upholding these figures as warnings ultimately cheapens our understanding of both human depravity, and, more consequently, the extent of grace. If “the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure,” as the biblical prophet Jeremiah wrote, and “all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags,” according to the prophet Isaiah, then heeding the tragic hero is moot. In this context, we are in essence selfish, depraved individuals wholly incapable of redeeming ourselves. In fact, Jesus himself said, “You have heard that it was said…, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” Under this policy, most of us then really are just as bad as the aforementioned characters. Our hearts, thoughts, and motivations condemn us long before our actions do.
Their entertainment value aside, tragic heroes on the whole don’t bear much personal relevance. Sure, Macbeth’s final soliloquy makes for a powerful denouement, and watching Walter White come to terms with his indiscretions just before he meets his doom is affecting, but witnessing somebody else crash and burn with a magnificence that most of us never will probably fails to inspire the depth of introspect that the trope supposedly serves.
If anything, the tragic hero as more generally emblematic of our fallen condition is probably a worthwhile consideration. After all, those sins we consider more heinous than others are ultimately rooted in selfishness, and that desire to gratify the self—often at the expense of others’ comfort or well-being—is elemental to human nature. But anybody who claims adherence to an objective morality and possesses an inkling of self-awareness knows that they are prone to failure, regardless of how practically inconsequential their failures might prove. Doing what the tragic hero fundamentally asks us to do—to regard ourselves within the context of his or her lapses—dilutes the potency of Christ’s redemption: that inborn selfishness is really what we need saving from. And this—failing to perceive ourselves in need of an uncommon, unhuman grace—is the oversight truly worth avoiding.