Image from here.
Like many children growing up I had a dichotomous view of people, they were either good or bad and as a consequence I either liked or disliked them and treated them accordingly. Bad quite easily blurred into evil. This view perpetuated into my youth, and possibly into my twenties when the dawning realisation came that people are (to use the common phrase) shades of grey. It's easy to see how this came about- as children we are fed stories with goodies and badies; Cinderellas, Rapunzels, wolves, step mothers.
Now step forward (and backwards) to Mad Men. From the comfortable position of 2010 I initially found myself getting very irate at the actions of the characters. The prejudices, the ready willingness to use advertising to manipulate, the ill-communication between humans. The way Don's infidelity matches the hypocritical rules he expects Betty to live by, how Sal loses his job, the people who were fired because Peggy's lunch money went missing.
Yet it is the gap of time that reminds us these are people of the 1960s, a product of their time. Their edges are rounded, we can forgive their ways. The programme shows us how much we have changed, and sadly haven't changed. My point is that I have come to see them as characters with strengths and weaknesses, rather than good and bad. It is a credit to the show that there are so many developed characters and I am pleased that I can see the complexities in each. Where I most felt their pain was when they experienced great historical events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and Marilyn Munroe's death; the way these horrors of the world affected them.
Terry Pratchett allowed me to see these parallels in Unseen Academicals. He is a fantasy writer who juxtaposes our world against his own- Discworld, or more specifically the city of Ankh-Morpork. In this extract the ruler of the city, Lord Vetinari, hints at how he rules a unruly city without any written rules:
I have told this to few people, gentlemen, and I suspect never will again, but one day when I was a young boy on holiday in Uberwald I was walking along the bank of a stream when I saw a mother otter and her cubs. A very endearing sight, I'm sure you will agree, and even as I watched, the mother otter dived into the water and came up with a plump salmon, which she subdued and dragged on to a half submerged log. As she ate it, while of course it was still alive, the body split and I remember to this day the sweet pinkness of its roes as they spilled out, much to the delight of the baby otters who scrambled over themselves to feed on the delicacy. One of nature's wonders, gentlemen: mother and children feeding on mother and children. And that's when I first learned about evil. It is built in to the very nature of the universe. Every world spins in pain. If there is some kind of supreme being, I told myself, it is up to all of us to become his moral superior.
This made me realise that to pinpoint one character or individual or type as bad or evil doesn't seem to fit. It could be a systems thing. To be honest, I'm not fond of the word evil, but there is an ugly downside to humanity, as well as an triumphant side.
I guess it is a matter of how we approach the 50-50.