Earlier this week I had an anon ask me whether or not I thought of Derek as an antihero. That question inspired me to make a longer post about antiheroes in general and how Derek fits into that role.
Because if there’s one thing I don’t do enough of, it’s talk about Derek Hale.
I’ll start by defining what an anti-hero is.
TV Tropes says: A character archetype that is almost as common in modern fiction as the Ideal Hero, an antihero is a protagonist who has the opposite of most of the traditional attributes of a hero. (S)he may be bewildered, ineffectual, deluded, or merely apathetic. More often an antihero is just an amoral misfit.
Need some examples to clarify? Rorschach from the Watchmen is a crime fighter who isn’t afraid to use exploitation or violence to meet his goal. Severus Snape was ultimately proven to have good intentions despite his sour demeanor and spiteful actions. Dexter Morgan from Showtime’s Dexter is a serial killer with humanity.
Obviously antiheroes fall on a wide spectrum, but I think it’s one that Derek fits well in. Let’s get to the why.
Derek Hale is a loner. This is one of the most common attributes of antiheroes. They have been burned in the past (I swear, no pun intended) and often have a tragic backstory to explain why they prefer to keep their distance. Sound familiar? Derek’s trust was broken in an incredibly cruel fashion by Kate Argent. She manipulated his emotions and used his love to ultimately murder Derek’s family. In Season 1 we learned that Derek hasn’t divulged this information to anyone else. It’s a burden that he carries alone, and one that he is trying to atone for. He even goes so far as to sleep in the empty shell of his family home, the scene of their death. It’s a constant reminder of his failures. Derek can never forget what he did because he won’t ever himself come close.
Derek continues to use anger and physical intimidation to push away anyone who tries to come close to him. He doesn’t want friendship or warm and fuzzies. He wants to avenge his sister’s death and leave. Though Season 2 has just begun, Derek shows little sign of growth in that department. He is still extremely guarded and closed-in. Even though he’s beginning to form a pack of his own, he’s shown no interest in becoming close or familial with the people that he turns. It seems to be a matter of necessity—Derek is an Alpha and an Alpha needs a pack.
The Contrast: Despite the fact that Derek is a loner by nature, he still takes Scott (and essentially Stiles) under his wing. He could have killed Scott a thousand times, but he didn’t. He tried to teach Scott, again and again, how to control the shift and protect himself. Derek sacrificed his physical safety a number of times when there was absolutely no benefit to him other than keeping Scott alive.
And in choosing his pack in Season 2 Derek has already shown more kindness than his uncle, Peter Hale. Derek has only given the bite to people who have wanted it. He gave them a choice. Derek could bite anyone that he wanted—picking the strongest and most intelligent people in Beacon Hills whether they liked it or not. But who does he choose? He bit Jackson at the end of Season 1. Jackson had been begging for the bite for months, and he is, at best, a damaged person who desperately wants to be accepted. Derek’s second choice was Isaac, a boy who was being physically abused and dominated by his father, a boy who was helpless and scared and alone. Derek has chosen people like himself. People who need to be a part of something, who need family and protection and strength. The bite is a gift, and he isn’t giving it away lightly.
Derek Hale does not claim to have noble motivations. From the beginning Derek makes it clear that he isn’t thrilled to be helping Scott. In fact, the main reason that he’s trying to keep Scott in line is because he fears Scott will out them as werewolves by losing control in front of humans. It’s also beneficial for Derek to maintain contact with Scott while he’s searching for the alpha—the wolf that turned Scott in the first place. Finally, Derek’s motivations are also muddied with his past. At the end of Season 1 Derek told Scott: You’re not in love, Scott. You’re sixteen years old. You’re a child. I don’t think that anyone can question that, in that moment, Derek was yelling at his former self as much as he was yelling at Scott. Derek can’t change what happened to him, but he can try to keep Scott from being as foolish and impetuous as he was.
He hasn’t shown himself to be the kind of person who says, I’m going to do this because it’s the right thing to do. That’s reason enough.
The Contrast: Despite the fact that his motivations aren’t always clear, Derek has displayed heroic actions again and again. This is when one has to ask themself if it’s the action or the thought that matters most? If Derek is doing something to save his ass and save another person, does it make the act any less meaningful? And if his desire to help Scott is clouded by a desire to right his own wrongs, then does it diminish the heroism?
Derek Hale is morally ambiguous. Derek tied up an innocent man and physically assaulted him in an attempt to get answers during Season 1. He intimidated and physically assaulted Scott, Stiles, and Jackson at various times as well. At the end of Season 1, Derek helped Scott capture the Alpha with the promise that he would allow Scott to be the one who killed Peter—a potential cure for his lycanthropy. Instead, it was Derek who killed Peter, avenged his sister’s death, and took on the role of Alpha.
The Contrast:Derek protected Stiles when Stiles was threatened by Peter Hale at the hospital, and again, in Season 2, when Isaac threatened Stiles. Derek sacrificed his body and allowed himself to be tortured in order to protect Jackson and Scott and draw Peter Hale out of hiding in Season 1. In killing Peter at the end of Season 1 Derek also saved Scott from taking on the role of Alpha. Had Scott become the Alpha he would have been in a potentially dangerous situation—he would have increased strength with little to no experience or control over that strength. He would have become a bigger threat to the hunters in town, who may have decided that it was better to have him dead. It’s also possible that Alphas from other packs would have used Scott’s inexperience to kill him and take over his territory in Beacon Hills.
In conclusion, there is a dark edge and a question to every good deed that Derek commits. In this way, an antihero is formed. Derek is the definition of a struggling, imperfect protagonist. He is haunted by his past, plagued by the loss of his family, and he is completely and utterly lost. He is trying his best to form a new pack and piece his world back together, but he doesn’t always do that in the most heroic way. He isn’t opposed to getting his hands dirty or breaking the rules.
Antiheroes are, by definition, a mess of contradictions. Nobody fits that description more perfectly than Derek Hale.
Personally, I find antiheroes are often my favorite kind of heroes. I don’t believe that their struggles diminish their deeds, but make them more rich and complex. Derek’s growth as a person and as a hero is fascinating to watch, and I look forward to seeing which direction it takes next.