Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The wagon couldn’t hold me: 17 fictional drunks who got sober, then gave up

Illustration for article titled The wagon couldn’t hold me: 17 fictional drunks who got sober, then gave up

1. Bender, Futurama
It’s St. Patrick’s Day, which is the official holiday of staring dazed at a friend who you realize you only like drunk, after all. For all that pop culture is full of stories of alcoholism, a few, like Futurama, embrace a certain kind of defeated nihilism and consign their characters to a life of sloppy drinking. Bender’s a robot, so it’s hard to take his alcoholism on the same level as, say, Don Draper’s, but it’s an integral part of his character—and he’s a nasty drunk, too. Except in one of the first episodes of the series’ entire run, “I, Roommate,” Bender gets depressed and stops drinking—which turns him into a sloppy mess. It’s very like Futurama to flip the conventions of the alcoholic’s storyline for laughs—and it’s also like Futurama to get into what makes that storyline tragic, too. Bender goes on to have many more adventures with the Planet Express crew, but he’s never sober again.


2. Ben Sanderson, Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
By the time leads Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue first encounter each other in Leaving Las Vegas, Cage is done with fighting his alcoholism and has decided to give up and drink himself to death in Vegas. There’s a certain grim, poetic logic to his decision: He’s lost his job, his family, and his interest in controlling his self-destructive urges; giving in to the booze is a relief. “Is drinking a way of killing yourself?” Shue asks him. “Or is killing myself a way of drinking?” he counters. But the real underpinnings of his decision to drown in bourbon are deeper than the relatively simple ones explored in the movie—the film is an adaptation of the debut novel by John O’Brien, a young writer who killed himself two weeks after signing over his book’s film rights. His sister, who completed and published one of his unfinished novels after his death, has revealed a great deal about his troubled past as an alcoholic struggling with what he felt was a poisonous family and an equally poisonous genetic heritage. The original book can be seen as something of an autobiographical fantasy of giving up and letting go—and in the process, meeting someone who loves him unequivocally for what he is.

3. Ruben, Buzzkill (2013)
It’s easy to feel invincible when under the influence, but in the case of “Ruben” (real name: Francis), the central character of Donny Cates, Mark Reznicek, and Geoff Shaw’s Dark Horse Comics miniseries Buzzkill, alcohol actually makes him invulnerable and super strong. Ruben discovers his superpowers after he gets wasted at a party in high school and survives a car crash that killed his friends, and over time he learns that all drugs give him extraordinary abilities. He becomes a superhero, but has to hang up his costume after a booze-fueled battle causes seismic property damage and destroys his relationship with his girlfriend, forcing him into A.A. so he can maintain his sobriety. Ruben is able to make it work for about a month, but when a group of supervillains corner him outside his A.A. meeting and beat him to a pulp, he has to return to the juice to survive, breaking into a church’s wine supply so that he can hulk out and kill the bad guys. It’s a tragic road to victory, and while Ruben attempts to reclaim his sobriety immediately afterward, it becomes increasingly difficult as more and more threats test his temperance.

4. William Munny, Unforgiven (1992)
When we meet William Munny (Clint Eastwood), he’s a widowed Kansas farmer who’s given up not just alcohol, but also his past as a violent gunslinger. He reluctantly picks up his guns to avenge a prostitute who was disfigured at the hands of two cowboys. But he stays sober, and is disgusted by the violence he sees and commits. But when his partner, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) is killed by the local sheriff (Gene Hackman), Munny fully embraces deadly retribution. Once he starts taking swigs from Logan’s whiskey bottle, it’s clear he’s crossed a line, becoming the remorseless killer he once was.

5. Jack Torrance, The Shining (1980)
The critic Tom Shone has called Stephen King’s The Shining, which was written when its author had a drinking problem but before he acknowledged it, “one of the best books ever written about alcoholism… [because] it doesn’t know what it was about. It was an act of urgent self-diagnosis, conducted in the pitch dark.” In Stanley Kubrick’s movie version, Jack Nicholson plays Jack Torrance—blocked writer, bad husband, worse parent, and dry drunk—who ends his sobriety in what may be a haunted hotel, after a (ghostly? imaginary?) bartender appears in response to Torrance’s declaration that he’d “give my goddamned soul for a glass of beer.” This is a big moment in Torrance’s transformation from run-of-the-mill conceited prick to murderous lunatic, but given the film’s ambiguity about whether his lips have really made contact with liquor, Kubrick may have thought that, whatever demons the hotel unleashes in him, alcohol is not an essential component of the process. King’s oft-stated unhappiness with the movie may have something to do with him calling bullshit on this.

6. Andy Knightley, The World’s End (2013)
Not every fictional depiction of falling off the wagon is a miserable one. But then, it’s never really clear if Nick Frost’s character in The World’s End is even an alcoholic; after teenage years full of hedonism and tackling people, Frost turns teetotaler after being betrayed by his best friend (Simon Pegg). Sober Frost builds a successful life for himself as a prominent businessman (his office walls are made of glass!) and husband, but when Pegg comes back into his life, he reluctantly agrees to go on one last pub crawl. Only for the first few rounds, Frost sticks to water. It’s a principled stand made by a man with a lot of understandable anger, but when it turns out their old hometown has been overrun by DNA-snatching aliens, something snaps. After a brawl in the men’s bathroom that takes out a posse of disposable teenagers, Frost starts hitting the booze with aplomb; it’s played partly for laughs, but also with an undercurrent of almost visceral triumph. Sober Frost’s life isn’t quite as great as he lets on, and with a few pints (and half a dozen shots) in him, he’s an alien-wrecking machine. You can’t get back your youth, but maybe you can get drunk enough not to care that it’s gone.

7. Michael Garibaldi, Babylon 5 (1994-1998)
When Babylon 5 started off, each of the command staff characters was given a personality-defining past event, then an episode or two to hammer it home. For security chief Michael Garibaldi, played by Jerry Doyle, alcoholism was his cross to bear. He had been an alcoholic screw-up, but in the first season, clean and sober, he was given what he considered his last chance to make good. In a single early episode, Garibaldi falls off the wagon, but other than that, he’s a voice of wisdom when other characters threaten to lose control of their lives. Yet the threat of his loss of control continues to hang over his character. In the fifth season, he’s pushed to the breaking point by a job as a spymaster and the knowledge that he’d betrayed his friends. Garibaldi cracks once again, with the minor consequence of a galactic war and the best storyline of the season as a result.

8. Barney Gumble, The Simpsons (1989-present)
Barney Gumble has always been The Simpsons’ slightly depressing spin on the old sitcom type, the town drunk. Holed up in Moe’s, Barney possesses hidden depths, but it’s all but impossible to get them to look out from behind the crushing alcoholism. In the fifth-season episode “Deep Space Homer,” however, Barney sobers up to get a shot at going into space. Competing with Homer to be an “average schmoe” on the space shuttle, Barney quickly gets into shape and overcomes his addiction to be the sort of guy who would be a credit to the space program. But Barney’s selection is also his undoing, as it is toasted with non-alcoholic champagne. Promptly after consuming one glass, then the entire bottle, Barney races off on an insane, jetpack-fueled bender, trapped by the circumstances of his character until the next time the show needs him to be unexpectedly profound and/or proficient.

9. Doc Delaney, Come Back, Little Sheba (1952)
In the Oscar-winning movie version of William Inge’s play Come Back, Little Sheba, Burt Lancaster plays Doc, the once-promising medical student who gave up his studies to marry his pregnant girlfriend Lola (Shirley Booth), who then miscarried. Doc used to drink to escape his frustrations and disappointments; when the action begins, he’s been sober for a year, but keeps a full bottle around as a physical reminder of his weakness. Then, the Delaneys take in a pretty young girl as a boarder, and this constant reminder of Doc’s own lost youth and potency finally drives him to have a pull at that bottle—whereupon the lid comes off and he calls his wife a “fat slut,” violently assaults her, and ends up being dragged off to the alcoholics’ ward at the hospital. Maybe if he’d wanted a reminder of why he shouldn’t drink, he should have just kept a journal.

10. Geraldine, Take This Waltz (2011)
Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz stars Michelle Williams as an intelligent young woman in a happy, mutually nurturing but unexciting marriage to Seth Rogen; as the film progresses, she’s tempted by the edgy charms of a handsome, bohemian artist (Luke Kirby). Sarah Silverman plays Williams’ sister-in-law, who everyone treats just a little bit gingerly because she’s a recovering alcoholic. But the keen-eyed Silverman detects the threat to her brother’s marriage long before he does. After Williams leaves Rogen, she hears that Silverman is in trouble and goes to see if there’s anything she can do to help. No sooner does she arrive at the family house than Silverman drunkenly drives up, plowing her car into a garbage can, and, before being led off by a police officer, takes a moment to call Williams on her shit, acknowledging, “It’s harder to talk to people honestly when you’re sober.” But she reserves her greatest contempt for the moment when Williams asks her why she went and got drunk when she’d seemed to be doing so well; what happened? “Nothing happened, moron,” says Silverman. “I’m an alcoholic. This is my natural state.”


11. Kirsten Clay, Days Of Wine And Roses (1962)
There’s a hefty dose of Reefer Madness hysteria to Blake Edwards’ Days Of Wine And Roses, a big-screen adaptation of a live TV event exploring the gritty, histrionic world of alcoholism. The story plays out like an adult afterschool special about the dangers of booze: PR flak Jack Lemmon peer-pressures his teetotaler love interest, Lee Remick, into drinking because it feels good, and because he’s embarrassed to drink alone. When they drink together, though, they turn from responsible adults to giddy, thrill-happy teenagers. Over and over throughout the film, they decide to kick the habit and they sober up for a bit, only to fall off the wagon in increasingly dramatic, self-destructive ways: They never kill someone, unlike the lead in Reefer Madness, but between them, they destroy an immense amount of property, including their apartment, in a fire that almost kills their daughter. By the end of the film, Lemmon has finally gotten back on the straight and narrow, but Remick has decided to stay drunk, because her thoroughly wrecked world looks so much better when she’s too blotto to see it clearly. Granted, her decision to remain a sodden, horrifying lush is mostly so Lemmon has someone to shake his head over in the end. He gets the kid, a job, and a future; Remick gets a series of sad one-night stands and a lecture. It’s a morality tale that ends on a moment of moral superiority only slightly leavened by the fact that Lemmon pulled Remick into the bottle in the first place.

12. Duck Phillips, Mad Men (2007-present)
Mad Men has more alcoholics than the Gavin family, but nobody struggles with sobriety like Duck Phillips. When he’s introduced, he already has a reputation among the junior associates. The scuttlebutt is he lost is job at a rival firm when his alcoholism got out of control. For a while he has his head on straight and he makes his mark on Sterling Cooper, hiring new talent and approaching new clients. But before the second season is up, his passive-aggressive power struggle with Don Draper gets the better of him, and he falls off the wagon. A few episodes later he has another public meltdown and gets fired again. It’s complicated at the time, a tragedy for Duck but a triumph for protagonist Don. Ever since, Duck’s drunkenness has been played for comic relief, as when he gets shit-faced and tries to take a dump in Don’s office. Last we saw him, Duck was busy finding a replacement for Don, sober in the moment but still locked in the self-destructive conflict that’s been dragging him down for years.


13. Ian Duncan, Community (2009-present)
Professor Ian Duncan (John Oliver) was a reliable joke machine in Community’s first two seasons, initially as a psychology professor, then anthropology, and always as a rival to Ken Jeong’s Ben Chang. Those gags tended to be based on either his Englishness (“English dentistry is not on trial here!”) or his drunkenness, something that theoretically should be a problem for a professor—though maybe not so much at Greendale. But as the show expanded its focus, and started including Duncan’s social life, his funny alcoholism became much less funny. Since then, he’s gone back and forth on being sober—whichever helps the jokes of the episode—but as Duncan’s become a main character in the fifth season, he’s been given a balance and depth beyond “drunk Englishman,” and the state of his alcoholism shifted into the background. Still, we’ll always have his rap.

14. Joe Kavanagh, My Name Is Joe (1998)
The title of Ken Loach’s slice-of-life downer My Name Is Joe comes from its hero’s introduction to the other people at the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that opens the film. Joe (Peter Mullan), an unemployed Glaswegian in his late 30s, has been sober for 10 months when the film begins; part of his plan to remake his future is to be honest about his past, and when his new girlfriend Sarah (Louise Goodall) asks him why he quit drinking, he reveals that he beat up his last girlfriend when they were both drunk: “A cloud just descended… and suddenly I hated her. Hated me.” After Joe and Sarah quarrel, she asks if he’s going to beat her up, too. Of all the problems Joe has to deal with, this ugly collision of his past with his present is the one that sends him back to the bottle. He goes home, gets plastered, and is abusively indifferent to the plight of his friend Liam, who owes money to the wrong people and has come to beg for his help. Joe awakens from his drunken stupor to discover that Liam has committed suicide.


15. Bill Dornan, NYPD Blue (1993-2005)
TV producer Steven Bochco has a thing for recovering-alcoholic protagonists, such as Hill Street Blue’s Frank Furillo (who sobered up before the series started) and NYPD Blue’s Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz), who bottomed out in the show’s pilot, then got straight as the series went along. He only briefly reverts to form when his son is murdered (in the third-season episode “A Death In The Family”); he gets back on the horse with the help of his co-workers and the tough love of his wife, who throws him out of their home. Perhaps even more unsettling than his son’s death is the realization, three seasons later, that he’s played a role in the drunkenness of a fellow officer, Bill Dornan (Richard Gant), with whom he’s tangled in the past. “I didn’t know you were an oiler,” says Sipowicz, finding Dornan drunk in a bar. “Like riding a bike,” says Dornan. “Off 11 years. Good as you ever were when you get back on it.” Deeply rattled, Sipowicz scuttles away as if fearful that what Dornan has might be contagious.

16. Tony Stark, Fear Itself and The Invincible Iron Man (2011)
In the classic 1979 Iron Man storyline “Demon In A Bottle,” Tony Stark battles his alcoholism and comes out on top, but subsequent writers of the character have made him relapse during particularly trying times. Tony’s most recent trip back to the bottle occurs in the midst of Marvel’s underwhelming 2011 crossover event Fear Itself, which features the return of an ancient Asgardian threat who nearly destroys Earth by turning superheroes and villains into his pawns. Tony Stark needs an audience with Odin, the Allfather of the Norse gods, so that he can use his weapons-making abilities on a mystical forge, but in order to get Odin’s attention, Tony needs to make a sacrifice. He gives up his sobriety and dignity by getting drunk, and while his plan works, he ends up having to do his job intoxicated. Written by Matt Fraction, himself a recovering alcoholic, Tony’s journey into drunkenness bounces between comedy and drama; at one point, the hero gets blitzed with a group of violent dwarves, but later, one of those dwarves comes to Tony for help after he witnesses the man turn down a drink. The dwarf ultimately comes to Earth and joins Tony at an A.A. meeting, giving Fraction the opportunity to tackle the theme of addiction within a fantastic comic-book setting.


17. Randy “The Ram” Robinson, The Wrestler (2008)
In some ways, all of The Wrestler is a story about slowly falling off the wagon—or, indeed, jumping off, as happens in the final few moments of the film. Mickey Rourke’s Randy is an old man unable to come to terms with his age; when he was a partying, self-denying, destructive pro wrestler, his entire life may have been in shambles, but at least he knew who he was. In the film he wavers between the old lifestyle and the new, and though Randy’s form of alcoholism is tied up with cocaine, and stapling himself on stage, the film tracks his arc from shaking off his old life and trying sobriety, only to dive right back in. Darren Aronofsky has perfected this type of tragic storytelling—in which it’s not just that Randy’s addicted, but that his only source of meaning comes through his addiction.