There’s Something About Jack

Jeffrey Dahmer - a man after my own heart. For lunch.

In reality, the villain is usually a pretty simple character.  They exist because they simply do; their actions typically fuelled by a need to control those around them at all costs, and this desire will either manifest itself in the form of paedophilia, rape, murder or outright megalomania where their needs evolve to a much greater level than most, and from these are born dictators.  Beyond that, however, there is nothing.  They do what they do because they have to, or at least feel that they have to, but no consideration is ever given to how they will be viewed by others.  If anything, the beliefs and opinions of others are near-inconsequential compared to the overwhelming desire to carry out their own actions and satiate their impulses.

In works of fiction, however, the approach to villainy is a much more complex affair.  It isn’t enough that they merely exist and carry out their will; their characterisation has to be formed in such a way as to form an element of empathy with the reader so that, despite their evil doings, there is a connection on at least one level, however tenuous.  Without that, the villain is nothing more than the epitome of evil and their ultimate demise would be devoid of the conflict necessary to evoke strong feelings.  The emotional impact of their downfall is reinforced by the underlying understanding of certain aspects of their personality, however objectionable.

Alas, poor Yorick. I knew... hey, who stole the skull?

The more personality injected into the villain, the more relatable they become. Those who find their retort charming will undoubtedly start to find a place in their heart for them and, in some way, find reasons to dilute their evil actions through this humourous affinity while those on the other side of the fence will use these traits to fuel their hatred.  Either way, the end game will be all-the-more satisfying for both parties because of these quirks.  Ultimately, it is these personality traits which dictate whether the villain is someone who we love to hate, or hate to love.

For the first time, in all my thirty or so years of gaming, my leanings switched when I was presented with an antagonist who, instead of loving to hate, I hated loving.  Borderlands 2′s principal antagonist, Handsome Jack, is one of those villains where they walk the line between absolute pathological evil and hopelessly charming.  It is likely going to come as no surprise to anyone getting this far that you have now reached the point where, if you haven’t yet played through Borderlands 2 and don’t want anything spoiled, you should back away from this page before reading any further.  This article will not hold back, and will almost certainly be expositional.

Our introduction to Handsome Jack occurs only a few minutes into the game, immediately before entering the area where Knuckledragger sets his minions to attack mode as they leave the safety of their respective ‘wall sphinctres’.  The ECHOnet fires up and the voice of a somewhat chirpy guy breaks through the airwaves, but his warm welcome is more of a threat than anything else.

Hey vault hunter, Handsome Jack here, president of Hyperion. Let me just tell you how things work: vault hunter shows up, vault hunter looks for the new vault, vault hunter gets killed. By me. You seeing the problem here? You’re still alive. So if you could just do me a favour and off yourself, that’d be great. Thanks, pumpkin.

I immediately knew that I was going to love this guy. What’s not to love?  Explaining, in no uncertain terms, that he already wants you dead and has has killed many before you without any audible signs of remorse, but doing so in such a whimsical, while sardonic, manner… with the cherry on top being the use of ‘pumpkin’ as a pet name for you.  He doesn’t know who you are, you haven’t done anything to threaten him, yet he already knows that he’s planning to have you killed and does so with a Dr-Cox-from-Scrubs-esque pet name for a little bit of over-familiarity.

With Borderlands being known for its humour, it was easy to assume that Handsome Jack would be ‘just another funny Borderlands baddie’ much like the dejected and self-loathing General Knoxx with his never-ending desire to, well… END, or the three-balled mini-boss Nine Toes and his ridiculously-named pet skags, Pinky and Digit.  Mr Shank was more concerned with nail polish and applying lippy to his friends while Sledge looked like steroid-fuelled extra from It’s A Knockout. With the exception of Crawmerax The Invincible, Borderlands didn’t exactly have much in the way of menacing villains and, even then, unless you had a chronic fear of arthropods, Crawmy was more outright lethal than menacing in any way.

For anyone playing Borderlands 2 at a reasonably-steady pace, the first signs of Jack’s true capabilities are only a few minutes in when, upon leaving Liar’s Berg for the first time, an ECHO recording is discovered which documents the last movements of Helena Pierce, and a subsequent recording includes the last few moments of her life at the hands of Jack.  Not being one to stand on ceremony, Handsome Jack first of all questions whether he should address Helena as ‘lady’ or not, as her disfigured face looks like she “headbutted a belt sander” and, when the reasons for her missing arm and facial appearance is explained to him, Jack feigns sympathy, drenches it in sarcasm and shoots her dead so she can join her husband.

Even in the middle of such a heinous deed, the way he’s conveyed has so much charisma that you’d be forgiven for thinking you were listening to Eric Roberts or Nathan Fillion, and it’s perhaps this smarmy attitude that had me convinced that the character was being voiced by Roberts which, as I now know, isn’t the case.  Is it bizarre to warm towards someone as cruel as Jack, based purely on the fact he’s a bit sarcastic and has a twisted sense of humour?  If Adolf Hitler had worn a tutu or deelyboppers during his famous speech outside of the Altes Museum in Berlin, would the world have treated him differently?  Amid the fear of death would there have been an underlying “oh you’re such a trickster!” in the minds of many?

Of course not.  In reality, were we faced with a smug asshole who was gloating about how they’d forced you to kill your friend’s beloved companion and then joked about how they had this whole thing ready to taunt you, you’d most likely lose your rag and want to tear their face off with your bare hands.  When Jack does it, however, there’s this mixture of disbelief and horror, and a pang of guilt for daring to snigger at just how off-the-wall the entire thing is:

Oh where the hell is… I had a violin somewhere.  I was gonna play it all sarcastically, god dammit.  It was gonna be awesome.  Blake!  Where’s the bloody violin?

Even after such a horrific act, it’s hard to hate the guy entirely.  In fact, were you to look up the clip on YouTube (in case you had to transcribe it for an article, or something) you’d notice that the most popular comment on the video is a viewer by the name of ‘Atlas Clapped’ saying exactly that:  “I loved Mordecai in the first game so I was fucking pissed when Jack killed bloodwing, but as soon as he started talking about that violin… fuck I just can’t stay mad at this hilarious guy.”

My real connection with Jack began during the “Get To Know Jack” mission’s ECHO recordings and, upon hearing his conversations with the young Angel I, as a father to a little girl myself, understood how he would want to protect her at all costs.  In spite of everything else, this nonchalant killer had an Achilles heel and his daughter could be used against him at any point… and yet… as each recording played out, more questions arose.  If Jack really had confined Angel to the Control Core as a way to rein in her power after it caused something to happen to her mother, why would he reference the Control Core before his wife’s disappearance?

As my time with the game progressed, the sarcasm and humour from Jack became tainted by my own doubt in what was true and what was perhaps only the truth as far as he saw it himself.  While some sociopaths are experts in manipulation, using whatever they can to control those around them, there are also those who genuinely believe that what they are telling themselves, and others, is actually the truth even though it clearly isn’t the case.  Listening to the level of organisation and planning that Jack, known at the time as ‘John’, had gone to in order to orchestrate his rise through the ranks of Hyperion, I began to see beyond the quirky veil and into the black heart beneath.  Taking my steps towards the level transition for the ‘Where Angels Fear To Tread: BNK-3R’ mission, Jack’s face popped up as another ECHO transmission made its way to me:

Hey. You know how I got my hands on that vault key?  See a few years back, Willhelm and I paid a visit to your little friend, Tannis… and we beat her for hours.  We ripped it out of her broken fingers.  BUT, we let her live because that’s what heroes do. They show mercy.

It was at that point when I realised that I was probably giving Handsome Jack too much credit; that perhaps he was nothing more than a monster after all, and that his sarcastic quips weren’t him showing his affable side but rather him revelling in the pain and misery of others as a way to further exaggerate the thrill. The lilt disappeared from his voice as he talked of his time with Tannis and in its place was a brutal killer relaying cold, hard facts until throwing in the line about being a hero.  A way to make himself feel better about the whole thing, or a shining example of sociopathy?  Sadly, I’ll never know for sure.

Through it all though, there was still this niggling feeling at the back of my mind… he was still someone’s father.  Beneath that superiority complex and thirst for pain still beat the heart of a man who, at least at one point in time, loved a daughter and a wife.  Was his killing of Roland nothing more than his thirst for blood or was it born out of revenge for killing his daughter, and destroying the last remnant of the man once called ‘John’?  If the password to the Control Core or his considered delivery of “Don’t pick a fight with a man with nothing left to lose” after the death of Angel is anything to go by, then Jack was still a man underneath it all.  That’s hard to let go of.

Ultimately though, regardless of whether he was a crazed psychopath or an ordinary man driven to the edge after losing his wife, Handsome Jack has been the most enjoyable of all video game antagonists I’ve ever had the misfortune to come across.  After countless playthroughs I still smirk at the ‘violin’ gag, at “Holy nutballs! What happened to your frickin’ face?!” and considering calling his diamond-pony Piss-For-Brains “in honour of you“, eventually opting instead for Butt Stallion.  No matter what he does, or how terrible it is… there’s just something about Jack.

Last five articles by Mark R



  1. Keegan says:

    I love Jack. He is by far my favourite villain, not just of the series, but in videogames in general. He’s so charming and yet so downright evil. I love it.

  2. Pandora's Pet says:

    I totally get what your saying. I love Jack’s humor and his way of putting things even though he’s killing or wahtever. The game wouldnt be anywhere near as good if Jack was just a normal bad guy doing evil shit and not having that weird way about him

  3. Pete Pete says:

    I never considered the why and how of Jack getting Evil before but it’s an interesting thought.

    He is by far the best villain I’ve ever encountered in any format :)

    Long live Ja… oh wait….

  4. [...] himself, however, is something that 2K Australia are playing very close to their chests but, as someone who adores the man behind the facade of evil (and vice versa), it should prove to be an interesting [...]

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