by Scotty Villhard
What turns a swindler into a con artist? What separates your ordinary robbers from your gentleman thieves? What is the distinction between a burglary and a heist? Media is full of these confidence folk, criminals of the finest quality. They can be found in films like Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and novels like Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. Some of the most famous characters in fiction are con artists, such as the titular figure in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Classy criminals pack theaters, sell out books, and make up the casts of myriad cable television shows. But con artists don’t just commit crimes; they perform them. Their tools are not guns but words, not ski masks but costumes. But where is that line and what has us cheering when someone tricks a rube out of their wallet, but not when they take that wallet at gunpoint? When does the art come into the con?
Tricksters appear in myth and folklore across virtually every culture on Earth. In Norse mythology Loki plays this role, wreaking mischief on the gods of Asgard, while in Greek myth Hermes is the inventor of lying. Within many Native American traditions, the Coyote stole fire from the gods, and plays the role of jokester and trickster in many legends. Ashanti mythology has its own trickster god, the spider Anansi, who was later adapted into fiction in Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel American Gods. These trickster figures appear in many of the most popular stories in their respective traditions, often getting the better of the stronger gods. The role of the Trickster was rarely to trick mere mortals, but rather to reveal the follies of the powerful. In fact, the Trickster is often helpful to humanity; in Greek myth, Prometheus stole fire from Zeus to give to mortals, and the folk character Br’er Rabbit evolved in enslaved Black communities in the south as a figure of extreme resilience. But many of these legendary Tricksters carried a duality; as clever as they were, they could also be extremely stupid at times and humiliated themselves when a scheme blew up in their face. The con artists of modern fiction mimic these old tropes; they often target the powerful, occasionally protect the innocent, and while they may be clever, when they fall, they fall far.
But unlike a traditional superhero movie, the huge street-leveling fights are replaced with battles of wits and resources.
Lupin (2021) is a French Netflix limited series loosely adapted from the Arsène Lupin stories, written by Maurice Leblanc in the early 20th century. It stars Omar Sye as Assane Diop, son of a Senagalese immigrant, who has taken inspiration from the Arsène Lupin novels and become a gentleman thief. The series is a delight, in large part because it revels in the fun of being a world-class criminal. I mean, Assane has a chair shaped like a giant drama mask that he sits in while planning his heists. It’s excellent. But the central appeal of Lupin lies in the conflict between good and evil.
While Assane is a criminal, and often on the wrong side of the law, he never does anything truly harmful. Without giving away too much, Assane has very reasonable motivations for his crimes throughout the show, and his actions are all targeted at a single, powerful, corrupt figure. It’s a revenge story, but the revenge is rarely compromised by moral squabbles. Instead, it’s a battle between opposing forces: Assane, guided by justice and utilizing his criminal genius, and his foe, guided by profit and empowered by his wealth. Lupin is, essentially, a superhero story: from poverty, a handsome genius takes on governments and billionaires. But unlike a traditional superhero movie, the huge street-leveling fights are replaced with battles of wits and resources. Assane becomes a trickster god, one who seems untouchable until you realize the people he cares about aren’t. Lupin illustrates one of the appeals of a good con artist story: a battle against evil not through violence, but through cleverness.
Imagine, though, if instead of seeking to expose one man, Assane had embarked on a worldwide quest for karmic justice. That’s the plot of Great Pretender, an anime series (also on Netflix, released in 2020) about a group of globetrotting con artists who pull massive jobs on the rich and privileged, knocking them down a peg and making a pretty penny in the process. While Lupin stars the all-knowing criminal mastermind himself, Great Pretender instead focuses on Makoto Edamura, a street-level con artist from Japan who gets recruited by this cabal of tricksters for a job in America. Makoto has a strong sense of right and wrong; unfortunately, he’s more or less abandoned it in his life as a pickpocket and swindler.
It’s fun to see powerful people fall, and even more fun to watch the chain of events that gets you there, however unlikely it may be.
The con artists in this show aren’t moral guardians or vigilantes, but karmic scam artists who target the corrupt rich because they have the most to lose and the furthest to fall. They themselves are incredibly wealthy, owning a private island, and are a very diverse team, composed of men and women from all across the world. Notably, Great Pretender features prominent female con artists, something not seen in either of our other examples. Something else key about Great Pretender is that Makoto is both the perpetrator and target of the cons, with the group often tricking him as well as the victim in order to achieve a larger goal. A lot of the fun in the show comes from finding out what is and isn’t part of the con. Great Pretender pulls to the forefront the biggest appeal of con artist stories; it always targets the powerful. They never scam the poor, or working-class, or people who are being victimized. In fact, their targets often victimize others, and during the course of the con, the affected parties will receive their own restorative justice. Each arc is short and sweet, with the bad getting what they deserve and the heroes walking away rich. It’s fun to see powerful people fall, and even more fun to watch the chain of events that gets you there, however unlikely it may be.
Unlike Lupin and Great Pretender, the protagonist of the ABC television show Better Call Saul (2015) isn’t some mastermind con artist. He isn’t rich. He’s not a genius. He’s not even especially handsome. And he doesn’t always take on the powerful. Instead, Jimmy McGill, known better as Breaking Bad’s Saul Goodman and played by Bob Odenkirk, starts his spinoff show as a broke public defender arguing in court on behalf of teenage vandals and sex offenders. This is really the origin story of a con artist, one who tries to make it on the straight and narrow but finds the safe lane a little too slow for him. What makes Better Call Saul great is that Jimmy’s grifts are tremendous fun, until they aren’t. It plays on our desire to root for the underdog, setting up situations in which Jimmy can justify his crimes as the only way to do what’s right, when really the only one benefitting is him.
The show takes a more realistic approach to the trickster archetype than Lupin and Great Pretender, exploring what can drive a person – an ordinary person, not a hero or a chosen one – into that lifestyle, and where it might lead them when they realize they aren’t the vigilante they imagined themselves to be.
Half the time, his targets could appear on either of the other shows, such as a rich couple who has been stealing millions of taxpayer dollars and who refuse to admit it, even to their lawyer. Other times, though, Jimmy blurs the lines. Is he helping these senior citizens by illegally advertising a class action lawsuit to them, or is he helping himself at the expense of unethically manipulating the elderly? There’s a scene in the first season where Jimmy relays a story to his friend Kim about how he tricked some cops into letting his client go free. I won’t spoil it here, because it’s incredible, but Kim laughs along until the very end, when she realizes that Jimmy falsified evidence for his client, an action that could have him disbarred. When we first saw it happen, we saw it from Jimmy’s perspective as he puts one over on the cops who have been talking down to him for the entire series. But that’s not why Jimmy pulled the con. Kim doesn’t know why he did it, but we do, and as funny as the story is, we know that Jimmy didn’t do this for the greater good, or to take down those in power, or to free an innocent man. He did it as a favor to another criminal, to help a guilty man go free, and at the expense of his own attempt to go clean.
Throughout the show, Jimmy’s cons grow more and more amoral. Better Call Saul challenges the idea that con artists are heroes by depicting the slow descent of one into a villain. But as he breaks, so do his cons. While Lupin and the Great Pretenders might encounter a wrinkle here and there, Jimmy represents that duality of the trickster; as smart as he is, he can be incredibly foolish. As fun as it is to watch the con play out, it can be just as entertaining to wait for it to break. Even though we want Jimmy to succeed, it’s unclear whether we want him to succeed at the con or at becoming a good man. The show takes a more realistic approach to the trickster archetype than Lupin and Great Pretender, exploring what can drive a person – an ordinary person, not a hero or a chosen one – into that lifestyle, and where it might lead them when they realize they aren’t the vigilante they imagined themselves to be.
Con artists and tricksters show up in media across the globe. In just this article, we’ve explored various folklores, a French limited series, a Japanese anime, and an American drama. Much of the fun of these cons come from how they “punch up,” a term borrowed from comedy where the punchline of a joke is someone with more power or privilege than the person telling it. It’s not funny when a poor old lady falls down the stairs, but it is funny when the snooty billionaire does. Similarly, it’s much more satisfying to watch a corrupt art critic be swindled in Great Pretender than it would be if they were picking the pocket of a working-class Joe. It’s the dream of economic revenge, of rising from an unprivileged place by ripping off the people who started at the top. Most fictional con artists start off poor (though few remain so). But tricksters also appeal because they are a fantasy, a superhero tale, improbable karmic retribution. Assane and Makoto become trickster gods in their own right, nigh-untouchable. But in real life, there are more Jimmy McGills than there are Arsène Lupins.