Tony Soprano (Nick)
“Dysfunction this, and dysfunction that, and dysfunction vaffancul!”
Vince Gilligan once said, "Without Tony Soprano, there would be no Walter White." I would now like to go one further in asserting that, “Walter White is no Tony Soprano.”
First off, I would be a fool to deny the cultural predominance of everything Breaking Bad and more specifically Walter White; or Heisenberg as the case may be. Even a rudimentary glance at this year’s Halloween costume roster – the yellow boiler suits, the goatees, the black trim hats - should provide some testament to just how impactful Walt’s meth-fuelled rise-and-fall has been on our collective cultural consciousness. However, his wide appeal is something of a double-edged sword; here’s why…
Gilligan rarely challenged the audience’s relationship with White in the same way that David Chase did with Tony Soprano; and Walt’s cult-stardom status is something of a testament to this. While there are many disturbing and brilliantly macabre moments that marked Walt’s descent into the criminal (and ethical) underworld, none of them truly endangered his iconic appeal as a man aggressively compensating for a life characterized by emasculation in a disenfranchised America.
This is partly due to the fact that the majority of Walt’s manoeuvring climaxed with moments that were quite unabashedly cool – explosive wheelchairs, automated turret guns, “it’s not meth” – consequently there was always something inherently fantastical and darkly comic about Walt’s exploits that prevented us from really contemplating the more traumatic implications of his actions. By contrast, The Sopranos made a habit of terrorizing its audience’s affection for Tony in the interest of bringing us a truly dynamic and challenging protagonist.
This uneasy, quasi-sadistic tendency was first brought into sharp relief in the award-winning episode “College”, the fifth episode in the first season of The Sopranos. The challenging precedent set in this episodes unflinching depiction of Tony’s more psychotic tendencies – a lengthy on-screen kill involving Tony strangling a former snitch while spitting a torrent of abuse into his ear - became a hallmark of the series throughout its six-season run. Time and time again audiences bore witness to events that completely undermined their ability to root for a man that occupied the lion’s share of the show’s running time.
One moment that was particularly defining in its portrayal of Tony’s more vicious and sadistic tendencies came in the closing moments of the Mike Figgis-helmed episode “Cold Cuts” during which Tony goads his sister out of a new-found inner serenity with jeers about her absent son Harpo – “I wonder what’s French-Canadian for I grew up without a mother?” – an episode that concludes with the perfectly fitting melancholic lamentations of The Kinks’ “I’m Not Like Everybody Else.” So why did audiences keep watching? What kept them hooked on a story centring on a man that was fundamentally a hypocritical sociopath? Put simply, the therapy.
It’s by way of Tony’s therapy sessions, played out within the warm confines of Dr Melphi’s autumn-shaded office, that we are able to observe fleeting moments of humanity and existential reflection; a humanity masterfully suggested by the subtle inflictions of Gandolfini’s bar-setting performance. By positioning the audience at a vantage point overlooking the seemingly separate spheres of Tony’s life, Chase was able to build a character complete with an incredible array of contradictions, motivations, insecurities, ambitions and doubts.
While some may confuse this catalogue of psychological inflictions for “window-dressing”, it’s the details - his blind spot affection for animals, his nostalgia for simpler times ("whatever happened to Gary Cooper?"), his enduring befuddlement as to the ever-shifting cultural landscape of modern America– that serve to provide viewers with an emotional anchor; an anchor fated to brave the tumultuous storms that rage through Tony’s life as New Jersey’s mob-boss. Additionally, his seeming inability to entirely overcome the inner demons that plague him – his mother for one and his rage for another – is not a testament to the show’s lack of “change” – as some critics may suggest - but rather a symptom of its entirely realistic, albeit cynical, depiction of human nature. Which brings me back to Walt…
Breaking Bad moves at such break-neck speed there is rarely any time left for much in the way of character development; in short, the range of Walt’s afflictions and personality traits are entirely tied up in his oft-cited arc. Consequently, the shows in-built need to transform its protagonist ironically serves to constrain and limit his depth - from "Mr Chips to Scarface" but not much else. Genuinely layered and complex characters command a wider array of motivations, fears and desires. They are not, as Robert may argue, built on a singular premise, however ambitious or grand. Unlike Walt, Tony cannot be summed up in a log line. His motivations are neither obvious nor immediately relatable and to truly understand him demands a keen eye for the plethora of insights that distinguish the true superiority of his portrayal above the many antiheroes he has since inspired.
It is by virtue of these insights that audiences have been rewarded with a figure so multifaceted he easily ascends to a plane where the lines between fiction and reality are masterfully blurred; rarely has a character been so easily confused for a real human being. Meanwhile, there is a thematic simplicity to Walter that makes him a deeply appealing - and entirely iconic - character, but limits him from ascending to the heights that were so supremely conquered by Tony so many years ago.
"If you're committed enough, you can make any story work..."
Walter White is the greatest character ever to appear on television. You can keep your Don Drapers, your Vic Mackeys, and yes, your Tony Sopranos. As much as I love all three of them - and believe me, I devoured The Shield - none of them can hold a candle (or perhaps some sort of welding torch) to Walt's brilliance, both conceptually and as a character.
More so than Mad Men, The Shield or The Sopranos, arguably the three strongest single-protagonist dramas ever made, Breaking Bad is nothing without Walter White. While I'm sure that statement will be used against me in some future essay on Breaking Bad's supposed limitations, I would argue that the show's greatest strength is in its almost monolithic focus on its protagonist. Jesse may mope, Skyler may wind people up, Flynn may eat breakfast, but Breaking Bad is never better than when it puts Bryan Cranston centre stage.
Both he and James Gandolfini share an unfortunate bond in that they were both beaten to Emmys by less deserving contenders (James Spader in Boston Legal and, more recently, Jeff Daniels in The Newsroom) who served as mouthpieces for liberal talking points, and, on some level, it's easy to understand why. Both Walt and Tony are fundamentally right-wing figures who embody certain truths about the free market. While Tony cuts a tragic figure as a born-and-bred gangster, the tragedy of Walt is one he shares with most of us: he could have been more.
Walt may be easy to define in broad strokes - he's gifted, emasculated, dissatisfied with his lot in life, his unassuming countenance masking an overburdened ego. His strength as a character is in his arc. It's possible to argue against arcs as limiting, inartistic, blah, blah, blah, but the truth is that every great dramatic character has one. The Sopranos' own Big Pussy may be dismissive ("You know who had an arc? Noah."), but would we remember Hamlet, King Lear, Oedipus, Michael Corleone were it not for the fact that they change.
As I've said before on this blog, Breaking Bad is all about the change. Show-runner Vince Gilligan set out with the purpose of, as Nick mentions above, turning Scarface into Mr. Chips, but he achieved so much more than that. If The Sopranos is a Bush-era parable of the American dream, as I believe it is, then Walter White is an anti-hero for the recession. In an age of people who spent their lives doing the right things, saving and providing for their families, only to see it all swept away, Walt is the perfect embodiment of their rage and frustration.
Over the course of five seasons, we watch as this kindly, soft-spoken individual is slowly transformed, episode-by-episode, is transformed into a vengeful god. Pragmatism gives way to pride, supposed good intentions to darkest deeds. At its heart, Breaking Bad is a Greek tragedy, containing all the hubris and hamartia of anything by Sophocles or Aristotle. It is a story of self-actualization and self-destruction, of coming into oneself at any cost. Tony Soprano, comparatively, comes across as a still-life, but brushstrokes are no substitute for dynamism.
None of this would work, however, without Bryan Cranston's intense, exceptional performance. It's acting that almost exhausts superlatives. Every instant Cranston is on screen is exhausting: you can almost see the mind at work behind every flicker on his increasingly lined face. It's a subtle and haunting character study, from the moment of the broken plate in S01E03 to Walt's mounting hysteria at the end of Season Four's "Crawl Space" (if you've seen either, you'll know exactly what I mean). As the divide between tender father and ruthless drug manufacturer is slowly eaten away by the same acid eating into Walt's soul, Cranston brings us along every step of the way.
There's a case to be made for the slower, more accumulative approach to character taken by The Sopranos, the small touches, the taste in music, the preferred beverage, but a list of facts does not make up a life and the propensity to document a character's every bowel movement does not make for compelling TV. These stiller waters may run deep, but they're in no danger of sweeping you away. With Tony it's possible to retain objective distance; Walt smashes down the barriers between himself and the viewer with a sledgehammer.
An amazing triumph of Breaking Bad is that we never lose that personal connection with Walt: we cannot help it because, in many ways, he is us, or at least the person we might become. We are complicit in his crimes, too often we condone them, up to and including the poisoning of a child. At the end of the day, Tony Soprano is just a gangster, however complex; there's no precedent for Walt. It’s one thing to watch a proclaimed Mafia Captain bump off a snitch then go home to his family; it’s another to watch a fundamentally decent human gradually become a monster.
Breaking Bad is not about a man with cancer or the flaws inherent in the capitalist system, though it encompasses both those things: it's about a man bowed by life who, in the words of Travis Bickle, "stood up" and the consequences of it. The standing up just happened to involve hundreds of pounds of prime blue meth, a multitude of deaths (innocent or otherwise), and one of the best and most entertaining TV shows ever to be made, one from which it becomes harder and harder to look away from the darker and more devastating it gets.
Breaking Bad is simply the more striking and ambitious show and Walter White is testament to that.