The Art of the TV Drama Gangster Hero: Walter White Versus Tony Soprano

Walter: White: meek chem teacher becomes evil Heisenberg

Three TV dramas compete in my mind for top slot: Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and Justified.

I have blogged about Justified, whose most interesting character is not amiable, trim-hipped Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) but Walton Goggins’s backwoods criminal, Boyd Crowder, a man with that quality all great villains have, a likeable aspect, his being a poetic, even preacherly soul. Most of the ironic twists in Justified come from a role other than the protagonist.

Maybe that’s why it may be between the other two shows. I’m not sure I’m going to solve the little fight in my head. And who cares? As Japhy Ryder (fictionalized Gary Snyder) tells Jack Kerouac’s goopy protagonist in The Dharma Bums, “Comparisons are odious, Smith.” By extension, needing to declare a superlative may be more odious still.

But, as I’m a resigned couch potato, I pride myself on at least being a thinking man’s couch potato.

As I scrutinize the saga of the South Jersey mafia, I’m reminded of a quote from Bryan Cranston, whose Walter White introduced a new kind of criminal to TV drama.

After the show aired its finale, and all the Emmys and accolades had come in, Cranston and other members of the show were receiving the royal treatment from James Lipton in a roundtable edition of Inside the Actors Studio. Lipton asked Cranston what made Walter White special. Cranston said that James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano was a riveting character but he stayed the same pretty much from start to finish, whereas Walter White was more a character to be studied for his graduated ascent into malevolence.

Tony Soprano: a sympathetic monster if there ever was one

To be sure, there is evolution in Tony Soprano, if within this framework. We watch him acquire a facility for self-reflection under the promptings of Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), the psychiatrist whose languid articulation and physical solidity add up to an acting performance that betters what she was given to work with as Karen Hill in Goodfellas. Tony may have fallen in love with Melfi, but she never, despite her own attraction, lets him have her. At the very end, after friends beg her to kick this sociopath to the curb — he’s intransigent, ineducable, an out-and-out con — she does stop seeing him, and we know he will never be the same.

Similarly, though we do not witness the transformation, as they’ve long been married before start of show, Carmella (Edie Falco) has changed Tony. His fealty to the tough-talking, intellectually robust housewife humanizes him through many plot convulsions.

Dealing with Christopher Moltisanti has changed Tony, invoking calls to be paternal and protective; however, as his final dealings with the ravaged addict bear out, Tony solves the problem of Chris as he’s solved so many others. We saw “the real Tony” early, when he choked to death an old rat who’d fled to Maine under the auspices of witness protection, and this is the Tony we will keep seeing. That scene was a searing moment in an iconic episode. It’s the one where Tony, squiring his daughter to prospective New England colleges, takes time out to strangle to death a man whose testimony put away a lot of Tony’s cohorts, while back home Carmella and the priest get drunk on wine and almost make out on the couch. Horror and comedy dance. Much is on the boil in the Jersey drama and much ferments from one thing into another, particularly with its main character.

But Cranston was right. Nothing in The Sopranos compares with the chilling evolution of Walter White. Cranston’s craggy, ingenious high school chemistry teacher, pushed into moral relativism by a cancer diagnosis and a wounded ego, reminds me of Macbeth, the noble soldier who becomes a monster yet maintains the shell of seeming rectitude. Just as a philosophically shattered Macbeth will fight to his death asserting his divine right to power, so does Walter White maintain a human, rational defense mechanism, a decidedly unmonstrous demeanor. You hear that professorial voice try to dismiss the boy’s death after the train robbery, try to explain away to Jesse Pinkman all manner of moral compromises. Meanwhile White, like Soprano, solves problems through homicide.

But the homicides themselves represent a metamorphosis: from the long-delayed choking of the captured dealer, whom he’s even asked if he likes the crusts cut off his sandwiches; to his shooting of gang punks he ran down to keep him and Pinkman in the clear; to his rigging up of a death trap for arch-fiend Gus Fring in a nursing home Fring visited to torture an old enemy (a fit end to two haters); to his killing of the likeable enforcer, ex-cop Mike Ehrmentraut, in a poignant riverside scene; to his ingenious fire-spray execution of a compound of white supremacists, which wrests back to Walter a final measure of qualified nobility before he exits to the strains of “Baby Blue.”

Walter White’s is an arc from repressed gentility to shocking malevolence. There is a special enjoyment in watching a transformation so fully realized.

Tony Soprano was a monster in Season One. He is the same monster at the final moment, when, as Journey plays “Don’t Stop Believing,” we may assume he’s being whacked.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I still have most of Season 5 ahead of me, then the final season.

Honey, will you bring me another sandwich? Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeease?

Pandemic reignites intolerance of the aged

I don’t know about other old folks, but I intend to keep rockin’, and so does my wife.

I used American Short Stories, a collection by Perfection Learning, to teach junior English back when I labored in the trenches of Arizona high schools. One story I favored was James Thurber’s classic about a meek man lost in a fantasy world. But I found that, with few exceptions, teenagers did not get “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” When a lone boy roared with laughter at reading it, I could have hugged him. Because by that time, I’d grown to expect a bland or even annoyed reaction to the humor classic.

I tended to use the questions at the back of each book’s story I taught, a page called “Responding to the Story,” to evaluate student appreciation. The returns on “Walter Mitty” bludgeoned my hopes for it. The students almost uniformly saw it as a depressing tale about “this old guy who’s losing it.”

“Old guy,” “old dude,” “old man” – that was their takeaway. Nothing about what Thurber put on the page: a henpecked (middle-aged!) husband who soars into realms of imagination that make him a hero, whether as a surgeon, a courtroom lawyer, or a fighter pilot. Hell, the onomatopoeia alone is worth the price of admission with writing this brilliant.

You can’t enforce enjoyment, and surprises are rife in the teaching business. I used Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” which I never liked, to great student acclaim. Conversely, I should have become accustomed to kids not digging stories I adored. But this one hurt in a special way; it nagged at me. Even if Walter Mitty was “old,” in his sixties or seventies, did that make him an unsympathetic character? I sensed active disdain among the young readers, something beyond mere student dullness. A bias was at play.

Prejudice against the aged has survived the onslaught of woke rebuke, as Bill Maher said on his HBO show. Old people have been the most vulnerable to COVID, making us all mask up and suffer. Old people hog the public trough with their nagging Social Security needs. Old people constitute a bigger and bigger part of the populace, expect a bigger and bigger piece of the pie. Go die and get out of the way, old people.

We’ll never have herd immunity because of shot antagonism, and part of that is based on prejudice against old people. The CDC said if we’re fully vaccinated we needn’t mask up, not if we don’t want to, and needn’t feel guilty about it. I will show up at Walmart next shift without the cursed mask, which I always had to take off to scratch or blow my blasted nose. Walmart even offers an incentive: if you want a $75 boost to your paycheck, show us you’ve been vaccinated. I sense at least half the workers there haven’t gotten shots. To a large extent it’s Trumpian bullshit — the thing’s all a ruse to put Democrats in power, don’t you know.

Among the youth, the resistance is tinged with the abovementioned prejudice. Again, I heard a broadside against dreaded, hated old people, spoken with veiled venom by a young person, one I happened to like and still do! (They know not their own hearts, dear Lord.) We were working the dairy cooler, trying to get milks and creamers into the sliding slots leading down to the customers out there, when I heard Braylon tell another, older guy he wouldn’t get the shot. “It’s just something old people had to worry about. I’m young. I’m not gonna do it.” But I’m sure, what with the “honor system” Walmart feels compelled to use, that this young man will represent himself as having been vaccinated and, with no vaccination card to present, work unmasked.

I shouldn’t be surprised. When I took a “retirement” job at Walmart, I found the same intergenerational dynamic at play as I’d found in the classroom.

I grew to resent a sarcastic young man who, without realizing it, was speaking snidely to me, almost talking down to me. Me! a man in his middle sixties. I had thought the imprint of age merited respect, but not to today’s generation.

My gig starts before dawn. I got used to showing up in the wee hours when the night crew was coming down its home stretch. Drew, a tart-tongued young man, would be on the paper and chem aisle, where it might be my job to help him finish stocking the overnight freight. After a brief period of enjoying his sassy rejoinders and heartening, conspiratorial bitches about working at the store, I began to find something dismissive about him, even borderline insulting, in a way I couldn’t pin down.

Please break down your boxes. You’ll fit more in the baaaaaler …” he chided me in singsong as I stood over the rolling paperboard waste bin, beating my hands to pulp trying to collapse stiff double-wall corrugated containers that had held laundry detergent. Though I learned to wear work gloves to protect my hands, better wielding them as cutting blades and ripping claws, I remained offended by his mocking, suggestive tone, which implied not so much annoyance as absence of the need to defer to a man well into his sixties.

Was I “reading into” Drew’s manner because of my defensiveness and insecurity, even lingering emotional bruises from the way kids at the end of my “teaching” career regarded me? I worked the same kind of job as he. If he was treating me as an equal, so what?

But that was just it; that was the offense. Despite my failure at classroom management during those last, bad teaching years, I figured I deserved respect because I was old, had lived long, suffered long, learned much.

I know now I was naïve, my learning partial. If only the most forbearing and mature students were nice to me, that was to be expected. You’re good at that job, teaching at-risk youth, or you’re in the crosshairs.

But there was something more, something broader and more sociological, that explained the thing. A lot of these boys had no father figure. They came from households featuring a mother, her latest partner, and the kids. If the “father figure” is a stepdad out of prison with a swastika across his chest sharing a meth pipe with a 14-year-old, the myth of reverence for the elder male might go out the window. All across the socioeconomic spectrum, not just the white rural ghetto where I taught, the era of the nuclear family, and of some Norman Rockwell dad carving the Sunday roast beef, seems to have run its course.

Ah, what’s the use? I can kvetch all I want. My cohort and I will still die off and the young punks will take over.

I like to be optimistic though. Call it my brand of patriotism. I have to believe that today’s youth will acknowledge the secret weapon of the aged, their very years, and that young people will humble themselves to the lengthening shadow of mortality by whose lessons we learn how to live.

Near Fender Bender Can’t Dent Anniversary Getaway

My wife makes me nervous when I’m driving and she’s in the passenger seat issuing critiques and giving directions. My own tension causes me to make mistakes – which only fuel her rebukes.

Age removes a portion of peripheral vision and overall flexibility. You don’t react as well, as quickly, as you once did. But for me it’s worse when I’m driving and she’s there. Her edginess rubs off on me.

So when Barb said, “Turn left here,” at a commercial intersection in Lake Havasu City, a resort town we visited to mark our 22nd wedding anniversary, I swung into it without seeing the stop sign.

As I was making the turn, already committed, I had to negotiate my way around a guy swinging into his own (quite legal) left and now needing to go around me to avoid a collision. I made one of those grimacing faces you make to let the other guy know you fucked up and at least feel bad about it.

And I did. But I had to concentrate on her next directions from a cell phone GPS that for some reason wasn’t talking. The fraught moment was further complicated by my realization that the guy I’d cut off was after me, having circled back to that same intersection, made the same left I’d made, roared up ahead of me, and come back in my direction.

I slowed to a stop on the fairly deserted street. He pulled over on the other side and stuck his head out the window.

“Learn how to drive, asshole!”

My own, clever rejoinder:

“Fuck you!”

Just so he didn’t think I was a chickenshit, I glared at him to see if he wanted to get out of his car. But he pulled away.

“What an asshole,” Barb said. “He didn’t have to chase you like that. That was wrong. Wow. My heart’s thumping.”

We’d made progress in our marriage. Was a time any of my profanities would have drawn a stern rebuke. Barb sees in my constant swearing a toxic anger that’s at the root of my emotional difficulties and our marital problems.

LAKE HAVASU was nice, if you’re about twenty-eight, love Trump, deck your boat out with emblems of that brand of coopted patriotism, and drink about a case of beer a day. “Party central,” Barb said. The lake was cluttered with boats the first day we got there, at the tail end of some boat show we hadn’t known about.

The weather was warm that first day, a Sunday. The forecast showed cool the next two days, though warming late Tuesday, and then hot Wednesday. We’d discussed checking out of our room on Wednesday, then renting a boat to get on the water. But we never did. The water remained a postcard view from our balcony. I for one didn’t relish some Three Stooges scene managing even a little rented boat, and my wife didn’t care enough about boating to press the issue. We could have signed up for some overpriced charter cruise, but that, like so much else around here, seemed like a drunk fest, and I didn’t look forward to gazing over the side at the rippling water grinning tightly as the atmosphere waxed louder and drunker around us.

We saw London Bridge, that we did. We enjoyed each other’s company. Had soul talks about our long slog together, with a level of affection and frankness that seemed a breakthrough.

Even went on a three-hour hike. It was only that long because we got lost.

You drive to SARA’s Park in Havasu to hit the trailhead of a hike known as, er, Sara’s Crack, a lewd name for a squeeze through a mountain pass alongside the Mojave Desert. You can take this hike all the way to the Colorado River. But we got so lost in the labyrinth of trails, many mere dirt biking single tracks, that by the time we finally stumbled into Sara’s Crack we were fried. Having ambled precariously and with very sore thighs over the umpteenth wrong turn to attain the, er, Crack, and begun to squeeze through narrower and narrower portions, Barb declared she was beat.

I was relieved.

“Me too. We can come back tomorrow and do the Crack,” I said, “even get all the way to the river. All I wanna do now is get back to my SUV.”

I had hated the hike. I have dreaded getting trail-lost ever since an incident that’s filed in my memory as the Williams Nightmare.

Not long after Barb and I moved to Arizona, we got lost in the Coconino National Forest around Williams.

It was getting cool, even a little chilly, the sun nearing the treetops. I thought we might have to last out the night sitting on the pine needles, hugging each other for warmth and getting bumped into by elk. When we finally staggered into the clear and saw a ranch house, I was so ashamed I had Barb knock. This nice rancher drove us back to where my car was. I let her ride in the cab with him while I ducked down on the truck’s metal bed, preferring the ass bumps to what I perceived as the humiliation of being next to this Western alpha male after I’d confirmed myself in abject want of male resourcefulness.

I’ll never forget Barb looking at me over the dim light at Rod’s Steak House in Williams, an accommodating old person’s restaurant, and saying, “Nobody has to know about this.”

After getting lost at Sara’s Crack, I said, “That’s it.” I tried to download All Trails, a common orientation device, onto my new Apple iPhone SE, but I couldn’t figure it out. Why does every application insist on Google accounts? I have Microsoft Outlook as my email! I am a techno-dunce.

JUST TO FINISH this story, we didn’t go back to the trail any more than we got on the water. On Tuesday we drove to Parker for the hell of it (there’s nothing there) and took a right to get to the Colorado River, where I sat on a rock “watching the river flow” per Dylan. I wish the pictures Barb and I thought we’d taken on my new phone weren’t actually movie shorts or I’d have something photographically to show for it here. Ah well.

We got up Wednesday and found a good place for breakfast and hit the road back to Prescott, armed with a bag of banana chips from a health food store.

One thing I did accomplish on this trip was I got fat. To me anyway. My wife says I am too skinny.

Between the Super Slam at Denny’s on Monday and the steak and eggs with all the trimmings just before heading for home, oh and the blueberry muffins I saw fit to keep in our room once I spied them on our shopping trip to Safeway, the suite, representing an upgrade, being outfitted with fridge and microwave, I found as I stepped on the scale back home that I’d ascended to a tubby 153, a five-pound gain that is not inconsiderable for a guy who manages his poundage like a skittish welterweight.

Maybe Barb’s right, I need to loosen up, even if that means letting out my belt.

A friend back in Cleveland once told me, “Bobby, I just know there’s a happy fat guy in you dying to get out.”

Maybe that guy is emerging into the clear. Hey, pass those Hostess Cupcakes.