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?

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