Thursday, October 10, 2013

Walter White's Ancestry

I’ve heard several critics declare that Walter White is a logical extension of Tony Soprano and other made men. I wonder if they’re right.

At their core, each man has good intentions. Both try to provide for their families even as they put them at great risk. In addition, both men grow increasingly cunning and callous as their misdeeds increase, and both calculate the lives of others using cost-benefit analysis. They learn that sentiment only costs them more than they are willing to pay so anyone’s life is expendable. Tony sacrifices Christopher, and Walter orders the execution of Jesse, relenting only when Walter has no time left. With a bullet in his gut, cancer in his lungs, and all will to win lost, Walter lets Jesse leave on his own terms.

However similar, Walter White and Tony Soprano have literary and cinematic ancestors. They may be two ends of a television-character continuum, but they are not unique to the American psyche. We love to dance with demons. We embrace the dark hearts within ourselves, often celebrating them.

Consider rogue cops. Bruce Willis’s John McClane and Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs are men with good intentions. They have chosen to abide by and enforce the law, but doing so puts their loved ones at great risk. Like Walter and Tony, they too grow increasingly cunning and more callous as they fight plots and villains. They also calculate the lives of others using cost-benefit analysis, and they discover that sentiment costs them more than they can pay. McClane misjudges the chief villain in Die Hard and nearly loses all opportunities to save himself and therefore, everyone else, especially his wife.  In Lethal Weapon, Riggs misjudges his enemies and loses his latest lover, an error he repeats in every Lethal movie thereafter.  

Both John and Martin bleed for mankind, and both enjoy a brief moment when they are seen as heroes and saviors. Viewers know, however, that they will go forth and save again. They will not lay down arms, and they will not forsake violent means when law-breakers put lives at stake. Like Tony and Walter, they don’t seem plagued by guilt. They are men. They do what needs doing.

So did Paladin from Have Gun Will Travel. He might have been a loner, scarred by the Civil War, but he is also an avenger who makes his living by delivering justice when justice seems hard to find. The Rifleman is another man who delivers justice when he must. Like The Lone Ranger and Batman in its 1966 campy form or its dystopian one, superheroes and ordinary cowboys live to serve. They all have good intentions, they all do harm when they must, and they all seem to rest untroubled.

So do those gumshoes brought to the screen. Raymond Chandler's Marlowe, Robert B. Parker's Spencer, and Agatha Christie's Poirot are cast in the same stone as Tony, Walter, John, Martin, Paladin, and Batman. Each and all calculate life using cost-benefit analyses as they search for truth, and each sits as judge and jury, sometimes even executioner. What makes them slightly different is the side on which they work. Theirs are the white hats.

My examples only reach back to the early decades of the twentieth-century, but I could reach back to much earlier days when men were as flawed and as complicated as they are today. Some lost their way, never to find it again. Most sought redemption, and most delivered justice according to the realities that defined their ways of life. Tony and Walter are just recent incarnations.

Reading Challenge:

“Read” any of the films, television series or books referenced.

Writing Challenge:

Write your own assessment of America’s fondness for the dark hearts within men.