Walter White: the ultimate anti-hero

In re-watching Breaking Bad this summer (okay, more like I’ve binged through the first four seasons in just a few weeks, but who’s counting?) I can’t help but marvel as ever at Bryan Cranston’s performance as timid chemistry teacher turned criminal mastermind Walter White.

walter white breaking bad

It got me to thinking about Walter White versus some of the other great lead dramatic characters in recent television history, namely Jon Hamm as Don Draper on Mad Men and (the late, great) James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano on The Sopranos. You could easily make the argument that any of the three are the “best” dramatic television character of all time, though that argument would of course be endlessly subjective.

However, it occurred to me that Cranston’s characterization of Walter White has a “higher level of difficulty” in engaging and entertaining the audience. Don Draper (and, let’s face it, on the power of good looks alone, Dick Whitman) and Tony Soprano are, in their own ways, “men’s men.” While just beneath the surface lie deep pools of existential dread and mid-century ennui, Don Draper is a Master of the Universe at the ad game. He’s often liked, and nearly always respected (if not feared) by his co-workers and colleagues. And we can safely say that his ennui does not come from any issues with women finding him attractive.

Don is often suave, persuasive, and self-assured in front of others, including a bevy of classic board room performances where he single-handedly saves the day. As badly as Don treats those around him (and himself), the audience is nearly almost always rooting for him, if often during latter seasons it’s in support of Don cleaning up his act.

Tony Soprano doubles and triples down on the fear-as-respect angle, and he holds a higher place of authority (at the top of an illegal organization, of course) than Don does over at Sterling Cooper (& Partners) as the head of the North Jersey mob. Tony carries himself with authority and a blue collar swagger that is impossible for those around him to ignore.

Tony is a bad guy, an evil guy, in many ways. Alan Sepinwall at Hitfix does a great job of showcasing the glee with which Tony goes after a wiseguy-turned-rat during the classic episode, “College,” in Season One for example. Tony often intimidates others, orders assassinations, and even takes people out himself – sometimes calculatedly, sometimes spontaneously. 

Even so, Tony is hard to root against as well. It’s part of the genius of The Sopranos. Because we get to see Tony so often around his “real” family and the everyday problems that he has as a father, husband, and crime boss, we can’t help but identify with him. And because the series is interlaced with Tony’s therapy sessions with Dr. Melfi, we get deep insight into Tony’s fears and motivations.

So that’s to say that both Don and Tony are charismatic figures who act boldly and inspire respect and fear in those around them. Finally, we get to see both of them have fun: Don on countless nights out on the town (and/or couch), while Tony has a gorgeously dark sense of humor and often cracks wise around his family and the fellas.

Now, let’s turn our attention to Walter White. Walter is not naturally charasmatic. Even those closest to him, prior to their learning of the monster that he’s become, feel a bit sorry for him, whether because he’s a vastly overqualified high school teacher or because he’s a non-smoker who contracted lung cancer. His swaggering DEA agent of a brother-in-law sees him as a lovable loser throughout much of the series, and generally he’s perceived outside of criminal circles as a solid yet unremarkable guy.

It’s that perception that drives Walter’s ego and, later, greed for recognition as he schemes his way toward something of a criminal empire cooking meth. Walter evolves into an evil character and by late in the show’s run has little compunction about knocking off anyone within his orbit (even children) to save his own hide or further his ends. Is Tony more “evil” than Walter? That’s a topic for a different piece, but I could see arguments on either side.

Walter is wildly ambitious and often has an ax to grind. We rarely see him in a good news and often see him as angry, depressed, vengeful. There are moments where he’s more of a “regular guy” around his family, particularly with his son, Walter Jr., but ironically it’s Tony Soprano who more regularly gets to show off a wider range of moods.

So why care about Walter White? It’s in Cranston’s performance, in the writing, and the overall craft of a brilliant television show. We end up caring about Walter to the bitter end because even after the artifice of him wanting to provide for his family fades away, he’s a man who is highly intelligent and highly motivated to accomplish things, to “get ahead,” even while we as the audience see the disastrous consequences of that striving.

Walt’s persistent fatal flaw is that “winning” isn’t nearly enough for him: his need for recognition and acclaim for his (illegal) accomplishments sow the seeds of his eventual undoing. But Bryan Cranston’s performance makes the journey a hell of a ride: exciting, dramatic, tense, and compelling as hell.

By Eric - TV Geek Army "Revered Leader"

About the author

Eric is the publisher and revered leader of TV Geek Army… at least in his own mind. TV Geek Army is a place for serious TV reviews and news for serious fans of great television. Contact: eric-[at] 

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