Hero or Villain? Walter White

Everyone loves a bad boy don’t they, the boys aspire to be them and the girls want to be with them. Now, seemingly everyone wants to watch them. Hit US television series’ such as Breaking Bad, Homeland, The Sopranos and The Walking Dead play on our morals constantly. Every episode finds us asking ourselves the same questions as our ‘favourites’ commit horrible deeds. Can someone commit something bad for the right reasons? Does performing terrible actions make a terrible person? Are they heroes, villains or maybe both?

Storytelling has traditionally played on the premise that a tale needs both a hero and a villain to create conflict and a palpable sense of right and wrong. Films tend to stick to this assertion too yet mediums such as books and television can delve a little deeper into a character and perhaps better explain why they do what they do. With more room for complexity you can include more characters like the proverbial Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. These characters are driven men who leave a path of destruction in their wake yet we still root for them.

Perhaps it is us, the viewers, who are to blame for coming back in our droves. Even when we know our favourites have committed monstrosities we let them back into our living room week after week. All of us are like mothers in that more than anything we want to be able to find something good in even the darkest characters. Television has always been escapism and we want to resist the clutches of our their mundane lives and The Daily Mail, away from the bankers, paedophiles and terrorists to turn to something dark that we can watch safely in their favourite chair. We overlook the bad behaviour because we look for the good and want to believe that everyone has a conscience. Above all, we can have heroes like these because we cannot believe that anyone is genuinely evil.

The lines have become blurred and over time we are going to look at characters who kill to survive yet can still be looked upon as a hero, at least in the eyes of the viewer. We’ll start with the modern day Dr Jekyll, Mr Hyde as portrayed by the irrepressible Bryan Cranston.

#1 Breaking Bad – Walter White/Heisenberg

From the start of Breaking Bad you felt sympathetic for Walter White, how could you not? A laughable excuse of a Chemistry high-school teacher diagnosed with terminal lung cancer who cannot afford his treatment on such a pathetic wage. Then he reached notoriety with his incredibly well-executed meth business and found himself in some dangerous territory. At some point greed manifested itself and he himself manifested into the warlord ‘Heisenberg’, capable of intense intimidation and devious means of killing to extend his empire.

For him the killings were an added expense, the real harm was done in being the best damn meth cook. Obviously the destruction of blowing people up was far more thrilling than watching families destroyed by his product. Breaking Bad never really delved into the ill-effects of his product in Albuquerque and the surrounding boroughs. Sure, we see Jesse enjoy the blue and then suffer the consequences through the loss of his girlfriend, Jane, but that sort of a tragedy could be played out a countless number of times by those on the streets. Walt barely ever saw this played out in the real world and even when he caught a glimpse the money kept on rolling in and he was quite content in his laboratory making another sublimely pure batch. You cannot really blame Vince Gilligan, if you want to see the effects of drug addiction on a local community you can always watch The Wire.


Walter White

Walter White

Hero – A former Chemistry teacher who created a popular product to fund his medical bills then toppled down drug cartels using his ingenuity. When he got in a little over his head at the beginning there was a sense of the heroic underdog as this mild-mannered weed of a man confronted the big daddies and took them down. Most notably there was passing off mercury fulminate as meth on unsuspecting drug barons which was a genius move of Bond-esque subtlety. Most poignantly, in the final episode he secured the financial future of his family even if they were with his substantially ill-gotten gains. It’s almost the American dream.



Villain – He watched Jane die when he could have at least TRIED to save her. By the start of season three Walt’s cancer was actually in remission yet having gone in so deep he carried on cooking. Perhaps it was the greed or maybe he had simply found something he was good at and wanted to continue ignorant to how many lives he would ruin with the product. As for actual killings he shot Mike in a fit of rage and then there was Gus. However, his carefully orchestrated death could be construed as business in that he gets rid of the competition for the sake of the empire. There were also the orders to kill Gus’ organisation and Gale but when you could wield such power you can make someone else do your dirty work.

Quote – As Walt: “When you have children, you will always have family. They will always be your priority, your responsibility. And a man…a man provides. And he does it even when he is not appreciated – or respected…or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it…because he’s a man.”
As Heisenberg: “No, you clearly don’t know who you are talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger Skyler, I AM THE DANGER. A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that of me? No, I AM THE ONE WHO KNOCKS!”

Verdict – Villain
For not getting out when ahead and supplying the product that destroyed countless lives you really cannot excuse Walt. Apparently 190 men, women and children died directly or indirectly as a result of his business, that’s a lot of people. Submerged by greed and a lustful taste for domination he became ‘Heisenberg’ and eliminated the competition by brutally foul but highly entertaining means. In short, he was badass, even with that silly facial hair.


The Sopranos : Why it was truly the greatest TV series of them all

It was only after hearing of the untimely death of James Gandolfini that I decided to dip into the world of The Sopranos. Having gone traveling and demolished season upon season of The Wire as well as working my way through Homeland, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead I was already well aware that America was the King of Primetime TV. When the Writers Guild of America named it the best-written TV series of all time I knew The Sopranos was going to be my next TV fix. Gandolfini’s death merely pushed me to it sooner.

Some TV series’ take a while to impress. You take in a couple of episodes and decide if it is for you or not. Some entice you in while others grab you by the balls and do not let go, The Sopranos was the latter for me. Taken at face value the dialogue is snappy and loaded with reference points that demand your attention. Then there is the acting which makes every character seem not just plausible but real. Some TV series’ can be judged by the amount of tedious episodes or even seasons, not The Sopranos.

Would the show exist if it was not for films like The Godfather and Goodfellas introducing a crash course of Mafia culture to the fore? Perhaps not but to compare the films to the TV show would be unfair. The Sopranos is so much more than those two films. From a runtime perspective there is only so much of a story you can tell in three hours on a big screen. Given tens of episodes you can truly begin to explore the world of the underworld.

There are several plot arcs in The Sopranos and the beauty of the storytelling is how they intertwine and co-exist. While the aforementioned films mainly concentrate on the power struggles of the Mafia, The Sopranos can slowly reveal the underbelly as well as the façade. The drama as well as the domestic, the spectacle as well as the sedate. While a film can showcase the violence and briefly provide explanations, The Sopranos can deal with the repercussions of every ‘whacking’. When any character meets their demise you can bet there will be the painful phone call home, the funeral and the emotional heartbreak of those left behind picking up the pieces. It shows the whole picture of the whole family.

There is always the distinct possibility that someone important may die in any episode which makes it gut wrenchingly compulsive viewing. In such a complex world lives can hinge on every difficult decision or even less. You could get ‘whacked’ for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, something questionable in your private life or simply a bad joke. Everyone is walking a tightrope.

When innocent bystanders are shot in the street as a safety precaution you can wonder about the ethics of the show. Sure, there is the law of the gun yet there is also a high system of values in operation too. Obviously there is ‘Omerta’ and the code of honour is paramount to the show. It brings into play the code of silence, vendettas, the non co-operation with authorities and non-interference in the illegal, as well as legal, actions of others. Gradually the code can be seen as the unwritten rulebook governing every single decision.

With such stringent, traditional governing it is often intriguing to see how the value system operates in a changing world. Common views on what is acceptable in anyone’s private life have changed markedly through generations yet the system remains. What may have passed as abhorrent fifty years ago is now seen as accepted yet those with a conscience can either choose to be dictated or updated.

You see this with Tony Soprano, brilliantly and brutally played by the late, great James Gandolfini. It is a role that you simply cannot see any actor performing. This is a man who truly looks like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders as he balances his business and family life with such delicacy. Rarely do you see him at peace, how could any Mafia boss be at peace when he has so much on his plate? The man is always on call to keep a lid on everything he holds close; the family business, his own travails at home, keeping ahead of the authorities, his goomahs and you can see the stress weigh him down.

Few could perform such forceful acting for so long and the sheer physicality of Gandolfini’s portrayal is a revelation in itself. Italians are hotheads yet Gandolfini often finds himself hurting the ones he loves simply because he cannot control himself. He is a man of conflict and one of weakness, every character has at least one.

While the films tend to show the macho side of every Mafia member, The Sopranos goes some way to show the other side. Tony as a man who regularly attends therapy, Paulie is devoted to his mother, Christopher has his drug problems and Ralphie has his creepy bedroom behaviour to name but four. Amidst the intimidation and shootings there is a strong sense of humanity too. Tony is always trying to do right by his family yet when his business and private lives combine then you see Tony at his most stretched and you often wonder how he can play the juggling act for so long.

Quite how the show’s creator, David Chase, manages to keep a strong definition of the two separate sides to the story is a wonder. To delve into The Sopranos means trying to keep up with several different battles that are playing all the time. There’s the FBI v The Mafia, the wars between each Mafia family and of course the infighting. It takes a master storyteller to keep all that together yet Chase managed it over six brilliant seasons.