Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) are both men on the wrong side of the law. Indeed, much can be said about these two men and their respective exploits, but in the end the fact that both of them choose to live on the wrong side of the law brings about many interesting insights about their characters. This is not to say that the central character of The Sopranos (David Chase, 1999-2007) and the central character of Breaking Bad (Vince Gilligan, 2008-2013) are perfectly identical, but many similarities exist; enough so that a close analysis of them is merited. But more interestingly, how these two characters are respectively introduced is very important, and for the purpose of this essay only the first episode, Pilot (David Chase, 1999) and Pilot (Vince Gilligan, 2008), of each series will be considered. How Tony Soprano and Walter White are presented to their audiences is critical, as this will set the stage for the rest of their respective narratives. Neither of the men are shown to be the stereotypical embodiment of a man’s man, as both are portrayed to be complex and intricate enough that they display feelings and emotion, something that both of them are relatively out of touch with when their episodes begin. Tony Soprano and Walter White live outside of the law but fail to embody the traditional portrait of a masculine figure, and as a result of this both men are examined as human beings and not stereotypes.
Both Breaking Bad and The Sopranos begin at what their respective leads believe to be the end. Tony believes that he “…came in at the end,” and he knows for sure that at least the best is over for his line of work. As for Walt, he soon learns that he is dying of incurable lung cancer. But neither of these men are content to simply give up and allow their fates to come about. Tony continues to soldier on in his line of work, partly because he enjoys it but also because it seems to be all he knows and something that he is good at, while Walt quickly comes to the realization that he can do more to provide for his family. For Walt, stepping outside of the law is no small task, but at the same time he quickly begins to adapt to his new life. Whereas Tony Soprano may have only ever known life in the Mafia, Walter White has never truly stepped outside the law before. And though the audience is shown Tony run a man down with a car, argue over a hit that is to be carried out, and order the fire bombing of a restaurant, the turns that Walt takes are much more startling.
Between the two characters, and indeed between the two series the portrayals of violence are very distinct. In the first episode of The Sopranos, the most memorable instance of violence is Tony’s almost humorous pursuit of a man whom owes him money. As Tony runs him down with Christopher’s (Michael Imperioli) car, he practically laughs at the fear of the man he is chasing as well as the reactions of those around him. In the end, he breaks the man’s leg and beats him mercilessly before simply driving away. In the case of Breaking Bad, the most outstanding instance of violence is Walt’s attempted killing of the two drug dealers, Krazy-8 (Max Arciniega) and Emilio (John Koyama), by way of red phosphorous gas. But while the actual act is little more than Walt initiating a small explosion, the immediate aftermath is what sets it apart. Walt holds the camper door shut as the two men inside suffocate. They can be heard pounding on the door and gasping for air, going so far as to even fire their gun through the door, and all the while the camera centers on Walt and his reaction until the two men go silent; presumably dead. Overall, the first episode of Breaking Bad contains violence which is much more startling and blunt compared to the much more approachable violence of the pilot episode of The Sopranos. This distinction is important, not just to how the shows approach their respective violent acts, but also how their characters approach them.
For Walt, murdering someone is not a task to be taken lightly. He is visibly distraught as he holds the camper door shut, not just from the fact that the two men inside want to kill him, but with his own actions as well. Tony Soprano, on the other hand, approaches violence simply as an aspect of the job. He is not troubled so much by what he does, but what his overall lifestyle means for him as a person. He is concerned about loss, so much so that he has multiple panic attacks because of it. Tony is still a sensitive person, but he is much farther removed from the nature of his actions than Walt is. Walt does not want to kill anyone, and Tony describes himself as a “sad clown” when it comes to his work, but ultimately both men are unable to truly extricate themselves form their respective situations. For Walt, his lung cancer and renewed sense of self-determination keeps him keen on committing highly illegal acts that he would not due otherwise. Tony, on the other hand, steps outside of his natural character by going to see a psychiatrist, something that he does begrudgingly at first but seems to be somewhat enjoying by the end of the episode. Both men are forced out of their respective comfort zones in their first episodes, but while Walt becomes more natural in his new setting, Tony becomes less comfortable in his.
Tony and Walt are two men that cannot continue to exist in their current environments in their current respective states. But while both of them adapt over the course of their pilot episodes in order to continue to exist, Walt is the one whose change is the most dramatic and startling. Going from being an underachieving chemist to cooking meth is not a small task but, despite this, Tony’s change cannot be discounted. While initially embarrassed by and resistant to the treatment he is receiving, Tony slowly comes to realize that being a sensitive male can and is beneficial to him. One of the final sequences of the first episode sees Tony talk about how talking is a good thing, with his fellow partners in crime echoing and agreeing with him. By the conclusion of both respective pilot episodes, both men have become something new and adaptable to their new and changing environment. The key difference is the terminal nature of these changes. While Tony may sense that his time is coming to an end, Walt knows that his is. This hardline stance justifies the more dramatic turn that Walt takes, just as Tony’s smaller change is more appropriate for his setting. Both The Sopranos and Breaking Bad treat their respective characters as complex-enough beings to explore their nuanced lives, and as a result they are believable despite their extraordinary circumstances.