We’re living in the golden age of television shows. With shows like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, etc, the television industry is reaching new heights. However, it also introduced a new kind of hero on our screens – anti-heroes. And the three that pop into our minds are Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Don Draper. But, which one of these three is the best?
When we talk about these three, we’re talking about the best of the best. These are top tier characters, with amazing emotional depth and character traits. In the end, there really is a decisive winner. But, we’ll have to analyze each of them individually first. So, let’s start with Tony Soprano.
Tony Soprano from The Sopranos
Let’s start with the one character that changed television forever – Tony Soprano. There’s little doubt that Tony is the most influential character in all of television history. Through him, David Chase introduced the concept of an anti-hero on television for the first time. And it was one risky step because HBO was concerned that people would never like him. But, they were proven wrong.
We have never seen a character more up close and intimately than Tony Soprano. Those therapy sessions with Dr. Melfi and David Chase’s exceptional writing made us see the true depth of Tony as a person. Don’t get us wrong, he was a sociopath. However, his relationship with his mother and his upbringing in a criminal household made us understand him better than anyone. And so, we embark on a journey of realizing whether Tony Soprano could be cured or not.
A mob boss in therapy
The show begins with such an absurd idea that a mob boss goes to a psychiatrist, because of panic attacks and complaining that life is unfair. We see Tony Soprano’s life after the moment he peaked. He fulfilled all his goals of his criminal career, buying a big house, having a perfect (on the surface) family, and loads of goomahs. Yet, that is the point where his life starts going down, and of course the famous panic attacks. And with his therapy, we get to see him more up close than any other character in television history.
No show ever goes in such depth in explaining how having a dysfunctional mother affects the emotional capabilities of a human being. She is a nihilistic and manipulative woman, pressing Tony to stay miserable and even trying to have him killed once. It made us feel for him, because of the chronic depression and self-loathing he had for himself. That scene when he was cursing his genes for how his scene turned out? We all felt for him at that moment. The self-hatred in Tony was evident, and it stemmed from his mother. It led to depression, anxiety, and hopelessness. But again, there was a darker side to him entangled with the goodness.
A character we love & hate at the same time
Tony Soprano is a character we don’t want to be, yet we can’t get enough of him. We see his human side, the one that loves animals and ducks. Whereas, on the other end, we see how poorly he treats both his families, the women around him, and how little regard he has for human life. But, at the same time, we sympathize with him over his childhood trauma and are eager to see if he’ll ever be able to come into terms with it. He was more like a George Costanza, and we know they both had severe mommy and daddy issues and erratic behavior, prone to tantrums and temperament issues. And through all this, he is trying to lead his personal family and mob family.
However, many of Tony Soprano’s actions made us hate him just as much. The way Tony once infuriated his sister Janice when she was having anger management is an example. Moreover, he demanded utmost loyalty from everyone around him, but never returned the favor. That was the case with his wife, Carmela, Christopher Moltisanti, and all his captains. He even killed Christopher with his own hands, who was willing to go to hell for his “uncle Tony”. That left him all by himself by the end. And that is what got Tony killed because all of those loyal to him were gone. But, he justifies it all, saying that he did what he did “for the family”.
And then, there are his complicated dreams, which depict that Tony Soprano does have a conscience. The problem is that he isn’t in touch with it, and loses it more and more over time. After seeing so many contradictions in Tony, could he be cured?
Can Tony be cured?
In the end, Tony Soprano is a character we love and hate at the same time. But, with Dr. Melfi’s therapy, we came to the conclusion that we dreaded – Tony is a sociopath and he cannot be cured. The man that we had grown to love, and hate, is just a sociopath who would even kill anyone to get what he wants.
This was made evident when Melfi realized that Tony showed some personality traits that manipulative psychopaths do. And as soon as that happened, Dr. Melfi dropped him as a patient. But, we as viewers saw that a bit sooner. When Tony killed Christopher, he didn’t show a single emotion of remorse or guilt. We’re talking about a person who was more dear to him than his own son, yet he killed him with his own hands without any feeling of guilt. Moreover, he felt the same in the case of Adriana too. And this was the same Tony who was physically sick before he realized he had to kill Big P*ssy Bompensiero for being a rat.
However, Tony Soprano would always be incomplete without James Gandolfini. His phenomenal and once in a lifetime acting made Tony Soprano come alive and become relatable to the public. Gandolfini played our favorite sociopath brilliantly, even though he was nothing like Tony in real life. He captured every emotion, including rage, helplessness, love, pity, sadness, hate, and every other you can associate with Tony Soprano. And without him, Tony would never be the most influential character in TV history.
Now that we’re done with Tony Soprano, it’s time for us to make a case for Walter White.
Walter White from Breaking Bad
Walter White is the anti-hero that dominated the last decade. However, he contrasts with Tony Soprano by quite a margin.
One thing that separates Walt from Tony is that he was not born in a life of crime. He is a man with unfulfilled potential and ego because of his genius, pushed inside by a stressful life. Walter White is a pushover, who simply turns over the other cheek. He lets everyone run over him, while he simply pushes the humiliation inside of himself. Walter White isn’t a good man, he just isn’t evil. And when he hears of his cancer, all the alarm bells go off and the pressure is too much for him to keep his ego and genius in himself. And that is when he turns violent, evil, or aptly, into Heisenberg.
But, Walter White didn’t just turn into a Heisenberg overnight. It was just hidden in inaction. Now, he was just doing something about it. Walter yearned for power and an impact on the world because of his potential and the ego that comes with it. He helped build “Gray Matter”, which ended up becoming a multi-billion dollar company, yet he sold his share to Elliot and his wife Gretchen Schwartz (who also happened to be Walter’s ex), for a mere $5,000. That stain of unfilled potential, a lost opportunity, and a damaged ego instilled a yearning in him for greater power and money.
And that is why he found one excuse after another to stay in the game and cook crystal meth. But, it’s not just the chemistry that gets him excited, it’s violence too, which gives him the sensation of being powerful. And Walt ultimately loses control of his violent streak and transforms into Heisenberg.
Very different from other anti-heroes
Unlike Don Draper and Tony Soprano, Walter White doesn’t have any sex appeal. I mean, we saw him in his tidy white underwear in the pilot. That moment, gone was his sex appeal. He is more like a father figure, with discipline, intelligent, and a middle-aged person. Even as Heisenberg, Walter is not into the lifestyle of a mobster. He is not seduced by alluring women or indulges in extravagant spending (which is why he burned the Camero).
Moreover, Walt had an arc from the start to the end of Breaking Bad. At the start, Walt continuously told himself that his criminal activities were justified. He gave reasons like his family, his health, his hidden genius throughout his life, etc. But, in reality, his motivations were always his desire for power and recognition. And Breaking Bad is a journey of his to discover that hidden Heisenberg in him. And that is Walter White’s journey throughout Breaking Bad – his acceptance that he did it because he enjoyed it. His famous words to Skyler White still echo among fans, as Walt confessed:
I did it for me. I was good at it.
Now, we move on to the most dashing one of our list of anti-heroes – Don Draper.
Don Draper from Mad Men
After Walter White and Tony Soprano, we now move on to our most good looking anti-hero. To sum it up, Don Draper is a conflicted man. He is in an identity crisis throughout the show, trying to figure out who he really is. That is perfectly symbolized by the fact that he himself is not the real Don Draper. Don Draper was actually Dick Whitman, born to a prostitute who died while giving birth to him, he took the identity of his fallen CO in the Korean War. And he did so to escape a life of poverty he was living with his stepmother and father.
Now, Don Draper’s life is pretty much perfect. He has an amazing job that he’s good at, he’s handsome, charming, has a beautiful wife with two lovely children. But, the ghosts of his past haunt him continuously. Don never really comes into terms with his origin and accepts it as a part of him. Instead, he’s trying too hard to be Don Draper, just like everyone else. But, the truth of the matter is that no one is Don Draper.
Don Draper is like the American Dream – A lie
He is the representation of the American Dream that is sold to millions. A promise of class mobility, that in fact is nothing more than an illusion. The American Dream is a lie. And that is why most of the major political upheavals of the 60s coincided with Don’s personal problems. Like, both of his divorces coincided with the Kennedy Assassination and the 1968 race riots.
For a person to make it to the top, he has to cheat the system, while being born with the privilege of being a white male. Only then can anyone have a chance of becoming an insider. And Don did the same while trying to bury a part of himself – the past.
And whenever the weight of the past becomes too much to bear, Don starts to destroy the life of illusion he built around himself. He feels like a fraud for living like Don Draper as if he’s dying inside. Even though from the outside, he feels like the perfect American who is supremely confident, from the inside, he feels unworthy as Dick Whitman.
And Don used those sentiments in his work a lot. The feeling of togetherness, belonging, immortality, etc was a constant theme of his ads that he used to make the product feel more intimate. But, at the same time, it was also his undoing. Moreover, the emotional holes and traumas left in him played out in his relationships as well. Each woman Don was ever with represented a part of his past that made it feel familiar to him. But, his reluctance to accept it always ended up failing those relationships. This video sums it up perfectly.
Don’s end: self-acceptance
Throughout the show, Don’s only way of getting over the past was wilful forgetting and his denial. It got him over the hurdle, but only temporarily. And he encouraged others to do the same, including Peggy Olson, his brother Adam Whitman, and others.
But, with time and other relationships, Don realized that telling his true identity to his love affairs was the right thing to do. However, it wasn’t the same as confronting and acceptance of the past.
By the end, Don Draper again went on one of his escapades and pushed the self-destruct button. This time, he really came close to losing everything. But, he managed to turn his life around. By season 7, he began to accept the traumas of his past and the fact that they cannot be undone. In the final episode, he bared himself to his daughter, his ex-wife Betty, and his daughter like figure Peggy and came clean.
It is perfectly encapsulated in the famous hug Don gave to the man who confessed that he felt no one ever saw him and they walked over him. Normally, Don would walk simply tell him to get over it. Instead, he hugged him, depicting that he finally accepted his own self too, which he and everyone else overlooked. And then, in that final moment of Zen, Don got the idea of the famous Coke hilltop ad, and thus his arc was complete.
Now that we have adequately discussed Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Walter White, let’s take a look at the protagonist, or anti-hero that comes out on top. And the winner is…
The final verdict – Tony Soprano!
Let’s face it – those of us who have watched the three shows know it in their hearts that Tony Soprano is the winner of the three. And I have some valid reasons to believe that.
1. The most revolutionary character ever
Firstly, Tony Soprano is the most revolutionary character on television. It ushered the Golden Era of TV that we see today. Characters like Don Draper and Walter White could never have existed without Tony Soprano absolutely shattering the small screen. I mean, no one could even think of writing a character like Tony at the time, let alone get a 6 season long show on just him.
2. Great character depth
Secondly, We get an enormous amount of character depth with Tony Soprano. It is complemented by excellent writing, which was communicated through the therapy sessions and the complex dreams that Tony had. On the other hand, we got something similar to Don Draper, with his dreams and flashbacks. But, the audience had to decipher much of what it meant for Don. Whereas, in Tony, we got a lot more than that.
In fact, we even got to see how his own thoughts and words contradicted. That is expert writing. However, with Walter White, we got very little inside information about him. Yes, we know Walt from episode 1 and see his struggles in his professional career. But, we never got to know Walt’s inner feelings, his upbringing, and how it influenced his thought. He always felt incomplete and less relatable. Whereas, the other two had a rich back story with them that stemmed down to their childhood. And their emotions and reactions felt familiar. But, it’s the acting that set Tony and Don apart.
3. James Gandolfini gave the most compelling performance of all time
Simply put, James Gandolfini is a magician. He could act simply by the look of his eyes! Everyone on the set of The Sopranos revered Gandolfini for his genius, with Stevie Van Zandt saying that after working with him, you walked away as a better actor. It was his brilliance that brought Tony Soprano to life.
Think about it. Tony is a degenerate sociopath. He’s a terrible husband, father, friend, and mentor. Yet, we can’t help but empathize with him despite his flaws. We see a part of ourselves, our struggles, our breakdowns, our health concerns, and difficult childhood in him. With the way James Gandolfini portrayed those emotions, you can’t help but feel for Tony Soprano. And that is Gandolfini’s success, hands down. Only he could have made such a reprehensible person so relatable. And Gandolfini’s input was so valuable to David Chase, that he often followed his lead in developing Tony Soprano.
Gandolfini’s incredible work ethic went to such extents that he would not sleep for days for a scene where he wanted his anger to manifest. In this documentary, the Sopranos cast and many actors, writers, and directors who worked with James Gandolfini explain his hard work and incredible nature as a human being. Truly, the GOAT.
This does not mean that Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston were bad actors
Now, don’t get me wrong. This is not a diss on Jon Hamm on his performance for Don Draper. Nor am I downplaying Bryan Cranston’s performance as Walter White. Both Hamm and Cranston did an outstanding job, generational indeed. But, James Gandolfini blew them out of the park with Tony Soprano. He was untouchable.
So, if you’ve made it to this end of the article, hats off. It fills my heart with joy that you liked reading it up till here. But, I would like to know who you think is the better of the three? Or if you have some other anti-hero in mind who trumps these three? Let us know in the comments!