James Gandolfini has been memorialized in countless essays about his greatest role—the role that revolutionized television, the role that paved the way for so many other troubled men who served as microcosms of the American experience for viewers and critics. Under tragic circumstances, this week brought a renewed focus upon Tony Soprano, and what that violent, complicated character meant, and not just to us—to TV and how we watch it. But as summer officially arrives, we find ourselves thinking about other violent, complicated characters whose stories are due to end very soon, and oh-so-dramatically. Men like Don Draper and Walter White. When Mad Men and Breaking Bad are over, is the television anti-hero here to stay?
The heavy, heavy shows that feature these men—and, yes, they are almost always men—are labeled brilliant because they are able to say something about the American condition through despicable guys who are somehow watchable and also somehow representative. Heather Havrilesky wrote in Salon: "No TV character captured the longing and melancholy of American life better than Tony Soprano, and no actor could bring those emotions to the surface better than Gandolfini." At Vulture, Margaret Lyons called Tony "the mobster, Willy Loman." But of course Arthur Miller's salesman never did anything nearly as horrible as the crimes that Tony committed. Nor was he a meth dealer. Nor did he steal a dead man's life. He was a small man, trying to do right by his sons, and failing miserably.
Of course Willy existed in a simpler time. Tony Soprano was a result of his. "As our social life became reduced to considerations of the bottom line, the violence and humiliation Tony wrought in the name of 'just business' — to quote the famous line from 'The Godfather,' a movie that haunts Tony’s imagination — spoke to Americans in upheaval," Lee Siegel wrote in The New York Times. "Here was a sociopath who now seemed like the guy next door, a Ward Cleaver for the 21st century." In the new issue of The Atlantic, James Parker writes of Walter White in similar terms. "At one level, Breaking Bad is the story of a business," he says. "From their little start-up in the rumbling RV, Walter and Jesse push out into the meth market, widening and narrowing, gaining and losing personnel."
But we also like these characters because they are entertaining, to a point. Don Draper's inner demons this year became tedious. He became a character that never seemed to grow or change. Andy Greenwald at Grantland wrote: "In 1968, Don Draper is an empty Jaguar with tinted windows: great to look at it, but a disaster under the hood." He's a man not in an inherently evil position, but he acts inherently evil. At the end of the most recent episode Peggy Olson called him a "monster."
When Don and Walter finally leave the air—likely, in death—there will be other anti-heroes left. They might not be quite as lauded, but they're not going anywhere. Boardwalk Empire has Nucky Thompson. Homeland has Nicholas Brody coming back more than you'd expect, and it has that rare female example in Carrie Mathison. (Mathison almost doesn't count since her complication is rendered as a disease rather than a tendency for evil.) In two weekends, Showtime brings us Ray Donavan. The anti-hero as representation of the American male is still very much with us—even our superheroes are now, in some ways, anti-heroes—but they are perhaps starting to feel repetitive. Perhaps we need a character who doesn't expose just how dark we really are. Where's Coach Taylor when you need him?