In this current age of the television anti-hero, audiences have rooted for some truly despicable people. A budding crystal meth kingpin who effortlessly watches a young girl choke to death. A mafia boss who murders someone while chaperoning his teenage daughter on a college campus visit. A sneaky Prohibition-era politician who fires bullets into loved ones' faces at point-blank range and casually cheats on his woman.
In their own distinct ways, each of those men—Walter White (Bryan Cranston) on Breaking Bad, Tony Soprano (the late James Gandolfini) on The Sopranos, Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) on Boardwalk Empire—is psychotic, yet millions of loyal, enthusiastic viewers adore them nonetheless. But why?
Over the course of nearly an hour yesterday, as part of the Tribeca Film Festival, Nightline co-anchor Julia Chang moderated a discussion about "Psychos We Love" featuring a panel of three experts, each with his own unique takes on the subject. Providing the clinical analyses was James Fallon, the renown neuroscientist, not Jay Leno's genial successor, while two of television's modern-age titans offered their storytelling angles on the subject: Walter White himself, Bryan Cranston, and Boardwalk Empire show-runner Terence Winter. Having also written heavily for The Sopranos and recently received an Oscar nomination for writing the gleefully demented The Wolf of Wall Street, Winter, in particular, had plenty fascinating things to say on the matter.
Here are Cranston's and Winter's best moments from "Psychos We Love," including the former's post-mortem thoughts on the man self-dubbed as Heisenberg, behind-the-scene anecdotes from Winter's Sopranos days, and why even fictional psychos should never hurt the pooch.
A Scary Thought: Some Cold-Blooded Killers Are Just Like You
Terence Winter: We’re all the sum total of our circumstances, our life, our joys, and our rationalizations. If you show any human being in their full range of colors and emotions, hopefully they’ll be relatable in some kind of way, even if they’re a bit crazy.
Al Capone is a good example. On [Boardwalk Empire], we’re lucky enough to see Al Capone as a young man and go home with him. Usually, in every movie you see, Al Capone is at the height of his power, with the cigar and the white fedora, but we’re lucky enough to spend time with the guy who became Al Capone. Now, you go, "Oh, he has a deaf son," which he did in real life. There are moments of sadness and relatability with him on our show. People say, "I can’t believe I actually cried for Al Capone."
Tony Soprano is another great example. You see him do these horrific things and then you realize he’s also having problems with his teenage kids. I’ve had people come up to me and go, "That one scene with Tony and Meadow sounded like you were eavesdropping on a conversation between me and my daughter." They feel like they really understand this guy, but then he goes and kills someone and that throws them off. I don’t think anyone is purely evil or purely good. We’re all a mixture of those two things.
Lunatics With Heart
Bryan Cranston: I think [Walter White is] relatable. The more complex the character is, the more honest the character is, it touches people and resonates through them. Walter White was done very craftily, too. A psychopath is much more interesting when it’s in a drama.
In days gone by, there were the bad guys in poorly written material who were just bad. There was no reason, no rhyme—they’re just bad, and it’s easy for the audience to just shrug them off. "I’m not so much afraid of him because he’s just bad." You know where he’s coming from, you know what he wants. He’s transparent. But a more interesting, complex character is someone whom you don’t know if he’s good or bad—you’re uncertain, and that strikes the heart of Nucky and Tony Soprano and my character. There’s a mixture. It’s really what human beings are.
When I was told that I was offered the role of Walter White, I knew I’d have the chance to do all of the complicated things a flawed and possibly psychotic character does, and that was very exciting. That’s the big playground I had. He weaves in and out of his own morality. The thing I was holding on to all the way through the show was the fact that he always said he was doing this for his family. That, to me, was a reasonable thing to hold onto for this man, to justify his actions.
Loving Those Whom You Should Fear
Winter: I always liken [voluntarily watching, and rooting for, characters like this] to riding a rollercoaster—you get to experience the feeling that you almost died, but you haven’t died. The first rush is the near-death feeling, and the second rush is, "Oh, man, can I do it again?"
For creating these characters and making them translate to the audience, you need to spend time with them and really get inside their heads. You get to live inside the heads of Walter White, Nucky Thompson, Tony Soprano, and Jordan Belfort, and experience what life is like through their eyes, but then not have any of the consequences. It’s a way to spend time in their worlds without paying any kind of price.
For me, one of the best examples of that in film history is when Michael Corleone kills Sollozzo and the police captain in The Godfather. I think there are only three shots fired in that sequence but it’s still one of the most tense sequences in cinema history. You really feel like you’re sitting in the shoes of a guy who’s about to kill somebody for the first time. You get to experience one-millionth of what it must feel like to do that, but where else will you get that kind of experience? God willing, never, but that’s what characters like these give you.
Reasonable Motivations for Disturbing Behavior
Cranston: When you develop a character, you don’t think of any clinical things or medical terms at all. You just think from a point-of-view of what you feel is right at the time, and the condition that Walter White found himself in was extraordinary. The issues of his life, and his depressions and missed opportunities and everything, put him in an arena where he was going to do something bold for the first time in his adult life. That stemmed from the fear that if he died, he would leave his family penniless, through the health care system that was broken, and the last image that his children and his wife would have of him would be this shriveled up little man who couldn’t even be on his own. Especially for a man’s ego, you don’t want that—you want to have more control.
But I can’t even say that that’s what unleashes his inner psychopath, though. For Walt, it was simply about doing something bold and leaving something for his family. He wanted to have more control of how he was going to die. He had these pragmatic numbers in his head. How much money would he need to leave for his kids to go to college? How much to make sure his wife doesn’t lose the house? How do they need so they don’t bankrupt themselves paying for his medical care? Initially, that’s what drove him.
Doctor Doesn't Always Know Best
Winter: All these characters who live outside the bounds of conventional society have rationalizations for their worst actions. In Tony Soprano’s case, it was all OK because they were soldiers—it was OK because you signed up for that lifestyle, and it was no different than soldiers going off to war and killing somebody else. By seeing it that way, of course, they’re immediately disregarding the collateral damage and all the other people who are involved in these things.
We did one sequence where Tony was talking to Dr. Melfi, saying that his constant mistreating of women and cheating on his wife were good because it makes him happy and it fulfills a need that he has, and in so doing, it actually makes him calmer and makes him a happier dad and husband.
Early on into the run of the show, David Chase and I went to a luncheon thrown by a team of psychologists and psychiatrists. These doctors were presenting papers about sociopathy and various criminal elements. One of the studies concluded that it would be impossible to treat somebody who showed psychopathic or sociopathic traits. You can’t treat these people, and, in fact, what the treatment is doing is giving them the language to help them become better criminals. Suddenly, these guys in prison were rationalizing their behavior, saying, "Well, the reason why I do all these things is that my mother didn’t love me enough," or whatever other rationalizations. They were taking these things and using them to justify their bad behavior. And ultimately, the conclusion was that you can’t help them, and you’re only making them a better criminal.
When we walked out of that lunch, David turned to me and said, "That’s the ending of the Tony/Melfi story. Five years from now, that’s it." After all this, Melfi has actually aided and abetted this man.
Walter White's Darkest Hour
Cranston: I remember the scene where Jesse’s girlfriend, Jane, dies, and there was a lot of discussion about that, how that would come about. I had a lot of thought about that. I thought objectively about how I’d want that scene to be conveyed. I first wanted to respond in a humane way—I see this person choking to death and I want to stop it. The impulse is to help, but then he stops himself because he realizes this is the same person who just blackmailed him and is threatening to expose his whole enterprise, and everyone’s life would be turned upside down. But then he looks at her again and sees this young girl who could be his daughter, but, again, she got Jesse on heroin and is going to kill this boy who I now have an affinity for. He’s going back and forth trying to make sense of the whole experience, but his act of omission tells the whole story.
And I paid for that scene. For some reason, I looked at Krysten Ritter [who played Jane] who was doing a superb job and really giving it her all. I’m looking at her from off-camera, and, for some reason, my mind went to this thing of looking at this girl and thinking she could be my daughter. I looked at Krysten but my real daughter’s face was suddenly super-imposed onto Krysten’s face, and that felt like a knife to the gut. I lost it.
Men Lie, Women Lie, Psychos Definitely Lie
Winter: The most fun scenes for me to write [on The Sopranos] were those moments where, and this is such a very human thing, a character would hear a joke and then a few scenes later, they’d present the joke as something they thought of themselves. We’ve all done that, and it’s such an insight that I don’t think I’d ever seen done on TV.
Those characters on The Sopranos lied to each other all the time. We’d sometimes get network notes that’d say, "This doesn’t make sense—on page 12, Tony says this, but then he completely says the opposite on page 18." And I’d say, "Yeah, he’s lying." [Laughs.] All they do is lie to each other. Even the concept of "we don’t rat each other out," these guys rat each other out all the time. They can’t wait to rat each other out! As soon as they get arrested, somebody’s looking to cut deals, yet there’s still this fiction they live under that there’s some honorable code they follow, and it’s all a big lie.
It’s even more so for Nucky, since he’s essentially a politician, and all they do is lie. [Laughs.] One of my favorite Boardwalk scenes to write was in season one, when an African-American characters gets attacked by the Ku Klux Klan, and Nucky is addressing an African-American church, saying they’re going to take care and justice will be served. We push in really tight and then pull back and see him giving the same speech but now he’s addressing an all-white church. He’s just telling everybody exactly what they want to hear.
It's So Hard (To Kill Off Main Characters, Kids, and Dogs... Especially Dogs)
Winter: I don’t know that I’d ever want to write anything that repelled the audience and lost their trust, like anything with children—I don’t think my mind can even go there.
I wrote the scene in The Sopranos where Adriana gets killed. I didn’t do this consciously, but when I wrote that scene, I wrote that she crawls off-camera and you hear a gunshot. Somebody said to me, "You’ve written some of the most horrifically violent things we’ve seen on this show, so why did you not show her getting killed?" And I said, "You know what? I don’t know." At the time, it felt like the right artistic choice, but I realized that I did not want to see that. I didn’t want to see her get killed. I liked Drea [De Matteo, the actress] and I loved the character, and I just didn’t want to see it. It wasn’t because she’s a woman and I was being chivalrous. [Laughs.] It was weird, I just didn’t want to see it.
Depending on where you fall on the scale of what’s acceptable and what’s not, anything that involves cruelty to animals is something we could never do. There was a scene on The Sopranos where Tony Soprano is breaking somebody’s car window with a baseball bat and the wife came out holding a dog. The dog was barking, and it was a little bit of a mind-fuck. You see a shot of Tony Soprano holding a baseball bat and then there’s a cut to this yapping dog. Everybody, including us, went, "Oh, my god—that dog is going to die!" You’ve seen this guy kill dozens of people, but if he had killed that dog, I think we would’ve have lost so many viewers. Obviously it’s because the dog is an innocent creature.
The audience’s rationalization is, these gangsters choice this life, so they deserve whatever they get, but a dog or a child didn’t ask for this. That’s where you have to draw the line.
Compiled by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
For more of Complex Pop Culture's Tribeca coverage, click here.