It could be argued that the Golden Age of television (that is television far superior to the movies) began when New Jersey mob boss-elect Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) waded into his swimming pool in his bathroom robe, to feed a family of wild ducks that had arrived to live in his backyard.
It was the pilot episode of what was to become arguably the greatest television series of all time, introducing one of the most terrifying, complex but also most loved characters in modern pop culture – and also a father.
And both have as their central characters – fathers.
There’s Dexter Morgan, the blood splatter expert working in Miami homicide, efficiently disposing of serial killers in plastic covered rooms for eight seasons, who is also the father of blonde-haired Harrison and stepfather to the hardly ever seen Cody and Astor.
And there’s Walter White, a poorly paid school chemistry teacher diagnosed with lung cancer turned arch-druglord and master crystal meth cooker, who is also the father to handicapped teenager Walter White Jr and infant Holly. He is also very much the “father figure” to his drug lab partner Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) but rather than guide him away from drugs and crime (as most fathers would do) he leads him deeper into the spider’s web.
Both are loving fathers and yet dreadful role models.
Walter White starts off as a meek, dying father, deeply attached to his wife and children, who by degrees becomes more ruthless as he becomes powerful, who resorts to murder – including the poisoning of a child – to build his financial fortune.
Dexter Morgan has little time for traditional fatherly duties, palming off his son to a carer or who ever it seems will take him, while he pursues and butchers serial killers, keeping their blood samples on glass slides behind the air conditioning unit.
They are liars, deceivers, criminals and terrible fathers by any standard or measure and yet we love them. Through eight lumpy seasons of Dexter and five faultless seasons of Breaking Bad, my wife and I have taken comfort in “Darkly Dreaming” Dexter and cunning Walter White (though not so much when he’s in his white underpants).
Similarly, Mad Men’s Don Draper hides his true identity from his family. He may be the best dressed, smoothest man ever to appear on television (and most frequent user of brylcreem), but he’s also a serial womanizer who makes Michael Douglas look virginal. He loves his three children, but frequently greets their visits with a frown and can only relate to them as he does to adults. His chief role as father – when he’s involved – is to tell them off.
And let’s not forget Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) the drunkard, bent cop of that othere groundbreaking television show, The Wire, who also happened to be a father.
But back to Tony Soprano. The late James Gandolfini played him with Shakespearian range as both a terrifying tiger and a soft, cuddly teddy bear – fond of his cigars, two colour bowling shirts, tracksuits, whores, extortion rackets and murder when necessary.
But also a man who loves his children deeply and who is a great protector of his family.
This dichotomy of loving father/ruthless mob boss is partly what made the show so watchable.
An episode that stands out is when Tony accompanies his daughter Meadow to visit a prospective college, and in between strangles Fabian Petrulio, a former mobster turned FBI informant. Tony savagely murders him, despite Petrulio pleading for his life. The job done, he takes Meadow to another college interview. Here he stops to ponder a quotation from the writer: Nathaniel Hawthorne :
“No man… can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which one may be true.”
This could apply equally to Walter White, Dexter Morgan or Don Draper, fathers whose sense of identity disappears behind the masks they wear, the lies they tell.
It is interesting to note (and Freud would certainly have found it telling) that both Walter White and Tony Soprano’s sons bear their own names – the sins of the father passed on to their children in name and deed.
Perhaps some of the power of these shows, what makes them so compelling and addictive, is the fact that their main characters are so deeply flawed as fathers and family men.
And its interesting to note, that David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, claims his father was “an angry man who belittled him constantly as a child” while Jeff Lindsay, who wrote the Dexter novels on which the series is based, penned a column for the newspapers called “Fatherhood” while raising two daughters, before he struck the big time.