Which Role Was Better: As Cop or As Killer?

Photo: Sundance Channel, HBO

Dominic West will forever be McNulty from The Wire, which makes his turn as British serial killer Fred West even more fascinating in this weekend’s Appropriate Adult, a two-part mini-series airing on Sundance. He’s not the only actor to take on iconic roles as both police officer and murderer, though — in fact, he’s in really good company. But which role is better? More interesting? More challenging? More enduring? Join us as we examine seven of the actors who’ve played both cop and killer, and argue with us as we analyze which they did better.

Cop: Detective Bobby Simone on NYPD Blue, the heart of the show during his seasons and the best damn partner Andy Sipowicz ever had. Simone’s death still ranks among the greatest TV tragedies of all time. Killer: Miguel Prado on Dexter, the BFF turned murderer protégé that Dexter tutored in the ways of serial killing during the show’s third season. Verdict: Cop. By several light-years. Prado became pretty one-note as his arc wore on — and that one note was “crazy-eyes murderer” — but Bobby was all about the subtleties, gentle moments of grace and hard-core moments of effective police work.
Cop: Detective Jimmy McNulty on The Wire, a cocky, drunken mess of an antihero, and one of the show’s most engrossing, complicated characters. McNulty’s frustrations, self-destructive behavior, but capacity for love and loyalty reflect back the overall themes of the entire show. Killer: Fred West, the British serial killer and subject of Appropriate Adult. Fred seems like such an ordinary guy, and Dominic West infuses him with a dangerous charm and charisma that become more haunting as the mini-series goes on. Verdict: Close, but it’s gotta be cop. In Adult, West is the evil spider inviting everyone into his web, but on The Wire, he’s the spider and the fly (and the web, and the creaky doorway in which the web is woven). Fred West might be the actual real person, but he never feels as authentic as McNulty does.
Cop: Special Agent Mike Giardello, prodigal son of Al “Gee” Giardello on Homicide: Life on the Street. Everyone looks up to Gee, so his fractured relationship with his son seems especially sad and fraught. Killer: Gustavo “Gus” Fring, Breaking Bad’s tidiest, most refined kingpin. Elegant, particular, and astonishingly brutal, Gus is a prime example of how Vince Gilligan finds depth and artistry even in the cruelest of creatures. Verdict: Killer. Esposito was good on Homicide, but he was a goddamn revelation on Breaking Bad, with the precise movements of a ballet dancer and the distant stare of a practiced politican. Despite his casualness toward human life and gruesome powers of influence, Gus always seemed a little bit fragile — which is how he saw himself in some ways, still suffering from the loss of his original hermano.
Cop: Special Agent Seeley Booth on Bones, the frequently exasperated but secretly lovable partner to Emily Deschanel’s hyperliteral Brennan. Booth is masculinity incarnate, in stripey socks. Killer: Angel, the cursed vampire with a conscience on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. He’s half of one of pop’s great love stories, and one of the few characters worthy of Buffy’s affections. But he also killed a lot of people. Verdict: Tie! His role as Angel might be more iconic, but Booth is more fun. Angel is the perfect doomed lover, and Booth is the perfect not-doomed one.
Cop: Agent Dale Cooper, the pie-loving, coffee-slurping, dictation-given investigator on Twin Peaks. Idiosyncratic, thoughtful, funny, sensitive, and really open-minded about investigative techniques. (Attempted) Killer: Orson Hodge, the onetime spouse of Bree Van De Kamp on Desperate Housewives. It’s hard to list all the nutso behaviors associated with the ex-dentist, but who among us has not wanted to kill Mike Delfino at some point? Verdict: Cop. MacLachlan makes Cooper’s whimsy feel like wisdom, something it’s hard to imagine another actor nailing quite so earnestly. On Wisteria Lane, everyone is a nutjob; not to pooh-pooh MacLachlan’s work there, but it’s par for the course on a show that bananas.
Cop: Assistant State Attorney Rhonda Pearlman on The Wire, so not a cop, but so deeply enmeshed in the investigative process (not to mention entangled with Daniels) that she counts for these purposes. She’s pulled in a bunch of different directions, but is one of the more ethically sound characters in the corruption-plagued Wire universe. Killer: The infamous Grave Digger Killer and repeat kidnapper of the main characters on Bones. It took two different highly trained snipers to eventually exact vigilante justice on her. Verdict: Cop/lawyer. Lovejoy’s Grave Digger was wonderfully evil, but she was also pretty annoying, particularly after her capture. Pearlman, though, was stand-up without being sanctimonious, a delicate balance for a character with a straightforward moral code who generally found herself among less-righteous peers.
Cop: Detective Elliot Stabler, one-half of the backbone of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and the most gung-ho protector of abused children New York has ever known. Gruff, passionate, and likely to lose his temper with particularly impertinent perps. Killer: Chris Keller, murderer, burglar, sociopath, lover, fighter on Oz. He’s a domineering, brutal master manipulator who’s still capable of getting his heart broken. Verdict: Killer. Stabler’s more famous, but Keller is a far more challenging role, requiring not just the tough-guy exterior but also the stunted, warped interior world of a remorseless murderer. Even the best episodes of SVU — and lo, there are some gems in there — rely on the fact that the audience will root for Stabler no matter what. With Keller, the opposite’s true: He’s almost impossible to root for, and yet Meloni wrings some humanity from him anyway.
Which Role Was Better: As Cop or As Killer?