Breaking Bad

by on Jul.23, 2011, under television

I mostly agree with Chuck Klosterman that Breaking Bad stands above the top tier of The Sopranos, Mad Men, and The Wire in its moral starkness. A few caveats:

  • Deadwood remains my favorite-ever show, though it was clearly less successful than any of Klosterman’s four.
  • That “the ultimate takeaway from The Wire was more political than philosophical” is a point in its favor, and David Simon’s critique of institutions is one of the most politically complex and philosophically interesting (and entertaining) things to ever appear on television.
  • Breaking Bad is fantastic, but also unbearable to watch. I only just brought myself to finish Season 3 last week. If it were a feature, it would have released some tension by now. It never releases tension.
  • The holy top tier is very boy, although The Sopranos has vital female characters and Mad Men’s are arguably more central to its purpose than its men. I think there’s a case that Six Feet Under doesn’t make this cut because of sexist bias.

Still, he’s right about the dazzling central feature of Breaking Bad, which is that Walter White is long past the sly gray area that Weedsinhabited for its first three seasons (so, I gather, is Nancy Botwin). Plenty of people have died because of Walter’s actions who didn’t have to; not only has his cost to society vastly outweighed the benefit of providing for his family, he no longer even has those personal stakes: he’s both beat his cancer into remission and racked up enough cash to serve that initial purpose.

But I don’t think Klosterman’s exactly right in his conclusion:

There’s a scene in Breaking Bad‘s first season in which Walter White’s hoodrat lab assistant Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) tells Walter he just can’t “break bad,” and — when you first hear this snippet of dialogue — you assume what Jesse means is that you can’t go from being a law-abiding chemistry teacher to an underground meth cooker. It seems like he’s telling White that he can’t start breaking the law after living a life in which laws were always obeyed, and that a criminal lifestyle is not something you can join like a club. His advice seems pragmatic, and it almost feels like an artless way to shoehorn the show’s title into the script. But this, it turns out, was not Jesse’s point at all. What he was arguing was that someone can’t “decide” to morph from a good person into a bad person, because there’s a firewall within our personalities that makes this impossible. He was arguing that Walter’s nature would stop him from being bad, and that Walter would fail if tried to complete this conversation. But Jesse was wrong. He was wrong, because goodness and badness are simply complicated choices, no different than anything else.

In the world of Breaking Bad, this argument applies more to Jesse than it does to Walter. Jesse is capable of horrible acts, but tortured by them; without Walter’s guidance, he’s a knucklehead, not an evildoer.

But Walter is native here, and to the manner born. Or at least sculpted long ago. Walter has a pulsing vein of barely tamped-down rage that cancer slices open like a box cutter on a vein. His boss at the car wash, the old friend who purportedly cheated him out of millions, his existence — something about the impersonality of cancer brings out something in Walter that is ready for bad and has no need of breaking.

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1 Comment for this entry

  • Joshua Malbin

    I’d say Six Feet Under doesn’t make the cut because its later seasons were frightfully uneven, sometimes just ponderous. But that was true of The Sopranos too. It’s certainly a more important, deeper show than Mad Men, which as far as I can tell is simply a very, very well acted and written period soap opera. But why sexist bias? It, too, was written by a man and was centrally about a pair of brothers.

    Not that TV isn’t horribly sexist, mind you. There are way too few women making shows and way too few shows about women. (Like, I can’t even think of a really good one except Gilmore Girls at the moment.) But the fact that there are so few should make it not surprising that those two tiny sets (woman-run or -oriented shows and the best four shows ever) don’t overlap.

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