It is becoming conventional wisdom—if not yet a cliché—to note that we are in a golden age of television. The recent four-part PBS documentary America In Primetime pretty much pushed this idea with every episode: television has reached a new level of sophistication and artistry. Groundbreaking premium cable shows like The Sopranos and The Wire rethought what was possible in the dramatic series, and now the trend has extended to basic cable. It’s hard to argue with this thesis when AMC has the two poster boys of quality television drama: Mad Men and Breaking Bad.
At first glance, these two shows have little in common. Mad Men follows the personal and professional upheavals of a group of “ad men” in the sixties. Breaking Bad is about meth dealers. Mad Men is slick and sexy. Breaking Bad is gritty and violent.
Of course there are surface similarities. Both shows focus on a morally conflicted family man as their main character (and, curiously, both MM’s Don Draper and BB’s Walter White have alliterated names). Both shows give their protagonist a younger antagonist/sidekick (MM’s Pete Campbell, BB’s Jesse Pinkman) to contend with. Both shows also seem to be headed for the protagonist’s ultimate fall. Both shows are, in some respect, about moral failure.
One could play spot-the-similarity or note-the-difference all day. What’s more interesting, however, is to recognize what these two award-winning, zeitgeist-defining shows tell us about what our culture calls premium television.
Surely it is no coincidence that both Mad Men and Breaking Bad have been released to great acclaim during an age when noir seems to be resurgent. After all, noir has always been the most vivid expression of America’s boiling subconscious, our anxieties and fears giving rise to sex and violence. Both shows have been created during a time when American exceptionalism seems increasingly as if it is, at best, an out of date idea, and at worst, a joke. Unending war, radical income inequality, paranoia about foreign threats and influence, a bifurcated political system that seems like little more than a shell game—all these have taken their toll.
Now take a look at Mad Men. Don Draper has accumulated precisely the life that a man of his time and place is supposed to accrue: a high paying job in Manhattan, a nice house in the suburbs, a beautiful wife and kids. And what does he have in common with Breaking Bad’s cash-strapped, cancer-stricken New Mexico chemistry teacher Walter White? They’re both miserable bastards. That’s as it should be. Noir is existential, the dramatic presentation of a harrowing realization: people suck and life is meaningless.
While shows like 24 and Dexter bubble up from the same place as Mad Men and Breaking Bad, they are simplified, fascistic treatments of many of the same issues. Understand, I don’t necessarily mean that as a disqualifying criticism. Classic noir, it should be noted, was neither left-wing nor right-wing in its political orientation (or perhaps a better way of putting it would be to say that it could be both left-wing and right-wing). Shows like 24 and Dexter put the viewer in the position of identifying with morally ambiguous characters, yes, but both these shows also position cold-blooded murder as bad ass expressions of an underlying virtue. Both owe more to the above-the-law Mike Hammer than, say, a neurotic Cornell Woolrich antihero. 24’s Jack Bauer “does what has to be done.” Dexter only kills “bad people.” The only real difference between these guys and more conventional “white hat” heroes is that the shows sanction lawless murder and invite us to enjoy bloodlust.
Mad Men and Breaking Bad, however, both put us at the center of a crumbling moral universe with protagonists who are lying to themselves. These guys are the true antiheroes. Don Draper, after all, is living a complete lie. His real name is Dick Whitman and he’s an Army deserter who stole a dead man’s identity to skip out in the middle of the Korean war. The name, the personal history, all of it is a fiction, an advertisement for the man Whitman is trying to sell to the world. The underlying fascination here is how Draper’s story is an amplified version of the American dream following World War Two, the way the shift into the suburbs during the Eisenhower years was supposed to culminate in nuclear family perfection, but instead gave way to the tumultuous sixties, when all the contradictions of the fifties seemed to rise to the surface and the American Dream seemed to implode.
Breaking Bad, to use series creator Vince Gilligan’s memorable phrase, is a show about how Mr. Chipps becomes Scarface. Walter White is an ordinary man who, upon being diagnosed with cancer, decides to start cooking meth. What begins as a simple criminal enterprise, however, soon becomes a complicated web of lies and murder. Even if you can cook meth, how do you move it? What do you do when real established drug dealers come along and want a piece of your action? How do you keep the secret from your wife, your son, your friends? How do you explain the sudden infusion of cash? What’s the point of becoming a millionaire if you can’t spend any of the money?
The basic set-up of Breaking Bad could be too cute by half, in much the same way The Soprano’s gangster-goes-to-therapy conceit at first glance seemed like little more than a gimmick, but like that show BB only uses its premise as a jumping-off place. Walter White is not, as he first appeared, a good man doing bad things. He’s not even a good man gone bad. The real power of the show is the idea that Walt is the same man in a different context, the idea that we all have a money-hungry murderer buried deep within us. This murderer is chained up by whatever systems of morality we have—family, religion, the law—but if those chains fall one by one then what we’re left with is the monster underneath.
Mad Men and Breaking Bad are both on hiatus between fourth and fifth seasons. As is always the case, we can’t know whether or not they’ll come to satisfying conclusions. In whatever fashion they ultimately resolve their storylines, however, they have already both offered excellent proof that television’s new golden age has a darkly noir hue.
Jake Hinkson, The Night Editor