I came to Breaking Bad after getting bored with Mad Men - I found Don Draper’s journey to be frustratingly static, every week a movement from A to A, where something was on the verge of happening but not quite (About Season 2 or 3). Breaking Bad, comparatively, was all about the joys of plot: every week, something happened of consequence, and the line that the show was built on, a “good” man going evil, expanded and twisted in ways that were deep and fascinating.
Nowadays, I’m back in Mad Men’s pocket. (I loved the last season.) But I still love Breaking Bad the most, and find it kind of irresistible to call it “better than Mad Men.” It’s funny because really, the two shouldn’t be compared. They’re on the same station, they’re doing the same good work. Retroactively, in five years’ time, it’s not going to matter one iota - mostly it’ll just be a record of two very good TV shows on the air at the same time, one winning the Best Drama Emmy because of the nuance and class, the other winning the Best Actor Emmy. I don’t see Jon Hamm - who, admit it, is desperate like a WB starlet in an iconic role to prove that he can be comic and not Don Draper and it’s funny because it’s awkward - ever winning an Emmy when Bryan Cranston has to go from A to K to R to F to Z to B, all in the course of one episode. (This is a bastardization of Dorothy Parker’s famous Katharine Hepburn diss, “She ran the gamut of emotion from A to B.”) The point of Mad Men is that Don Draper is superficially going from A to B, with tiny little cracks in the fissure.
They’re two consistently fascinating shows, since they’re asking what makes a (modern) man? and the answer is something like to survive and succeed, you have to be a sociopathic nihilist. Those shows, Deadwood, The Wire, and The Sopranos, seem to be the main arguments for why TV is the driving force of creative freedom in the culture these days, although I’m fairly sure you could combine the audiences for those shows and get half of the amount of people who’ve seen something on CBS, and this argument about “the golden age of TV” sure does discount any sort of female perspective on the shows or as a showrunner.
What I love about Vince Gilligan is that he never, ever assumes that the audience is dumb. (Unlike a Showtime series, which is all about setting up a wacky, skewed view of the world, having some fancy guest star come in and shake it up, and then having that person die and then the game is back at zero. I am talking about Dexter here.) Gilligan lets the audience figure out the games that the characters are playing, how their motivations are roiling underneath their placid faces. It’s hard not to totally love him for that fact. He has a tendency to quote a Billy Wilder adage about “letting the audience add up two and two to four and they’ll love you forever,” which is true.
I’m constantly surprised by Breaking Bad and I’m a little heartbroken that the “last” season is starting next week, which means there are only sixteen hours left of Walter White’s story. I have no idea where it will go, I assume it will be with his death - but maybe not - and whether it’s something epic and Greek or pathetic and driven by the return of his cancer, I don’t know. It’s not enough time for the world to quite catch up with Gilligan’s genius, for people to write about Breaking Bad in some of the ways that people write about Mad Men (which is an easier show to write about in a lot of ways, partially because it’s aspirational?). For me, I want to figure out why I have a tendency to relate a bit more to Walter White’s nihilism than the big beating heart of Jesse Pinkman. Perhaps it’s due to being the daughter of teachers.
What I do know for sure is this: at the end of the series, Walter White will be alone.