It is a universally accepted truism that we are living in the golden age of television. Sure, people are still giving Chuck Lorre money and that’s terrible, but in the past couple of decades there have been The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Dexter, and absolutely stunning newcomer True Detective. In addition to these heavy-hitters, there’s lot of great stuff like Firefly, Scandal, The Vampire Diaries (it’s great and I’m not 14 I promise), along with quality comedies like 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Community, and Girls. Truly an embarrassment of riches. However, it’s a weird quirk of American culture that we can’t just enjoy everything, we have to make a list and decide which is the best. If we can’t judge the quality of these shows and categorize them better than the dumb schmucks around us, what’s the point of even watching? With that being said, this article is about a throwdown between two of the best: Breaking Bad and The Wire. Which one should you smugly assert is better?
Just a quick overview before diving in: The Wire is noteworthy because of its extreme focus on reality. It unflinchingly explores the real world, with the repeated and insistent declaration that hey, it is what it is. The dialogue in this show is truly a joy – especially anything the young asshole cop McNulty says to, well, anyone. Its plotting and pacing are nearly flawless, and it takes time to explore the ravages of the drug war on the communities and cultures of Baltimore. Breaking Bad can deliver excitement like no other show. It moves absurdly fast and is packed with a ridiculous amount of action. In the pilot, the main character gets cancer, decides to make meth, makes the best meth ever, kills a couple of drug dealers, and is ready to get in a shootout with the cops at the end of the first episode. No other show pulls that off in the pilot. It also focuses almost exclusively on Walter White, doing an in-depth character study on the darker motivations and emotions in the human psyche. Finally, it is satisfying in that it has one well-plotted unifying arc that is resolved more perfectly than any other show I’ve ever seen.
The “good guys.” Sort of.
The Wire is a show about drug dealers and cops in Baltimore. It explores the inner workings and power struggles of both the law enforcement apparatus and the organizations actively working to undermine that apparatus. The main character of the show is definitely Baltimore – everyone else is tangential to the trials and travails of the city itself. It is about the rise and decline, and decline, and decline of the American city. What this show does extremely well is focus unerringly on reality. There are consequences for every single action – no one gets away with anything, ever. People do what they do based on extremely complex and murky motivations, but every action is perfect and clear to understand – no character exists in a vacuum. In another nod to reality, there is no good or bad, there are just people. One of the most helpful members of the special crimes unit is an idiot who beat a kid so badly he went blind in one eye. McNulty, arguably the main(ish) character, is a brilliant detective, but he’s an absolute self-inflated asshole, he cannot for the life of him respect his superiors, and he drives drunk pretty consistently. He is unhealthily obsessed with his job. He is divorced, and he has his two boys for the weekend. The fun father-son bonding game he plays with them is called “Tail the Drug Lord and Tell Daddy Where He Goes.” That’s right – he’s great at solving crime, he desperately wants Baltimore to be a safer place, but he involves his children in active criminal investigations. Not a paragon of fatherhood.
The “bad guys.” Sort of.
On the other end, one of the drug dealers, D, kills people, sells heroin, and does pretty much everything you’d expect a drug dealer to do, but also feels genuine remorse about a lot of what he does and is extremely conflicted about the persona he has chosen for himself. In this show, there are no easy or ready-made conclusions – it is what it is. The Wire is weighed down a little bit by its huge cast. I mean, it’s a strength because it allows us to see the plight of Baltimore from multiple eyes and perspectives, but one problem that Breaking Bad does not have is that, with so many characters, the viewer ends up not knowing them as well, resulting in less emotional investment. I had to watch most of the first season until I was clear on everyone’s names. Another thing that hurts The Wire in comparison to Breaking Bad is that each season focuses on a different aspect of Baltimore crime, often with very different casts of characters and settings. This is a strength in that it gives a lot of variety, explores many different aspects of Baltimore, and communicates powerfully that the game is the game no matter where you go, but it also feels in some ways like the same shit over and over again.
Pictured: the face of evil
Breaking Bad is a show about a poor, prideful chemistry teacher who has been screwed out of a lucrative job in an Albuquerque-based biotech company. He gets cancer, which is his breaking point. Faced with the near certainty of death, he decides to set things in order for his family by making as much money as he can in the time he has left, both to fund his treatments and to leave something behind for his children. With this goal in mind, he asks to go on a ride-along to a drug bust with his DEA brother-in-law. At this drug bust, he sees one of his old students escaping the police. He hooks up with this student later, asks him to help him break into the meth business, and a criminal mastermind is born. Well, not quite. He has to develop over the course of the show. From beginning to end, Walter White, the main character, is amazing at cooking meth. In an industry where most people are throwing ingredients together, boiling them, and hoping for the best, Walt applies the principles of chemistry to his “cook.” The result is that he makes the best meth that anyone has ever seen. The problem is that he has no idea how to break into the market. He depends on his old student at first, but slowly learns how to become a drug lord in his own right. The show explores the consequences of selling your soul to your own sense of pride. As Walt becomes better and better at what he does, he also becomes more and more ruthless. It is a slow and subtle transformation that takes place over the course of five seasons, but at the end of it, Walt has transformed from a nebbishy chemistry teacher to a truly terrifying figure in the underworld. Breaking Bad does an amazing job with building tension and with quickly developing the plot. More happens in episode one of this show than what most shows achieve in an entire season. With only a handful of characters that are really developed, the show focuses deeply on their emotional development, with the result that the audience feels all the feelings for these people. Also, this show has Bryan Cranston, who is arguably one of the greatest actors ever. Compared with The Wire, on which there is no truly standout acting talent and on which Method Man plays a recurring character, Breaking Bad comes out far ahead in the acting department. The best thing Breaking Bad does is the character of Walter White himself. Showrunner Vince Gilligan hands Cranston a lot of great material, and Cranston does wonders with it.
No wait, it was this one. This one was the face of evil.
The guy slowly turns into an amoral sociopath, but the audience roots for him every step of the way. Why would normal, rational people want to see such an asshole succeed? Vince Gilligan himself put forth a theory that I agree with completely: The Darth Vader theory. Why do people love Darth Vader so much? It’s not because he’s great guy, it’s because he is so terrifyingly good at his job. People like to see competency and skill, and Walt is so fucking smart it’s unbelievable. As one character says to people trying to catch him, “He’s smarter than you, he’s luckier than you.” I’ll say it again: He is so fucking smart that it is just fun to watch him get away with shit because of the ingenuity involved in it. McNulty from The Wire thinks he’s smart? He is an idiot child compared to this psychopath. Walt is an asshole, but he is conflicted. He’s a ruthless drug dealer, but also a family man. He’s arrogant and prideful, but also weak in a lot of ways. These conflicts meld and overlap to create an extremely compelling and watchable character. The only thing that possibly holds Breaking Bad back is that it pushes believability. If Walter White existed in the ultra-realistic world of The Wire, he would be arrested in the first episode. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just an area where the show compares unfavorably to The Wire.
Asking the question “Breaking Bad or The Wire?” is a lot like asking the question “Shakespeare or Tolstoy?” The feel of Breaking Bad has a lot in common with Shakespeare’s plays, and the aesthetic of The Wire calls to mind Tolstoy.
Walter White is almost as amazing as my neck ruff.
First off, what drives Breaking Bad, like what drives Shakespeare’s plays, is an extreme and profound focus on human nature, on characters and the traits that are the key to their rise and downfall. In Richard III, the titular king is extremely clever and ambitious, which serves him well until he ends up going too far and dying on the battlefield. In Hamlet, the main character’s reticence serves him well and keeps him from becoming a pawn of craftier people (cf. Laertes, whose anger at his father’s death allows Claudius to control him utterly). That is, it serves him well until it results in the deaths of basically his entire family. In Breaking Bad, Walt’s intelligence, ambition, and pride serve him extremely well. That is, until they don’t. There are similarities between the two on the believability front as well. Breaking Bad is not hyper-focused on realism, but neither is Shakespeare. Let’s look at Hamlet again: an extremely frank and subtle exploration of human nature and motivation, but in a realistic world, when Claudius sends him to be executed by the King of England, he should have died, end of story. What actually happens is that, on the way to England, Hamlet is rescued by fucking pirates. Out of nowhere, pirates accost the ship and take him away. In The Winter’s Tale, a main plot point of the story is that one character, Perdita, is actually of noble blood but was raised by a shepherd. She was raised by a shepherd because Antigonus, the man tasked with getting rid of her as a baby, is about to keep her because who leaves a little girl in the wild alone, but then, in one of the best stage directions in the history of theater, is chased off and “exit[s], pursued by bear.” In Romeo and Juliet, we are led to believe that no one, not one person can intercept Romeo and tell him “Oh no, just kidding, we’re playing a trick, she’s not actually dead.” Finally, the focus on action and entertainment unite the two. Breaking Bad is full of twists, explosions, and fast pacing. Shakespeare is full of action, intrigue, and swordfights.
Tolstoy liked to keep things realistic.
The Wire is more like Anna Karenina. There is an extreme focus on realism. For a lot of the book, Anna Karenina is just Russian dudes walking around doing shit in Russia. Like The Wire, it engages the sociopolitical issues of the day deeply and unflinchingly. It also has the same character pattern as The Wire. There are a ton of characters, nearly all of them are well-put-together and well-explained, no one is a cardboard cutout, but still, with so many it’s hard to focus very closely on just one (with the exception of Anna herself). The focus of Anna Karenina, like The Wire, is on psychological realism and the consequences of people’s actions.
So that brings us back to the question posed at the beginning of this article: Which one is better? I think more than anything that is just a poorly formed question. Both shows are so different that they are hard to compare. Both are absolutely amazing, and at this level of television, it’s hard to objectively declare one thing better than another. I personally prefer Breaking Bad to The Wire, but telling someone who prefers The Wire that they’re wrong is a really hard case to make. Some people prefer Shakespeare to Tolstoy and vice versa. Both are amazing, both are flawless artists. Much like those two authors, neither of these shows really does anything wrong, so it’s really hard to call, but ultimately, it’s not necessary to call. Just watch and enjoy your damned television.
Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently.
Image sources: AMC and HBO
Good review. Very insightful.