breaking bad

Bad Men Doing Bad Things: How Fargo’s Molly Solverson is the Anti-Walter White

allison-tolman-fargo-tv

Mike Hannemann

(Note: This article, outside of character names, contains no spoilers for the show Fargo. There’s a minor one about Dexter, but you probably weren’t going to watch that anyway.)

Before I jump into the point I want to make, I’d like to walk you through my thought process of getting there. I sat down to watch the series finale of Dexter, hoping to find some angle to discuss about jumping into a series-ending episode after not watching the three seasons prior. About halfway through, it dawned on me that the end-game scenario most fans were rooting for was for two serial killers to get out of the country. These people literally hacked their victims into bits and the audience was rooting for them to escape? Something’s wrong here.

It’s not news that television audiences are enamored with the genre “Bad Men Doing Bad Things.” We have Dexter, Mad Men, Breaking Bad…the list goes on and on. What makes these stories work is that, despite their reprehensible actions, the actors portraying the leading men bring enough to the roles where it doesn’t feel wrong to root for Don Draper as he cheats on (another) wife or to hope that Walter White becomes the drug kingpin he aspires to be. For as perfect as those shows are (I’m not including you on this list, you know what you did, Dexter) they have one glaring flaw: For the most part, the female roles are pushed aside due to the intrigue of the Bad Man Doing Bad Things.

Take Breaking Bad for example. I fully admit that it’s my favorite show of all time. However, the fan base was furious at the lead female character because she…wanted a drug dealer away from her kids? The only imperfection on this show was its fans. How could you honestly judge someone for wanting to be out of a bad situation? All of her actions were natural, ones any normal person would have, but because she was in the way of the hook of the show the fan outcry was overly negative and completely unjustified.

But…then there’s Fargo, a show very loosely tied to the movie of the same name, but it also falls into the aforementioned genre. There are some very bad men and they are doing some very bad things. It could easily be another show where the performance of the leading villain (in this case, Billy Bob Thornton’s character Malvo) is the hook. Seeing the next step of his plan, and the gruesome trail of death that lies in his wake, is gripping. It’s addictive. It isn’t why I come back to it week after week, though.

Fargo breaks the mold by finally introducing a strong female character that overcomes the appeal of the bad man doing bad things. Allison Tolman (a name I’d never heard before) plays Molly Solverson, one of the only characters thus far to be the moral compass of the show. When I watch, I don’t care what the villains are up to. I want to know more about Molly’s story. I want her to win. She’s a wonderfully written, fully realized character. She overcomes the hook of the show, the black comedy and murder, as a shining beacon of justice and morality.

I sincerely hope television writers take notice. The female role doesn’t need to be the put-upon wife or just used as a plot device to make the protagonist’s story more complicated. Molly surely does this on Fargo but it’s not done in a way to make the villains have to change their plans. Her story is the more important one. You sympathize with her more than whatever the stereotypical “cool” characters are doing (and, granted, they do some pretty interesting things in their own right). She’s a roadblock, and damn right she is.

This isn’t to say other female characters on television aren’t well written – that’s not the implication. There are amazing performances, but in the eyes of the masses they get overlooked. Don Draper is a household name (even my parents know who he is), even though I would argue that Peggy Olsen should be, too. I hope this is finally turning the corner on televised dramas. Bad men will still be doing bad things, but more empowered women will be a part of the story and not just a plot device to be overlooked by the immorality if the leading man. In comedy, the male performances often unjustly overshadow the female ones. Sitcom characters Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope were able to overcome this and change TV comedy. If people pay enough attention, I have a feeling Molly Solverson is going to do the same for drama.

Something, I may add, that is long overdue.

Image: Philly.com

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Another Look at the Endings of Lost, Breaking Bad, and The Wire

Television_set_from_the_early_1950s

Andrew Findlay

In this so far nameless segment, regular contributor Andrew Findlay takes issue with another person’s opinions. Think of it as a “letter to the editor” except it’s always from the same defiant person and the “editor” in that example writes for the same site. This one has spoilers for The Wire, Breaking Bad, Battlestar Galactica, Lost, and a previous post on Reading at Recess about TV.

Extremely popular, long-running television shows struggle with sticking the landing. It is known. It has been known ever since the ending of Lost caused about half of its die-hard fanbase to swear never to watch another episode. It has been known since people internet-complained at the less-than-ideal end to Battlestar Galactica. However, it is strange to pick as the most relevant representatives of this phenomenon two of the most critically acclaimed shows of all time, one of which was showered with accolades for achieving the impossible and having a nearly perfect final episode.

Terrible endings exist and are unfortunate. At the end of Battlestar Galactica, the survivors sent their entire fleet into the sun so they could join/create humanity and live through the Dark Ages alongside them instead of significantly lessening human misery by holding on to their tech, which seemed like a weird choice. The ending of Lost, a show built almost entirely on mystery and suspense, completely dismissed the big final mystery and betrayed a legion of fans that had spent a significant portion of their lives tuning in every week. When you promise answers for years and years, and then the answer is “Oh, just unplug the island, any IT person worth his salt will tell you the usefulness of power cycling,” it creates a vast and deep well of rage. Who created the plug? What is that glowing room? Why are you just giving your viewership more mysteries instead of actually answering anything? When you go from a level of dedication that creates the YouTube video below to undiluted hatred, you have written a terrible ending.

I teared up watching this, remembering how it felt to be a part of the viewership of this show. Not sure if I’ll ever watch an episode again.

The Wire and Breaking Bad ended really well. Season five of The Wire may have been a little weaker compared to the others, but there was no nosedive. The state of affairs at the end of the final episode were either good or emphasized the whole underlying theme of the show: The game is the game, and the game never ends. It is absolutely believable that McNulty’s arrogant ass would get himself killed, but the detective’s wake in the last episode is actually fake, and he is actually escaping from his self-destructive career path. Omar, probably the most universally liked character on the show, is murdered in a convenience store by a little kid. This happens because he is not a civilian – he is a player of the game, and the game never ends, and anything can happen. Almost no one escapes, and if they do, they are lucky.

I don’t have as much an issue with that as with the idea of Breaking Bad’s final episode being a failure. It is almost universally praised as a near-flawless ending. It is almost perfect because Walt gets exactly everything he deserves, but he also gets everything he wants. This paradox exists because Walt, after five seasons of being driven by anger and pride, finally realizes and repents all the mistakes he made. He realizes what he deserves and is only concerned with doing right by those he loves. Who does he love (who is still alive at this point)? Jesse, Skyler, and his son and daughter. What has his arrogance done to them throughout the series? His family has lost everything, been terrorized, and been forced to abandon their home. Jesse has lost the woman he loves, been completely broken psychologically, and been enslaved by an Aryan Brotherhood gang. This is some bad shit that Walt has done. The reason that Walt can get what he deserves and what he wants is that, for the first time, what he wants is not centered around himself. He finally, finally, realizes what he actually needs to do, not for his own ego, but for the people he loves.

This is one of the greatest scenes in television, period.

This growth and shift of character makes the final episode what it is. He is out for money, but only for his family after he is gone. He is out for vengeance, but mostly to rescue Jesse from the position he put him in and to punish them for what they did to Hank. After so much greed and vanity and selfishness, Walt finally realizes what he has done and what he needs to do to make it right, whether he survives or not. Walt, after years of denial and repression and blame-shifting and anger, accepts who he is and what he does, and formulates a plan. This plan is absolutely successful. He finds a way to provide for the family he destroyed by intimidating his old work colleague. He rescues Jesse by single-handedly wiping out a gang. Then, after having actually done right by the people he loves, after five seasons of only paying lip service to that sentiment, he dies. It seems to me he dies from blood loss, as he’s been leaking for quite a while at this point and is leaving blood on everything he touches, but regardless of the cause, the important thing is that he died after achieving all of his goals. Walter White achieving all of his goals and then escaping from justice yet again would be a repugnant ending, but he does not escape justice, and he is not the same Walter White. Sure, he doesn’t get arrested, but he spends most of the second half of season five dealing with the consequences of his actions. The complete ruination of his own life, the life of his family, and the life of someone who is like a son to him, is consequence enough. What the hell are the police going to be able to do that he hasn’t already done to himself? These consequences and the pain of dealing with them set a process, if not of redemption, then at least of remorse and planning. The Walt of the last 20 minutes of the show is not the Walt who is in the “empire-building business,” but a Walt willing to sacrifice himself to do right by everyone else. This profound character transformation makes it possible for us to root for Walt again, and this is the trick that makes the ending of Breaking Bad so appealing. As for Jesse, who is driving away into the night, it doesn’t really matter where he’s going. He is free from the physical enslavement of the Aryan gang and the psychological enslavement of Walt. Wherever he is headed, it cannot possibly be worse than where he was.

This cultural moment has been called, many times, the Golden Age of television. It is an edifice built on the foundations of The Sopranos and The Wire. It is the result of a shift in perception, where television writers are responsible for creating a quality product and not just creating ratings. It consists of many different shows of deep emotional impact, strong plotting, and important thematic development. The result is that we consume our acclaimed television more like we consume our acclaimed novels, voraciously and as important art. The reason people are analyzing TV shows now is not that there is some mystical relationship between TV and novels or that one is replacing the other, but that TV has gotten really, ridiculously good in the past decade, and that humans love spinning commentary on really, ridiculously good things. Sure, there are some grievous missteps here and there, but The Wire and Breaking Bad are not examples of them.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Bad Last Chapters or How Television is the New Terrible Novel

How I Met Your Mother Finale

 Stephanie Feinstein

Note: Serious spoilers for a bunch of shows, notably How I Met Your Mother, Roseanne, The Sopranos, True Detective, and Breaking Bad.

Devoting seven years to something is a serious commitment. To Hollywood, seven years of marriage is the equivalence of 25 years to mere mortals in lesser zip codes. Seven years of a vice may easily be called an addiction; seven years of school sees a full turn of your DNA. Seven years is literally the length of time one needs to become an entirely new person.

Seven years is too long to hold onto the same story, same ending, same turns. Sure, many an MFA could argue to me that grand books arose out of more than seven years of imaginings, rewrites, and edits, but I shall counter argue that those novels surely found new pathways by the end. An author grows and evolves with his or her work, expanding into the sunshine of new thought and wisdom.

I have a dear friend in the heady throes of editing her first novel for publication, and having known her for more than seven years, she has had to rewrite much as her knowledge and self expanded.

Do not dare to tell me that television writers do not suffer so.

How I Met Your Mother ran for nine seasons, I realize, but it was in its second when I began watching and when the show filmed its ending. According to Alan Sepinwall of HitFix.com, it was also the ending used in the initial sitcom pitch to CBS. It was always supposed to be Robin.

In Austin Duck’s article concerning the teleology of HIMYM, he asserts that the Robin-not-mother ending completes the circular nature of the show, a common feature of sitcom writing. While I will agree that the show, like many others, is highly dependent on circuitous routes within its plot, as viewer and fan, I disagree with the balance of the ending on several accounts. For a show so devoted to wrapping up loose ends, the final episode created more questions. Examples of the queries I have posed to myself and other fans: Who was 31? Didn’t Ted make Robin get rid of the dogs last time? What killed the mother? How long did that illness last? How often does Aunt Robin come over for dinner? So, is Lily a stay-at-home mom now? Does she still work for the Captain? Does Barney have full custody? Did he marry the mother? But I digress from Robin and Ted.

In “Last Forever: How They Conned Us All,” Sepinwall points out that the relationship of Robin and Ted devolves over the nine-season run, turning toxic and incomplete, thus forcing them together at the end leaves the viewer dissatisfied, as we have been told over and over again all the reasons the relationship will not work. I agree, and I use this as my basis for why endings in television are the new terrible novel.

I love terrible novels. Much like Jonathan May loves to hate-watch television, I truly enjoy hate-reading poorly written or executed stories. That may sound harsh, as I have yet to publish anything, much less anything excellent or terrible. But if I can’t be pretentious on a website, then why the hell do I have a degree in literature?

Bad writing can be bad for many reasons: poor editing, bad grammar, sloppy story lines, lost symbolism… the list is really endless. A terrible novel will need more than just bad writing technicalities… it needs to create holes that it cannot fill, force relationships that do not fit, and waste opportunities for symbolism and allusion. HIMYM suffers from a stubbornness to characterization in forcing its ending. The writers cursed themselves from the beginning by deciding exactly how the story would end. A novelist may not be very successful if they begin an epic novel knowing exactly how the story will end, and refusing to ever back down from the singular scenario. Unless one can throw in some seriously killer Edith Wharton twists (Oh, you want to stay Mattie to stay, Ethan? Oh, really? How badly do you want her to stay…?), the completed work will be stilted and forced. If we consider HIMYM as a novel constructed over seven years, the characters have grown in unexpected ways. Lily’s role of mother not only evolves through action, but through reaction, as she steps away from early childhood education into a role of art curator. On screen, the character evolves even further, as Alyson Hannigan has gone through more than one pregnancy in her real life, even when her character was still childless. The written relationship of Robin and Ted blossomed and died over multiple seasons, with varying stages of “this is the last time; I’m really letting go.” In the final season, final episodes, we as viewers witness Ted giving up the role of finder, of hero, of conquering knight. When faced with a vulnerable, scared bride, he is chivalrous, wise, telling her that she is already with the right man. Smiling, Ted explains that he simply must find the right woman for himself, confirming that it is not Robin. For a sitcom, this moment was bittersweet, tainting the usual “happily ever after” endings of today, but I believe that modern audiences want a storyline that can be real. The idea of Ted abandoning the obsessive thought of Robin is comforting to audiences, assuring us that new chances at happiness are possible when we open ourselves to possibility. Ted’s meeting and short relationship with Tracy was sweet, honest, and felt very real. It was also cut awkwardly short to a “And then she got sick, and that was six years ago that we lost her.” “Dad, you should date Aunt Robin!” (Okay, so that is not how the official dialogue went down, but close enough.)

So, the ending of How I Met Your Mother was stilted, forced, and a terrible novel of television. Great until the last chapter, which weirdly dragged, with a cop-out of an ending.

But I’m not done there. How I Met Your Mother is not alone in its novel terribleness. Other terrible novels of television include Roseanne and the “it’s all a damn dream” ending, The Sopranos meets Tristram Shandy‘s inked out page of an ending, and The Wire.

Shut up, all of you. I loved The Wire, and I will argue all damn day that it is far more Shakespearean than Breaking Bad could ever hope to be. Tragic McNulty, the Benvolio-esque Bunk, the shut-the-hell-up-this-is-new-literature showdown between Omar and Brother Mouzone (Michael K. Williams and Michael Potts, respectively)… I love that shit. But the final act of that beautiful play fell flat for me, and left a depressingly Irish-whiskey flavored tang in my throat.

And Breaking Bad! I watched the full run up to the final season in a single summer, with the final season happening in real time. And, I found it less than lackluster. Perhaps it was weak characters, perhaps it was a whole handful of misogynistic men and weak women. But most of all, I really despised the ending. Our final scene of Walter, stripped of his glory as he stumbles among his scientific vats, now worth nothing, tapping the dial fronts of the equipment. Then he falls, a blood stain left across the shiny aluminum surface. Blood loss? Chemical Poisoning? The cancer finally doing him in? We have no idea. (Note: There are not words to express how much I wanted a massive meth explosion in those final moments. I am from the South, and everyone knows moonshine stills and meth labs eventually explode). But instead, we get the soft wailing of an inept police department, with Walter already too far gone to atone for his sins. And what the hell with Jesse just driving into the sunset, just in time to star in Need For Speed? Terrible. The novel equivalent of “To Be Continued” with absolutely no plans for a sequel. Do I have greater hopes for Better Call Saul? Not really. Will I watch it? Of course… that’s irrelevant.

Now, my next television novel that has failed me is really less novel and more first short story in a series. Why are anthologies the new rage? Are we bored with following evolving characters over a span of years, aging and acquiring wisdom with them? Are actors just not willing to commit the time and energy into evolving these characters? I don’t know, but, oh, how I wish I did.

True Detective season one filled a void in my cultural soul that I did not realize was empty. Well, the first seven-and-a-half episodes (There are only eight total.). Being a Southern lady, I devoured the swampy nature, the Louisiana drawls and old-French tones. In college, I randomly attended a lecture series about rural Louisiana Mardi Gras and Easter traditions, strange rituals with masks and pagan origins. I went to find new inspiration for poetry, but the images of those presentations have stuck with me for years. True Detective‘s use of the arcanely ritualistic culture of the backwoods bayou delighted me, and I waited for deep significance of these images to emerge within the show.

Michael Hughes published a great article on io9.com shortly after the first few episodes aired, illuminating a new set of allusions form the writers. In “The One Literary Reference You Must Know to Appreciate True Detective, Hughes cites Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow, a selection of short stories published in the late Victorian era, as being quoted by central characters within the episodes, if not contributing to the larger story. I quickly acquired the text from Gutenberg Press and I devoured the stories, exclaiming every few pages as a new revelation or theory was uncovered to me. (Mask of deception! Women in stone! Repairer of reputations!) I watched the rest of the season waiting for Carcosa to come to light, a Yellow King to be crowned, the wave of insanity to mask us all in truth.

The final episode of True Detective season one was thrilling but flat. A “to be continued” vibe was given, but next season has already been announced to have a new cast, location, and story line. We will no longer be traipsing the back bayous in search of pederasts and twig sculptures. I will not be able to find out: How those scars happened? Who else was involved? How did the old black maid know about Carcosa? Why the spiral? Why did Hart’s daughters have a sexual violence storyline but not? Why did the killer have a British accent for only, like, ¼ of his scenes? Why was his dad tied up? I may never know.

I hope we will never reach a point as society where television sitcoms and dramas replace great literature. In fact, I think the two can greatly benefit from one another. What if we, as intelligent minds of the internet, band together to rewrite television history? FAN FICTION. Granted, fan fiction has been around as long as fans have found disappointment with story lines. But I am calling for a new age of fan-fueled fiction, where the endings are reinvented to be stronger, more beautiful.

You see, my aforementioned novelist friend had a terrible quandary after the How I Met Your Mother finale aired. Her sister, a devoted fan, had missed the initial airing, but my novelist friend was fretting over hoer own disappointment. “I want her to see it, but not the last five minutes,” she lamented. “I want her to turn off the television with five minutes remaining, and then read a chapter I’ve written instead.”

She ultimately did not, letting the writers of the show have their ending.

BUT WHAT IF…

…fan fiction reached a new level. What if those of us with the degrees, sources, and talent band together to override what society has deemed as “appropriate endings?” Because I am dissatisfied with television, even when it leads me on for so very long.

When True Detective fell short of my literary expectations, I sought out fans. Now, I don’t know if I am just unable to locate the hidden fan fiction files of the internet, or if there just isn’t anything out there, but the results were very limited. Yet, the theories presented through the five stories I found were intriguing, provocative, and creative. Still not what I wanted as the ending, but it gave me something.

So, a call to all those who fan fictionalize their television serials, write me new endings! Breaking Bad, The Wire, Roseanne, True Detective, How I Met Your Mother… send it all to me! I will read each personally, and with any luck, the best to my mind will be presented on this site.

You can reach Stephanie Feinstein at stephanie.feinstein@gmail.com.

Image: New York Times

Breaking Bad or The Wire: Why Pick When You Can Argue Forever?

Andrew Findlay

I.

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.

II.

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.

III.

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.

IV.

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.

V.

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

The Walking Dead Has Become a Show About Nothing

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Alex Russell

The Walking Dead is pulling in 12-15 million viewers a week consistently. For perspective, that’s roughly seven times more than most episodes in the last season of Breaking Bad. The last 21 in a row all had more viewers than the finale of Breaking Bad. I use that show because it’s on the same network and because the difference should be shocking. Breaking Bad was certainly a niche experience that blew up into the one thing everyone you knew talked about, but the finale was appointment television. It is very likely going to be remembered as “the show” of this generation of television.

I say again: more people are watching The Walking Dead, on the same channel, in the slow season than the most-anticipated episode of the most exciting show of this generation.

The Walking Dead isn’t a bad show. It’s a pretty exciting show, for starters. If you’re not one of the tens of millions tuning it, it’s a show about zombies attacking people who survived the end of the world. Scattered groups of survivors interact with zombies and learn the eternal lesson that even after a more obvious threat emerges, the ultimate villain is always man.

It’s tough to label it innovative, because that paragraph both A. made your eyes glaze over and B. describes the entire world of The Walking Dead. If you want zombie television, you’ve found it. It looks like all the other zombie stuff you’ve ever seen: dark, brooding, lonely, and violent. Sometimes the groups meet other dangerous groups. Sometimes they make tentative friends. Sometimes they attempt to live a normal life. It’s all of the challenges of the end of days mixed in with the challenges of every day. Cool. Check. Got it.

But the most common complaint lobbed at a drama that’s nearly 50 episodes deep holds especially true for The Walking Dead: nothing happens.

It feels ridiculous to say that about a show that features people losing limbs and family members by the month, but the show has a habit of bogging down. A new group will show up, we’ll meet everyone, some people will get character (and some won’t), some people will die for a reason (and some won’t), and we’ll rinse and repeat with a new batch. The setting changes a little bit and poor Andrew Lincoln has to teach a whole new group of people the true meaning of friendship.

The show was loosely following the plot and characters from the graphic novels of the same name, but now it’s on its own. Sure, people want to see people with big swords and big guns blow up clearly-evil zombies, but you need a hook. You need to care, or you’re just making pulp. Is there any reason to care?

Seinfeld has famously been called a show about “nothing.” The point was that it was to show how people really interacted when they were at their worst, because Larry David thought everyone was most honest at their worst. The Walking Dead would buy that line of thought, but it also seems to buy the idea behind the classic comedy, as well.

The most recent episodes of the show have seen the cast divided up after a terminal event at the mid-season point. Everyone is split, which is fine, but everyone is also battling their own hopelessness in a dead world. If it sounds like that’s an easy way to slip into darkness, well, yeah. This show’s closet is always full of a lot of blacks and grays, but right now we’re in an even darker place than normal.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It helps to reset the expectations: Civilization, as we know it, is over. It’s been enough time since the zombie outbreak that everyone knows help is never coming. Everyone’s seen death and loss in droves. It’s definitely time for a glass-half-full outlook. The darkness isn’t what stagnates The Walking Dead, though. It’s literal non-movement.

For two solid hours two characters hole up in a house and wander around the enclosed space. There are elements of people that are revealed and we, as an audience, see our humanity through their choices… kinda. For the most part people just wander around the same dirty, dead spaces and don’t do anything. It’s supposed to remind us that there’s nowhere to go and there’s no hope, but at a certain point that starts to feel like, well, nothing.

Seinfeld was funny because the cast was a reflection of our true selves. The Walking Dead succeeds when it shows us that we are all at a loss in a tough situation. I’d never tell you that Seinfeld missed a step, but the whole idea was to go out on top. The Walking Dead seems to have made every point about humanity that it has to make. It’ll keep demolishing in the ratings because it is entertaining and well-made visually, but the story is about nothing now, and that’s certainly not intentional.

 

 

Image source; NY Daily News

Tough Questions: What Do you Keep Recommending that No One Will Believe is Good?

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Every Monday we ask everyone who hangs out around here to answer a tough question. This week:

What Do You Keep Recommending that No One Will Believe is Good?

Rules are simple: what do you find yourself telling every person you come across to check out that no one will listen to you about? What would totally be someone’s favorite show/book/movie/Chinese food menu item that’s being overlooked?

Mike Hannemann

The thing I love that I find myself never able to convince anyone is good is the tacos at Burger King. I normally hate the guy that goes to a Mexican restaurant and orders a burger but these are LEGIT. They cost $1.19 for two and yet no one takes the chance despite my urging. They’re fried, filled with a meat-like substance, a half piece of Kraft american cheese, and a slice of lettuce, all topped with a weird taco sauce. I can’t explain why they’re amazing. I can’t explain how an airplane flies, either. I just know two things: a plane can fly and these tacos are good.

Alex Marino

I swear if you’re still using that shitty shower head that was there when you moved in you need to get rid of that shit right now. Get on Amazon and order yourself one of these. Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, it’s completely worth it. You’ve probably spent $100 on some shitty sweater you wear once every few weeks. Why not spend that on something you do every day? Instead of a shower just being that thing you do before you go to work, you actually enjoy it. You’re fucking WELCOME.

Alex Russell

The funniest thing you don’t listen to is My Brother, My Brother and Me. It’s a podcast on the Maximum Fun podcast network that’s hosted by three brothers. They answer questions from Yahoo! Answers and from people who email them their pressing questions. Want to know what to do if you think you’re in love with a goose? Need to learn to box but refuse to learn how to block? Unsure if shoplifting is really illegal? You need to listen to the brothers. I’ve suggested this to every single person I’ve met that likes comedy in the last two years. “You need to listen to this podcast” is tantamount to asking someone for both of their kidneys, but seriously check out the sampler

Austin Duck

Poetry.

Andrew Findlay

I have been asking my coworkers to watch Breaking Bad for a year and a half. To my knowledge, only one has taken me up on the offer. This is frustrating. The worst part is that a guy I work closely with kept recommending The Wire to me, and I kept recommending Breaking Bad to him. We would have arguments over which was better without us having seen an episode of the show we were putting in second place. I have since watched all 60 episodes of The Wire, and he has not watched the pilot of Breaking Bad. I’m sure everyone believes it’s good, but a disheartening number of people don’t believe it’s good enough to actually sit down and watch.

Brent Hopkins

The thing that I always recommend to other people that no one seems to think is good is a series called The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson. This is a fantasy series that keeps you engaged from start to finish and has enough twists and turns to keep you in the dark until the final few pages. There is plenty of action, romance, and mystery in these books and it was one of the best things I read over the last year. I am not necessarily huge into fantasy but I found myself reading until I passed out with my Nook on my chest. I have quite a few friends I think would love it when they started it but they always come up with other things they need to do. READ THIS SERIES, SERIOUSLY!

Jonathan May

Two words: Big Love. That Bill Paxton love-bonanza had its crazy ups and downs. Even Chloë Sevigny described the fourth season (of five) as a telenovela. But fuck if I didn’t cry consistently during the last episode. This show, as Stefon from Saturday Night Live would say, has everything: polygamy, Jeanne Tripplehorn, home goods superstores, Memphian Ginnifer Goodwin, Indian casinos, conversations with God, running for State office, and polygamy (you have to say it at least twice). But no one, besides me and my friend Kyle, seems to have given this gem the time of day. It’s only five seasons, people. I get that polygamy and Mormonism are “sensitive” topics, but the character arcs you experience are incredible. I was blown away by how the women ended up. Utterly blown away. So watch it.