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Death and HBO’s “Six Feet Under”

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Jonathan May

Please stop reading if you haven’t watched the show in its entirety.

Say this to yourself: “I’m going to die. So is everyone I love and hate.” Now—stop, breathe, and keep watching. This is the main way I was able to make it through all five seasons of one of the finest series I’ve watched. A show built around cycles of life and death shouldn’t work as well as this one did; I became one with the Fishers and their struggles. I felt bored with Brenda’s inability to change and tired of Nate’s commitment to all the wrong virtues in his attempt to face mortality. I rejoiced with Ruth as she was able to finally find a sense of happiness in herself. I ugly-cried during the last five minutes of the last episode, as the remaining (and honorary) Fishers passed through the veil one by one in quick succession just as Claire was starting on her journey. Honestly if you don’t cry, you’re probably a monster. The fact that we “see” the end through Claire gives beautiful irony to her rheumy eyes as she lies dying, as if we’re experiencing the emotions somehow through both ends, filled with possibility and the fulfillment of that possibility.

It’s funny how the deaths, which precede each episode, become almost anticipatory, but when one of the Fishers or their circle dies, suddenly we’re back at step one, grieving all over again, as they do. The show really builds off its premise in a metanarrative way, imbuing the whole thing with a keen sense of “flow, segmentation, development, and change” (all the qualities of fine abstraction, as Kirk Varnedoe wrote so deftly). When you stand back and examine the show in its entirety, the ending becomes inevitable. We must all reconcile with the reality of our own deaths, but the show succeeds in being more than a constant harbinger of mortality; it spills over with the full and complex lives of the Fishers. Their fights, their drugs, their sex, their dinners, their work, their inner thoughts, their dreams. We are faced with life in all its swift and capricious glory. The show is so infused with life that death seems merely a way of passing into the sequence of history and the hearts of those who remain and love your memory. So, while the show is definitely worth watching (and rewatching), it should stand as an even more important reminder to live fully in your own moments.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com

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Postmodern Rapture – The Leftovers Episode Eight – Cairo

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Colton Royle

Every week Colton Royle discusses the newest episode of HBO’s new show about a new kind of rapture, The Leftovers. You can also read our review of the book the show is based on.

I want you to understand: spoilers.

Where do I start?

So if irony is the case where the viewer knows more than the characters, what is the opposite of that called? I’ll start there, because if once was bad enough, Kevin’s lapse of memory is awfully convenient for set pieces. But hey, the guardian angel character knows what happened right? Just in case the viewer is confused?

It’s like that moment when Jill and Aimee argue over whether Aimee had sex with Jill’s dad, and a whole bunch of sarcasm is used, and you still end up not knowing whether it actually happened. Even the twins afterward have a hard time proving or disproving it.

So here’s the problem: just because you use gaps in memory and divine coincidence and sarcasm to fill the cracks of plot with glue does not mean that anything is intact.

How about Liv Tyler? That opening shot with her beating the living tar out of Matt Jamison and her cussing the living daylights out of our ears was probably the nicest part of the episode. That was after the toneless introduction of Kevin and Patti arranging a table and room respectively. Great directorial transitions between the two, excellent lighting, beautiful music, and nothing to show for it. Sure you could claim some kind of parallels, but in hindsight it seems to be some bookend to her death in Kevin’s arms.

Yes, I’m aware also of the parallels between the knife in both Jill’s and Kevin’s hands, but I just care so little. It’s episode eight and Jill is still playing detective. I could say that Jill began the classic adulthood stage of paranoia, in which we all fit the massive amounts of information from Wikipedia into little stories we call our lives. I could say that, whether through divine assistance, or through radical will, Patti was not going to leave that cabin. I could say that perhaps Aimee has some serious family issues like Nora, considering we haven’t seen any of her family and we haven’t seen her leave Kevin and Jill’s house, and she got all shaky and hurt whenever Jill pushed her about “moving on.” But I’m not, because I am tired.

I definitely think this show is for somebody, like that somebody who watched Synecdoche, New York five times in a row and drooled on a clipboard. At least in this episode there were some interesting visual displays: zooming in on both Jill and Kevin’s faces, for example. But I am way too tired of being tugged around by plot. The plot is heavy and the characters are light and they all bow down to the mighty conflict. It’s like that aggressive coworker that explains their whole predicament only to push you verbally to say, “Okay, I’ll help you.”

I think The Leftovers is trying to create an overarching and powerful plot, while at the same time building the story on sand in order to prove that plots are futile, and I think they failed. It’s not like they didn’t work their asses off, it’s just that they didn’t commit to either. You’ve got Nora’s run-in with Wayne, Tommy’s highway stop with the bodies in which the view is “just like his dream.” Kevin’s father is telling him that his “services are needed.”

Yet Gladys gets murdered and we’re told that Patti and the gang killed her. And you realize that any dramatic emotion you had over Gladys was kind of bullshit, and you wonder why you bothered picking up the show in the first place. Or maybe that was their whole point?

Colton Royle is a reader of mostly American fiction and non-fiction. He is currently teaching in Fort Worth, Texas.

Postmodern Rapture – The Leftovers Episode Seven – Solace for Tired Feet

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Colton Royle

Every week Colton Royle discusses the newest episode of HBO’s new show about a new kind of rapture, The Leftovers. You can also read our review of the book the show is based on.

Spoilers for Tired Feet

This show is constantly going to push you to wonder if it is worth your time. I don’t mean that in some grocery store aisle kind of way where you have some leftover (haha) cash and you can’t decide between Snickers and 3 Musketeers. What I mean is that the show in and of itself (yeah, I’m using that well-worn phrase) relies on you to provide its interpretation. Let me explain.

It’s not like we weren’t aware of how much the show brings up classic examples of religion only to shoot it down. Matt Jamison’s explanation getting trampled on by Kevin is just another example, but now they seem to trample on their own created religions. Wayne’s Asian franchises brings up the awkward chain of people in history that have claimed to be related to divinity, yet just like the factory scene from a couple episodes back, the one where they put together babies only to have one used as the baby Jesus, all of it is produced in assembly line ways. Wayne’s total awareness and Tom Garvey’s lack of awareness has us all awash with religious insecurity and bullet holes next to our twiddling thumbs.

Great metaphors and symbols for our modern times, right? Except that The Leftovers as a show has been created with little subtlety or regard for tone. Take the first scene in which we hear the all-male chorus chime in during the Guilty Remnant protest while Kevin gives up and turns away from pursuing his father. The easy question to ask is, “How did his father even escape?” but the real question is, “What is the purpose of the music and slowed footage?” The final shot of the three main women in the cult looking at Kevin had me baffled with what I was supposed to take away from that moment. Are we sad that he lost his father? Are we confident that Kevin is crazy and these ladies know it? Is all of it futile? The show never reveals its cards, expects you to play, but doesn’t even bother to explain the rules.

But hey, Nora and Kevin DID IT and boy was that great.

But let’s start to wrap this series up: this show is bad. Christine’s solo water birth notwithstanding, it’s going to take some incredible work to bring all of this back together. Who exactly is receiving the “solace” and who has the “tired feet?” Is it okay to realize only now the extent of Kevin’s medicinal addictions? Is it okay to show Jill a note that we don’t get to see, and then use it as dramatic collateral for a moment with a 1972 issue of National Geographic?

We’re all working too hard. Let’s use something simple. Liv Tyler comes in all hot and bothered by Nora and Kevin’s sexcapade, and she’s writing to Laurie that the dirty deed is being done, and Laurie writes back, “so?” And that is like EXACTLY how I feel. If the wife (ex-wife) doesn’t care, I sure as hell will not care. And she’s known him for years, and I’ve known him for like, what, seven weeks?

And all the while the show is encouraging you to build thematic structures of your own, and yea that’s a cool concept for middle school kids playing Minecraft, but it isn’t very inspiring here.

Colton Royle is a reader of mostly American fiction and non-fiction. He is currently teaching in Fort Worth, Texas.

Postmodern Rapture – The Leftovers Episode Six – Guest

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Colton Royle

Every week Colton Royle discusses the newest episode of HBO’s new show about a new kind of rapture, The Leftovers. You can also read our review of the book the show is based on.

Spoilers and such.

We get to see another possibly religious event collide with a secular result in this episode of The Leftovers, an episode with Nora kissing dead doppelgangers and stopping conspiracy theorists from taking her name and Wayne sucking the grief out of her AND Nora wanting to be shot in the chest with a gun while wearing a bulletproof vest AND seeing Kevin at the exact same time in court for the exact same reason, a divorce, AND featuring a question on the departed insurance form that gets a 100% response of “yes” until she is cured by Wayne.

All this roundabout summary is to say that The Leftovers is using a pretty big hammer all the time. Would Nora really kiss a constructed cadaver? Oh, she’s on a drug that’s “going to be FDA approved by October.” Many of the characters’ actions, like Jill’s Nerf fire arrow event and Kevin’s dog shooting, seem to be based on the words, “F#$% it.” If you were to really ask me to find the difference between Jill and Kevin, I would say apathy vs. depression. If you were to really ask me to find the difference between Nora and Kevin, I couldn’t tell you. Yet they create shamwow moments and claim it is character, and that’s textbook hitting the carnival hammer really hard. Kevin yells at dry cleaners. Jill steals Jesus. Preacher beats stealer. If The Leftovers wanted to satirize conventional plot, they can’t have this many signature moments and claim it is still coincidence. At some point, we know it’s a show, fellas.

And this review ends up being even more incoherent than the show. Remember when Nora held a dead grenade in her hands? Remember what was written on it? I sure as hell don’t. The sense of value when it comes to scenes is so frayed (what is more relevant, Wayne’s “I don’t give a shit comment,” or her healing Nora?). If it all matters it becomes paranoia. If none of it matters it’s irrelevant. “So, hey man, what’s your story?”

If it is a show attempting to explain modern living in this way, I think it’s going to ultimately fail. You can’t pull the rug out from somebody who wasn’t standing on it to begin with. And if you split the fan base into categories, are you really achieving anything different from Lost? I’m not looking for answers here, I mean I named my series Postmodern Rapture because I’m that guy. But what about questions? “If they get you to ask the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.”

And oh my God Nora and Kevin, just do it already. Put a couple intense scenes around their moments and it feels like Kevin should be pulling Nora’s hair in a game of tag at recess. Kevin says, “I’m a mess” and we’re all nodding our heads, but all for different reasons. I thought of “a hot mess express,” in case you were wondering.

But like, woah man, Wayne “heals” Nora into buying the right groceries, and she replaces the paper towels. It’s a great image, the towel stuff, but it kind of gets lost in the gray. Small tool-like style choices get marred by some “major” plot developments. Nora was compelling when she tipped the coffee cup and broke it because at least it was a small detail that had much larger ramifications, not to mention mystery. Here we have some pretty incredible events (spiritual healing, identity theft, WANTING TO GET SHOT IN THE CHEST WITH LOUD MUSIC ON) that are yes, mysterious, but ultimately boring.

You want to see fun suburban mayhem? Give it a shot.

Colton Royle is a reader of mostly American fiction and non-fiction. He is currently teaching in Fort Worth, Texas.

Postmodern Rapture – The Leftovers Episode Five – Gladys

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Colton Royle

Every week Colton Royle discusses the newest episode of HBO’s new show about a new kind of rapture, The Leftovers. You can also read our review of the book the show is based on.

Spoilers on this ride.

Alright, so another episode that starts violently and leaves the rest of our time this week in a slow grind. Gladys’s stoning could be viewed in religious terms with Matt Jamison’s of the Jesus and Thomas conversation. And there is some interesting play between fire, burning, Gladys’s cremation, and the conversation between Laurie and the Guilty Remnant leader over burning in reference to doubt. It’s more ambiguity, and that could be cool, someday.

But is anyone really surprised at the character shifts in this episode? Laurie doubles down in the cult, right after doubting everything, and this after divorce papers are presented. Matt tries harder to invade people’s lives. Liv Tyler decides to join, for real. And Kevin cries into a pillow after yet another existential night episode. It’s not like we weren’t prepared for this.

What we really weren’t prepared for was an offer for Kevin told over the phone to remove the Guilty Remnant from the face of the Earth. Kevin doesn’t talk much, but we can barely hear the other line. A show cannot have both sides of the call with neither making sense, and it played like a bad take. Don’t try good storytelling by making key information obscure.

Kind of like having someone writing, “Neill” on a “doggy bag” and placing it in front of a house without any foreshadowing or directorial stunt pilot maneuvers. I supposed we’re meant to wait until the big reveal episode some time later when we go, “Wow, I had no idea that was Neill,” but just leaving fragments of a story like batons to be picked up later is not a good way to write. In fact, whether it involves way-too-quick flashes in a psychologist session with Kevin, horrifically slow panic attacks with Laurie,  fire nerf gun peer pressures with Jill, or paper bags, most directorial moves on The Leftovers feels intense without earning it. People say things like that all the time, but I mean it: it’s literally impossible to feel their sadness. The people are gone, and it’s been three years.

Okay, so, real quick, more parallels to lack of family ties. Nora and Matt are obviously not having it. Kevin and Laurie getting a divorce, Liv Tyler belongs to no one, Jill will not hug her father while he is in post-drinking sad times. Gladys had no family to mourn for her violent death. Tommy’s phone got broke… I GET IT.

One thing I do enjoy is the occasional dark humor. Last time it was the twins’ funny Jesus drop off, while the alarm this time going off right when he got the phone call for the agent in Washington was a nice touch.

Maybe I’m missing the point, But when I see a sneak peek of the next episode and it involves Nora holding an armed grenade in public, I feel as though someone else missed it.

Colton Royle is a reader of mostly American fiction and non-fiction. He is currently teaching in Fort Worth, Texas.

Postmodern Rapture – The Leftovers Episode Four – B.J. and the A.C.

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Colton Royle

Every week Colton Royle discusses the newest episode of HBO’s new show about a new kind of rapture, The Leftovers. You can also read our review of the book the show is based on.

Many spoilers ahead.

One of the valid questions to ask The Leftovers is, “Will the show’s symbolism and larger themes be applicable beyond itself?” Will the show keep its Lost style of supernatural answers close? Or will it turn into something new?

The manufactured 20 inch baby introduction to the disappearance of the baby Jesus in the nativity scene is an incredible and haunting display of the attempts to continue games of standard Mapleton living. From Jill’s remark to her father about replacing Jesus as “cheating,” to the Guilty Remnant cult leader writing “There is no family,” to Tommy talking at his phone at the bus stop begging for a reason to protect Christine for Wayne, establishes a key point that just because characters decide to hold it together, it doesn’t mean things will turn out sane. Laurie wants a divorce. Kevin’s recovery of Jesus was blocked by Matt’s replacement. Tommy receives an automated message. “What is the right answer to that question?” Kevin asks Nora in the school hallway. Answers are only shortcuts to more questions.

However, there are some serious supernatural points that are beginning to cause throwaway lines like, “Just like in your dream” that ruin such indelible images like the manufactured cadavers on the road. What is also a parallel to the manufactured babies is also right here in manufactured people. I mean, that’s a good enough metaphor, just stick with it. The naked fight scene that ends with “I know what’s inside you,” is laughable. It’s hard to believe it’s happening in general, much less with a man naked only from the waist down.

Some things are relatively certain, or we hope to be certain: Nora and Kevin will have sex, and it’s going to be cynical and great.

But there is an overarching symphony that suggests a conductor, so to speak, and it’s happening too soon. Or is it? Is it okay to have a show throw both beginning narratives of characters and divine underpinnings simultaneously?

Take Jill for example: while she is trying to avoid every choice of the sacred and the profane in cult joining or God or shooting Jesus with a nerf gun on fire, she is untouched narratively, and has little character beyond a simple dry teenager who is aggressive with her elbows on the field. But because of Tommy’s burden he becomes a Lancelot upholding his vow to Wayne and Christine, and in a sense he has accepted being damned. Is it okay for the divine to supplement characters?

While I say all this, The Leftovers does an excellent job of displaying memories as gray and muddled things. We assume that Tommy was Kevin’s only to realize Laurie had another relationship before. Doug really did cheat on Nora. Kevin cheated on his wife. Between Matt’s paper and the Guilty Remnant’s theft of photographs, they are hammering down that history is a fool’s errand.

Maybe The Leftovers is striving to measure the limits of what it means to be human, and as characters discover each other they come to understand that those limits are felt now more than ever. From Garvey’s family to the manger, being human is beyond broken.

Colton Royle is a reader of mostly American fiction and non-fiction. He is currently teaching in Fort Worth, Texas.

Image: Mashable

Postmodern Rapture – The Leftovers Episode Three – Two Boats and a Helicopter

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Colton Royle

Every week Colton Royle discusses the newest episode of HBO’s new show about a new kind of rapture, The Leftovers. You can also read our review of the book the show is based on.

Many spoilers ahead.

The Leftovers stares religion in the face with the new episode focusing entirely on Matt Jamison, Mapleton’s minister, as he pushes the line between madness and divine power that arises as a theme once again. Where the previous two episodes have felt frayed at the edges and had us viewers grabbing for a metaphorical bucket dropping into a well, here was an episode that felt tight, feverish, and much more indicative thematically.

Matt Jamison preaching to a near empty church was an interesting and unexpected turn when you consider how much emphasis is placed on the rapture in Christian doctrine, and this brings up a theme of the episode which to me was ambiguity in suffering. I mean here is a guy who lost his congregation and now he’s gonna lose his church, and he can’t get the money from his sister and he eventually does get the money but he almost gets mugged and THEN he gets hit with a rock and misses the deadline and his wife is…I mean WTF, I don’t even know if I have a heart left after all these emotional stab wounds straight to it.

Three arrivals of the pigeons in key locations and colors for a massive gambling success only to have him miss the deadline to buy his church back by three days establishes the point Nora (his sister!?) makes that even with all the “good news,” or even divine help, does it make the situation of life, life in the modern world, any better? To me, The Leftovers is starting to make some massive questions very concrete in this episode, and even the varied tones in which they depicted Matt, from beautiful and serene during the baptism scene, to his eventual nightmare in the hospital and his jagged anger in chiaroscuro lighting, leads us to question each of these characters in multiple settings. It’s not simply binary; it’s not just this and that, but rather a polyphony of reactions.

All this I say, yet when the Guilty Remnants buy Matt’s church, it builds a rage in Jamison that is building all through Mapleton that is very much an “us and them” story. Will it turn violent for the cult? Tethered to all this melancholy and hysteria is this building desire from the citizens for all of post-departed life to mean something more, and with that comes “responsibility” and “retribution” and “redemption” and a bunch of other five dollar words to say that these people want it to matter. So while The Leftovers builds ambiguity and uncertainty, it also meddles with characters who are trying to push against it. Case in point, when asked “what denomination?” in reference to casino chips and Matt (the minister) replies, “does it matter?” we start nodding and going, “okay now I get it.”

This is interesting. It’s interesting to me because at the heart of it is storytelling in general and what television takes for granted in particular and the friction between plot development and real life coming to a head could lead to some super interesting and way too academic analyses (see previous 507 words).

But really this episode was gripping and really hurt and had some more reveals (“Roy, you deserve this” –K.G.) that will make you butt-bump up and down on the couch and clap. You want to see other people (not just us) try and make sense of life in erratic and strange ways? Follow follow follow follow…

Colton Royle is a reader of mostly American fiction and non-fiction. He is currently teaching in Fort Worth, Texas.

Postmodern Rapture – The Leftovers Episode Two – Penguin One, Us Zero

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Colton Royle

Every Tuesday Colton Royle discusses the newest episode of HBO’s new show about a new kind of rapture, The Leftovers. Since two episodes have already aired, we covered episode one on Friday and here is episode two. You can also read our review of the book the show is based on.

To repeat, massive spoilers ahead.

I cannot believe I’m saying this: there are too many guns. Already in episode two a SWAT team is getting sent into Wayne’s establishment to rob so many Asian girls it’s comical. This action that happens way too soon gets multiplied by Tom “saving” Christine by killing with a gunshot to the neck. Yes, I’m enjoying the parallels to his father, Kevin’s, shooting of the dogs last episode, and yes, we’re debating whether the identities created so far are because of the massive departed, or whether the personality was something there all along, but it’s too much too fast. The violence left the rest of the episode in a fog.

More questions of identity: Kevin Garvey’s mental disturbances mimic the continued parallel to the supernatural plot developments of Stephen King’s The Stand and Under the Dome, and we’re unaware if it is truly madness or divine intervention, which is so 15th Century. It has that Lost feel to it that makes me want to bite down on live electrical wire.

The quick edits to the dog shooting during the therapy session were too quick and not subtle and loud and just…etc.

Kevin’s “Investigation of the Missing Bagels,” felt like a Blue’s Clues episode, but this combined with questioning the shooter’s existence to his father’s schizophrenia was layered extremely well, and featured that adult paranoia that seems to be building in Mapleton.

Yet Jill observing Nora purposely break the coffee mug to get out of paying for her breakfast was easily the most engaging moment in the episode. Is she using her tragic story for profit? Is she simply playing around with suburban niceties? This coincides with her role in “departed insurance” which is literally profit made on the disappearance three years ago.

Jill is at a crossroads, and is the last Garvey to commit to any kind of altered behavior post-disappearance. Playing detective with both the dead dog last episode and Nora this episode has her seeing all the avenues. Again: so much identity.

Meg Abbott swinging an axe is one of those odd totally-a-cult procedures that gets remarked on by Laurie Garvey as “not a cult,” and this is a problem. It’s a problem when handwriting is with blue ink on little white notepads that make us feel like we’re teaching the sixth grade because we’re squinting at the screen. It’s a problem when dialogue moves fast and handwriting and reading don’t. There are some major complexities with the Guilty Remnants that are going to be missed or incorrectly assumed or told without elegance.

Tom’s repeated yelling from underwater last episode to above water this episode was an excellent progression of the suffering that Wayne says he wants, “without salvation,” and perhaps Tom assumes in some way that he is already damned.

Will Kevin uncover the truth about his supposedly “sent” friend? Will Jill and Aimee steal more stale gummy bears? Is Christine really everything? Will Liv Tyler build a log cabin? We’ll let Wayne decide.

Colton Royle is a reader of mostly American fiction and non-fiction. He is currently teaching in Fort Worth, Texas.

Image: The Daily Mail

Postmodern Rapture – The Leftovers Series Premiere

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Every Tuesday Colton Royle discusses the newest episode of HBO’s new show about a new kind of rapture, The Leftovers. Since two episodes have already aired, episode one is covered today, episode two will be covered on Monday, and we’ll be caught up by Tuesday. You can also read our review of the book the show is based on.

Colton Royle

We all remember the 1990s and Kirk Cameron, but it’s a new decade, and The Leftovers, an HBO series based on the novel of the same name by Tom Perotta, hopes to avoid any religious dogma while presenting moral aspirations of its very own. The story mostly follows the Garvey family in the suburban and affluent Mapleton, and it has been three years after a rapture-like disappearance of two percent of the world population by unknown causes. “Gary fuckin’ Busey,” a bartender says before turning the volume down, an almost overused reminder in the first episode that there was no motivation or criteria. Mapleton remembers October 14 as “Hero’s Day” and holds a parade to honor the ones that have gone. It is a world of letters with no signatures, and little to no hope of anything near redemption.

The following contains spoilers.

And yet, even with Kevin Garney, police officer and existential night runner, as he punches a photograph of his wife on the wall, even with the students burying a dog and lamenting, “I’m sorry you had to go through this,” and the stale parallels in that, the story is already heading towards some Stephen King style good vs. evil conflict a la The Stand and Under the Dome. Not one but three cults have emerged from the mess of disappearances, each with their own reasoning for the event. The Garney family itself is as fractured as the town, with the father coping with his own wife, in a twist, not as one of those vanished, but a member of the silent-and-chain-smoking-and-traveling-in-pairs Guilty Remnants. Kevin’s son Tom attempts a relationship with a young Asian woman who is under the watchful eye of Wayne, a leader for the second cult, as he holds his eyes open just a little too wide and intimidates with knife moves. And the daughter, who floats in anti-paranoia for as long as possible, gets high on-campus and elbows girls in field hockey.

I myself am stumped by my reactions: do I want a supernatural show to commit to a linear progression of understanding? Because I seem also to enjoy, only slightly, the sheer noise of responses, the entropy of anger. Even the parallel structure with Kevin Garney and his run-in with the dog killer, from hatred for killing animals, to his changeover to shooting the dogs with a gun of his own, the symbolism oversaturated, at least was somewhat intriguing. They showed a lot and told a little, which is a good start, but it will face difficulties in tone and therefore audience if it is continued. “They’re not our dogs anymore,” the hunter says, and while that is true for the town of Mapleton, so far, it is also a question in the air for the entire show. Who will The Leftovers belong to?

Colton Royle is a reader of mostly American fiction and non-fiction. He is currently teaching in Fort Worth, Texas.

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