the wire

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

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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.

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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