Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Wire? Breaking Bad? FOOOOOD FIIIIIGHT.

By Jay Stringer

I think it would be entirely fruitless to compare The Wire and Breaking Bad. It's the kind of pointless exercise that bloggers use to fill up their word counts. That said, I shall now be comparing The Wire and Breaking Bad for around 1800 words.

Firstly a quick warning. I've not seen all of Breaking Bad, today's piece will be assuming the show finishes with that final shot of season 3. If you've seen all of both shows, you're good to go. If you've seen anything less than all of The Wire and the the first three seasons of Breaking Bad, then stop now, there be spoilery beasties here.

Secondly, this is written because I read this piece from Chuck Klosterman. I'm writing as much out of reaction to that than I am to the shows themselves. There are times when my blogs come with a required reading list. This is one of those times.

I'll wait right here.

Okay, why did this essay inspire me to write? Well, with all due respect to it's author, I think it's playing  fast and loose. It singles out Wire fans for being obstinate, and effectively turning the subjective into the objective (I like the show, therefore it's the best show ever, and here are the facts why, and I don't care about your facts.) Before pretty much doing the same thing for Breaking Bad. Its also makes some points that I think are gross oversimplifications of both shows.

Can we draw a distinction between the two? Sure. It's one I may well contradict later, but here we go; The Wire is social fiction, Breaking Bad is a morality play. The Wire requires that you see the broad canvas, that you see the characters in context of the large machine. Breaking Bad (at least at the point I'm at) has remained a very tight and focused show, the cast hasn't expanded much past a couple of additions in three seasons, the locations tend to be the same select few on rotation. The Wire presents you with an ever expanding cast of people to follow, and it's down to us to debate if one or two of them represent the heart of the show. Breaking Bad would be just as effective if the morality play was pared down to it's two central characters, Walter and Jesse, in a dark room, debating ethics every week; the other characters are there to reflect changes in the central two, they are extensions of Walter and Jesse.

So there we go. That, I think, is the key difference between the two shows. Which is why my mind started to click and whir when Klosterman started talking about other differences.

His key argument seems to be this; Breaking Bad is the crime show that gives it's characters individual agency. To which I'd say; on the surface, sure. It is a morality play, after all. The appearances are that Breaking Bad is just about the choices these guys make, and the slippery slope that leads from good to bad. But every time people start talking about morality in fiction, they're really giving away more about themselves than the fiction (me included.) And I think simply stating that BB is the "only one where the characters have real control over how they choose to live," is an oversimplification, as well as revealing a set moral world view.

I find BB to be a very religious show. This is me as a total non-believer. I wasn't raised with god, and my views on morality come from human ideas of right and wrong, rather than any inbuilt wiring of commandments, hellfire and heaven. To watch the domino effect that leads from one choice made by a science teacher in the pilot episode, to two passenger planes having a head-on collision in the air space directly above that teachers garden at the end of season 2, is not to watch a show that is all about individual agency.

(Lets not mention the bullet that somehow falls from the hitman's pocket and lands exactly where Hank will need to find it)

You can call it contrived coincidence, call it cosmic coincidence, call it plot device, call it what you will; there is very definitely a god in the Breaking Bad machine. I'd go one further, and say there is something very old testament about the show. It's a show that needs to believe in wrath and punishment. Right from the start we were shown that everybody is a sinner in one way or another, from abusing their authority, to smoking illegal cigars, to infidelity and lying, almost everyone so far has transgressed, and every one of them has been punished. It even has it's biblical figures; the serpent trickster in the form of the very broad Saul Goodman -who pops up every time Walt's conscience is getting in the way to push him further astray- and the cold, calculating devilish Gus -who is waiting to suck you into his game and then destroy you. They are the two characters who seem most out of sync with the rest of the show when first introduced, as if plucked from another show and dropped into the narrative, yet both become important parts of the machine. Is it any coincidence that Saul was the gateway to Gus? I wouldn't be surprised if (in season 4, which I haven't seen yet, or season 5, which nobody has seen yet) we see the progression from old to new, and we begin to see Christ metaphors and symbolism, and if, indeed, one character has to choose to die for the sins of others.

None of that is said as criticism. I don't make these points to lessen the brilliance of the show. I simply make them because I think that to say Breaking Bad is the show about individual agency is to miss the point.

If I were to extend the above argument, I might say we're looking at a show that actually dislikes its people. It's waiting to sit in judgement, waiting to punish. By the same token, I always found The Wire to be a show that loved its characters, and worked to show you that love. It was the system or the game that the show hated, not the people.

For all it's talk of gods, and all David Simon's talk of classical Greek tragedy, the religion of the show was all man made. The system was the god. The game was the god. The drug was the god. Ultimately, the stats were the god. There was no cosmic coincidence, there was no hellfire, and there was no guarantees that doing the wrong thing would lead to punishment.

I find it bizarre that anyone would remove the concept of individual agency from The Wire, when so much of it's drama revolved around the tension between that concept and the game. The two notions were pulling at each other. Sure, the system chewed people up again and again. However, the characters who took the choice to remove themselves from the game, the characters who reached that level of almost spiritual self enlightenment, walked free and clear. I'm thinking of Poot, who chose to get out in time. I'm thinking of Bubbles (my favourite character) who is last seen earning a place at the family table after removing himself from the game. I'm thinking even of McNulty, who's personal demons are so at odds with the system that he realises he needs to engineer a way out of it, and finally looks at ease with himself once he's reached that point in the final episode. Even the most preternatural of the characters, Omar, was given the choice. He was given an out from the drama many times during the shows run, but chose his fate, he could not remove himself from the game because of his ego. Do we want to rob the shows amazing cast of characters of their small incremental choices over 5 seasons by saying that it's the show without individual agency?

Klosterman also argued that your liking of The Wire would come down to how much you agreed with the world view of it's creator. But if that premise is true, then surely it's true of both shows? David Simon has talked often about the messages he wanted to put forth in The Wire, and about his views on the end of empire. Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, has also put his arguments forth. Here's an example;

I hate the idea of Idi Amin living in Saudi Arabia for the last 25 years of his life. That galls me to no end. I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something. I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen. My girlfriend says this great thing that’s become my philosophy as well. 'I want to believe there's a heaven. But I can't not believe there's a hell.'

(That's from an interview with the New York Times)

So Breaking Bad is just as much an authors statement as The Wire. It's an attempt to put some sense of order onto our world. As much fun as it may be, as much whimsy and invention as it shows along the way, it's very much boiling down to an author saying that, yes, drugs are bad and a fervent prayer that these bad people face some kind of punishment.

Breaking Bad is a morality play with a set moral view. It's a show that needs there to be a sound if there's nobody around when the tree falls in the woods. The Wire, by contrast, is a show with a more fluid moral compass. The sound of the tree falling is dictated by whoever is present to hear it.

I think both shows are fantastic achievements. I could even make the argument that they belong together, as book ends on any shelf full of crime fiction; different takes on similar questions. There's no reason to try to objectively place one above the other.

Subjectively I prefer The Wire. I don't think that comes as a surprise to anyone who reads this site. It ticks a few more of my boxes, and I prefer it for the same reason that I like Dickens (take a drink if you're playing at home) and Steinbeck. But if David Simon wanted to mine pre-Shakespearian drama for his story-telling, then there is definitely something of the bard in Breaking Bad, there are healthy doses of the up close and personal morality tales of Macbeth and Othello, and I love those plays, too.


Ben said...

Hah! When I saw the title, I was about to post the Chuck Klosterman article :O)

I'm still not sure which one I prefer, but I don't think Breaking Bad ever equaled that Gripping-the-couch-intensity that was Season 4 of The Wire. I have seen up to season 3 of BB though just like you and thought 3 was a little slow (which is often the case in TV shows...except for The Wire!!!).

I also like your comparison in between Dickens and Shakespeare. I'd say I'm more of a Shakespeare fan, but I have yet to see the dramatic climax.

Robin at CrimeTimePreview said...

A thought-provoking comparison.

One thing's for sure – the US has been producing some absolutely fantastic crime dramas for the last decade or so. The Wire and Breaking Bad are, as you say, different while being very good, but they are also shows that rely on the gut instinct and vision of their authors – just like the best novels – rather than a bunch of TV execs. I'd also pick The Wire as top dog, but really enjoy BB.

the dead gorillas said...

fascinating piece. I love both shows so much. however, i say the best drama of all time is still boomtown.