“Like The Sopranos, Mad Men, and other cable series that have defined the new golden age of TV drama, Breaking Bad distinguished itself with a large, grand arc of moral complexity and a protagonist inside of whom a man and a monster were at war… We didn’t stick with Walter White and Don Draper and Tony Soprano because they were guys who in real life we wouldn’t want to spend five minutes with; we were in it for their struggle.”
-- Mark Harris, Entertainment Weekly.
Is he right? Do we stick with these guys because we’re involved in their struggle? Are we hoping that the man defeats the monster? Or do we just get vicarious thrills out of watching the monster? (now that I think about it, when was the last time the man defeated the monster?)
One of my Facebook friends asked this the other day, “Am I a knuckle-dragging savage if I think that Breaking Bad just tells a story, not weaves commentaries on present-day America? Or are all these weighty social issues what make it a great show?”
I think we’re all pretty quick to say that it just has to be a good story. In fact, I think most of us will say anything that tries to be more than a good story is likely going to fail at being a story. But maybe in trying to avoid “weighty social issues,” we do as much of a disservice to the story as if we spend too much time on those issues.
Maybe I’m thinking about this stuff because as I drove back and forth to Albany on the I-90 a few weeks ago I passed a lot of small towns in upstate New York and I couldn’t help but wonder; is that Bedford Falls or is it Potterville?
Because what would It’s a Wonderful Life be if the monster won?
I can only comment on THE SOPRANOS. (The Beloved Spouse and I have allowed the rest of you to vet BREAKING BAD for us and will begin watching it soon. Thank you.) I never saw Tony as having much of a struggle. He was what he was, a sociopath, who had good qualities (he loved his children, and was loyal to his friends/crew). The struggle that interested me most was the struggle inside me, watching Tony's responses to things, thinking how much easier life would be if some of those solutions were open to me. How many of us have fantasized about the justice due a child molester; Tony was actually able to do something about it. That what he did came short of what he might have liked to do showed, to me, more of a confidence in own power than an internal struggle. I found myself thinking along with Tony as Tony. I remember thinking halfway trough Season 2, regarding Richie Aprile: Tony's going to have to kill this guy."
We watched a handful of episodes of MAD MEN; couldn't get into it. As far as I got, Don Draper was just an asshole, largely because, whatever struggles he had, the stakes were trivial compared to Tony Soprano or what I've heard of Walter White.
In some ways the grand arc struggle of Tony and Don Draper are similar, I think - both men live a life they often feel isn't really 'them.' In Don's case, of course, it's literal as 'Don Draper' is a character Dick Whitman created. In Tony's case I always liked the scene after he'd bled the sports store owner dry and then Meadow didn't want the car he'd taken as payment - Tony is outraged because he's a "businessman" who takes care of his family and the sports store owner is a drunk and gambler and yet he's the one who gets 'respect' in the community.
Meth is just evil.
I think people are overlooking the fact that addressing weighty issues, whether social or human, external or internal, is what makes for a good story; these are the things that create the strongest, most griping conflicts, and story, as we all know, is conflict.
Leaving the crime genre for a moment I'll go all epic on you: The backbone of The Lord of the Rings, a tale most will agree is a great story, is the very social issue of little people standing up to and overcoming not only a power infinitely greater than them, but the automatic tendency of the larger world to dismiss them as insignificant.
Tom Piccirilli's work revolves around identity, a fact he's acknowledged more than once; what weightier social issue is there than that?
The two are inseparable, in my opinion; tales people think of as "just a good story" stand upon a more subtle soapbox, is all.
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