There’s been a lot of talk about the Golden Era of TV in which we currently find ourselves. And it’s certainly true. But we’re on the the brink of the beginning of the end. It starts tonight, with the airing of the first episode of the final (half) season of Breaking Bad, on AMC.
This is not to say that there aren’t good shows that are still going, or recently started. Some of these shows even have truly great episodes, truly excellent moments. There are instances of staggering insight into the human condition on Mad Men; that’s actually, more or less, its point as a show. There are sequences and plot arcs on Game of Thrones that are almost difficult to believe were pulled off, they’re so well executed. And actually, when I first started watching Breaking Bad, I remember a moment in the second season where it occurred to me, “this show might actually be better than Mad Men.” Mad Men, at the time seemed to me to be carrying the baton after The Wire concluded in 2008 (not that it ever seemed as good as that all-time high point of TV drama to me, but it did seem like the show that could come the closest). Looking back, I kind of can’t believe it was ever a question. Breaking Bad is so thoroughly better, in almost every regard, than Mad Men, it seems downright goofy to me that the two shows were ever in contest.
The Sopranos, while deeply flawed in terms of narrative, scope, and the general storytelling ability, is, without a doubt, the show that kicked off this Era, enabling its very existence in the first place, really. My friend Joe D. once told me that the show was as valuable to him as The Wire because it was the “ultimate shades of gray show.” Well, it might be the first show to really earn a viewership while maintaining a shaky moral compass, but it’s far from the ultimate anything for me. Whereas The Sopranos shows immoral and amoral characters as the main protagonists and moves along, generally giving pretty clear answers to whether or not Tony and crew were acting morally or not, The Wire and Breaking Bad are actual white-to-black gradients. Breaking Bad is even a literal one, the show starting at white and gradually, sometimes truly imperceptibly, shifting to black (The Wire, meanwhile, is a constantly shifting and re-shifting shadow world of morality and ethics, undulating and dizzy).
I say this not because there’s any intrinsic value in a show that doesn’t have clear-cut good/bad guys, but only because for me, Breaking Bad has risen above the supposed Master of these things quite clearly. Tony was an oaf who was very clearly bad, both as a husband and as a citizen. To an action, what he does, he does for himself. He does nothing for Carm (easily the best character on the show, a truly great creation on Chase’s part) out of true love. And when she finally can’t take his evil, his cheating and murder, anymore, at the end of season 4, he gets even more overtly evil. There is actually one moment where we see Tony as a truly conflicted, possibly even good man at heart, and that’s when he picks up AJ at the police station. It’s a beautiful moment, for sure. And that’s the kind of moment that Breaking Bad has in spades, and what makes the meandering sawtooth of Walter’s descent so disconcerting and terrible.
Now, Mad Men has these moments left and right as well, and it’s not for lack of them that it isn’t as truly great as Breaking Bad. Mad Men is teeming with complicated characters, with actions that are suspect and motivations that are dimly hidden, just like people really are. And this is why, at its best, Mad Men is up there at the heights of TV. What makes me feel like it can’t ultimately compete with Breaking Bad (and certainly not The Wire, but that question seems to come far less) is that it doesn’t have the same economy of storytelling. There are too many things that don’t need to be there, over and over. And that is only a symptom of the show’s deepest problem: that it is so utterly convinced of its own cleverness. It is not fascinating or interesting or insightful or metaphorically astute to watch Peggy try and kill a mouse, etc. And sometimes, those dimly hidden motivations are used as a scapegoat for the writers of Mad Men to have their characters turn into either cartoons who are so themselves that they lack all subtlety, or nonsensical ciphers. Breaking Bad never veers that way. It’s always in control of its end goal, fixed very definitely, and it knows how to get there.
There are other dramas that are very truly good, but not yet truly great (hopefully they’ll get there), such as House of Cards, and, as of the last season, Boardwalk Empire. For now, I can’t personally say they’re going to keep the Golden Era going. But that’s fine.
Breaking Bad starts in 2 hours.