As Breaking Bad nears the end, I thought I'd repost this one from The Valve, 30 March 2008.
As the final season of The Wire moved past its midpoint I began reading assertions and arguments that it is one of the three best (dramatic) shows that has even been on TV; The Sopranos and Deadwood are the other two (for example, see this discussion by three TV critics). In point of principle I don’t know about “the best,” but I do know that Deadwood and The Wire (I’ve not seen the last season) are very good. I’ve only seen the first seven episodes of The Sopranos and believe they’re very good. The level of excellence, however, is not what most interests me.
What interests me is that, whatever their differences, all three of these shows elicit our sympathy and concern for brutal and violent people, mostly male, operating outside the law. What’s that about? Is it merely a random circumstance, or does it speak to our historical moment? If the latter, what is it saying?
I don’t have a fine-grained knowledge of just how common such stories have been or, in a large sense, how common they are now. Crime stories and lawless frontier stories have been around for a long time. My sense, however, is that they have not always been so sympathetic to the bad guys. Why now? And how long has this been going on?
I note that The Godfather came out in 1972 (and was based on a novel that came out in 1969) and produced two sequels. Take that as the beginning this current wave. By 1972 America had been badly divided by the war in Vietnam and by the Civil Rights movement and was about to sail into a period of economic dislocation triggered by the 1973 oil embargo and continuing, through one means or another, to this day. This timing leads to the hypothesis that widespread doubts about legitimate social order led to an “atmosphere” which was receptive to movies (and other fictions) that didn’t depend on the legitimate social order implied by that film. If the legitimate order cannot be counted on to provide just rewards and punishments, then we have to look elsewhere for a moral compass.
[But in Breaking Bad? Moral compass? You gotta' be kidding. There's even less honor among those thieves than in Tony Soprano's bunch.]
That’s my best guess as to why these types of stories have been so popular and so good over the last three decades. Having said that, I need to note that the issue of the moral force of the legitimate order is handled rather differently in these three series, though I don’t pretend to have thought it through. I’m just groping about here.
The Sopranos seems to be the simplest case, at least from the seven episodes I’ve seen. The first scene (beyond the title sequence) in the first episode puts Tony Soprano in the office of Dr. Jennifer Melfi, a psychiatrist. Her job is to help him with his problems, to heal him. That’s our entrée into his world. Whatever Tony Soprano does, good or bad, he has another appointment with Dr. Melfi. He’s just trying to get through his life and she’s helping him.
Where’s the legitimate social order in this story? At this point, only seven episodes in, the justice system – police and courts – seems rather peripheral. But, surely Dr. Melfi belongs to the legit order, as does the priest who hangs out with Tony’s wife. Judging from what I’ve read in the Wikipedia, the priest would seem to be a passing fancy, but Melfi sticks around for all six seasons. Further, at only seven episodes in it does seem that some of Tony’s problems can be laid at the feet of his wacko mother.
The Wire is rather different. As Joseph Kugelmass has pointed out elsewhere in The Valve, it deals with its characters from the outside. Everyone’s trying their best to lead a satisfying life in the terms afforded them by a complicated and contradictory Baltimore. There’s corruption and double-dealing on both sides of the law. Well-meaning people are under pressure to betray and manipulate.
Deadwood is still different. Here we’re in a world that’s beyond the edge of civilization. The first season seems to divide the moral universe between Swearengen and Bullock. The arrival of Cy Tolliver in season two complicates things a bit because now Swearengen has to split the vice business with him but, really, he’d rather not. Meanwhile, Bullock’s wife and son arrive, forcing him to break off his affair with Alma Garret, whom he has impregnated. Things get really interesting, however, when George Hearst arrives in camp. During the third season Bullock and Swearengen manage an alliance so they can stand against Hearst.
Both The Wire and The Sopranos strike me as presenting a world in which different tribes exist in the same territory and interact with one another in the same social system. Each tribe takes its own integrity and interests as the central fact in judging moral issues. The Sopranos invites the viewer to identify with Tony’s tribe – more particularly, with Tony himself – while The Wire doesn’t favor any of the tribes.
Deadwood too presents us with competing tribes. By taking up a stance on the frontier, however, it holds out the prospect of change and even progress. Deadwood’s (the town) future may well be different and better, more coherent. To be sure, George Hearst’s power at the end of season three is very threatening, but who knows what the future will bring? The show itself seems to be halted, its plot unresolved.
[I repeat: But in Breaking Bad? Moral compass? You gotta' be kidding. There's even less honor among those thieves than in Tony Soprano's bunch.]
What all this means, what it says about our cultural moment, is open to interpretation.