Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Why Breaking Bad is My Great American Novel

What season is this from?

          People keep talking about this Great American Novel thing, and they keep asking if there will be "another" one.  It's a valid question, I suppose, as most people assume that the goal of any American writer is to write the Great American Novel, be endorsed by Oprah, and then have a movie adaptation made of his/her great work.

         Some people might say that Jonathan Franzen has come the closest to writing a modern Great American Novel, but of course, we all know that the very existence of such a thing is preposterous. There is no Great American Novel, and if there were, nobody would want to read it. Look at Ulysses, one of the most widely beloved novels of all time, and then try to find ten people you know who have read it and enjoyed it. Something of such monolithic artistry and beauty cannot be lowest common denominator. Nothing can be universally beloved, especially by a country as diverse and divided as this one.

        Heck, there are even some people who don't like Ryan Gosling, even if they only amount to an army of six. But if you're going to be a "reader," you have to play the game.

       Because, as we all know, people aren't actually asking about the Great American Novel. They're asking about the Good American Novel, which is something else entirely. The Good American Novel can be anything, really. For some people, that novel could be written by James Patterson. For others, that novel could be written by Danielewski.

      However, if people ever ask me what the modern Great American Novel is, I'm usually divided between two brilliant, collasal works of genius: Breaking Bad and Mad Men. I'm not being cheeky, either. These are seriously, in my opinion, the greatest works of American fiction in the modern era. Like Dickens before them, Matthew Weiner and Vince Gilligan are using serial narratives to weave portraits of modern-day existence. And I'm using modern loosely here, as we all know that Mad Men takes place in the past. But, of course, it is also extremely modern in its storytelling--especially in its most recent season.

     But nobody is satisfied with two answers to that question. They want the definitive greatness of one answer. So, I will give you a definitive answer, and my answer is that Breaking Bad is the best piece of modern American fiction.

What season is THIS from?
               This is not to say that Mad Men is without merit. In fact, on some days, I even convince myself that it is the better show. But I quickly snap out of that dream when I remember Walter White and his alter-ego, Heisenberg.

             In Mad Men, everybody is slowly turning into his/her mentor. Peggy is turning into Don, Don is turning into Sterling, etc, and part of my fascination with the show is watching the surprising, sometimes unsettling ways in which the characters parallel and play off of one another.

          In Breaking Bad, one might argue that Walt is also turning into his mentor/nemesis, Gus, but I would be quick to point out that almost everything Walt does is characteristically anti-Gus. Everything Walt strives to be is placed right in front of us in the fifth episode of the series. He shaves his head, puts on some sunglasses, and finds a fedora. He becomes Heisenberg--the coldhearted meth cook who doesn't mess around with idiots. Of course, the constant problem with Heisenberg is that he doesn't exist. He is merely Walter White in disguise, and Walter White is just a sad, arrogant, pathetic human being looking for success.

         Don Draper, on the other hand, has success. He has a ton of success. He may have hit rock bottom in season four, drinking so hard that he loses days at a time, but his rock bottom is still upper class and comfortable. He still finds ways to succeed because he is a machine of success. The great flaw of Don Draper is that he has succeeded so much, and so often, that he cannot handle a life without constant affirmation.

        Walter White is the exact opposite. He thrives in situations where there is no hope for him. However, any amount of success drains Heisenberg of his supernatural gift for level-headed and brainy solutions. Success is Walt's kryptonite, whereas Don's weakness is his inability to cope with a world filled with people who aren't as amazingly competent as he is. Don's protege is Peggy because she is also a machine of success who has no patience for the Walter Whites of the world.

       Walt's sidekick, Jesse Pinkman, is similar to Walt in more interesting ways. First off, it is technically Walt who is Jesse's protege, as Walt spends much of the first season learning how to be a criminal from Jesse. Their relationship works both ways, as Walt, the chemistry genius, has absolutely no concept of how the drug trade works, and vice versa. As Peggy spends much of Mad Men building her confidence and honing her craft, Don spends the majority of the series treating her like she should never be proud of herself. Don seems to go out of his way to act like he has never learned anything from her. His career, as far as I see it, would be the same with or without Peggy.

      Walt, without Jesse, would be nothing. He would have died in the first season, by Tuco's hands, in the middle of a junkyard (not a mall), and Walt knows this. He needs Jesse, as he repeats time and again to his various bosses, because they have a true partnership. When Walt is in trouble, Jesse sticks his neck out. When Peggy is in trouble, Don leaves her out to fend for herself and maybe learn a thing or two.

       And it's not that I mind Don treating Peggy the way he does, but I do mind that this seems to never change. With Walt and Jesse, their relationship is a roller coaster. In one episode, they are literally risking their own lives to save the other's, but in other episodes they are each other's worst enemies. The problem with Don and Peggy is that Peggy is the only dynamic character in this relationship. The Peggy we see in the pilot episode is very, very different from the one we see in the final episode of season 5, sitting in her hotel room smoking a Virginia Slim. The Don we see in that very same episode is absolutely no different from the one we see in the pilot. Of course, this is part of the tragedy of the fifth season finale, but it is also something that alarms me about the series. It is not taking any true risks with the character of Don. Just when we thought he would break from his pattern and really become a dynamic character, he shifted back to his normal self. Yes, it is an American tragedy, but it is also not very rewarding to the audience.

      On the other hand, Walt is the most dynamic television character I have ever seen. He is slowly transforming into the antagonist of the show, and with each episode, a little bit more of our sympathy moves from Walt to the people he is hurting. He is fundamentally changing throughout the show, until finally the audience realizes that Walt has become a sociopathic maniac who holds none of the values that got him into the drug trade in the first place.

      The status quo of Breaking Bad is to never have one. The stakes are different in each episode, and huge character and setting changes take place so often that it is easy to forget where we've come from. The pilot episode is almost unrecognizable when compared to the final episode of the fourth season, as so many monumental twists have taken place.

      The tragedy of Walt is more significant because it is one based on greed, destruction, arrogance, and false values. Walt is doing all of this for his family, as he says, but we can quickly surmise in later seasons that Walt is willing to sacrifice everything in order to be respected by his new peers. Walt is a failed chemist who has spent the last few years in a high school classroom, and he wants his last days on Earth spent becoming the best in the world at something. He strives for the success that he so narrowly missed out on decades ago. His rise to power mirrors that of America's, and his lust for domination is the most destructive force in the show.

      Don and Walt both live double lives, but Walt's is more immediate. Don is a deserter and a liar. His true identity is concealed by years of deception, but the Don that walks the halls of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is the same one that goes home at night to Megan. Walt, on the other hand, deals with Heisenberg on a daily basis, and even when he does finally come clean to Skylar about his secret life, he never fully confesses. Walt and Heisenberg can never truly be reconciled because they are oil and water. Heisenberg is the monster that lives within Walt, and Walt is too greedy to stop him.

     Breaking Bad is on a huge scale, morally, politically, and artistically. The show excels on a dizzying number of levels, and when compared to Mad Men's slow-burn, perfectly choreographed pacing, it feels like a nuclear explosion. Mad Men might be the classiest, most beautifully shot piece of television ever produced, but Breaking Bad's kinetic, perfectly acted and scripted episodes are, in my opinion, turning into the Great American Novel.


SSN 1 EP 6     Crazy Handful of Nothin' 
SSN 2 EP 6     Peekaboo                          
SSN 2 EP 13   ABQ                                 
SSN 3 EP 7     One Minute  
SSN 3 EP 9     Kafkaesque               
SSN 3 EP 12   Half Measure  
SSN 4 EP 1     Box Cutter    
SSN 4 EP 10   Salud         
SSN 4 EP 11   Crawl Space   


  1. OK, this piece was really, really convincing, and I'm going to order the first season of Breaking Bad.

    I have to say, though, that I'm not sure I agree with you yet about the ending of Mad Men's fifth season. Don is in an all-too-familiar situation, granted, but does the letting go he does moments before mean he'll immediately slip back into who he was and forget who he's become? I don't know.

    Great, thoughtful work!

    1. Why not just watch it on Netflix? Though don't get me wrong, I'm never one to discourage someone from buying Breaking Bad.

  2. I feel like you touched on some really interesting points about this show. The fourth season in particular felt more about the people Walt has impacted rather than the man himself (at least until the later episodes), which I think made for a captivating, if somewhat slower, take on the series.

    Kudos on the episode selections, too (though "Crazy Handful..." was ep. 6, not 5). I would also include "Bit by a Dead Bee" (s2,ep3), "Better Call Saul" (s2, ep8; easily one of the series funniest), "No Mas" (s3, ep1), "Sunset" (s3, ep6), "Fly" (s3,ep10; one of my favorite hours of television ever), "Bullet Points" (s4,ep4) and "Problem Dog" (s4, ep7).