Impossible Choices? The Conservatism of "Breaking Bad"
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Unlike the nuanced picture we see of drug dealers and addicts in "The Wire," "Breaking Bad" presents the drug counterculture of Albuquerque as merely a gang of idiots: middle-class, slacker children; toothless, aging prostitutes; crazed, erratic kingpins; and so on. The portrayal of Wendy the prostitute is especially appalling; in one cold opening the horrors of her life are presented in a comical way to song, and in another scene, Uncle Hank pokes fun at her missing teeth to scare Walter Jr. off marijuana. Even the hapless Jesse Pinkman, an addict himself, is only redeemed in the eyes of the camera, when he, with Walt, flourishes in the black market and makes millions - gaining both power and wealth, two of the absolute values of "Breaking Bad."
All of this his makes for a fascinating character study - White's transition to Heisenberg has been a jaw dropping and dramatic. Think Progress recently devoted an article to the idea that Walt is abusing Jesse, which is not only fairly persuasive, but also demonstrates the depths with which the Walt character can be examined. But it is indeed the character that we can learn about, not so much the world he lives in. In fact, Walt and his experiences are so thoroughly unique that we are quite limited in what we can learn from his adventures through the crystal meth underbelly of New Mexico. The same cannot be said for the "Wire" where most of the characters are representative of an entire population of America: the urban poor.
Interestingly, Rosenberg, who has written about the conservative aspects of the show, tells Truthout that "given how sharp the show's moral critique of Walt has become, how thoroughly villainous he is now, I have to see it as a critique both of the failure of institutions and of go-it-alone and hypermasculine responses to those failures."
Yet, the conservative sentiments behind White's actions, if not the actions themselves, still seem to resonate with many fans. At the end of season four, White's final battle with Fring played out like a Western gun fight, though more gruesome. It was compelling television, and in the end, our anti-hero, White, won the day. Klosterman, in his essay, admits, that despite his murderous, deceptive ways, the audience is put in the "curious position of continuing to root for an individual who's no longer good." Consider that wording: No longer good. Klosterman uses the words "good" and "bad" as if the whole world could be placed in a Venn diagram that never intersects.
White may well still get his just desserts by the time the series ends next year. But the "Wire" did not have us rooting for or against any heroes or villains at all; indeed, the shows characters were too complicated, by in large, for such labels. "The Wire," instead, had us rooting for a world in which all human beings can live with dignity and have the freedom to actually make choices. And that is a testament to the greatness of "The Wire," and a reminder of the limitations of "Breaking Bad."