Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Stakes

A couple episodes into the fourth season of Breaking Bad, my fears about the direction we're going in seem to have been justified: now that there's no facade, now that there's just Walt, criminal mastermind, it's more of a really well-written and beautifully shot crime drama than anything else. Skyler's own transformation as she "breaks bad" promises to be very interesting this season, although it's unclear if this will be treated as more than a side plot. Amanda has an interesting post arguing, persuasively to my mind, that what's happened is not really a moral transformation on Walt's part - he's just become fully realized as the asshole he always was underneath the nerdy facade of his previous life. She's responding to an interesting but odd post by Chuck Klosterman, which argues that Breaking Bad is the best of the widely agreed-upon group of "TV as great art" shows of the last decade (the others being The Wire, The Sopranos, and Mad Men). As always, what's interesting is not which is actually best, but the reasons given and what the tell us about the reader, and Klosterman's are odd, if not unfamiliar. Klosterman likes Breaking Bad's clear morality:

Breaking Bad is the only one built on the uncomfortable premise that there's an irrefutable difference between what's right and what's wrong, and it's the only one where the characters have real control over how they choose to live.
This is different than The Sopranos, Klosterman argues, because it was always clear Tony and the people around him were fundamentally immoral (again, he's assuming that this can't be true of Walt, because he's not actually killing people at the start.) The Wire is too morally nuanced, its characters existing in a world where the lines between doing good and evil, intentions and results are hopelessly convoluted. As a result,
The conditions matter more than the participants. As we drift further and further from its 2008 finale, it increasingly feels like the ultimate takeaway from The Wire was more political than philosophical. Which is not exactly a criticism, because that's an accomplishment, too … it's just that it turns the plot of The Wire into a delivery mechanism for David Simon's polemic worldview (which makes its value dependent on how much the audience is predisposed to agree with him).
Ah yes, the old the "political makes things narrower" argument - which is odd since Klosterman has just said that The Wire is the most morally complex of the shows, but because that moral complexity takes place in a context (which is by and large what makes it complex), it must be somehow diminished, less than universal (as opposed to Breaking Bad, which is I guess universal because it involves a middle-class while protagonist who presumably makes his purely immoral decisions in a social vacuum.)
But the discussion of Mad Men is odder still:
Mad Men is set in the 1960s, so every action the characters make is not really a reflection on who they are; they're mostly a commentary on the era. Don Draper is a bad husband, but "that's just how it was in those days." Characters can do or say whatever they want without remorse, because almost all their decisions can be excused (or at least explained) by the circumstances of the period. Roger Sterling's depravity is a form of retrospective entertainment, so very little is at stake. The people on this show need to be irresponsible for the sake of plausibility, so we can't really hold them accountable for what they do.
I hear people say things like this all the time, and I just don't get it. Isn't it clear that the characters do navigate their restricted environment in very different ways? That they not only exist within its strictures but help enforce them on one another? I guess people who say things like that think that they live in morally correct times, that their own choices and morality aren't shaped by anything but their own inborn and universal compass. Maybe the drama of choosing to act badly in a fundamentally morally correct world has a purity that Klosterman appreciates, but it's not the world anyone (even Walt) lives in.

Perhaps the most revealing moment came in this aside to the discussion of Mad Men:
Semirelated: Of these four shows, Mad Men is the only that doesn't regularly involve violence. This also changes the gravity of the characters' decision-making, because the worst thing that can happen to anyone is merely losing a job or being humiliated.

It shouldn't be necessary to belabor what's wrong with this: the stakes on Mad Men are never a problem, given the gut-wrenching emotional violence that "merely" being humiliated entails. Also: the "worst that can happen" also includes being raped, regularly sexually harassed, the daily violence of living the closet, having to conceal a pregnancy and giving up your child, having your life choices thoroughly constrained by sexism and racism, being a young child and having parents who are completely emotionally distant if not abusive. So yeah. (Of course then your definition of 'anyone' has to go beyond Don and Roger.) People rail on about violence in popular culture, but what's often under that discussion is the assumption that violence, when properly dealt with, is the necessary condition of moral seriousness, that anything else is just an updated costume drama. It doesn't matter to me which of these shows people think is best, but I do think Mad Men has done something important in how it dramatizes emotional violence - which can be particularly challenging for the viewer as we aren't given the release physical violence often provides. This should put to rest the "costume drama" insult once and for all - except that Wharton, Forester, James et. all knew a thing or two about emotional violence as well. . .

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