During the 1950s and 60s, as flickering cinema was yielding to broadcast television as the principle story-telling mechanism in American culture, both media were transformed. Popular American cinema—what is usually called The Movies or Hollywood Movies—hung on to a distinct identity for decades, even while it was gradually disintegrating, aesthetically and industrially, into the complex of video forms that would form the foundation of digital media. As often happens when a central medium starts to slip down its entropy curve to obsolescence, space becomes cheap and artists whose work is not commercially valuable step in to seize discarded equipment, recycle abandoned aesthetics, and explore uncharted territory. And so American experimental cinema found life in the age of television. But while Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage Jack Smith, Ken Jacobs, Kenneth Anger, and others were cutting new shapes in old celluloid, the emerging commercial giant, television, was manufacturing a rigid form of assembly-line story-telling that was perhaps blander than anything that had been produced for presentation in a public space.
Gilbert Seldes, the first American television critic, observed as early as 1948 that the weekly commercial TV series was, structurally speaking, a comic form, no matter what genre it was packaged in. Tragedy was not possible in episodic television because the protagonist was protected from death by the strongest force possible in commercial broadcasting: fear of cancellation. Whether the protagonist was a cowboy, a private-eye, a police detective, doctor, lawyer, or drug dealer, the death of the persona character meant, in effect, the cancellation of the series. To avoid that tragedy, television writers were bound to a symmetrical narrative formula that could not escape comic resolution. Drug dealers could appear as guest villains and they could be killed. But they were cartoon villains and there was nothing tragic about their deaths. Far from it, their elimination was comic in the classical sense: it was a restoration of order.
In the 1980s, that the strict rule of comic formula in American episodic TV drama began to crack apart due to competition between broadcasting and cable TV. The key figures here are writer-producers who borrowed long-form techniques from daytime soap opera to initiate a cubist breaking apart of traditional prime-time genres. Two good examples are probably Steve Bochco, who reconstructed police drama in Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, and Tom Fontana who did this to medical programs in St. Elsewhere. While Bochco is perhaps the more well-known and commercially successful of the two, Fontana is the one to watch in terms of finding the path to Breaking Bad. While Bochco continued to produce programming for prime-time network broadcast (NYPD Blue, L.A. Law), Fontana wandered into the wilderness of pay-cable TV, creating the first great non-comic drama episodic drama on HBO, Oz. Produced from 1997 to 2003, Oz has still is not been exhibited in the U.S. in any format that depends on traditional commercial product sponsorship. If time permitted, I would discuss Fontana’s technique of shredding the television hour by multiplying the number of scenes and inventing new types of visual segues. But I have to leave that subject if I am to get at what interests me most about Breaking Bad.
I believe that Breaking Bad marks a turning point in the development of both the form and content of the American epic, which goes beyond its life as a television series. Let me define some terms. We can start with epic. Originally applied only to oral poetry, an epic is the depiction of a series of great achievements by a hero, resulting in the founding of a nation, an empire, or some enduring feature or institution of society. The narrative framework of American epic has always been a story of the acquisition of personal wealth and power. The Contrast by Royal Tyler (1787), the first stageplay written produced and acted by Americans, concerned poor country people who acquire wealth through inheritance and move to Boston. The title refers to the difference between Jonathan, an industrious, honest Yankee trader and the wealthy aristocrats who mock him and try to take his money.
During the 19th century the American epic finds form in a variety of popular novel genres. The most important of these is the Western, in which “natural aristocrats” emerge from the common people on the frontier and establish order by killing outlaws and native peoples. The most intellectually respected subgenre of the Western was the primogeniture story, in which the second sons of Southern plantation owners leave the taint of slavery behind to go West. The coastal Southeastern states followed British primogeniture traditions, in which all of the father’s wealth legally goes to the first-born son (the mother isn’t even entitled to anything). In this narrative, “second sons” find epic opportunity in America: Instead of working for their older brothers, they go West and the best among them establish great agricultural or mining empires. The Virginian, a 1902 novel by Owen Wister, was adapted for several Hollywood films and was also a top-rated TV series in the 1970s. As in all classic Western tales, the hero must commit and illegal or morally questionable act to achieve the epic mission of extending civilization (or the rule of money) to the next frontier. The Virginian, for example, makes Wyoming safe for banks, courts, churches, and schools by killing a murderer in an act of vigilantism.
A significant variation of American epic emerges at the turn of the 20th century, when socialists begin to pick up the narrative. The epic acquisition of wealth turns from an inherently comic form (with a guaranteed happy ending) to an ambiguous or even tragic story. Let me point to Theodore Dreiser as an exemplar. Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) is the story of a poor country girl who goes to the city and, by the end of the story, is a wealthy actress. But in order to do this, she has abandon her original plan of working been in a shoe factory and instead prostitute herself. In Dreiser’s 1925 novel, An American Tragedy, we see two events in the protagonist’s life that are repeated in the life of Walter White: complicity in the death of a child and a willingness to commit murder as part of his rise to the top. We don’t yet know if Walter will be brought to justice by society, but the Dreiser character is executed at the end of the novel. By the way, Sergei Eisenstein wrote a screenplay for a film of An American Tragedy, but found no takers when he brought it to Hollywood in 1930.
The Godfather, novel and film, marks the next evolutionary milestone in the American epic narrative. Mario Puzo’s novel begins with an epigram from Balzac: “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” Vito Corleone, a poor immigrant, comes to America and finds, like Sister Carrie, that criminal activity is the fast track for making it in America. He sends his son Michael to Dartmouth, hoping Michael will rise above criminal life to become a governor or senator. The irony of the Godfather story is that in the epic journey from obscurity to power via wealth, one does not pass through criminality to become a member of the ruling elite. Instead, you must be willing and able to exercise your capacity as a criminal in order to rule.
Before Breaking Bad, the protagonist of the American epic sets out on an upward spiral from poverty to wealth. Walter White is perhaps the first American character to begin the epic journey not from poverty or even from modest means, but rather from the center of middle-class life. He’s a chemistry teacher with health insurance and a pension plan. What more does he want from life? His “death sentence” diagnosis of cancer shocks him into reconsidering the rewards of middle-class life and recovering his lost genius. At first he says he only wants to pass through a life of crime to pay for his chemotherapy and provide a decent future for his family. But once he gets a taste of money, he sees through this self deception. He decides to cook meth because he enjoys being a maestro. He likes the way it feels. He gets more satisfaction out of thugs and addicts praising his greatness than having students look at him with blank faces in the classroom and ask if today’s lesson is something that will be covered on the final exam.
In Breaking Bad, the criminal enterprise has become the end—the epic achievement—rather than the means to some traditional form of respectable elevation. All of this is a reflection on the society represented: the American empire is in decline. Walter’s early experience with his partners in a high-tech company demonstrates that the last phenomenon of an expanding America--the high-tech boon of the late 20th century; the America that produced Steve Jobs and Bill Gates—is no longer operative. The setting of the story—a New Mexico civilized by mafia fast-food chicken joints, roadside gambling casinos, and suburban housing tracts with adobe-like features—is a constant reminder of what happened to the epic promises of an earlier phase of empire. The Western hero—Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence—did what he had to do to “bring the law west of the Pecos River.” In Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman is the “law west of the Pecos River.”
Walter White does not smoke, nor was he ever a smoker. When he is diagnosed with lung cancer, he realizes that he is a man of superior talents who is being suffocated by middle-class life. At first, it seems he chooses to cook meth so he won’t leave his family burdened by his medical bills. But after several batches of his brilliant work bring in big money—and after several encounters threaten his life and the lives of his family—he doesn’t quit the business. He has discovered his vocation. In the episode in which Walter and his crew ambush the freight train for methanol—and in which a member of his crew shoots a child on a bicycle who has innocently witnessed it—Jesse asks Walter, “How much money do you want already?” Walter replies, “I don’t care about money. I want to rule an empire.”