The Greatest Ever? “The Wire” or “Breaking Bad”?

NEW SLAUGHTERIn the pantheon of great, conclusion-defying debates this one ranks up there with “Who’s Better, Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle?” from my Little League days,  “The Beatles or The Stones? ” from high school, and, shifting criteria a bit to contemporary matters, “Who’s More of an Embarrassment to Their District, Steve King or Michele Bachmann?” There are no definitive answer. Everything is subjective. The only thing to agree on is that in each case peerage is close enough to warrant a discussion.

So too is the argument over “The Wire” and “Breaking Bad”, the latter of which begins closing out its run as “the best show on television” this Sunday night.

The case I make for “The Wire” is that like anything aspiring to art it made a conscious decision push beyond established convention. It pulled its audience into places, points of moral perspective and reflection that others of its type had not, could not and would not. Specifically, the authentic, unhygienic, street-level culture of the black inner city.

The running joke is that “The Wire”, created and frequently written by crusty, cynical, ex-Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon, is every white liberals’ favorite series, mainly because it is as close as any of them will ever get to scoring crack in the hood and the way it confirms everything we/they’ve ever wanted to believe about why hellholes like that exist. I.e. massive, chronic corruption up and down the political system, resulting in futile-to-non-existent social services, wretched schools, little to no community investment, counter productive police work and a gangland hierarchy that maintains its control by mimicking white-collar criminality.

The reason the black characters, Omar, Stringer Bell, Avon Barksdale, Bodie, “Snoop”, “Proposition Joe”, Marlo Stanfield and the rest were so compelling was that Simon, from his years on the beat with the Sun, had acquired a pitch perfect ear not just for their hustler patois, but for their perverse but comprehensible moral code. That Omar, the gay loner avenging angel, (actor Michael Williams, who will never outlive that role), is almost universally everyone’s favorite character is because he and he alone — cops and politicians included — lived by and remained true to his code. (Major “Bunny” Colvin comes close.) Given a choice of whose word you were going to trust, Omar’s or the Mayor of Baltimore’s, there’d be no hesitation.

The abyss of verisimilitude between Simon’s portrayal of inner city black culture and the routinely bland, lazy caricatures cranked out by traditional “let’s not offend the consumers in their Barcaloungers” Hollywood was well past “yawning”. Ironically, “The Wire’s” central cop figure, the mightily flawed McNulty, is also the show’s most stock creation.

And then there were Simon’s acid portraits of the self-important, effete careerists bleeding newspapers of credibility and leading daily print journalism to its irrelevance, if not death.

In terms of immersion in a culture “the average viewer” thinks he knows but is fundamentally clueless, nothing compares to what Simon did with “The Wire”.

The case for “Breaking Bad”, created by Vince Gilligan, who cut his series-running teeth with Chris Carter on “The X-Files”, rests on its extraordinarily high standard of character development, plotting and cinematic sophistication.

On that last point, in the age of 1080p, “Breaking Bad” is more visually interesting, with better composition, sound and image editing and a more consistent sense of how the framing of a scene delivers tone and information than 80%, hell 90% of movies I pay $10 to see in a theater. (“The Wire”, by contrast, was largely indifferent to cinematic finesse.)

But “Breaking Bad’s” technical sophistication is always in service to character and story, and while Walter White, mild-mannered, repressed everyman high school chemistry teacher turned meth empire overlord isn’t quite as unfamiliar as Omar Little, his steady (d)evolution is fairly unique to mainstream drama. This current “Golden Age” of television — all of it on cable —  is full of anti-heroes, from Tony Soprano, to Don Draper to Tyrion Lannister. But only with Walter White do we experience the full rise of self-confidence, authority, lethality and (we suspect) fatal delusion.

But, as with “The Wire”, the entire “Breaking Bad” cast is as well developed as Walter. Jesse. Mike the hit man. Gus Fring. Skyler, Saul, (Saul!). Tio Salamanca. And I can’t think of a series that has pulled off as many superbly plotted predicaments as “Breaking Bad”. Remarkable, obsessive care has been taken with dramatic credibility, even while misting scene after scene with the scent of farce.

As the series moves toward its conclusion, with the betting game on whether Walter survives, and/or at what cost, I’m hoping Gilligan and his team find a way to suggest the catalyst for Walter’s mania. Personally, I keep returning to his relationship with the wealthy couple, she a former lover, he a former college pal, who offered to pay for his cancer treatment. Why did Walter isolate himself from them? Somewhere in the reason for his dissociation from them, (they seem to hold no ill will toward him, much the contrary) lies the root of his compulsive drive to establish himself, unequivocally, as master of his fate.

The compulsion and inevitable futility of controlling one’s immediate universe drives all the great shows of this era. But Walter White, ignored, status-less everyman as we meet him, is the one among the Tony Sopranos, etc. most emblematic of contemporary, invisible middle America. Walter can hide in plain sight because he is perceived as “no one”, one of the millions of unremarkable creatures whose fate is to submit their lives to more powerful forces.

But for some reason, and money is only a way of keeping score, Walter White decided to stop being the victim.

For those reasons, in the never-to-be-decided debate over Willie v. Mickey, I’m giving it to “Breaking Bad” by the fuzz on Heisenberg’s pork pie hat.

33 thoughts on “The Greatest Ever? “The Wire” or “Breaking Bad”?

  1. Bill says:

    I haven’t seen Breaking Bad yet, so I can’t agree or disagree with your conclusion. I am waiting until I can watch the entire series start-to-finish on DVD, which is how I watched The Wire.

    The Wire essentially ruined television for me forever. After watching it, everything else on TV before or after has seemed lame, half-assed, phony, and designed mainly to pacify viewers into lazy couch potatoes who are amenable to advertisers’ messages.

    I don’t watch much TV now, outside of my addiction to sports, and the few shows I do watch I now view as mere guilty pleasures, no matter how high-minded the themes or high-quality the production values. Downton Abbey, Mad Men, Homeland, The Hour, it’s a pretty short list.

    I know there are a lot of highly-regarded shows on cable now, and someday I will try to catch up with them on Netflix. But so far everything I’ve sampled, including the venerated Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, pale in comparison to The Wire.

    I realize that The Wire is not for everyone. It’s a testosterone-soaked world, full of astonishingly cold-blooded violence and nonstop profanity. Lots of explicit sex too, gay and straight. If it were a movie it would definitely be NC-17. It’s also very dark, often depressing, and in the end doesn’t leave you with much hope, only the creators’ deep love for the city of Baltimore and rage at what is being allowed to happen to it (and urban America in general).

    It still amazes me that a TV show was aired in America focusing unrelentingly on the failures of government, law enforcement, public education, and the news media. It sounds more like the rantings of a Biblical prophet than the premise for popular entertainment.

    I also realize that The Wire spoke to me directly: I grew up in Baltimore. Seeing a show not only set there but actually filmed there, using locals in the supporting cast, was inspiring. (I have also been watching Treme, which is also excellent, but doesn’t resonate with me on the same level because I don’t know New Orleans.)

    And like Simon, I am a former newspaperman, and The Wire is a view of the world through a journalists’ eyes — always looking at the big picture, connecting the dots, pulling the curtain back, asking uncomfortable questions of powerful institutions, seeking the real reasons things are the way they are.

    And I haven’t even mentioned the characters — the most memorable collection of personalities I ever saw.

    For those reasons, it seems unlikely that another TV show will ever hit me like The Wire did. But I am looking forward to Breaking Bad. If it is only half as good, it will be good indeed.

    1. Former newspaperfolk may have a special affinity for “The Wire”. Simon took special pleasure in the effete venality of the newsroom culture. But your comment about “ruining” all other TV is spot on. I used to watch A LOT of network TV and it was 98% godawful. Even the celebrated dramas, like “The West Wing” were antiseptic fantasies as far as I was concerned. The only drama I remember watching regularly were the “Law & Order” episodes in the Jerry Orbach era. The characters weren’t all West L.A. beauties and didn’t speak in the same grad-student platitudes and entendres.

  2. bertram jr. says:

    Well, Bri, the reps you mentioned were elected by the people of their districts, so why would those people be “embarrassed”?

    Can’t you just accept that the majority of citizens still value what’s right over what’s completely f’ing crazy?

  3. Jim Leinfelder says:

    I’m in agreement, “Breaking Bad” by a whisker. For everyone in his life, Walter goes from having cancer to being cancer in pursuit of gratifying his wounded ego. Now it’s his narcissism that’s destroying him. Still a victim, but now only of his own pathology.

  4. Jim Leinfelder says:

    Classically, I imagine, wherein WW is killed by his shadow, in this case his brother-in-law, the unwitting vector of WW’s entry into his life of drug manufacture and sales, a man who, unlike WW, has endured his own suffering and indignities without auguring into self-pitying malignancy and losing himself.

    1. Well, I’m kind of going for the Biblical denouement wherein Walter has the empire he feels is his due, but nothing else. No family. No soul. No place to be.

  5. Frogster says:

    We already know quite a bit about Walter’s relationship with the rich couple. In season one it was revealed Walter had been in business with his college pal but left before the business became a success. Later (season 2?) Walter tells the wife (his former girlfriend) that she and her husband had stolen his ideas (chemistry-related) without compensating him, and, if my memory is right, he also accuses her of having cheated on him at the time with her now husband. She reacts incredulously, reminding him that he left of his own volition and that he broke up with her. Watching the scene, she seems more believable; his memory was obvously clouded with envy. Later, (season 3 or 4) he tells someone (Jesse?) about missing out on that business success. Clearly, the missed opportunity motivates him.

    1. Yeah, and in the first part of Season Five Walter explains to Jesse that he is in neither the meth business or the money business, rather he is in “the empire business”. He then explains that he sold his share in Grey Matters, the tech company he started with he couple “for a couple months rent” — $5000 — and that that share is now worth roughly $700 million. But … he waves off the real why as something “we don’t need to get into”. As you point out, the suspicion has been planted that it was Walter who behaved either badly or irrationally.

      1. My theory on Walt’s exit from Grey Matter is that Gretchen stepped out on Walt with Elliot and, as some sort of retribution, Walt hooked up with Skyler. Skyler ends up preggers after their affair and Walt “does the right thing”, marrying her.

        Also possible is that Walt cheated on Gretchen with Skyler and then, in classic WW-style, manufactured some cover story about “his ideas being stolen by Elliot” as a reason for ditching the company.

        Either or neither or some combination of all that, the one thread that runs through Walter’s life is that pride leads him to great things (“great” being relative) and that same pride leads him to destruction.

        Amazing show.

        1. Hmmmm. Not bad. There has to be some element of pride involved, and we know Walt and Gretchen had something going. But Walt seems the only one of the Grey Matter three with a chip on his shoulder.

          Based on Walt trying to get Jesse to disappear in last Sunday’s episode — and neighbor Carol’s reaction at seeing him in the flash forward — I’m thinking Walt stages his own death. How the ricin cigarette figures in … I do not know. That scene in the Mexican restaurant was a classic.

          1. Think of the meeting in the Mexican restaurant and contrast it with the “talking pillow”. In S1, Marie was the one saying Walter should be able to make his own choices. Now, in S5, with a healthy dose of truth, Marie is the one to suggest that Walter just kill himself. Incredible stuff.

            If I were pressed, I’m betting that Walt has Saul call that Hoover XL Filter phone number so he disappears for a year. The two most exciting questions, to me, are what leads up to Walt pulling the rip cord on that phone call and then what has lead to him coming out of hiding, toting an M60.

            I have to believe that the ricin dose is something that Walter may be saving for himself as a “final solution”.

            The only thing that’s for sure, the thing that’s the most exciting, is that this show has proven that even with all the clues and suppositions we have, the truth is going to be more mind-blowing than anything we can imagine.

            1. This is great …

              I’m relieved to see so many people as confused by the cigarette pack and Jesse’s reaction as I am. I get Jesse’s rage following his epiphany … but I’m still not finding the “best” place for the cigarette to be deployed.

              Here’s a good discussion … at the Atlantic site:

              A gem comment: “I’m intrigued by the idea that Walt always had the potential to be Heisenberg. It reminds us that Breaking Bad is a philosophical argument masquerading as tragedy. We’re anticipating Heisenberg’s demise — and if you’re like me, you want it to happen — because the show presents the duality of good and evil as the fundamental aspect of the individual. Every character has a choice. That choice becomes them.

              Still, I don’t believe Heisenberg is more “authentic” than Walt. Heisenberg is less a person than a persona, the explosive aftermath of an arrogant man’s pent-up aggression. Walt is persona too, shaped by the mediocre social norms of a vanishing middle-class lifestyle.”

              The depth of this show (and the technical virtuosity) is why I give the #1 nod.

  6. Don’t you think the first episode of the last season B.B. was some kind of foreshadowing….Walter was in a restaurant in New Hampshire with all his hair grown out and a beard and he met a guy in the shitter and paid for some kind of high powered arms? He used a phony driver’s license to get a free birthday breakfast…..not sure what happens but it appears he’s on the run.

        1. Ha! THAT is a good one.

          “The drug world is a convenient setting for selling white supremacy because it allows for a white underdog in an openly racialized conflict. Besides the War on Terror, there aren’t a lot of other scenarios in which it’s possible to root for the particularly American cocktail of meritocracy, the little guy, the good guy, and the white guy, all at the same time.”

          I suppose there’s a way for someone to argue that Walter had to first win a duel with a classic uber-marketeer, Gus Fring. But then Gus was about as squeaky white as you can get.

          The “Mighty Whitey” thing though is an acid bath worth dipping just about everything in, at least as long as whites are a majority of the consumer population.

          The artisanal angle is also interesting. How many plot lines revolve around someone or something being not just “the best” but Wayne Gretzky-beyond-the-next-closest-competition “best”?

          Paradigms exist because paradigms work.

  7. What a joke that piece is. What’s the old adage, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail?”

    I should have known some nitwit writer would inject race into the Breaking Bad series. What about this angle: The average middle class white suburban guy is every bit as susceptible to becoming a menacing, dark, deranged, psychopath, as any black or hispanic.

    Where on earth did he get the idea that White is a good guy? And who is rooting for him? Quite frankly I was hoping he’d get his brains blown out by the third season, which appears unlikely.

    In my view, the point of the series is far beyond, pure meth, be it crystal blue or shit brown or drugs, per se, or race or anything of the sort. It’s the fact that humans have dark sides that are capable of taking them over, be it a lust for power, money, sex, drugs, rock and roll….ok. Delete the last item.

    Walter White’s morphing into a suburban monster is more the point of the story….the meth is a backdrop, and so is the color of anyone’s skin.

    Just imagine if the Walter White character were black or hispanic….shit would rain down like a convective weather pattern.

    Making Walter White……white was the only politically correct safe route for the creators to go if you really want to bring race into what amounts to just an interesting television series on human nature.

    1. I don’t know Mike. I think this is an example of what you choose and choose not to be curious about. I mean, look at it strictly from the vantage point of marketing. If the largest likely audience for a cable series is judged to be white, the calculation is to make the “hero” white as well and set him in a culture more or less familiar to whites. This is standard operating procedure. “The Mighty Whitey” syndrome is very well established in Western entertainment, and I’m not just talking about John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis, Arnold, Sly Stallone, etc.

      The brain trust of “Breaking Bad” are all white — including a couple white women. Is it racist that they stick with a world they sort of know and aim it at people more or less like themselves? Back in the Sixties we called that sort of thing “de facto racism”, which was a sort legalistic way of saying “whitey don’t know no better”.

      My point is it’s worth considering, worth rolling over in your mind occasionally. I would argue that the well-adjusted save their outrage for virulent rodeo clowns and Tea Party demagogues and look forward to laying out $10 for the next Denzel Washington action flick.

    2. Jim Leinfelder says:


      I think his point boils down merely to verisimilitude. A small point, in my mind, requiring from us a suspension of disbelief. The writer’s merely making the point that White’s supposedly qualitative edge in the meth marketplace is rather a stretch in an otherwise brilliantly realized depiction of a high school chemistry teacher turned meth cooker and wholesaler in New Mexico.

      It’s also critical, it would seem, to the next violent confrontation, as alluded to by his former colleague who visited the car wash. The purity of the product is off and White is needed to bring it back up to his high standards. if we don’t buy that premise, we won’t buy the violent mayhem that is sure to follow his refusal to, Godfather III-like, be sucked back into the game.

      Read “Methland” (an excellent non-fiction account of the meth epidemic destroying lives in Iowa) and I think you’ll find his point to be valid, if not critical to the enjoyment of a brilliant series.

      1. Jim: I would agree with hi point about the quality….God knows that meth heads are not likely to be picky about what gets them off. I think that’s valid. I just don’t find the whole race thing valid at all. I agree with Brian that the series takes place with main characters who are white….because the show is produced by white people. Spike Lee produces entertainment from black people’s point of view with black characters. There is nothing racist about either. Breaking Bad has nothing to do with Mighty Whitey syndrome of the past.

        In fact, the mere premise that a suburban white guy who is straight down the middle “good guy” morphs into a greedy monster, again, is an observation on how the purest of the good can be corrupted. He could be any color. In fact, the stereoptype is that the good white guy is just that….suburban and everyman and law abiding.

        When do we stop interjecting race into everything? Can’t we just appreciate a great story with interesting characters? Thanks for the tip on the book, Jim. I plan to read it.

        1. Just so we’re clear Mike, what I’m saying is that a show written by white folks about white folks for a predominantly white consumer CAN be accused of racism … to a certain degree. Its hardly the Klan out lynching people, or as I say, some idiot rodeo clown rousing the numbskull rabble in Missouri. But there is a (mostly) unconscious racial component. Ditto Spike Lee. Mostly though … “it’s just business”. People figuring out where their biggest audience is. I’m saying I save my outrage for violent abuses, of which there are plenty. But as a cultural exercise its worth asking yourself “why is this like this” every so often.

          1. bertram jr. says:

            I’ve got your cultural exercise…right here!

            Why don’t your ask yourself why our economy is tanking?

            While you’re at it, maybe we can mix in a little Martha’s Vineyard “snobbery”!

        2. Jim Leinfelder says:

          Mike: I picked up “Methland” after an assignment down there covering two missing kids (sadly, months later found dead in a field” that had a meth element. As I sat in a shabby, scorched public park watching the FBI drag a man-made lake for the missing girls, one by one, locals there doing much the same thing would plunk down next to me and unburden themselves of meth-related tragedies in their lives and the lives of their loved ones.

          It was very affecting. The book helped put a context around the stories I heard that day.

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