Some, and I would put myself in this category, have argued we are in a new Golden Age of television. That particularly series offered on cable, pay and basic, have elevated the form. As an example, much has been written about The Wire, the five-year crime show that began simply enough, cops trying to catch dope sellers in Baltimore. But the show wasn’t the typical procedural of quirky cops and odd villains – though it certainly had its share of those types of characters – from detective Bunk Moreland a homeboy, to the thinking man’s gangster, Stringer Bell.
David Simon, the show’s co-creator, along with ex-Baltimore cop Ed Burns wrote of two competing myths in America in an introduction to The Wire: Truth be Told,, a book of essays about the show. He stated in part, “…if you were smarter, shrewder or frugal or visionary, the first with the best idea, given the process of the free market, you will succeed beyond your wildest imagination. Conversely, if you don’t posses those qualities, if you’re not slick or cunning, but willing to work hard, be a citizen and devoted to your family, why there was something for you too.”
He went on to note that Baltimore (and by extension other urban areas) with its brown fields, rotting piers and rusting factories, is testament that the economy shifted then shifted again, rendering obsolete generations of union-wage workers and workers’ families. The Wire then was a story wedged between these two competing American myths.
The Wire had a socio-political context and that context shaped the way it told its stories. The Sopranos didn’t have a socio-political context, but nonetheless gave us a compelling story played out about an anxiety-prone New Jersey mob boss. We’ve always had a fascination with the characters for whom the normal rules of behavior don’t apply. Fantômas and Donald Westlake’s Parker were clever thieves and killers, who presented us a world from their decidedly bent points-of-view. So too did Tony Soprano. A family man in both senses of that phrase who endured the psychological torment of his manipulative mother to murdering a snitch he happened to encounter while escorting his daughter on a trip to visit a potential college she might attend.
From Mad Men’s Don Draper, a hard drinking, Korean War deserter who beds any good-looking woman with a pulse; Amy Jellicoe’s battle with her demons in a journey to inner peace while she took it to the Man in Enlightened; cops of varying degrees of badness and doomed fates in The Shield; an arms dealing motorcycle gang controlling a small town while imploding from within in Sons of Anarchy; Luther’s John Luther, a London plainclothes cop whose girlfriend was a brilliant psychopath and who despite trying to play it straight, found himself on a crooked path, to the crooked pols of Tammany Hall in 1865’s New York City Five Points where matters of race, corruption and capers were played out in Copper, the villain, the antihero and the flawed hero have dominated this new Golden Age..
And then there was Walter White. He was he middle-aged, cancer wracked high school chem teacher turned meth kingpin Heisenberg in Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad. The inventor of the much in demand blue meth who Lost writer Damon Lindelof wrote on the Vulture site comparing Walter to Bruce Wayne as Batman that, “Both men are characters who are shaped by a defining event in their lives. For Wayne, it’s witnessing the murder of his parents in Crime Alley. For White, it’s learning he has cancer and realizing that he may very well die and leave his family with little money to take care of themselves.” Further he noted their outsized personas were already inside them, lying dormant until that one critical incident released their phoenixes. But as Walter finally admits to his estranged wife Skyler in the series finale, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really – I was alive.” Walter did love his family, did want to provide for them.
But just as in the first episode, when these teen punks are making fun of his son, Walt Jr., “Flynn” as he liked to be called, because he has mild cerebral palsy and he faces them down, Walt was not a milktoast meanderer leading a life of quiet desperation. Like tackling a knotty formula, he analyzed a situation, took stock of the hurdles, and figured out how to solve the problem. Bad guys from Crazy 8, Walt’s first kill if you will to neo-Nazi Uncle Jack found that out the hard way.
For as Walter White once told Skyler, “You clearly don’t know who you’re talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks!”