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Let’s talk about legacy.
With Breaking Bad‘s impressive finale, the Vince Gilligan-created series now cements its place in the pantheon of all-time great television series. Breaking Bad completed five out of five astonishing, near-perfect seasons, start to finish — a feat that arguably no other series has accomplished, creatively. That said, as I wrote when this column was originally published, there are still some intriguing elements in play from at least one other series still breathing. However, the final eight episodes, including a superb finale that satisfied on a number of levels, was just the proof I needed to etch the show’s legacy into stone.
How does it stack up historically? Pretty damned well.
I would put Breaking Bad in the No. 2 slot of the top five dramas of all time. Your napkin results may vary.
But let’s take a look at what are four virtual locks in that top five — leaving out the fifth gives everyone a little real estate for their own personal favorite. Would it be The Shield? Would it be Deadwood? How about something British like Prime Suspect? Go wild.
I believe that The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad are all first-ballot hall of fame entrants. And all four are in my top five. But they all got there in various ways, creatively, and they each had different hurdles to overcome. Let’s take a look.
The Wire: This remains my pick for the undisputed No. 1.
Since only one other top four series I’ve listed completed exactly five seasons, it makes sense to compare Breaking Bad to The Wire. This turns out to serve Breaking Bad very well. Why? Breaking Bad has never had a subpar season. (It would be hard to argue that any series in the all-time top five of television could have a “bad” season, so let’s not use that word.)
The Wire? Season five was subpar by both its own standards and those necessarily applied to concepts of sustained greatness. It could be that journalism is a topic too close to creator David Simon‘s heart and head and that he didn’t have enough distance, had too many gripes aimed at too many enemies and that, separately, he should have never allowed McNulty to go there. You Wire fans know what I mean.
But despite that, what keeps The Wire ahead of any other series is the scope of its ambition. What Simon and his team of writers set out to do — and then accomplished — was extraordinary. They began with drug dealers and detectives — an enormous oversimplification, of course — and expanded outward, encompassing this country’s war on drugs and what that cost would be; looked at institutional failure in the police ranks and even in the less defined ranks of the drug world; focused on the struggles of the working class in American cities (Baltimore-specific, naturally), delved into politics and corruption — and the corruption of hope; presented one of the most accurate, damning and heartbreaking accounts of this country’s failure to properly educate its citizens; added families to its overarching theme of institutional failure by zeroing in on how sociological issues and class structure can’t be cover-all excuses when families abuse their obligations and their free will; then closed it all out by damning the media for its failure in magnifying these issues as incompetence, bottom-line managing for profits, selfish prize-seeking and big-picture blindness obliterating the mandate of a free press to tell the truth that is in front of its face. Without knowledge, there is no change. Without change, history repeats.
That was the bleak fiat of The Wire.
And no matter how flat-out brilliant Breaking Bad was, Walter White’s journey from Mr. Chips to Scarface and the fallout on his family will not equal, in ambition, what The Wire accomplished.
Breaking Bad: And yet what’s so remarkable about Breaking Bad is that it arguably had fewer creative stumbles than any other series and reached greatness faster than any other series (I would put the first 20 episodes of Breaking Bad — a strike-shortened number as seven from the first season met 13 in the second season — up against the first 20 of any other series, including The Wire). Seriously, if you watch all 20 — over and over again is the suggestion here — they are cumulatively a tour de force of character development; darkness offset by comedy; heartbreaking choices of fundamentally good people that will forever change them (though, at that point, we don’t know exactly to what extent); directing and cinematography of the highest order; a spectacular yet restrained use of sound that probably no series on television has equaled; unparalleled attention to detail, from character color palette to when to use pop music in a scene; frenetic use of camera angle and position that calls attention to itself but is always successfully deployed, creating a signature style; immaculate and refined dialogue, which seems almost ridiculous to point out for any of these series; and a combination of audacity and cinematic punch that reverberates equally impressively on the meters of entertainment and rarified quality.
Put more simply, the sprint Breaking Bad took through five full seasons made it Usain Bolt; every other series in the top four would have to be represented by, say, some other fast athlete not from the world of track and field. That’s the point of distinction here. It’s not minimizing the greatness of the first five seasons of other series. It’s merely putting an exclamation point on how startling and magnificent this five-season run of Breaking Bad truly was, and what purity of vision and relentless daring fueled Vince Gilligan along the way.
That’s why I’m putting Breaking Bad in the No. 2 slot. When I originally wrote this column, I had a caveat: We haven’t seen how Mad Men will wrap up its historic seventh (and final) season. But with Breaking Bad refusing to stumble in the home stretch — and believe it or not that was indeed a real possibility, a great unknown that had to be factored into the prior evaluation — the emphatic and convincing finish was enough to cement it at No. 2. The length of Mad Men, I believe, is more likely to hurt it than help it in the final evaluation. But there’s merit to the wait-and-see argument, as I describe below:
Mad Men: Here’s why Mad Men remains something special entirely: It will be the only one in the top four to go seven seasons. The Sopranos had five 13-episode seasons and then closed out with a 21-episode sixth season — broken into 12 and nine episodes in the part-one and part-two box sets of season six.
This decision on the part of The Sopranos brought about some storytelling issues that hampered its legacy, I believe. In retrospect, HBO holding to only a slightly more expanded sixth season might have been a better decision. Or, conversely, Sopranos creator David Chase and HBO could have more clearly and wisely opted for two seasons. But the feelings bandied about at the time indicate both scenarios were unlikely.
Let’s take a small sidestep here, just to make something clear: Creating great television for five seasons is ridiculously hard. Unlike film, television is a continuous story. It’s not contained by two hours. It lives and breathes as a story through 13 episodes and then takes many of those story strands beyond that first season and sometimes through to the last. That’s a risk. Plus, ongoing and nuanced character development is another dangerous hurdle.
And think about the psychic toll it takes on series creators who do something rare — like make a superb season of top-tier television — and are then asked to do it again. And if they pull off that impractical exploit, what then? They are asked, inconceivably, to do it yet again. And by the third season, all the doubters are out in force, just waiting for a stumble. A fourth season of greatness is nothing short of a miracle. And, let’s be honest, by the fifth season it’s almost as if some critics are actively rooting against you.
(Which is why I wouldn’t put a series I love dearly, Deadwood, in the top five. It had only three seasons, and the story arc in the final one ended prematurely and unsatisfyingly. How can a series like that — wonderful, lyrical and well-acted though it may be — seriously be considered among these others that have produced, at minimum, 26 more episodes fraught with the peril of imperfection? Answer: It can’t.)
With that great difficulty of achievement in mind, Mad Men just finished its sixth season. There were a few trip-ups in season five — but fewer than in The Wire — and a couple of additional and more glaring ones in season six. But season five was, by almost any yardstick, wholly successful artistically. And, despite having a story arc that seemed at times superfluous and stretched out by a contractual obligation to reach into a seventh season, the exceptionally strong end to season six made a lot of amends.
Now, freed from an elongated setup to the final 14 episodes, just what can Mad Men accomplish? I stand ready for what could very likely be heralded as a creatively stellar “comeback” (though that word might be too strong given the comparative strengths of season six). The point is, we’ve all been waiting to see what Matthew Weiner will do with and to Don Draper. And we’ve all been waiting to see how the lives of the rest of the players on that wonderful internal drama unfold. I have the utmost confidence that Weiner and his writers will pull it off. When that happens, a re-examination of which series falls into the No. 2 or No. 3 slot can ensue. Because remember — neither The Wire nor Breaking Bad had to produce a sixth season. That’s an enormous burden to sidestep — as evidenced by the wayward zig-zagging of The Sopranos as it prepared for the end, or how Mad Men was forced to tap-dance in preparation for season seven. The unthinkable difficulty of producing genius for five seasons is further cemented by the fact that if you can’t end the story definitively in that fifth season, then the tail end of it becomes one very dicey proposition creatively. So, too, is the preparation and execution of a sixth season made qualitatively perilous when you can’t give closure in that season either — the heritage begins to calcify even in the most able of hands.
From brilliant to beleaguered and openly doubted at this point, a series creator must conjure up all of the storylines from a nitpicked sixth season and marshal them for a dramatically distinguished charge into a seventh season. Not to put too fine a point on it, people, but Mad Men = uncharted territory when it comes to delineating its legacy.
And that will come into play, trust me, if and when Mad Men nails that final season (book it). It will be a creative force to be reckoned with, and time will perhaps look more kindly on it than on The Sopranos.
The Sopranos: Coming first is never easy. That’s the burden of legacy. There was nothing like The Sopranos prior to The Sopranos. It’s been the yardstick for years but was, on closer inspection, being overcome during its run by what The Wire was accomplishing in the HBO stable, plus feeling the competition of what The Shield was doing for FX a few months before The Wire began. But in a world where we judge television series at least partly as linear storytelling, The Sopranos wasn’t really playing that game. Chase was making one-hour movies, week to week, year to year — and more so as the series went on. Of course, it’s important to remember that The Sopranos was also trying to reinvent and subvert a familiar genre while at the same time benefitting from that familiarity. (An argument can be made that throughout its entire run, two different types of audiences watched The Sopranos: those who realized it was a character study about a man in severe emotional crisis and how his marriage in particular and immediate family in general played into that crisis, with a sprinkling of exterior angst from his “other” family; and those who only wanted to see the goings on of that other family — the mob element that used guns and criminal enterprise to cover for the existential elements that so dominated the rest of the show).
In many ways, the credible genius of Chase and The Sopranos was combining those two disparate elements and satisfying (if not outright fooling) both audiences — surely the latter audience, which was more interested in seeing tits at the Bada Bing and Tony whacking someone than having Tony muse about ducks or work out his mother issues or succumb to an ever-increasing number of dream scenarios. (And no series has ever used dream sequences as effectively as The Sopranos — it’s not even close.)
But if we can look back at The Sopranos, there were periods where this duality of purpose worked against it (and I’m a believer that Chase very much knew he was dealing with two audiences and trying to serve them the best he could until, in the sixth and final season, he just seemed to stop caring about perception entirely).
I think this is where a distinction between The Sopranos and Mad Men is apt. Weiner was a writer on The Sopranos and was certainly influenced to some degree (maybe a great degree) by Chase. Of the series in this top four, only The Sopranos and Mad Men engage in the systematic use of metaphor and unspoken, underlying narrative to help drive (and heighten) the viewing experience. The difference is that Weiner embraces it while Chase in many instances seems to disavow it, even though it’s pretty clear that drilling down for deeper meaning and — Jesus Christ! — trying to suss out the myriad dream sequences seemed important to Chase. For all the meaning that can be derived from songs that play in the background or the quotable chatter from TV shows that Tony and others watch while delivering their own important dialogue (honestly, you could really fall down the rabbit hole with The Sopranos if you chose to), Chase was steadfastly adamant about deeper meanings. He didn’t deny them, but neither did he put together any compelling, defensive soliloquies about what you could find if you went — referencing a much later series — all Lost on the clues.
In fact, when asked about one of the great early mysteries of The Sopranos — what happened to and when will the Russian in the woods from the season-three episode of “Pine Barrens” return — Chase was bluntly dismissive: He’s not coming back. Why would he? What’s the point?
That, more than anything else, hammered home the notion that Chase really was making one-hour movies, meant to leave an impression on you for that period of time but not necessarily to stack upon each other for further evaluation.
Mad Men, on the other hand, seems to find Weiner much more willing to create depth via metaphor and to encourage the exploration of subtext to further enhance what’s not being said nor outright depicted on screen as scenes unfold. Not only does this approach perfectly jibe with the uptight nature of the era depicted in early seasons of Mad Men but it allows Weiner and his writers to explore the sublime conceit of the series, which is that it’s a character study of a man in an ongoing existential crisis searching for meaning, purpose and identity in someone else’s skin, while the surface structure pirouettes around advertising, smoking, drinking and fashion. If you can’t see the parallel structural elements of intent and purpose to The Sopranos, you’re engaging in passive viewing habits that just can’t abide two series of such depth and aspiration.
Unfortunately for The Sopranos, Chase’s looser interpretation of ongoing story structure led to some wayward plot arcs that never returned with the kind of payoff that viewers wanted (and in some way deserved). Season six, no matter how you divide those 21 episodes, was erratic, not cohesive, stretched out as maddeningly as anything in the recently completed sixth season of Mad Men, and laden with a sense of doubt about the ultimate direction and finality of the story. That said, The Sopranos went out with the greatest ending in television history, and anyone who viewed that as disrespectful to the audience simply wasn’t watching the show that Chase most wanted to showcase.
And yet here we are, amid this still-unfurling, impressive renaissance of televised drama, and we’re unsure where the modern-age godfather of these great dramas will end up in the top five ranking (or at least I am). Maybe that says more about what’s to come than what has been. But if I had to venture a guess, I’d say the only slots currently available are No. 3 and No. 4. Debate away — and congratulations to Breaking Bad for maintaining its magnificence from beginning to end.
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