One of my favorite debates is whether or not Breaking Bad or Mad Men is the superior television series. I’ve always argued for the latter because while Breaking Bad might be a better show in terms of the form and execution, the content being delved into on Mad Men has always been, in my opinion, far more important. Whereas Breaking Bad always seemed to just be one of my favorite ways to spend an hour, Mad Men was busy deconstructing the myth that America used to be a better place in the 1950s or proving why the revolutions of the 1960s were so necessary for the social fabric of our country. Last night was the first time I ever felt Breaking Bad might be trying to make a statement about the United States of America.
Stick with me on this.
For whatever reason, our country and our pop culture in the US is obsessed with the folklore of organized crime. Almost all of the stories tap into the idea of the American dream and the criminal achieving the own version of it by rising to be the overlord of some type of criminal empire. Tony Soprano, Vito Corleone, Tony Montana…all were in search of the idea that it means something to be somebody in this country and that anyone can achieve wealth and success if only they put in the effort. And you know what, audiences loved it. All of these men are still worshipped, despite their many character flaws. It’s not surprising given the lavish and glorious fashion in which they were presented.
So last night I had this idea as I watched the latest episode “Say My Name.” Is it in any way possible that Vince Gilligan’s is submitting a five season criticism of the American dream? Furthermore, is he making it a point to show Americans just how ugly a man would really have to become in order to run an organized crime outfit? Whereas the predecessors sort of gave a romantic quality to these dons, I think it’s time we start considering the possibility that Gilligan is lashing out at the very culture that helped create Walter White.
The last thing I want to say about all that is that when discussing Mad Men against Breaking Bad I often brought up what I call the Oliver Stone problem. Stone famously directed the movie Wall Street back in 1987 with the hope that personifying greed in Gordon Gecko would inspire a generation to clean up our financial system. In fact it had the opposite effect and actually inspired a generation to try to imitate Gecko’s greedy ways. I feel Mad Men has a similar crisis on its hands in that many of its biggest fans enjoy the show because they actually desire the world presented by the show, totally going against the point of the show in the first place.
Well, the Oliver Stone problem might just have touched a nerve with Gilligan. Scarface, you might remember, was written by Stone. Like Wall Street, it has inspired a generation of wannabe Tony Montanas. To this day the character is glorified in song and art. It’s like Vince Gilligan just finally had enough of all the romanticism about criminals and decided to show us what it’s really like to be that delusional. And last night’s episode was the perfect example. Onto the recap…
“Say My Name” opens up with Walt asking the Phoenix meth king Declan to do just that while debating the terms of a proposed business deal. One of the themes of any great crime boss is that a name must mean something. It has to ring out in the streets and command fear and respect. You can’t help but love the irony that in Walt’s case it’s not even his real name (lending more credibility to my theory that Gilligan is blowing up the romantic qualities of organized crime–there will be no sympathy or love for Walter White when it is all said and done).
We then find out Walt’s hiding place for the methylamine. He left it in the freaking car wash and heads over with Jesse to remove it. Skyler, looking troubled as ever attempts to ask Walt questions about it. Walt quickly dismisses her in dickish, alpha dog fashion showing the crazy levels his ego is reaching.
My personal favorite scene of the episode then unfolds as Walt and Jesse finally have their falling out. Jesse makes it clear that he wants out and Walt foolishly believes he can manipulate him into staying again. He then launches into a tirade when Jesse proves to be impervious to his assault. Walt tries every possible manipulation on him and Jesse dismisses them all, his wide eyes an indicator of just how open he is to the monster in front of him.
It turns out Mike uses a different lawyer than Saul to distribute the money to the famous nine members of “the list.” The man heads into a bank where he deposits predetermined amounts of cash into safety deposit boxes while leaving the majority of the cash to Mike’s granddaughter. This will turn out to be problematic. The scene is followed by Walt doing a new cook with Landry instead of Jesse after the break up. One can’t help but feel this will end up being problematic as well, what with Landry taking a novel’s worth of notes and all.
Mike’s world then gets blown to pieces. First the DEA busts his lawyer friend for shelling out the dirty cash. The lawyer then agrees to flip on him. And finally, the cops show up at the park in an attempt to arrest Mike. He’s forced to make an extremely painful decision in that he must leave his granddaughter behind without ever having said goodbye. It’s a cruel fate but in the moral world of Breaking Bad it makes sense. Mike did horrible things. Mike must pay the consequences. Action. Reaction. Breaking Bad.
The final sequence has been a bit of contention among television critics. Many believe that Mike relenting and allowing Walt to bring him his getaway bag was simply too unrealistic, given how flawless Mike has always been in his execution. It’s understandable that it came off as a bit unbelievable that Mike would make two mistakes in two weeks with regards to Walt, most especially because he loathes him so badly. This week’s mistake costs him his life.
When Walt shows up an argument of course ensues and Walt absolutely blows his gasket. He catches Mike off guard and helplessly strapped into the front seat of his car and shoots him with his own gun, a shot which proves to be fatal. Ever the minimalist, Mike tells Walt to shut the f— up when he tries to apologize for how things turned out. The episode leaves us with a gorgeous shot of Mike falling over next to a flowing river. RIP to one the best characters in the show’s history.
The bodies are stacking up though, and as of yet Walt hasn’t paid the consequences.
1. “Shut the f— up, and let me die in peace.” -Mike to Walt (after the latter shoots him)
2. “Say my name.” -Walt to Declan (in proving his alpha dog-ness over his rival druglord)
1. Walt and Jesse’s breakup
2. Mike’s death
3. The opening meeting between Walt and Declan