Breaking Men: bookends of the American Era.

WARNING: spoilers (Mad Men, Breaking Bad) ahead.

AMC has developed, over the past five years, two television shows of extremely high quality that seem unrelated: Mad Men and Breaking Bad. The first centers on Madison Avenue in the 1960s, and it depicts the ascendancy of the “WASP” upper-middle-class into a makeshift upper class, following the power vacuum created by the evisceration of the old elite in the 1930s and ’40s, while they are chased up those stairs by social upheaval and their own obsolescence. The lions of Mad Men become rich, aggressive businesspeople because they are getting old and there is nothing else for them to do. Although it can be cynical and morose, the show is eros-driven, focused on an elite sector of the economy responsible for literally building the American middle-class culture, with still-new and exciting products like air travel, automobiles, and (well…) mass-produced, cheap tobacco cigarettes. What pervades the show is that these people should be happy: they’re rich and important people in the most powerful country on earth in what seems like the most exciting time in history, with passenger air travel a reality and space tourism “inevitable” within 25 years. (About that…)

An interesting exercise regarding Mad Men is to think of its environment and its characters within a modern context. Most young professionals (outside of technology, where their jobs hardly existed that long ago) agree that the “golden age” was decades ago, when hours were short and, though it was harder to get in the door of top firms, career advancement once in them was virtually guaranteed (for a man, at least). Peggy and Don, who are frequently in the office at 7 o’clock, seem remarkably dedicated in comparison to their drunken colleagues. Whether this depiction of young professional life in the 1960s as a “golden age” is accurate is a matter of much controversy, and Mad Men takes both sides. On one hand, Pete Campbell, under 30 and not especially well-compensated at the time, is able to buy (!) a house in Manhattan for $32,000 ($230,000 in today’s dollars). On the other, the work environment is full of fear and authority (Pete is almost fired for pitching his own idea to a client) and social anxieties are so severe that self-medication with alcohol and cigarettes is a necessity. A bit of useful context is that it wasn’t at all normal or socially acceptable for professionals to leave jobs, as it is now, except for obvious promotions like first-day partnership in the new firm. So getting fired or demoted unto departure wasn’t the annoyingly unexpected, unpaid, 6-week vacation it is today: it could spell long-term ruin (cf. Duck Phillips). Every character in Mad Men lives on the brink of career disaster, and they know it.

If there is a more present comparison for the advertising world of the 1960s, it would be investment banking between 1980 and 2008: a lucrative, selective, cutthroat, and often morally compromised industry whose cachet entitled it to the middle-third of Ivy League students– people who were clearly capable, but not so capable as to be walking authority conflicts. On the same token, advertising was far more creative an industry (at least at junior levels, and within the confines of the law) than investment banking could ever be. Also, in the 1960s Silicon Valley wasn’t on the map, and air travel was still prohibitively expensive for many people, so the creative and entrepreneurial East Coasters who might be drawn to California in 2009 would have, instead, been drawn into advertising in New York. This created a very different mix than the cultural homogeneity of modern investment banking. In 2012, these people wouldn’t have been anywhere close to each other. Pushing them forward fifty years, Peggy would be an elite graphic artist with some serious coding chops, but living on a very moderate income and an hour away from Manhattan by train. Pete would be a pudgy private equity associate, far sleazier and less charming than his 1960s counterpart. Roger Stirling probably would have gone into law and, despite being utterly mediocre, attended Harvard Law, entered a white-shoe (“biglaw”) firm, and made partner based on his family connections. Harry Crane would be in Los Angeles, but wise enough to the times not to enter the entertainment industry proper; he’d be third co-founder (5% equity holding) of a “disruptive” internet startup about to become a thorn in MTV’s side. These four would have nothing to do with each other and probably never meet at all. Joan? It’s hard to say where she’d be or what she’d be doing, but she’d be good at it. Don is even harder to place, being a zeitgeist in the true sense of the word. His character wouldn’t exist if shifted 10 years in either direction. He’s a pure product of the Great Depression, the Korean War, and the 1950s-60s ascendancy of the U.S. middle class. Dick Whitman would have taken an entirely different path. My assessment of how he would rise (into venture capital, rather than advertising, with the first half of his career established in the developing world in the 1990s) I will delay to another post, needing in this one to dedicate time to a seemingly opposite show: Breaking Bad. 

Mad Men opens the American Era on the coast where the sun rises, and Breaking Bad closes it in the rocky, red desert where the sun almost sets. Walter White is, in many ways, the opposite of Don Draper: fifteen years older at the story’s onset, but three decades older in spirit, a failed chemist who squandered his genius, a schoolteacher eventually fired for misconduct, and a man who turns to vicious crime out of a deep hatred (rather than a manipulative and cynical dismissal, like Draper harbors) of society. Draper is might be an allusion to the cloak he’s covered over himself; White begins the show naked (almost literally). He’s a feeble, desperate man who has wasted his genius (for reasons left unclear, but that seem connected to his massive ego and a callously discarded relationship) to become a mediocre teacher in a mediocre school who works at a car wash on his weekends to support a family. In the first episode, he gets sick with a cancer that his shitty health insurance won’t cover. Out of financial desperation, he teams up with one of his failed students to cook methamphetamine.

Draper seems to glide into advertising, almost by accident. Dick Whitman didn’t assume Draper’s identity because he wanted to become an ad magnate; he did it to escape a war when he found the effort to be pointless. He rose with the rising tide of the American middle class, and was wily enough to come up a bit faster than the rest. On the other hand, Walter White’s simultaneous ascendancy (into the drug underworld) and free-fall (into moral depravity) occur by brute force, although only some of the force is his. The world is collapsing, and he becomes somewhat weightless by falling with it, but in full awareness of the thud at the bottom. That Walter will be dead or ruined and humiliated by the end of the fifth and final season seems obvious at this point; the open question is how far down he will go (morally speaking) and whether he will gain a tragic recognition of the misery he has inflicted upon his family and the world.

The catalyst for Walter White’s turn to crime is a diagnosis of lung cancer, giving him about a year to live. It may be a stretch to connect this with Mad Men, but one of their primary products is Lucky Strike cigarettes, featured prominently in the first episode (“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”) and throughout the season. Mad Men features an optimistic, future-loving backdrop of industrial ascent and capitalistic triumph. Breaking Bad‘s backdrop is of industrial waste, wreckage, pollution, and toxicity. Most obvious is Walter’s product, which is an artistically pure form of one of humanity’s most poisonous products– crystal meth, nicknamed “Blue Sky” because of its extremely high quality and blue color. Drug kingpin Gus Fring hides behind a fried-foods chain arguably responsible (in small part) for American obesity, while Walter’s megalab resides in a squalid laundry outfit. Industrial capitalism’s messes are everywhere. Walter’s cancer illustrates the invasiveness of toxicity: the damage lives within the protagonist’s body, and threatens to kill him at any time.

Connecting Breaking Bad to the demise of the American middle class in general is relatively straightforward. Almost all of the major causes of American decline (and the collapse of its middle class) are featured, albeit most indirectly, in this show. The international, big-picture causes of American decline are (a) international violence, (b) the coddling of our parasitic upper class (resulting in, among other things, irresponsible deficit spending) and (c) our reliance on polluting, increasingly scarce, 20th-century energy sources, of which Breaking Bad features two of these three. The first is featured prominently, in the never-ending and international cycles of violence involving Gus Fring, the Mexican Cartel, Tuco, “the Cousins”, Hector, and Hank. The second of these decline factors (parasitic upper class) is shown indirectly– through Walter White’s turn to parasitism, the callous sleaze of Saul Goodman, the two-faced upper-middle-class respectability of Gus Fring, the illegal financing behind Skyler’s “American Dream” of owning a business, and the depressing failure of small business-owner Ted Beneke and his industrial-era enterprise.

Those are the big-picture causes of American decline, which aren’t terribly relevant to Breaking Bad and its laser focus on one man. The finer-grained and more individual causes of the American middle class are the “Satanic trinity”: education costs, housing, and healthcare. Each makes an appearance in Breaking Bad, and healthcare most prominently, with Walter being forced into crime by uncovered expenses associated with his cancer. Albuquerque did not experience the mostly-coastal housing bubble, so housing makes a passive cameo in the destruction of it: Ted Beneke is killed by his house, while Walter and Jesse’s hideout (a home Jesse would inherit if he were better behaved) is ruined it a rather morbid way– a body is to be disposed-of using acid, and Jesse uses the bathtub instead of acid-resistant plastic, destroying the tub, bathroom, floor and house in a blow-down of liquefied human remains. The third of these, education, is only featured at the show’s outset: White is a brilliant but uninspired and miserable educator, and Jesse is a failed ex-student of his. Education cannot be featured further in Breaking Bad because education focuses on the future, and all its characters reliably have is the present. This extreme and desperate present-focus is also what makes Walter’s family (aside from his clear desire to protect them) deeply uninteresting (to the viewer). Walter’s son is disabled but of high intelligence and possibly has an interesting future, but for now he’s just an expensive and typically difficult high-school student. His daughter is an infant, and Walter will almost certainly not see her reach adulthood. Walter may wish to give them a future, but for now his focus is only on immediate survival.

If Breaking Bad is about the decline of the American middle-class, it’s also about poison and the impossibility of containing it. Walter White begins the show with cancer– a parasitic clump of useless cells that kills the host by (among other things) releasing poison into the body. Realizing his life’s failure, and that he’ll be leaving his family with nothing, he begins his life of crime, which is also the only way he can afford treatment for his illness. Walter beats the cancer (for now, as of the end of Season 4) but in doing so he becomes the cancer. He’s fired from his job as a schoolteacher, signifying the end of his useful social function. He mutates into a useless “cell” and begins releasing poison, in enormous doses measured in hundreds of pounds per week of crystal meth, into society. What Breaking Bad also shows us is that toxicity can never be contained, at least not permanently. The acid intended to dissolve a corpse destroys a home. Hamlet, the notorious Shakespearean antihero, only killed eight. By the end of Season 4, Walter is indirectly responsible for a mid-air plane crash (that would have been national news if real) over a major city that killed 168 people, he has cost his brother-in-law his career and physical function, he has murdered several people, and he has placed his family directly in danger.

Mad Men and Breaking Bad may be entirely unconnected in their origins. These dramas exist in entirely different worlds, fifty years, half a continent, and at least one social class apart. The shows appear to have nothing to do with each other, aside from extrinsic aspects such as the cable channel (AMC) that distributes them. In fact, they’re connected only by the broad-but-thin story arc of American ascendancy, calamity, and decline.

There are two riddles posed in quick succession in Godel, Escher, Bach. The first is to find an eight-letter word whose middle four letters are “ADAC”. The second is to find an eight-letter word whose first two letters, and its last two, are “HE”. Presented separately, both of these are very hard. I can only think of one word that solves each. Presented together, the riddle becomes much easier. I have similar thoughts about the unspoken (and quite possibly unrealized by the shows’ creators) connection between these two television shows. These shows are only companions if one knows the rest of the story, which is that a historical incarnation of the American nation (20th-century, middle-class) was born in the time of one and died in that of the other. Otherwise, they could have been set in entirely different worlds.

As Mad Men advances, the optimism of the era becomes clear. An enormous rocket ship is launching, and the characters’ anxiety comes from the fear that they might not be (or might not deserve to be) on it. What they foresee least of all is what will actually happen. Catastrophic urban decay in the 1970s and ’80s, especially in New York? Yeah right, that’s impossible. Too much money in these cities. Investment banking (a bland WASP safety career) eclipsing advertising as “the” coveted (and far slimier) “prestige” industry? Not possible; those guys are morons. The re-emergence of America’s defeated, obsolete upper class in the 1980s, symbolized by the election of a third-rate, once-leftist actor to the presidency? Impossible; all politics is center-left (cf. Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon) these days. The rapid transition of the authoritarian, leftist, communist assholes into authoritarian, right-wing “neoconservatives” who’d get us into unwinnable wars in the Middle East? Just ridiculous. An emergent and militaristic American upper class representing more of a threat to national and world security than the Soviet Union, which will implode in the late 1980s? Insane concept. The world in which the Mad Men live is shaking, and the perception that it’s about to be destroyed is very real, but no one can envision how it will be destroyed, or why. None can foresee the coming misery or spot its sources; all eyes are on that rocket ship. In Breaking Bad, we see the wreckage after that rocket comes back to earth five decades later, slamming into the cold New Mexico desert, and annihilating the middle (class, and geographical center) of an entire nation when it lands.

Breaking Bad is more personal and ahistoric than Mad Men. Walter White doesn’t care about “America” or the middle class or what is going to happen to either, because he’s not trying to exploit macroscopic social trends; he is just trying to survive, and he exploits human weakness (an ahistorical source) because it’s there. Bad‘s backdrop is the decay of “Middle America”, just as Requiem for a Dream is set against the calamitous end of the New York middle class, but it’s a story that could be told in any time. Its relevance is maximized by its currency, and the involvement of health insurance (instead of say, gambling debt) as a proximate cause of Walter White’s turn to crime suggests the current era and an external locus of original fault, but the personal and tragic elements of Walter’s story could be given another backdrop.

Breaking Bad does, however, belong in a technological society such as ours just as Mad Men belongs in a time of colored-pencil creativity and innovation. Both Mad Men and Breaking Bad grapple with morality, but the latter does so more fiercely. Mad Men illustrates the application of mediocre artistic talent to a legitimate purpose of low social value, in the pursuit of vain narcissism and reckless ambition. Breaking Bad features the application of extreme scientific talent to outright evil, in the pursuit of mere survival amid a world that is collapsing both on a personal (Walter’s cancer) and national (health “insurance”) scale.

What do these television shows tell us about ourselves and our history? First of all, Mad Men is set amid the birth of an American society, but not the first one. The American nation (as a people, united by ideas, though those ideas have evolved immensely over time) has existed for over three hundred years, and been remarkably flexible and mostly progressive (the recent turn toward political corruption, corporate coddling, millenarian religious superstition, xenophobia, and even misogyny by the conservative movement is a blip, taking a historical perspective). Just as “America” (as a nation) existed long before there was a Madison Avenue, it will persist long after the flaming wreckage of “health insurance” (i.e. the business model of taking money from the well and robbing them when sick, because sick people don’t fight thieves but the well have the money) and methamphetamine and the storm of underemployed talent (Walter White, the failed chemistry genius; unemployed Ph.Ds in #Occupy) pass, as these calamities inevitably will. Mad Men is anxiously erotic while Breaking Bad is fatally thanatoptic, representing the birth and death of just one society that will exist on this soil, but one must keep in mind that these are bookends merely of a society, not the first or last one that will exist in this nation. Walter White will probably die in his 50s, but his daughter may see a better world.

An interesting question is, “What’s between these shows?” Fifty years pass between two television dramas that, aside from historical alignment, have nothing to do with each other and are, in many ways, opposites. What would a 1980s counterpart feature? The best answer that I can come up with is that none should exist. Spring and autumn are the beautiful, unpredictable, gone-too-fast seasons that remind us of our mortality. Mad Men is set in May, and there are a few great days in it, but the May it gets is mostly the sickly humid kind where each day is either damp and rainy or oppressively hot, and in which February’s chill (the Great Depression, the wars, Dick Whitman’s miserable childhood) remains in the elders’ bones and will be there forever. Breaking Bad occurs in November, but not the beautiful, temperate red-leaf kind associated with northeastern forests; this autumn is set in a featureless desert where it’s cold and overcast but will never rain. With that said, to feature this American era’s dog days (the 1980s) seems artistically irresponsible, largely because it was a time of very little historical value. That era, that feeble summer in which America’s old parasitic elite (whose slumber made the middle-class good times of Mad Men possible, who used lingering racist sentiment to re-establish themselves in the 1970s and ’80s, and whose metastasis damaged that middle class and made the misery of Breaking Bad inevitable) re-asserted itself, doesn’t deserve the honor. Just my opinion, of course, and I was born in that time so I cannot say nothing of value came from it. Still, to put a forty-year asterisk between these two eras seems highly appropriate.

If nothing else, no one wants to see the point where the rocket, badly launched and at a speed below escape velocity, reaches its zenith and begins careening toward Earth.