Written by Ben Pogany
Since 2008, there have been two kinds of people in the world: those who insist The Wire is the greatest television series ever, and those who insist that it's totally at the top of their Netflix queue but they just haven’t had the time to get around to it yet. For over half a decade, TV’s Greatest Of All Time was safe. Sure, The Sopranos and Mad Men were in the conversation, but that conversation usually ended once David Simon’s trump card was introduced. Today, that conversation just got a whole lot dicier. Breaking Bad has ended, and in doing so, has forced us to reopen the discussion anew.
A new contender has arisen from the multitudes, and like its predecessor, it is a modern masterpiece of moral compromise. Hitting the airwaves just weeks before The Wire took its final bow, Breaking Bad set out on the unprecedented journey of taking a warm, relatable hero and slowly transforming him into a villain, forcing the audience to question where their allegiances lay all the way down to the series’ final moments. The Wire had forced us to reexamine the typical good guy/bad guy roles in an entirely different manner, by gradually exposing everyone as imperfect players in a broken system. Ultimate takeaway? Under the right circumstances, everyone eventually breaks bad, no matter what side of the wire you happen to be on.
Two great shows, but there can only be one G.O.A.T. Let the breakdown begin.
Series Arc: It's actually kind of remarkable how similarly the arcs of each of these series mirror one another when you really think about it. Both shows submitted pilots that instantly announced that this was going to be vastly different from anything you’d ever seen on television before. They then proceeded in the early going as more of a slow burn, so much so that you may even have been inclined to protest to a new initiate, “just keep watching. Things eventually pick up.” And do they ever. Both series then experienced polarizing sophomore seasons (the season on the docks was a departure to be sure, but also very necessary to the overall scope of the show. In Breaking Bad, it was the business with the pink teddy bear and the season long lead-up to the plane crash. Over the top perhaps, but also an important and meaningful step along Walt’s transformation.) Season three in each show is right around when we realized that we were witnessing something truly special. Between the Stringer/Avon showdown and the Los Pollos Hermanos operation being in full swing, season three is when you probably started proselytizing the merits of these shows to your friends with an almost religious zeal. Many a Netflix/on-demand/DVD binge was had between seasons three and four, as countless people at first curious to see what all the buzz was about were now full on hooked and desperate to be caught up before the start of the new season. For each, season four catapulted the series from great drama to high art; there was no longer any doubt that we were witnessing something historic. And then there was season five....
Final Season: It's not so much that The Wire’s final season was bad, just not quite up to the unprecedented, almost impossibly high standard it had previously set for itself. Breaking Bad did what perhaps no other show ever has been able to accomplish, get better and better the closer it got to the end. Whichever side you ultimately come down on (or maybe you’re just more of a Good Wife kinda guy), it seems almost impossible to argue with the fact that if nothing else, Breaking Bad had the most riveting, astonishing, and altogether masterful final season in television history. While The Wire was stumbling to the finish line with invented serial killers and numbskull reporters, Breaking Bad seemed to raise the bar to ever staggering heights with every successive episode. (Although the high water mark for me has to be the antepenultimate "Ozymandias", which might be the most harrowing, devastatingly brilliant hour ever committed to the small screen.) Time and time again, we have seen great shows reduced to impotent shells of their former selves by not knowing when to pack it in (Lost, Dexter, 24). Breaking Bad stepped away exactly as any show could ever hope to, with us all wanting more.
The worst thing you can say about the finale is that it ended perhaps a little too neatly, or a little too predictably. (Just imagine the mind-blowing shock had we never received those flash-forwards to puzzle over for so many months. All in all, I say it was a worthwhile peak.) While "Felina" might not quite belong alongside the pantheonic conclusions of say Six Feet Under or The Shield, it might also be that after having raised the bar so incredibly high in the preceding handful of episodes nothing short of Citizen Kane: ABQ could have possibly lived up to our expectations. (Actually that probably would have sucked pretty bad. You’re telling me Heisenberg was just the name of his childhood sled?!!)
Acting: Again, this is to say nothing ill of the magnificent ensemble of The Wire, but come on, Bryan Cranston?!! His performance of Walter H. White these past six years is simply in a whole other league, only so much as glimpsed by James Gandolfini and perhaps, depending on how these final 14 shake out, Jon Hamm. The degree of difficulty here cannot be overstated. Cranston literally played four characters in one: Walter White, Heisenberg, Heisenberg pretending to be Walter White (think the scene when he’s subtly encouraging Jesse to dump Andrea), and Walter White pretending to be Heisenberg. With all the other assets Breaking Bad had going for it, it seems wrong to suggest that it couldn’t have succeeded without Cranston’s performance, but can you really see anyone else pulling this off? Not a chance. Idris Elba’s Stringer and Dominic West’s McNulty are iconic, even transcendent characters, but I can’t say with the same conviction that they absolutely could not have been pulled off by anyone else.
Speaking on the rest of the casts, it's almost mind-boggling how ridiculously deep these benches of talent were. Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Giancarlo Esposito, Jonathan Banks all got their Emmy nods or better. As for The Wire, the fact that this series did not receive so much as one nomination throughout its run is the single greatest travesty in anything, ever. Michael K. Williams’ Omar, Andre Royo’s Bubbles, Michael B. Jordan’s Wallace...just top notch up and down the line.
There’s a reason they teach a college course on The Wire at Harvard
. Even if you weren’t fully internalizing everything David Simon was serving up, you just knew that you were watching something important. The Wire
was social commentary at its most profound, a window into the all-too-overlooked world of poverty, drug addiction, urban dysfunction, and the twin engines of the streets and the government bureaucracy charged with policing it, each infected to its core by ambition, greed and corruptibility. It
was just about as real as any show has ever been; gritty and raw and unflinchingly honest. Breaking Bad
, on the other hand, inhabited more of a hyper-reality, in which a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief was a required prerequisite. I don’t mention this as a slight. Heck, if you’re getting on Breaking Bad
for not being realistic, you’re simply missing the point. The world of Heisenberg was one of inflated reality, full of fantastical train heists and impossibly orchestrated prison murder sprees
. Its style is more Western than neo-realist. The Wire
was entertainment to be sure, but it was also a sociological treatise on our times. While Breaking Bad
no doubt had a lot to say about society, it was always first and foremost a show firmly committed to entertain.
Direction, Cinematography, and Music: As one of the last shows to still be shot on film, Breaking Bad often looked as impressive as anything being churned out of Hollywood. Directors such as Michael Slovis, Rian Johnson and most notably Michelle MacLaren elevated the craft to a level heretofore unseen on the small screen. The dazzling cook sequences, inventive camera work (think Roomba cam), awesome time-lapse shots, and magnificent landscape panoramas were truly things of beauty. And then there’s Dave Porter’s scoring. Whether it was the slow, trepidatious beat in "Crawl Space", or the frenzied fury that accompanies Jessie’s attempted foray into arson, Porter was simply a virtuoso at taking an already tense situation and introducing just the right amount of sonic accompaniment to leave your heart positioned firmly in your throat. The Wire didn't suffer in these departments, it just was never really all that a part of the equation the way it was with its counterpart. Reality didn’t need to be heightened by fancy camera work or scoring, and that’s perhaps the point. Still, Bad wins this one running.
Epic Quotes: Man, so much to choose from. Do you like Heisenberg's "Say my name" or Marlo's "My name is my name!"? Jesse's "I’m the bad guy" or Omar's "I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase. It's all in the game though, right?" And then of course, we have the iconic “I am the one who knocks” monologue and the equally unforgettable "Where's Wallace at? Where the fuck is Wallace? Where's Wallace, String? STRING!"
The Verdict: When you get this far up on the totem pole, you almost want to stop and say ‘screw it, why can’t we just acknowledge that they were both great and be thankful that God saw fit to give us Vince Gilligan and David Simon and leave it at that'. Cause that would just be a cop out, that’s why. And frankly, if you haven’t noticed, ranking things is kind of what we do. So at risk of offending one of my greatest loves, the show that up until very recently I touted as having an untouchable perch atop the TV pantheon, I have to admit that yes, indeed, a new GOAT has arisen. Maybe in another decade, after some of the afterglow of its recent departure has dissipated, things will look differently. Maybe an entirely new show will rise to overtake them both. Maybe Boardwalk Empire or House of Cards will soon make that jump. Maybe Long Winter Sun will take---ummm, na maybe not. For now, it's Breaking Bad, it's The Wire, and it's everybody else.