Excuse My French, but I’m France

“Who is Don Draper?”
——–
“Some straight like you, giant stick up his ass, age what–60? He’s just gonna break bad?”

While most TV critics and academics would have you believe, what with their countless articles of analysis and explication, that the two great shows of the postmillennial generation, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, are philosophical and sociological tomes that can only be dissected with a PhD in at least three liberal arts and a deep familiarity with the postmodern condition [1], these two quotes seem to sum up each show’s central question pretty easily. Each show asks whether identity itself is static, whether someone can spend his whole life being one person, then wake up the next and be someone else completely different, and if that’s possible, and our life’s work and public perception can’t define us, then who are we exactly?[2]

Of course, the two shows approach this question from wildly different angles. Mad Men is a period piece, using the social politics of the 1960s and the backdrop of the counterculture revolution to suggest that not only is identity reconstruction possible, but that it is an absolutely crucial part of human evolution and progress. If we couldn’t change and redefine ourselves, then we would still be stuck in a misogynistic, patriarchal society using alcohol, tobacco and whatever else we could get our hands on[3] to numb the pain of our existential morass. But, as the season four finale suggests[4], with Draper getting engaged to the hotter, less challenging woman in his life, the evolution may not be to something entirely better. Meaning that the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, doesn’t think the internet addicted, Adderall gobbling, iPhone acolyte goons that have replaced Don Draper and his well-dressed, womanizing cronies aren’t exactly a step-up.

Breaking Bad, on the other hand, is a deconstructionist Western, evoking the lawlessness  and tabula rasa-style settlements of the genre[5] to explore whether morality is an inherent quality or if it operates on a sliding scale, where one person can jump between being good and bad at will. The setting also evokes the first true formative period in American history, where, for the first time, American settlements and towns were being erected. The towns west of the Mississippi weren’t European castoffs from the Revolutionary War but were the sole creation of a new country that was able to decide for the first time what social mores and customs were going to dictate its way of life. Of course, the show is quick to undercut this evocation, making Walter White (the show’s Inferno-destined protagonist)’s, gunfight at the OK Corral occur at a nursing home and his gold mine a meth lab in a beat-to-shit Winnebago.

By evoking these periods, either explicitly or implicitly, both shows, like The Wire and The Sopranos before them, are attempting to create a portrait of contemporary America, to be a reflection of and commentary on the society that watches them. So, basically, the identity crisis of the show’s characters is our identity crisis, and we live in a morally transient society of trivial importance where we put our own petty struggles above those of others under the questionable justification of doing it for the greater good.[6]

Yet, not that many people seem to be watching[7], meaning that maybe all those things that are supposed to be ours, in actuality, aren’t really ours at all. Instead, as is the case all the time, we are transfixed by sports[8], suggesting that maybe Breaking Bad and Mad Men aren’t reflecting what they think they’re reflecting. If Shakespeare was right and the entertainment we consume is a mirror up to ourselves[9], then the mirror up to American nature is actually professional sports.

And what do we see when we look into that shimmering mirror of the NFL and the NBA,[10] you ask? Well, we see fractured individuals. Consider Tim Tebow, for example: on the field, he’s a ruthless warlord, rippin’ throats and crushing skulls, and letting out blood curdling victory screams as he does so.

But off the field, the man’s a saint: doing missionary work in the Philippines with his parents, praying and thanking God humbly after his victories, not telling John Elway and ESPN to go to hell when they say he’s a third-stringer at best after he’s won his fifth professional game in a row.[11]

What about Peyton Manning? He’s a master general on the field, barking orders like he’s Maximus from Gladiator, his voice ringing with fire and brimstone. But see Peyton in one of those Sony commercials, and you wish for the bad boy stylings of Subway’s resident badass Jared Fogle and some of his hardcore stories about how eating turkey sandwiches and walking from his house to buy those sandwiches helped him buy a less gigantic pair of khakis. Even DeSean Jackson, the showboat, in-your-face receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles, spends his down time advocating for kids to stand up to bullies.

Hell, even the NBA stars who just spent an absurd 5 months in a petty lockout quibbling over what will amount to nickels and dimes, who brawl on the court like it’s the Rodney King riots, comport themselves like gentlemen off the court. Lebron James didn’t exactly throw up gang signs or drop the mic when he announced he was taking his talents to South Beach: he did it with his shirt tucked in, using a quiet tone, and adding in ancillary reasons like the better choice of private schools for his kids.

The behavior of popular American professional athletes suggests that the American viewing public, made up of the generation afflicted with all of the anxiety and torture of the post- and the postpostmodern conditions, values a balance between home and work, where it’s not only possible but prevalent that people can compartmentalize their lives and achieve a harmonious balance between their two selves.

The worlds of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, though, don’t see that balance as being possible. Their protagonists constantly struggle, and ultimately fail, to keep their separate identities separate. Don Draper’s wife eventually finds out about his abandoned past identity, and Walter White’s wife finds out that he’s a drug dealer. The arc of each show after that, though, isn’t an attempt to have them restore balance and get things back to normal, but a chronicle of how they made both lives conform to one another, to create a kind of fluidity between their societal identities and their created ones.

There’s only one sport in the world that suggests this kind of fluidity of identity, where one’s persona on the field reflects his persona off it,[12] and that’s soccer. Consider the two reigning kings of La Liga[13]: Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Ronaldo is, as Grantland’s Brian Phillips put it, “a flamboyant, collar-popping he-diva who measures time in lingerie models.”[14] His play on the field reflects that persona: highly stylized, quick, and replete with the desire to be the star of the show.

Messi, on the other hand, is driven, intense: he plays with a quiet confidence of someone who knows he’s the best in the world. And when he’s off the field, he carries himself the same way he plays. Wayne Rooney’s another example: on the field he takes cheap shots and gets banned from games, while off the field he gets caught with hookers and ruins his personal life.[16]

Thus, returning to the original proposition that we are what we watch, the concept of a fluid identity is distinctly European.[17] So instead of reflecting a portrait of contemporary America, Mad Men and Breaking Bad are actually reflecting a more European worldview.[18] And, in a way, this actually makes more sense. Both shows, as evidenced by their nihilistic and cynical outlooks on the society in which they live in, which has prompted them to either medicate themselves with drugs, alcohol, and woman or just simply “break bad,” are looking for alternatives to what they see as the American experience. One of the only times we see Don Draper smile is at the idea that he may be the international liaison for Sterling Cooper and also when he’s on vacation in Italy. It would also add an extra layer of irony to Breaking Bad’s setting which is already used as a means to undercut the triumph and epicness of its characters: it’s set in a land that was settled as a means of breaking free of European societal conventions, with its characters at war with the Mexican cartel, another people whose culture is rooted in the rejection of European colonial shackles, and yet, the true goal of its central character is to achieve this form of European identity.

And, like soccer, Mad Men and Breaking Bad are revered in certain circles, but will likely never find the American audience they deserve, relying too much on careful plotting and build-up for those moments of unrelenting suspense and excitement. But I guess all things can’t be as exciting as the NFL, or even The Walking Dead.[19]

***

Matt McGraw is a law student, a film junkie, and a friend of the show. If you’d like to see more of his work on the site, or if you want to lambast him for his irreverent and farcical rhetoric (Lord knows we have), leave a comment below or hit us up on Twitter.

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1. American universities, too, seem hell bent on pushing this perception, what with their
upper-level critical theory classes devoted to David Simon’s The Wire and David Chase’s
The Sopranos, the other two outright masterpieces of television’s golden era (aka the last
ten years). The next logical step seems to be the creation of classes like “The Melancholy
Man: A Critical Approach to Bryan Cranston’s Face.” I mean, hey, Jay-Z’s got himself a
college class…

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2. I realize that the opening paragraph might make me seem hypocritical for diminishing the legitimacy of the academics dedicating long hours of research and study to these TV shows: but they’re trying to get tenure off it, I’m freelancing this shit. There’s a difference.

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3. Often times, it was the closest secretary’s ass.

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4. It’s been out for over a year, it’s on Netflix, so I swear to Christ, I will Zidane-style skull-thrash anyone who sends me some bitchy e-mail decrying me for spoilers.

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5. Think Clint Eastwood. The Man with No Name. Tumbleweeds rolling across empty, dirt roads flanked by nameless buildings. Blood being shed in broad daylight for the most arbitrary of reasons. That type of shit.

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6. Walter White’s greater good is his family. To recap: he has precipitated the selling of meth to recovered addicts, choked out a 20 year-old Latino boy, stood by and let his best friend’s girlfriend choke to death on her own vomit and die, let his best friend believe it was his fault, contract that emotionally vulnerable friend to murder people for him, shoot three gangbangers in the head after running them over with his car, helped an old man commit suicide, missed his daughter’s birth to make money, poisoned a child, and blew a guys face off. But, of course, it was for his family, so it’s cool. Oh yeah, spoilers. Sorry.

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7. The last episode of Mad Men was watched by around 3 million people, while the last episode of Breaking Bad was seen by a little less than 2 million.

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8. Sunday Night Football, on whatever network is lucky enough to snatch the contract for it, wins the ratings every week with about 20 million viewers. Also, the Super Bowl is the most watched televised event every year with around 100 million viewers. Yeah, that’s right American Idol and Two and a Half Men, fuck you!

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9. Okay, I’m kind of paraphrasing here.

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10. While it’s supposed to be America’s past time, baseball anymore is about as American as mooshu pork with a side of lo-mien. The only other more nationally diverse sport watched that widely in the United States is golf. But seriously, who the fuck cares about golf? We’re a country built on football and street ballin’. Just ask Jay-Z (“just like a running back, get it, I’m straight off the block”; “I come back like Jordan, wearin’ the 4-5”), he’s got a college course dedicated to him, and he doesn’t rap about baseball or golf.

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11. This would be Walter White’s response to Mr. Elway if he were Tim Tebow.

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12. No, it’s not fucking golf! Remember that time when the khaki-clad, wholesome, “Aw shucks,” king of the golf world turned out to be a sex addict the likes of which caused Michael Fassbender’s character in Shame to see his life as, well, kind of normal? I don’t care if Phil Mickelson is as frumpy in real life as he is on the court. Tiger Woods was the face of golf, and that’s all I need to make this sweeping generalization. In related news, he just one his first tournament in two years. Good for him.

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13. The comparison between La Liga and AMC is actually quite apt. Just like AMC has two phenomenal shows and a bunch of others that are plodding and take themselves too seriously, La Liga has two phenomenal teams, probably the two best teams in Europe (yeah, I said it United. While don’t you look at the score from your game against Barca this summer, finish your pint and shut the fuck up!), while the rest of the teams in the league think they’re awesome because they’re in La Liga.

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14. Brian Phillips. “Ronaldo v. Messi.” GRANTLAND. Oct. 4., 2011.

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15. Seriously, he looks like he’s a cast member on Jersey Shore.

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16. Although the prostitute probably wasn’t a cheap shot. Get it? Because she wasprobably expensive.

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17. Even American soccer demigod Landon Donovan is more NFL than La Liga: his triumphant, everyman persona on the field is not exactly carried over to his tabloid- exploited personal life.

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18. Which makes it kind of ironic that they’re on AMC (American Movie Classics). Well, I guess more ironic since they’re TV shows, too.

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19. Seriously, how the fuck is that the most popular cable show of all time? It spent an entire half-season looking for some kid. And then it turns out the kid was like 100 yards away the entire time. And she’s dead. Oh, yeah, shit, I keep forgetting: spoiler alert.

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About Matt McGraw

Freelance. Addict. Compulsive. Allegedly Clever.
This entry was posted in Culture and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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