CAUTION: This piece contains information about the first four seasons of Breaking Bad, as well as about the finales of The Sopranos and The Wire.
On July 15, the latest "how will it end" game begins for TV viewers — this time drawn out over two years. I'm talking, of course, about the Season 5 premiere of Breaking Bad, a show firmly placed, along with The Wire and The Sopranos, on the "TV is damn good art" podium.
While it shares elements with both the mobsters and the corner boys, Breaking Bad enters its final season on the verge of claiming new ground. In season one, docile high-school chemistry teacher Walt White was diagnosed with cancer and began cooking crystal meth to avoid leaving his family with unbearable debt. Season 5 finds Walt no longer dying from cancer — at least not imminently — but very much still cooking crystal meth. Following a violent rise in power and nearing his hubristic decline, Walt is on a trajectory that puts not only him but also most of those around him at risk of a bloody demise.
Neither The Sopranos nor The Wire followed this path, a mix of Greek and Shakespearean tragedy, even if they toyed with it. A few voyages into the surreal notwithstanding, both shows were realist endeavors, given more to the subdued tones of disillusion than the gravitas of tragedy. And even if their finales differed stylistically — one opting for the neat little bow, the other for the more provocative "that's the end, deal with it" approach — both played variations on the same theme: "The more things change, the more things stay the same."
It's easy to see that message in The Wire — it was pretty much the show's M.O. from the start. David Simon took us on a tour of civil society's key institutions and showed them mired in corruption and ineffectiveness, with no relief in sight, despite some noble efforts (as argued here).
The Wire's key moment in this respect comes at the end of Season 3, when the police chief and city government find out about Major Bunny Colvin's decision to allow drug dealing in three areas of crime-stricken West Baltimore. The plan has led to an unheard-of drop in crime and important public health initiatives. The downside is that it's 100% unapproved and illegal.
Some key players who might allow the project to continue admit to its success — even the normally sleazy Mayor tells his advisers to see how to "keep this thing going without calling it what it really is." Yet everyone also knows that if someone publicly calls for the project's dissolution, the rest risk immediate public relations disaster if they don't follow suit. So eventually, of course, someone crumbles, and Hamsterdam (as the project is nicknamed) is no more.
The sequence lays out an important aspect of David Simon's vision. It's not that people don't know or even don't want to do the right thing. Rather, the right thing often proves so counter-intuitive to normal behavior that it requires near-impossible coordination. So the ideas that might go somewhere toward improving lives end up in rubble, while the system that can't get itself together for long enough to solve anything moves forward from its own inertia. The Wire is pessimistic, certainly — hopeless, even. Pessimism, however, is not tragedy.
The Sopranos, unlike The Wire, appeared tragic. Tony was seemingly a man drawn toward a particular fate, no matter how much he or others tried to alter the circumstances or avert the consequences. He was a character everyone tried to fix over six seasons who still ended up isolated and in constant danger; if he didn't die in that final scene, he probably died the next day, next week, next year — the point wasn't the when of it all, it was the inevitability.
And Tony, of course, happened to hold an obsession with his mother that at least is tragic in name.
But tragedies are all about change — usually the kind that first goes up on the happiness axis before plummeting down (up to king, let's say, and down to guilty of patricide and incest). Much of The Sopranos' end showed Tony locked into a certain way of being even as situations changed around him. That final cut to black was not an inconclusive cap to Tony's trajectory; it was a nod to the absence of any real trajectory at all. As Emily Nussbaum wrote for New York Magazine, the show got us to believe that Tony could be saved. But over six seasons, Tony "became a better mobster, not a better man."
Tony was never saved — never was available for saving – but he also didn't descend into madness or evil. He remained the same violent, charming, morally suspect guy he was when his story began. It makes sense, because he was a mob boss from start to finish, and mob bosses, at least in pop culture, are violent, charming, and morally suspect dudes.
By this point in Walter White's trajectory to the depths of hell, he's not far from Tony Soprano: isolated and grounded only slightly by the family that justified his actions to begin with. Unlike Tony, though, Walt began as an average guy with average morals. His career change into meth cooking set up an increasingly unavoidable path toward amorality and destruction. By the end of last season, Walt acknowledged that path ("No more prolonging the inevitable," he tells his wife Skyler as his enemies close in), then dodged it by pulling the manipulative plot of a lifetime. Fate may not determine Walt's choices, but the seemingly isolated decisions he has made for the sake of self-preservation have had the unintended consequence of damaging whatever moral compass he ever had.
By this point, his deterioration is nearly complete. In Season 4's final scene, when Walt's partner, Jesse Pinkman, realizes that the direct reason for killing their boss and meth-king Gus Fring was, in his mind, a mistake — Jesse believed Fring had poisoned his girlfriend's son when, in fact, Walt did — he asks, "But he needed to go, right?" For Jesse, the matter still rests on survival and justice, on some sort of practical or moral necessity. But for Walt, we find out seconds later, it's about something more: a game to be won, a moment for power to be asserted.
It wasn't always like this. At the end of Season 1, Walt had equally ingenious plans for committing illegal acts, but his execution was bumbling and he was only just discovering the excitement of stepping from the right to the wrong side of the law (while also beginning to justify it with relativism). He was still horrified at watching a drug dealer beat his own associate to death.
Then, at the end of Season 3, when Walt bluffed his willingness to sacrifice Pinkman, it no longer seemed out of character that, if it came down to it, he would actually do it. And at the end of Season 4, Walt "wins" against Gus by becoming very much like him: pragmatic, discrete, and businesslike; willing to use children to get what he wants; and standing at the edge of a power vacuum after having violently neutralized his rival.
Walt, so meek to begin with, also developed an unhealthy amount of arrogance over the seasons. A series of successes built his confidence until his sense of self-worth turned dangerous. Until he told his squirmy lawyer, suddenly wary of keeping Walt as a client: "It's over when I say it's over." Until, pressed by Skyler, he did not deny committing a triple murder at a retirement home.
As a result, he enters Season 5 having ethically compromised himself almost completely, but now in direct sight of the throne he craves. Standard up-must-come-down logic tells us what must happen next, over Season 5's 16 episodes. It happened to Antigone's Creon, it happened to Macbeth, it will happen to Walt.
Perhaps the more open question is what will happen to Walt's family and associates. Those he cares about are by now, if not knowingly, then still quite intricately caught up in Walt's self-destructive life. His wife is his business partner, his brother-in-law a victim of an attack by cartel members feuding with Walt — nearly all those close to him had death threats looming over their heads, courtesy of Gus and indirectly courtesy of Walt, until about 30 minutes into the Season 4 finale. No matter Walt's intentions, he has been unable to limit the consequences so they affect him alone.
None of this would necessarily entail the death of every character if Walt hadn't so far shown himself utterly unwilling to cede ground. He refuses to lose. And when you can't lose, it's more likely that more people around you will.
No character on The Wire and The Sopranos ever appeared so blind to what they had become as Walt does with Season 5 about to start. Not only that, but creator Vince Gilligan has veered away from even feigning moral balance. Walt is evil, and barring a turn of events that's both unexpected and counter to literary tradition, he is going to crash and burn. And if he takes everyone with him, that will be doubly tragic.