The Definitive Tale of the Tape: The Wire Vs. Breaking Bad

I started this blog back in March, and this post marks entry number 100. Not bad for eight months, if I do say so myself. I knew that I had to do something big to mark the occasion, and there’s one post I’ve been meaning to write for months now. An old-fashioned tale-of-the-tape between The Wire and Breaking Bad.

Is this the greatest TV show ever?

Is this the greatest TV show ever?

Breaking-Bad

Or is this?

First, a little introduction: You know that guy who is a total condescending jerk to everyone who hasn’t watched The Wire? That’s me. I’ve watched the show all the way through three times. If you’ve had a conversation with me at any time in the last five years, it’s a virtual certainty that I’ve dropped a reference to the show, whether you realized it or not. To be completely honest, when I find out someone I know has started the show but given up on it, or refuses to watch it for some reason, I lose respect for that person, even flat out like him or her a little bit less. Not only is The Wire my favorite show, I think it might be both the defining work of art and the most important political statement about America created in the 21st century.

So, it was a shock to me that, as I watched the the final season of Breaking Bad over a couple months back, I actually found myself seriously considering the question: Had Breaking Bad leapfrogged The Wire as the greatest TV show of all-time?

(Don’t even try to say Mad Men or The Sopranos, by the way: I like Mad Men and think it’s generally entertaining and well-written, but it shortchanges its more interesting characters and storylines–ahem, Peggy Olson–in the name of focusing on a character, Don Draper, who has barely evolved in five seasons; and The Sopranos, while it gets credit for ushering in the renaissance of television, is actually a show with a great first season and occasional great episodes (“Pine Barrens” is epic), but vast swaths of episodes that are pointless and boring (that multi-episode dream sequence where Tony is a stranded traveling salesman? Come on), not to mention a number of horrid actors (the Soprano kids, who at times made me want to dismember myself so I wouldn’t have to watch or listen to them)).

So, it’s time to do some soul-searching. I’m going to look back over the histories of both shows and, attempting to be as objective as possible, determine which is superior. Needless to say, from here on out, the spoiler alert is in effect.

Main Character

All true fans of The Wire know that the main character of the show is actually the city of Baltimore. But for the purposes of this comparison, I’ll choose the individual character around whom the show circles most often, Detective Jimmy McNulty. McNulty is, without a doubt, the most complex, interesting television cop ever. He’s a philandering, drunken disgrace. His ex-wife hates him. He barely knows his kids, who he puts in danger in one memorable scene by having them follow a drug dealer around a crowded marketplace. He has some of the most memorably hilarious sexual encounters in film history, including banging a homely waitress after drunkenly wrecking his car and having a threesome with two Russian hookers at a brothel while he’s on a sting operation. His calling card expression is “What the fuck did I do?” although his more telling quote is “Fuck the bosses.” He doesn’t give a fuck about who he steps on our burns along the way, as long as he can make a case. Which he gets away with, kinda sorta, because he’s the best homicide detective on the Baltimore PD. “Natural police,” as Sergeant Jay Landsman says.

It’s hard to believe there could be a more awesome character than Jimmy McNulty. But here’s the thing: The Wire offers a true ensemble cast, with a wealth of storylines going on at once. McNulty isn’t always the focal point. But Breaking Bad is all centered around one man, Walter White, who show-runner Vince Gilligan famously took “from Mr. Chips to Scarface.” Everything in Breaking Bad circles around Walter White’s descent into darkness, and the show is held together by the unparalleled performance of Bryan Cranston.

The edge here goes to Breaking Bad.

Supporting Characters

If anything, this is a tougher category to measure than the previous one. Breaking Bad is full of amazing secondary characters. There’s the hilarious, heartbreaking Jesse Pinkman (“Yeah Bitch, magnets!”); the stoic fixer, Mike; the deliciously crooked lawyer, “Better Call Saul!” Goodman; and of course Gus Fring, the stone-cold drug lord who’s brought down by an age-old vendetta, the one thing in the world he can’t look at rationally. Best supporting cast in the history of television, right?

Wrong. As much as The Wire‘s wide-angle focus cost us the previous category, it wins it this one. Check out this murderer’s row of supporting characters: Stringer Bell, the drug lord taking community college economics courses and running his organizational meetings according to Robert’s Rules of Order; Lester Freamon, the razor-sharp cop who puts the pieces of every puzzle together, when he’s not carving dollhouse miniatures to sell on the internet; Bubbles, the junkie with a heart of gold; D’Angelo Barksdale, the street slanger betrayed by his own conscience; Bunny Colvin, the rogue District Commander who decides to legalize drugs in West Baltimore; slimeball mayor Tommy Carcetti; Wee-Bey Brice, the Barksdale muscleman who takes a couple of murder charges in exchange for a pit-beef sandwich; Bodie Broadus, the tragic pawn who’s the only character in Season 4 to take a stand against the ruthless Marlo Stanfield; Detective Bunk Moreland, who burns his own clothes after a fling to get the smell of pussy off them; and of course Omar Little, the gay, shotgun-wielding not-quite-Robin Hood who robs drug dealers in West Baltimore but always sticks to his code: never put your gun on nobody who ain’t in the game.

I could name twenty more characters (I didn’t even mention the kids in Season 4!) , but you get the point: The Wire wins this one in a walk.

Use of Setting

Breaking Bad gets a lot out of its setting, the tract houses of Albuquerque and the high desert that surrounds that New Mexico city. In particular, the opening scenes of “Ozymandias” mine that landscape perfectly, showing the loneliness of the landscape where Walt and Jesse cooked their first batch of meth, then having those images fade away, leaving behind the same exact location, but a world in which everything has changed, a world in which an Aryan Nation gang boss coldly executes Hank, Walt’s DEA-agent brother-in-law, the gunshot ringing off the stark red rock walls of the Tohajiilee Indian Reservation.

Setting functions differently in The Wire. The show attempts to embody its setting, the city of Baltimore, with each episode examining a key institution–the police and the drug dealers, the blue collar workers on the docks, the politicians in city hall, the teachers and administrators in the schools, and the reporters and editors at the newspaper–and how the failures of each of these institutions cause the degradation of an American city, American society. The reason The Wire is able to get into its setting in such depth and detail is because its creators really know the place inside and out: David Simon was a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun for many years, and Ed Burns was a BPD homicide detective before becoming a middle school teacher in West Baltimore. Vince Gilligan and his team are great writers, but their use of Albuquerque was actually a somewhat fortuitous decision driven by budgeting–Breaking Bad was originally going to be set in California’s Inland Empire, but moved to Albuquerque for budget reasons.

The winner, not surprisingly, is The Wire. I mean, fans of the show have created self-guided location tours of West Baltimore. Which, seriously, is insane

Writing

“Writing” may be too broad a category, as it includes plot structure, characterization, and dialogue. Both of these shows really master each of these elements. They’re both shows in which, to quote Lester Freamon, “All the pieces matter.” There’s nothing wasted in either show–you knew the ricin cigarette was going to come back in Breaking Bad; Season 2 of The Wire, which focused on the stevedores of Baltimore Harbor, seemed like a strange change of direction at the time it aired, but ended up being a crucial part of the show’s narrative. In terms of structure, I’d call it a draw–both shows are so meticulously crafted, it’d be splitting hairs to pick one over the other. Same thing with characterization, although I have some issues with Walter White’s development in Season 5, which I’ll get into a bit lower in this post. But both shows are full of fascinating characters that, for the most part, stay true to themselves.

And both shows have great dialogue. GREAT DIALOGUE. But, to me, The Wire has a slight edge in dialogue, again, in large part because of the familiarity the writers have with the city of Baltimore. The characters sound so real that a lot of people can’t follow the accents and slang (when I forced my then-girlfriend to watch The Wire, she needed subtitles). To me, this is a good thing–I’ll take authenticity over simplicity anytime. And when you go looking for clips of these shows on YouTube, you can’t help but come across the “100 Greatest Quotes” clip from The Wire. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched this. It’s spectacular.

I give this one to The Wire.

Cinematography

This one’s easy. When you watch The Wire, it feels like you’re watching a TV show. When you watch Breaking Bad, it’s something else. The camera work is amazing. This is largely because Breaking Bad used a cast of directors, from Michelle McLaren (who directed the episode where Hank had the shootout with the twins) to Rian Johnson (the director of the films Brick and Looper). Breaking Bad has a bit of an unfair advantage in this category, because film technology has improved so much in the time since The Wire ended, but you have to evaluate each show for what it is, and Breaking Bad is without a doubt the most spectacularly cinematic television show ever made. So Breaking Bad takes this one.

Realism

Breaking Bad is exciting and entertaining, and it feels real because it’s so well-written. But even the show’s creators will say that it’s not meant to be realistic, per se (take, for example the Danny Trejo severed head/tortoise bomb). The Wire is so realistic that the show’s creators hired ex-con Baltimore native Felicia “Snoop” Pearson (who is amazing and also basically unintelligible) to play a key character in seasons 3–5. The show’s writers actually have to tone down some real-life events to make them more believable: When Omar jumps out of a fourth-story window and survives in Season 5 , that’s based on Donnie Andrews, who inspired Omar’s character, jumping out of a sixth-story window to escape a trap. So, obviously, The Wire takes this one.

Action and Suspense

The Wire is full of suspense, but it’s a slow-burn; the show takes its time making things happen. And as far as action, there’s actually very little–even the gunfights are short, which is a testament to the show’s realism, because real street war gunfights happen in a flash. Breaking Bad, on the other hand is full of epic, amazing action sequences. The scene between Hank and the twins was probably the single greatest action sequence in television history–until the scene where Gus poisoned an entire Mexican drug cartel.

I mean, that shit is FUCKING AWESOME. My buddy Matt was a late-adopter of Breaking Bad, who watched the show because I insisted he had to (I actually turned him onto The Wire as well–so you’re welcome twice, Bergs), and he ended up watching most of it in a single week-long binge while he was home sick from work. At one point during that week, I received a text message out of the blue that said, “Gus just poisoned the entire Cartel and Don Eladio fell in the pool. FUCKING AWESOME.”

On top of all this, every single episode in the final season ended with a cliffhanger that made you wonder how you were going to make it a whole week until the next episode. In case you couldn’t tell, Breaking Bad is FUCKING AWESOME.

Best Season

I think both shows peak in their fourth seasons. For Breaking Bad, that’s the season that includes the aforementioned scene with Gus poisoning the cartel, along with all of the incredibly tense scheming and strategizing by Walt as he attempts to defeat Gus, ending with the incredible scene that gives the episode “Face Off” its name.

I mean, HOLY SHIT.

But still, the fourth season of The Wire is on another level. This is the famous season in which the show dives into the failing public schools of West Baltimore (which of course represent the failure of the American educational system at large) and introduces four new characters, the eighth-grade crew of Michael, Randy, Namond, and Dukie, who burrow their way into your heart and then completely tear it apart. Words like important and impactful probably get thrown around too much when it comes to The Wire, but fuck it, this is the most important season of any show ever aired on television. If that’s not enough, this season also features Bodie’s tragic demise, Bubbles’ unbelievably brutal botched hot-shot, and the unforgettable opening scene where Snoop buys the nail gun at the hardware store.

The Wire keeps that shit. It earned that bump like a motherfucker.

Best Episode

It’s hard to pick a single greatest episode of The Wire. The show doesn’t function that way: it’s less of a serial, short-story collection than it is one really long novel. I have a few favorites, of course: the finale of Season 4; the Season 1 episode that features Omar shooting Wee-Bey and uttering his famous “You come at the king, you best not miss” line, as well as McNulty following Stringer to his macroeconomics class and Bunk burning his clothes; the penultimate episode of Season 3, when Avon and Stringer give each other up; and the underrated Season 2 episode that features both D’Angelo’s death and Omar’s unforgettable courtroom testimony.

Breaking Bad also has any number of awesome episodes, but in my humble opinion its best episode–and the best single episode of any television show–is “Ozymandias,” the Season 5 episode in which everything falls apart in the New Mexico desert. The neo-Nazis kill Hank, steal Walt’s money, and imprison Jesse, and Walt has an insanely tense fight with Skyler before taking Saul’s magical disappearing pill. Every shot in this episode is perfect, but my favorite part is the opening scene, the flashback that takes us back to the first episode of the show, Walt and Jesse’s first cook, which fades away to the tragedy about to unfold.

The episode takes its name from a Percy Byshe Shelley poem about a king who has watched his empire crumble and disappear into the desert, the sands of time, and it fully lives up to the literary aspirations of its title. Well done, Breaking Bad. Well done.

Final Season

The Wire‘s fifth season, which focuses on the importance of newspapers, is rightly considered to be a bit weak in comparison to the other seasons. I personally think the problem with this season is that David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who took a buyout from the newspaper after the Tribune Company began newsroom lay-offs, was a bit too close to the subject matter and had a few too many axes to grind. The serial killer plot is also weak compared to some of the other storylines the show explored, and to this day I still don’t quite buy that McNulty would go through with the fake murders.

Breaking Bad, meanwhile, had what is justifiably considered to be the best final season of any television show. The final season (and what I’m referring to is the second half, or final eight episodes, of the bifurcated fifth season) was a riveting thrill-ride. However, I have a fairly major complaint about this season, on which my attorney agreed with me: Vince Gilligan’s oft-quoted tagline for the show is that “Mr. Chips turns into Scarface,” but he actually doesn’t deliver on it. Walt gets juuuust to the edge of being Scarface, but in the second half of this season, he’s notably less evil. As Grantland’s Andy Greenwald noted on several occasions, he tries to bury Heisenberg and go back to being Walter White. The last episode of the show is incredible, but it also feels like a cheat: I watched it at a bar, and everyone (including me) was cheering on Walt and rooting for him to win. That was a major shift from the first half of Season 5, which saw Walt going down the dark path to Hades. So, while I loved the final season, I can’t help but think it was a bit of a cop-out.

Don’t get me wrong, Breaking Bad still wins this category. But I would argue that it’s closer than you think.

Final Episode

As I mentioned above, I love the final episode of Breaking Bad, but I do think that the show shies away from its mission. I mean, at the end of the show, Walt basically gets to win. Yeah, he loses his family, but by that point his goals aren’t about his family anymore. He settles all business, takes out his enemies, and proves that he’s the smartest guy in the room. As fun as it was to watch, it was just a bit disappointing. All the loose ends got tied up just a bit too neatly, just a bit too perfectly.

The Wire, for all the flak it somewhat justifiably takes for its final season, has a killer final episode. Titled “–30–” (reporter lingo for the end of a story), this episode also ties up the show’s loose ends, but it does it with the main message of the show still intact. Every season of The Wire ends with a montage, and the one that closes the series shows that all the holes left by characters who have died or left the game for one reason or another have been filled by other characters. This is the whole point of the show: The institutions in this country are so fucked, so self-propagating, that we’re essentially helpless to change things. It’s not totally hopeless–Bubbles kicks heroin and gets to eat dinner with his sister, after all–but it’s mostly grim and completely, utterly true.

I know that this is basically a rehashing of the montage at the end of Season 1, and I’m probably in the minority here, but I think, because of its fidelity to the truth and itself, The Wire has the better final episode.

Cultural Impact

Breaking Bad was definitely watched by more people while it was on. The final season was basically an eight-week-long cultural event. The show took over the internet, the New Yorker, and basically all other forms of high-minded media.

But will we still be talking about Breaking Bad five years from now? I’m not so sure. As awesome as it is, it doesn’t really say anything. (For what it’s worth, this is my major complaint about Mad Men as well.) There’s an argument that the story works as a metaphor for suburban white middle class alienation, but I don’t really buy that.

The Wire, on the other hand, as I said in my intro, is a sort of political manifesto, a sociological breakdown of why our country is falling apart. David Simon has said that the show is about the end of the American empire, and it goes to great lengths explaining why we are falling into ruin. The venal and the self-interested rule our institutions. Our schools suck and our factories have shuttered, and both these conditions lead our urban poor into the only business available to them: the drug trade. And our police, our government, and our legal system have declared war on the very citizens they are supposed to serve with the shockingly stupid, racist, short-sighted “War on Drugs.” As Carver says way back in Season 1: “You can’t call this shit a war. Wars end.”

I don’t think there is a single book, movie, or any other piece of art out there that better explains just how fucked our society is. I’m sorry, but if you care about the world we live in, you have to watch The Wire. I’ll step down off my podium now, but not before I reiterate that The Wire offers the single best summary of the problems with American life in the early 21st Century.

The Verdict

By a count of 7-5, The Wire emerges victorious, and remains the greatest show in the history of television. Breaking Bad is a wildly entertaining, incredibly well-written show, but it doesn’t say something about our lives the way that The Wire does. They’re both great shows, but for me it’s that gap in ambition that separates the two.

Got to. This is America, man.

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One Response to The Definitive Tale of the Tape: The Wire Vs. Breaking Bad

  1. Pingback: The Best of From a Brooklyn Basement | From a Brooklyn Basement

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