Breaking Safe

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So the jury is in, the dust has settled, and the critics, by and large, are happy.  Breaking Bad has concluded, and, unlike The Sopranos (with which it had so much in common), it ended pretty decisively. As I noted in a previous blog, at least one TV critic (Mary McNamara at the Los Angeles Times) had hoped that the show would end with some sort of message that Walter White was evil—not a mere anti-hero—and that crime, in the end, does not pay.  And in Walter White’s confession that everything that he had done he did for himself, McNamara found a satisfying conclusion that set “this series free”. Another Times critic usefully noted a different angle, however, observing that “Walt turned from anti-hero to outright villain at some point, but there was always somebody worse in the room” (Robert Lloyd).  Lloyd’s point is that this is a common Hollywood strategy used to keep audiences on the side of anti-heroes even when they cross the line into outright villainy.  As Lloyd puts it, “In the age of the bad-good/good-bad guy, the formula is to ensure that however bad your bad guy is, there is a badder one around. This is a cheat, of course, but a common one.” Finally, yet another Times critic has offered the following shrewd description of the story arc of this much discussed show: “Since some point in its second season, 'Breaking Bad' has effectively been two shows in one. The first of those two shows was the one we thought we were watching in the pilot: A mild-mannered chemistry teacher breaks bad and discovers how thrilling it can be, then drags us into the thrills right alongside him. In general, he is someone we’re supposed to root for, someone we’re supposed to cheer.  In the second show, 'Breaking Bad' was all about a man who made a choice to break bad and revealed untold depths of bleak awfulness within himself. It was a series about a man who broke himself open and revealed a monster driving the controls, then decided he kind of liked that version of himself” (Todd VanDerWerff). All in all, this is some pretty danged good television criticism, criticism whose cultural significance is quite wide ranging.  In the first place, it illustrates how, in what I call an “entertainment culture,” a great deal of significant "high" cultural activity has migrated to the “low” sphere of popular culture.  In such a world not only has popular art largely taken the place of “high” art, but even such traditionally “high” cultural activities as literary criticism can now be found operating at a very high level in the analysis of television programs.  (Please note that I do not at all intend this observation as a criticism: it is only an interpretation of the signs.  I’m actually delighted when I see good television criticism, and that is why I often turn to the L.A. Times, which has a very able staff of TV writers.) But there is another meaning to be gleaned from the finale of Breaking Bad, one which indicates the conditions under which popular entertainment still exists.  This is the fact that, as VanDerWerff and Lloyd imply above, commercial art (and television is commercial art) is generally beholden to audience desire.  If Franz Kafka once remarked that reading a novel should be like getting hit over the head with an ice-axe, the commercial artist’s credo is more along the lines of “give the audience what it wants.”  And Breaking Bad gives everyone everything: for the moralist, there is Walter White finally paying the ultimate price for his crimes, provided by what I'll call a deus ex machinegunna.  For the millions of viewers who identified with him, on the other hand, there is the fact that Walter White (who was often not the worst person in the room) achieves a certain justice (of sorts) in the end, and is at least trying to look out for his children.  Such a have-it-both-ways conclusion was a masterpiece of keeping-everyone- satisfied commercial art.  (Incidentally, my guess is that the reason why The Sopranos had such an unsuccessful finale was that its writers couldn’t figure out any such conclusion.  How on earth could Tony Soprano achieve any sort of posthumous justice?  What even worse villains would he need to revenge himself upon?  And yet, there were all those fans who so identified with Tony that killing him off just wouldn’t work either, so the end was .  .  . sidestepped—perhaps, as a student of mine has suggested, simply to leave the door open to a revival of the series sometime down the line.) And there, at least, lies the only tenuous distinction that I can make between high art and popular art.  Unbeholden to the profit motive, high art can afford to disappoint its audience, or even bother it.  Commercial art can’t.  It isn't a hard and fast distinction, and there are certainly many examples that could challenge it, but at this time when commercial art is, like billboards along a country road, blotting out the high art horizon, there are no other distinctions that could be any more certain.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.