I was chatting with someone on the internet t’other day, and the guy was bemoaning the state of current American culture. “Where are our Shakespeares?” he lamented. “Where is our Beethoven, or Mozart, or Bach? Where’s our Michelangelo?” Common enough rhetorical tropes, on the culturally conservative end of things. If, as some Mormons believe, we will one day have ‘Shakespeares of our own,’ well, where are they? Where might they be lurking? And the fault must be in our benighted, decadent American culture.
So last night, flipping through the channels on TV, I happened upon something I essentially never watch, the broadcast of the prime-time Emmy awards. And they were just announcing the award for best dramatic TV series. Here were the nominees: House of Cards. Breaking Bad. Downton Abbey. Game of Thrones. Homeland. Mad Men.
That is a loaded category. That’s dynamite. Every show on that list is appointment viewing here in chez Samuelsen, and every one is brilliant. And that’s without even mentioning The Good Wife and Justified and Grimm and Haven and Girls. One could pick nits: House of Cards is still relatively new, with its story mostly yet-to-be-told. Game of Thrones does at times succumb to HBO ‘even-basic-exposition-needs-writhing-naked-bodies-in-the-background disease. Downton Abbey is a soap (albeit the best soap in television). But come on. Put together any list of the ten best shows in the history of television, and it’s got to include, at the very least, Breaking Bad and Mad Men. And Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones, I’d say, though some might quibble.
But that’s just television. Pop culture, disposable, ephemeral, fast food art. It’s not substantive, it’s not profound, it’s not, you know, great. It’s sure as heckfire not Shakespeare.
To which I would respond: Shakespeare’s plays were products of a specific cultural moment, artifacts of specific cultural practices. Shakespeare was a popular artist, a commercially successful creator of Elizabethan/Jacobean pop culture. Breaking Bad has to compete with The Real Housewives of Wherever, and Jersey Shore and Duck Dynasty. Shakespeare had to compete with bear baiting.
His plays are also really really good. Capable of competing in the cultural marketplace of our day as well as his own. He’s the most commercially successful playwright of 2013. Also 2012. Also 2011. Also 1764 and 1928 and 1803. And if you don’t like using box office as a measure, let’s just concede the point; the man wrote great plays, masterworks, eternally brilliant and relevant. The dialogue is poetic and powerful. The characters are rich and multi-faceted.
They’re also cheap and vulgar and crass. The man never met a penis joke he didn’t like. He loved puns. He loved crude sexual innuendo. He loved ghosts and ghouls, and blood and guts and on-stage violence. Sometimes the conflicts in his plays are subtle and psychological, and sometimes they’re pure melodrama, the rankest villains vs. the bravest of heroes. It’s that richness, that overwhelming humanity, that makes his plays so much fun to direct and act in and watch, even today, when our ears are no longer tuned to archaic poetic language.
So yeah, Shakespeare was great. So what would he be doing if he lived today, and who today is like him? And those questions are unanswerable. Who, today, is Mozart? Let’s see–child prodigy, charismatic performer and composer, sort of weirdly juvenile, in part due to childhood misery doled out by abusive Dad? Michael Jackson? Who is like Michelangelo? Kinetic visual artist, in love of a vision of bodies in motion? Good at working within the confines of rich patronage? Stephen Spielberg?
But if someone of Shakespeare’s talent was working today, someone with a Shakespearean skill set, (especially someone who seemed to like a large canvas, who seemed to prefer large sweeping epic stories to smaller more intimate ones), he’d be working in television. Probably not in theatre (too limited by financial limitations), and probably not in movies (too limited by commercial considerations). Today, theatre costs a lot of money to produce, and so most theaters who devote themselves to new plays prefer plays with small casts, because they can’t afford to pay more actors than that. Movies can do bigger stories, with bigger casts, but they have to be able to make lots of money in return, and so way too often devolve into crass spectacle dramas, preposterous heroes fighting ridiculous villains, with lots of ‘splosions and stunts.
To really study humanity, to really tell a long, complex story, with characters who change and grow amid ever shifting moral and physical landscapes, to really follow a group of human beings and their vicissitudes and triumphs and failures, you need television. Institutionally, television has the capacity to really take a chance on a single artist’s vision and story and people.
Which brings me to Breaking Bad. Vince Gilligan’s described it as ‘Mr. Chips becomes Scarface,’ a glib reduction of its central story to two pop culture allusions. In fact, the title is immensely revealing. Walter White, a respected high school chemistry teacher is driven by financial exigencies to seek a different source of income than his paltry public employee’s salary. He works part-time, after school, in a car wash. But when diagnosed with cancer, he becomes desperate, both for sufficient income to pay for his treatment and for enough money to pass on to his family, in case the cancer treatment proves ineffectual. His only quick-money marketable skill is in chemistry, and he gets the idea of cooking methamphetamine. Crystal meth. Crank. Despite the fact that doing so is illegal. And that he has a brother-in-law (probably his closest friend), who is an agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency.
So that transition, Walt moving from chemistry teacher to drug dealer, is carefully detailed in the show. And the greatness of the show are those moments when we can actually see Walt breaking bad. When we can see him, facing a major decision, thinking it through, and then realizing ‘I’m now a drug dealer. A criminal. Ordinary moral considerations aside, how best should this be handled?’
But the key relationship in the entire series is between Walt and Jesse, his former student who becomes his assistant, then his partner, then his friend, then his surrogate son, finally, a threat who needs to be neutralized. Walt’s heard that Jesse, after dropping out from school, has started dealing drugs. Walter White, high school teacher, literally doesn’t know anyone else in the drug business. He looks Jesse up, befriends him, works with him. But Jesse’s growth mirrors Walt’s fall. Jesse, once a drug addict dealing small amounts of meth to support his own habit, becomes a man with a conscience. As Walt breaks bad, Jesse breaks good. The turning point is a shattering episode when Walt orders Jesse to kill, to murder. And Jesse does it. And can barely live with himself afterwards.
Breaking Bad. And Breaking Good. And, stuck in the middle, Skyler, Walt’s wife, who gradually learns what a monster her husband is becoming, and who can never quite bring herself not to become one too. She’s a powerful woman, strong and devoted to her children, and the battle of wills between her and Walt drives most of the series. But Walt is stronger than she. Precisely because she is so focused on protecting her children, Walt is able to bend her to his will. Very very slowly, very very reluctantly, she becomes his money-launderer, all the time consumed with self-loathing. At one point Walt says (in one of a long series of delusional motivational speeches to her), ‘we can be free, we can be happy!’ And she says, wearily, ‘I don’t even remember the last time I was happy.’ And when, finally, she’s able to confess her wrong-doing, you can see the relief in her entire body language.
Walt: Bryan Cranston. Jesse: Aaron Paul. Skyler: Anna Gunn. A trio of the finest acting performances of any of our lifetimes. Brilliant writing combining with brilliant acting and directing (with episodes, at times, guest directed by big-name film directors like Rian Johnson). The story is Shakespearean in its sweep, in its humanity, in its insight, and yes, even in its language.
Check out, for example, this scene.“I am the danger. I am the one who knocks.” That’s superb writing; clear, powerful, even poetic. It’s just good contemporary dialogue by a master of dialogue, but it’s resonant and rich. It’s great, in the same way Shakespeare was/is great.
We have Shakespeares of our own. Vince Gilligan, writing Breaking Bad. Matthew Weiner: Mad Men. David Chase: The Sopranos. Aaron Sorkin, Julian Fellowes, Matthew Dobbs, Beau Williman, Andrew Davies, Alex Gansa, Gideon Raff, Howard Gordon and Lena Dunham. Names that resonate with Jonson and Marlowe and Fletcher. The quality of writing today is astonishing, astounding. Greatness still exists.