It's hard to decided what's more cold-blooded -- Walter White's slow-decline into Hell or the transformation of AMC?
This weekend, Breaking Bad and Hell on Wheels continue new bloodbaths on the same network that endeared us all to the old-man-in-the-fake-livingroom-introducing-the-movies. In Detroit, the folksy host of my childhood afternoons was Bill Kennedy, a b-movie actor who was known for such great appearances as, "the guy out of the submarine hatch, just before Cary Grant climbs out." He'd read letters during the breaks, tell war-stories then press the play button again.
When cable TV hit my neighborhood in the early 1980s, I couldn't believe that there was a channel that played old movies all the time -- without commercials. Granted, they always weren't all "classics" but they exposed me to an early film school introduced by a pseudo-professor. Ted Turner co-opted this format when TCM arrived and continues to be commercial free. Meanwhile, AMC turned a corner the day that Predator aired in its prime-time slot, with 100 or so ads, stretching the movie until 11 PM.
As much of a fan as I am of Carl Weathers and Arnold Schwarzenegger hunting camo-aliens, it wasn't exactly High Noon. The comfy studio armchair had been occupied by someone else.
Michael Corleone's decision to switch to the Dark Side in The Godfather is pivotal. He decides to kill not only Solozzo but a New York police captain. He goes outside of the box of Sonny, Clemenza and even his father's traditional paths. Michael, ignored in the armchair, interrupts the debate on how to proceed after the second attempt on the Don, as he prepares for blood, "bada-bing" all over his nice Ivy-league suit.
Tom Lehrer referred to the 1964 Cold War American culture quite accurately when he described us as "sliding down the razor blade of life."
The programmers at AMC have found the perfect such slide that has worked effectively for HBO, Hemingway, Shakespeare and even those crazy Greeks. There's nothing like watching a good guy (or channel) go bad -- real bad.
Oedipus couldn't run into a worse string of luck. What are the odds, outside of an episode of Maury Povich, that you kill your dad, unknowingly marry your mom, have a few kids and then, on the holy mission to find your wife's previous husband's killer, discover it's you and gouge out your eyes.
Macbeth is a good guy, even pretty sympathetic due to his hen-pecked status. But things get out of control and before you know it, he's killed one too many bystanders and the entire forest is walking toward the castle, fulfilling the crazy witches' prophecy, and his head's soon separate from his shoulders.
Which brings us to Sunday's star attraction -- Walter White.
What could be more sympathetic than a dorky dad of a sweet son with a disability who teaches in the 42nd ranked state for teacher compensation who then discovers he has cancer?
The beauty of the journey of Walter White is he is now completely reprehensible -- and we can't stop watching. He turns down an easy $5 million walk-away payday for his twisted principle. Even the baddest guy on the show, hit man/henchman Mike, didn't want anything to do with him -- yet somehow became his partner. Scatterbrained Jesse, the kick-starter for White's meth-production fundraising, becomes the moral compass. You've got to admire the writers of this show to flip its characters (and us) around so effectively.
AMC has done the same dirty-deed earlier with Mad Men, making us like-then hate-then like-then hate Don Draper. The Walking Dead is a giant success as the Survivor-like episodes pluck off favorite characters like ducks in a cross-bow gallery. And Saturday's season premiere of Hell On Wheels, in the truest wild west fashion, ended last season with a brutal execution of a major character whose Vegas odds to stay alive in a seemingly traditional story-arc had to be pretty favorable.
These storyline choices represent free cable's own baptism-of-blood like Michael's in The Godfather's, when he takes care of all of his past with one calculated move and leaves his past behind.
Walt, near the end of the last season, tells Jesse that it's not about making meth or making money; it's about making an empire, invoking "It's not personal, Sonny." And AMC, by pitching the armchair into the dumpster, adding commercials and refusing to put its recent-episodes on Hulu the next day, has done just that.