The season six premier of Breaking Bad ended with an Albuquerque standoff between Walt and Hank, giving us a performance from Bryan Cranston and Dean Norris that TV dreams are made of.
Episode two slowed things down. Maybe a bit too much. "Buried" pushed Skyler White to the fore, not an especially happy decision in an entry that otherwise had Walt digging holes and Jesse in a walking coma, "Buried" did feature some great Lydia moments, a character that I wish we had met earlier and who had played a more central role in the show.
Skyler, on the other hand, has always been more of an obstruction than a fully realized person, a problem to be solved. Although William Brennan calls her "the show's best character," his argument turns on the idea that she provides us, the audience, with a "moral grounding." This sounds more like the basis of a parental lecture than a motivation for dramatis personae. In fact, her character's trajectory raises questions about the problematic role of women in what some critics see as TV's latest and greatest "golden age."
Vince Gilligan once remarked that the whole point of Breaking Bad was to tell the story of "Mr. Chips becoming Scarface." Ever since James Gandolfini completely embodied the boss of north jersey, we've been gorging ourselves on these tales of subverted normalcy, the suburban dad who's the mob boss, the metrosexual male swathed in his IKEA comfort nest but who's really a serial killer and, of course, the chemistry teacher that's a crime lord.
Brett Martin, in his excellent book Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes at the Creative Revolution believes the current "golden age" of TV began in 1999 when Tony Soprano sat across from Dr. Melfi and began talking about his panic attacks. Soon we had The Shield and The Wire. Down the road came Dexter, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. As Martin explains it, these series populated our collective dream life with "characters whom, conventional wisdom had it, Americans would never allow in their living rooms: unhappy, morally compromised, complicated, deeply human."
That said, the high, almost Shakespearean, seriousness of the best golden age TV shows can be a bit much. Chris Rock once shocked the Video Music Awards by openly mocking Coldplay for their "white boy angst." Rock's bit has something to say about our current fascination with white boys breaking bad.
The dangerous and angst-ridden adventures of the Walter Whites and Don Drapers and Dexter Morgans are the very stuff of TV's golden age. But these have not just been stories about white people going off the rails. They are specifically the stories of white men, the anatomies of their disasters lovingly and delicately explored. The white male ego facing personal Armageddon has borne the dramatic burden of the narratives we love. It's Hamlet, Macbeth and Lear, over and over and over again.
Or maybe we've simply missed the way women have broke bad in the same era. Martin's book, for example, gives only the briefest nod to Weeds and Nurse Jackie. But there's a deeper problem. The main outlets for the last decade's most creative TV have only given women limited opportunities to subvert their own normalcy.
Edgy stories about women on the margins of the respectable are generally given 30 minute formats (true of Nurse Jackie, Weeds and Orange is the New Black). Weeds, meanwhile, took on a tone of jokey absurdity, Nancy Botwin's life of crime at times becoming a fabulist send-up in the talented hands of Kevin Nealon and Justin Kirk. Compare the highly sentimental (and deeply unsatisfying) final scene of Weeds to the last moments of The Sopranos for a sense of the kinds of experiences women on TV are allowed to have.
That said, we shouldn't ignore the ways female characters have been integral to the TV revolution's tales of suburban apocalypse. James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano dominated most every scene in David Chase's Mafioso opera, and yet it's hard to imagine the series without multi-Emmy award winning Edie Falco and Lorraine Bracco. Both stood toe to toe with Gandolfini's explosive performance style. Falco's showdown with Gandolfini in the season four episode "Whitecaps" remains one of the classic moments of the series and some of the best few minutes on American television.
Even a show that's title announces its testosterone-rich content depends on difficult women. In AMC's Mad Men, Peggy, much more than Don, functions as our guide, in a way our avatar. She's more than the conscience of the show. Mad Men is her picaresque, rather than the story of the aging men whose lives descend into tragic farce around her. The 1960s seems to be something that is happening to Don Draper and crew. Peggy experiences the '60s.
Signs suggest that we are going to be seeing even more difficult women on TV, in worlds more interesting than suburban ragnaroks. Jenji Kohan has pulled off something far more impressive than even what she did with Weeds in the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black. Based on Piper Kerman's book of the same name, the premise reads at first like yet another tale of the subverted normal. A white lady in trouble has to give up her organic farmers market and artisanal bath products lifesyle for an orange jump suit.
But it's a different kind of story. OITNB introduces us to a cast of characters who have kept their dignity even as the prison system, and the American economy, works its violence upon them. This is not a story of middle class women breaking bad because they're dissatisfied even after getting their McMansion. It's a story about women badly broken by systems of social and cultural control. And then fighting back.
Although recently savaged by Aura Bogada in a piece for The Nation for placing white women's experience at the center of the narrative, both Kerman's book and Kohan's series slowly transforms a narrative about white girl probs into a story about incarceration as capitalism's answer for its disposable people. It's not a series filled with "wildly racist tropes," something Bogada might have realized had she not stopped watching, as she admits, with episode six.
Walter White's empire building, and his apparent decline and fall, have become such a pop culture juggernaut that we are likely in for more difficult men as the creative revolution rolls on. But Kohan has shown that other kinds of stories can be told during this era of great TV, stories that go beyond suburban anxieties to map the tangled forest of racial and class violence in America. It's way past time to have stories that explore something other than the white male ego in torment.