If I read about Walter White’s drug world exploits in the newspaper, I’d want him thrown in jail, never to be heard from again. If Don Draper was my grandfather and my mother, Sally, told me about his legacy of adulterous and abusive behavior, I would refuse to spend the holidays with him. And yet I relish the hours I spend with these men via my television set, White being the lead character of Breaking Bad, which recently completed its third season, and Draper the core of Mad Men, which just began its fourth season.
Both shows air on AMC, and both reflect the current era of “quality drama” on cable television. Shows as diverse as Nurse Jackie, The Shield, Damages and Rescue Me all feature central protagonists who are deeply flawed and operate in moral gray areas, usually driven by self-interest above all.
What is deemed unacceptable in everyday behavior is of essential value in cable television dramas. Broadcast networks still striving to appeal to broad audiences provide an ideal home for police procedurals, lawyer shows and medical dramas filled with crusading heroes who may face temptations but always chose the right path in the end, leaving us confident in the efficacy of our society’s institutional structures. Walter and Don, on the other hand, get under our skin by reminding us that we can’t always trust that people will follow the right path, let alone always know what delineates one.
That’s not a reminder too many people want on a regular basis, which is why Breaking Bad and Mad Men have limited audiences, drawing around two million viewers during their first-run airings. But for those two million people, eager for a provocative narrative experience, and for AMC, trying to brand itself within the crowded cable lineup as a home for complex dramatic storytelling (“Story Matters Here” is the channel’s current slogan) and supply a demographically desirable subset of viewers to advertisers, these dramas deliver.
What exactly are we receiving in these portraits of morally fractured men? Here there is complexity as well, as Mad Men and Breaking Bad are as different as the slow burn of an aged scotch and the rush of a meth hit. With its glossy style and measured pace, Mad Men keeps viewers at arm’s length from Don Draper. His emotional layers are carefully parceled out from episode to episode, tantalizing us with desired explanations for why he treats people so callously, and we watch to understand how his old identity helps to explain his new one.
Breaking Bad, on the other hand, is a harsher, more confrontational show, which delves into the world of Walter White, an everyman high school chemistry teacher who, after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis, turns to cooking meth with the intent of providing a secure financial future for his family. The series unfolds with near-constant tension, as Walter’s moral violations compound themselves, dragging him deeper into seemingly untenable situations, and we watch to see how his old identity will morph into a new one as a result. It’s much easier to empathize with conflicted Walter than it is with coldly composed Don, but both men repeatedly use and abuse those around them.
Why would we want to spend so much time with so much unpleasantness? Viewers who don’t confront such depravity in everyday life yet are aware that it exists are lured by the prospect of seeing these dark corners of morality illuminated and explored, even vicariously enjoyed. We also become progressively invested in experiencing the emotions and motivations of these multifaceted characters. Don is a puzzle we strive to piece together; Walter is more of an open book whose ending we can’t wait to discover. In fact, given the star charisma of actors Jon Hamm (Don) and Bryan Cranston (Walter), as well as the amount of time we spend with their characters in their most intimate moments, it becomes difficult not to identify with or even root for them, which is a challenging moral position for viewers to wrestle with.
Of course, I do hope both will ultimately pay a price for their transgressions, but until such an endpoint, I’ll enjoy observing, judging, and debating the behavior of Walter White and Don Draper.
Christine Becker, an associate professor of film, television and theatre at Notre Dame, was recently named by The Wrap as one of 25 TV superfans to follow on Twitter, where she can be found @crsbecker.