In the golden age of the Hollywood Western, you could tell which side of the law a character was on by the colour of his hat. Good guys wore white hats; bad guys wore black. Today, in the golden age of television drama, such simplistic moral signifiers are, well, old hat. Audiences aren’t asked to cheer on the good guys and boo the bad – series like Dexter and Deadwood, The Sopranos and Sons of Anarchy present thugs and killers as their leads, with the good guys placed strategically as obstacles at best, and as victims at worst.
So when Breaking Bad – a show hailed as a subtle and complex drama unafraid to pose profound questions – has protagonist Walter White (Bryan Cranston) putting on a black hat, it’s played as a bit of a joke. He’s trying to convince the junkies and drug dealers of his New Mexico town that he isn’t just some nerdy high-school science teacher. The joke is that he is a nerdy science teacher; the black hat is merely a costume.
Meanwhile, on Justified – a show as nuanced and gripping as Breaking Bad, if less critically acclaimed – US Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) wears a creamy-white Stetson cowboy hat on the job. In the 21st century this is unusual enough to attract attention, even in rural America (Givens’ beat is Eastern Kentucky). It may be a disguise as such, but there’s a clear sense here – as there is in Breaking Bad whenever White’s black hat comes out – that this is a man playing a role; and it’s one that is bound to be subverted.
Givens sees himself as an old-fashioned, straight-shooting (often literally) good guy. White, on the other hand, wants people to fear him, as they would the villain in an old Western. In both cases, of course, real life (and both shows largely aspire to realism) isn’t that simple. Law enforcement today isn’t like a Western where the sheriff rides in and cleans up the town; Walter White is a solid citizen play-acting at being a bad guy.
But the closer you look at both shows, the less of a joke their leads’ headgear becomes. Past the layers of irony and comedy, these protagonists’ hats mean exactly what they would mean in a Western: for all their moral complexity, Breaking Bad and Justified ultimately present viewers with a world populated by clear-cut good and bad guys. And while moral complexity and shades of grey can be intriguing, who doesn’t enjoy the occasional tale of good versus evil? What better way to ramp up tension and keep people watching than a bad guy who seems to keep getting away with it even though we know they can’t escape judgment (whether from the law or the result of their own nefarious deeds) forever?
In Breaking Bad, Walter White lives in New Mexico. Although he is something of a chemistry whiz, his job at the local high school is so poorly paid he also works part-time at a car wash to support his family. When he’s diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, he decides to create a nest egg by cooking up a batch of crystal meth. Fortunately, an ex-student of his, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), knows about the practical side of such enterprises, and together they head off into the world of drug manufacturing.
Over the course of its four seasons, Breaking Bad has gradually taken the premise of an average, middle-class male becoming a drug kingpin to its logical outcome: White commits murder and worse, and Breaking Bad has grown to be one of the darkest hours of television. Jesse has gone from a likeable nitwit to a tormented murderer; Walter’s endless drive for acknowledgement and respect above and beyond financial gain has turned him into a man who’ll stop at nothing to get what he believes he deserves.
Justified’s premise is less high concept and less grim. After giving a hit man 24 hours to leave Miami – and then shooting him dead when he sticks around – US Marshal Givens is reassigned to his home turf of Eastern Kentucky. He’s not happy about it, as his family and old friends – almost all of whom are criminals – are the reasons he left in the first place. The only person from his former life who isn’t a felon is his ex-wife Wynona (Natalie Zea), and he’s not exactly glad to be around her, either.
What begins as something of a rural version of your typical crime-of-the-week drama quickly shifts into a more layered narrative. The show is partly based on the stories of US crime writer Elmore Leonard, who is well known for bringing delinquent no-hopers and vicious dimwits to life. The criminals in Justified are similarly funny and believable.
While Givens might wear the white hat at work, his personal life is a bit more complex. For starters, it doesn’t take him long to shack up with Ava (Joelle Carter), an old flame turned former wife of a deceased criminal. Sharing her bed when she’s a witness in a major case turns out to be a pretty good way to make that case fall apart.
Then there’s the matter of Givens knowing every prominent dirt-bag in the area on a first-name basis – including his own father. In Justified the criminals make up the entire community in a way that even mobster-centric series like Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos can’t manage. On those shows everyone might be a criminal to some extent, but the idea of an virtuous world apart from theirs remains. On Justified, even characters who’ve been nothing but honest for a season and a half can suddenly turn up with a sack of money stolen from the evidence room.
One thing both shows have in common is first-rate storytelling. It’s not uncommon to hear of people watching entire 13-episode series of Breaking Bad over a weekend. Cliffhanger conclusions are commonplace: episodes regularly end with characters having guns pointed at their heads or being driven out into the desert to certain doom. Every episode is filled with both subtle and obvious threats, as well as season-long conflicts, and the writers have little reluctance when it comes to bumping off characters in sudden and surprising ways. Breaking Bad is pulp fiction that’s impossible to put down.
This is not to say that Justified can’t bring out a run of gripping episodes. The gang war between Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) and his crime kingpin dad Bo (M.C. Gainey) made the end of season one compelling viewing. Season two’s overarching storyline, involving backwoods marijuana growers, child snatchers and old-fashioned, straight-up killers was also one of full-bore action. But Breaking Bad is in a league of its own when it comes to keeping you watching, if only through sheer, dreadful anticipation.
As one might expect in crime dramas, killings occur frequently in both shows. Breaking Bad has the edge in inventiveness and gore here, but Justified gets points for Western-style stand-offs and gunfights, and when there is a nasty murder – such as the poisoning of a sympathetic character early in season two – it’s all the more horrific because it’s unexpected. On Breaking Bad, being tipped into a bath full of acid is par for the course.
The audience is also shown what meth does to people in Breaking Bad. Junkies in grim states of physical disrepair feature regularly; Jesse’s drug habit ruins his life. Meth dealing kills children and alike; drug cartels come after innocent family members. And Walter White wants to make as much meth as he can.
And that’s just Breaking Bad’s starting point, where White at least has the excuse that he is rapidly dying of cancer. Later on, even after the cancer is in remission and White could presumably walk away, he and Jesse resort to more direct ways to kill people, and more abstract and dubious reasons to kill them.
They’re still well-drawn characters, but they behave like bad guys – in fact, White actively embraces the villain’s role, while Jesse, who originally seemed the more criminally inclined, develops a stronger morality as the series progresses.
While for both White and Jesse there’s a certain level of self-preservation involved in their criminal actions (their confederates in the drug trade will kill them once they’re no longer useful), what drives White in later seasons is the clear and conscious decision to be a bad guy. Even the pretence of morality he has to keep up around family and friends chafes: he’s proud of what he does. It’s hard to know whether he wants recognition for his hard work or everyone to know he’s not someone to be messed with.
Justified presents a community of well-crafted, complicated and often very funny characters. They’re also almost always criminals of one stripe or another. Against this backdrop, whatever the state of his private life, Givens is a fairly straightforward good guy. He isn’t corrupt, he isn’t haunted by his actions and he doesn’t have any dark secrets. In fact, he’s also unfailingly polite, even when dealing with criminals he’s never met before. This isn’t a world where crime drops in out of nowhere to disrupt the status quo: crime is the status quo for many of the characters, and Givens is part of that community.
One of the big signifiers of quality US television drama has been this sense of community. It’s hard to underestimate the impact of The Sopranos, which is not only about a mobster and his family, but the entire world they inhabit. Shows like The Wire and the Western Deadwood followed, widening the scope even further. For entire seasons The Wire shunts nominal lead McNulty (Dominic West) into a supporting role while it explores the world of Baltimore.
These shows don’t take sides. When everyone on a show is a bad guy, like in The Sopranos, being a villain doesn’t mean anything. The Wire is about society as a whole, with people largely being cogs in a wider system that makes labels like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ irrelevant.
Justified doesn’t ignore these developments. There’s a solid sense of community across the supporting cast, a concrete sense of place behind each episode’s storyline. But instead of suspending judgment on the community, there is a morality beyond self-interest and survival. Givens’ hat might be a joke to many of the characters, but it’s no joke in the context of the show. Like in an old-fashioned Western, Givens is the sheriff of a lawless (well, let’s just say largely criminal) region, and he’s the one who’s keeping things under control.
Breaking Bad has just as strong a moral compass – it just points the other way. Walter White was always prepared to make money from selling drugs; as the series continues he’s increasingly comfortable with threats, violence and murder, even of innocent third parties if they’re in his way. It’s never shown as a good thing, or even as something that just has to be done; the violence has consequences (especially for Jesse) and they’re almost all negative.
In recent years television drama has embraced the idea of telling stories about morally complex or ambiguous characters: Dexter is a series about a serial killer; Sons of Anarchy is about a gun-running outlaw biker gang. While these shows have their charms, Breaking Bad and Justified, whatever their individual differences, are in a league of their own with sharp characterisation, whip-crack plots and twists, tension that mounts without relief and just enough humour to pull them back from unrelenting bleakness.
Anthony Morris has been reviewing books, film and television for the last fifteen years. He is currently the DVD editor at The Big Issue.
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