Spoiler Warning for all both of you who haven’t yet seen Breaking Bad‘s finale.
There’s something a little bit curious about a series that gave us one of cable’s most definitive male anti-heroes seeking absolute resolution and closure upon its final hour. But that’s exactly what Breaking Bad did Sunday night, with Vince Gilligan repeatedly pronouncing The Sopranos’ ambiguous ending as its prototype-for-opposition.
It’s telling that, amongst all the finales of comparably beloved 21st century cable dramas, Gilligan steered the conversation about the end of Walter White so directly through the terms of David Chase’s game-changer. Sure, both shows have clear points of comparison, as each are violent, regionally specific contemporary tales of a paterfamilias’ less-than-legitimate business tooled toward the visage of a “normal” domestic life, and both shows carried some debated expectations that their respective underworld kingpins would find their demise by the last musical cue (be it provided by Bad Finger or Journey).
But more appropriately, these two shows can be seen as bookends to the same greater phenomenon: the golden age of cable’s repeated focus on male anti-heroes to drive their narratives.
As many have noted, this trope has brought us some great – or, at least, compelling – shows, but now with the calculated (and certain) death of one of its most celebrated manifestations, it’s time to give this trope a rest and see what else television can do.
Cable television shows of the past decade-plus have helped define TV’s so-called new golden age by embracing the moral gray areas and gradual transformations of its central characters in a way that benefits long-running content. Male characters ranging from Tony Soprano to Vic Mackey to Jimmy McNulty to Don Draper to Walter White are charismatic, complicated, and intriguing. They’re empathetic, but not sympathetic. They make terrible decisions and realize regular moral blunders, and while that can make them flirt with the big fuzzy gap between broken protagonist and outright villain, they are never positioned as the moral exemplars or traditional heroes of Hollywood entertainment. Brett Martin wrote a behind-the-scenes book about this phenomenon called Difficult Men.
How did TV get away with this? Perhaps because TV has had a history of investing in the ordinary, as opposed to Hollywood films which bank off the extraordinary, we’re more willing to accept characters with flaws far bigger than any suppressed virtues. And because of the long-form execution of such shows, the showrunners typically give us one little nugget to hold onto that makes the character interesting enough to continue watching even as we see them descend into depravity (think McNulty’s self-destructive breakdown in the atypically uneven final season of The Wire).
But as interesting as these characters have been, a notable pattern has quickly emerged, or a formula for cooking “quality TV.” The difficult man has now become less a useful dramatic tool than an overused device on the precipice of staleness. Like every post-Nolan Hollywood superhero who manifestly wrestles his demons, the Difficult Man is now a signpost that demands the audience recognize what they’re watching as something other than frivolous, passive entertainment.
But this is only useful if the Difficult Man affords us something novel, entertaining, and perhaps even insightful, like the working life of the suburban mafia, the systemic political and legal entanglements of the narcotics unit in Baltimore, or darkly comic high pulp adventures in the American southwest. Tony Soprano, the inciting Difficult Man, was a fascinating character precisely because his show was, in part, an overt and prolonged discussion of its central character’s masculinity as explored via the contrast between the streets of New Jersey and a psychiatrist’s office, and brought to life by the late James Gandolfini’s layered personification of a murderous teddy bear. Fast forward a few years, and an online streaming service launches its first high-profile TV-ish show with a Difficult Man narrative.
But it seems the Difficult Man concept may be running its course. The tepid critical and audience responses to AMC’s Low Winter Sun and Showtime’s Ray Donovan exemplify that, even if you cast actors as great as Mark Strong and Liev Schreiber front-and-center, a morally compromised male character is not interesting on its face. The most recent “Golden Age of TV” has been under threat of running its course for quite some time, and if the difficult man trope continues to be exhausted, that impending reality seems certain. What better way to say goodbye to him than with the one show that, for better or worse, gave its audience roughly what it was expecting? With the caveat that Don Draper is still around (the women on Mad Men are often more interesting characters, anyway), what better Last Difficult Man can there be than Walter White?
This isn’t only an argument for simple gender parity in televisual representation. This is to point out that “quality TV” as a genre has been thoroughly gendered through the predominance of this trope to such an extent that it’s become difficult to realize what serious cable television looks like without a brooding man at its center. With some notable exceptions, celebrated programs with women in front of the camera and in the producer’s chair have largely been in the realm of comedy, while award-magnet dramas have been dominated by the Difficults.
This in part has to do with our misplacement of serious contemporary TV as originating with a Difficult Man in the first place. In her fantastic piece from this past summer, Emily Nussbaum offers a corrective of the notion that great contemporary TV began with The Sopranos. Nussbaum writes,
“Sex and the City, too, was once one of HBO’s flagship shows. It was the peer of The Sopranos, albeit in a different tone and in a different milieu, deconstructing a different genre. Mob shows, cop shows, cowboy shows—those are formulas with gravitas. Sex and the City, in contrast, was pigeonholed as a sitcom. In fact, it was a bold riff on the romantic comedy: the show wrestled with the limits of that pink-tinted genre for almost its entire run. In the end, it gave in. Yet until that last-minute stumble it was sharp, iconoclastic television. High-feminine instead of fetishistically masculine, glittery rather than gritty, and daring in its conception of character, Sex and the City was a brilliant and, in certain ways, radical show. It also originated the unacknowledged first female anti-hero on television: ladies and gentlemen, Carrie Bradshaw.”
I strongly recommend reading Nussbaum’s take in full – and yes, she does speak outright to any reservations you might have about this premise. But the chronology of her argument is incontestable: Sex and the City was the first premium cable program that cultivated such a devoted fanbase, that cemented premium cable as a place for original television which inspired water-cooler conversation and, in the process, created a specific identity for premium cable as a place where themes and subjects can be explored that aren’t acknowledged elsewhere.
For some perspective, here’s what AMC original programming looked like shortly before Sex and the City’s first season.
But as difficult men dominated the tele-scape (sorry), The Sopranos is regularly, albeit ahistorically, situated as the new TV era’s breakthrough to the other side rather than simply recognized as a great show on its own terms. Meanwhile, Girls (a show in direct conversation with SATC) is suspect-on-arrival and Anna Gunn writes an article asking fans to stop calling Skyler White a bitch. It seems the era of Difficult Men doesn’t always know what to do with the women who share its networks and programming.
But this could change, and several shows with female leads are providing means of thinking about serial television outside of the Difficult Man scenario. Homeland’s Carrie Mathison is cable’s premiere difficult woman: an intelligent, complex, and demonstrably imperfect character who provides a productive contrast from supporting spouses, lovelorn bachelorettes, or the deceivingly restrictive “strong female character.” And you know how people accuse shows SATC and Girls of not checking their privilege (even though the latter is about privilege)? Well, Netflix’s Orange is the New Black is a show that depicts an exhaustive process of a bougie blonde woman checking her layers of privilege. And it’s fascinating.
But the most promising bet, for my money, is a show that began the same night Breaking Bad ended: Showtime’s Masters of Sex, neither of whose coed leads fit into the “Difficult Person” bind. This historical drama avoids the cerebral world-making of Mad Men in favor of a rather honed approach to its mid-century period. It sometimes verges on nose-thumping self-awareness in its “how little we knew then” expositions, but it has the potential to be a show whose investigation of sex offers a great deal to current cable drama’s representations of gender.
Michael Sheen’s Dr. William Masters is certainly a layered character – meek, methodical, yet confidently driven – but he isn’t set up as a jigsaw enigma for his female counterpart (and the audience) to solve. He is neither hero nor anti-hero. And Lizzy Caplan’s Virginia Johnson avoids the anachronistic progressive woman syndrome (see Hysteria; or better yet, don’t) by convincingly portraying a character who is both of the 1950s but not determined by it. There were, after all, liberated women before the late 1960s. Phil Maciak’s description of the two leads eloquently articulates the importance of what the show does differently:
“Masters of Sex is already signaling its preference for depicting the small-bore, messily executed machinations of history rather than the grandiose, benighted movements of Great Men and the Women Who Inspire Them… In the form of Virginia Johnson, the emergence of a modern female subjectivity is not set up as an arc on Masters of Sex so much as it is taken as a given…
“More importantly, though, it gives us a female lead — played by Lizzy Caplan with a kind of constitutional brassiness — who begins the series with a sense of franchise and power. Even if it feels clunky at first, there’s something exciting about a series that isn’t going to make us wait around for the moment when an oppressed woman finds the courage/outlet to speak…narratives of female self-empowerment don’t always play as narratives of progress in television’s Golden Age. And Masters of Sex provides a different way around this convention. Virginia Johnson joins Homeland’s Carrie Mathison as a female protagonist who, though beset by structural inequality, has a voice to begin with.”
It’s certainly too early to tell (and the pilot is a bit too clunky in parts to know with any certainty) whether or not Masters of Sex will be contemporary cable’s next game-changer. My hope is, quite frankly, that it won’t. My hope is that we’re done with game-changers. My hope is for shows that aren’t limited to the frameworks of their predecessors. I for one can’t think of anything better to do with Sunday evenings.