TV

Mad Men vs. Breaking Bad

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We pit AMC's two champions against each other in a magnificent battle royale.

If I had a time machine, I'd go back to 2005 and place a bet on the following ludicrous proposition: within five years, basic cable backwater AMC would be home to two of the most lauded original series on TV. AMC's first hit, Mad Men, and its second, Breaking Bad, have made the network mandatory viewing for those of us who want to keep up with the conversation at cocktail parties. But, as Breaking Bad's penultimate season comes to a close this Sunday, we've had enough of all this good-natured mutual backslapping. It's time for a head-to-head fight: which series deserves to be called the best TV show of our time?

 

Leading Man: Jon Hamm's portrayal of Don Draper on Mad Men is a study in restraint. Draper's nearly always in control, and even when he's not (like in last season's "The Suitcase"), any weakness he displays is quickly retracted behind his relentlessly confident shell. Bryan Cranston's performance as Walter White is equally virtuosic, a tour de force of vulnerability and desperation. Both actors deserve the highest praise, but Don Draper is this decade's Tony Soprano: a cultural icon, the TV character even non-TV watchers can identify by name. It's hard to top that.

Advantage: Mad Men

 

Supporting Cast (Male): Viewers and critics are sometimes so quick to praise Hamm and Cranston that the supporting casts of both Mad Men and Breaking Bad get short shrift. Mad Men has a wide and ever-expanding class of solid male characters, some of whom are so reliably hilarious (I'm looking at you, Roger Sterling) that Mad Men is, for me, the funniest non-comedy on television.

But even the Mad Men talent pool can't compete with Breaking Bad's Jesse Pinkman, a meth dealer whose missteps in the first season provided the show's comic relief, but whose darkening storyline is now one of Breaking Bad's most gripping. And don't forget late arrival Gustavo Fring. As portrayed by the magnificent Giancarlo Esposito, he's a terrifying TV drug kingpin for the ages. Both men play off Bryan Cranston and each other so masterfully that it's impossible to imagine the show without them. (There's also Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman, the sleaziest lawyer in TV history — worth mention for his one-liners alone.)

Advantage: Breaking Bad

 


Supporting Cast (Female): TV writing is still largely a boys' club; Mad Men's female-dominated writers' room (only two of the nine writers are men) is a gratifying exception. So it's no surprise that the show has television's best female character, and one of its best characters, period: Peggy Olson, the secretary-turned-copywriter at Mad Men's heart. Her complex relationships to feminism, to 1960s social movements, to business in a male-dominated industry, to sex, to power, to creativity, and to success are enthralling. Plus, Peggy stands in fascinating counterpoint to Betty Draper and Joan Holloway, more familiar visions of the 1960s woman who nevertheless have become deeper and more complex characters as the show's progressed. Apologies to Breaking Bad's Skyler and Marie, but Mad Men has this one in the bag.

Advantage: Mad Men

Cinematography: Mad Men is all office spaces and domestic interiors, but Breaking Bad's palette is the entire Southwestern sky. For all its beautiful shots (and it is fantastically well shot), Mad Men can't deliver images like Walt and Jesse framed against the New Mexico sunset in season two's "Four Days Out," or the cloud passing over Gus and Walt in this season's "Crawl Space." This year, the Breaking Bad team's sense of how to use New Mexico's desert landscape has become even more assured. The past few episodes have featured some of the most beautiful shots ever seen on TV.

Advantage: Breaking Bad

 


Design: Even people who don't like Mad Men can't help marveling at its production design. (It's also hard not to write that sentence without calling the production design "sumptuous.") But Mad Men's style goes beyond surface flash; the design is loaded with meaningful details. (My favorite is a blood-stained dress Joan wears during season three's "Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency" meant to evoke the First Lady's dress at JFK's assassination, which occurs later in the season.) Breaking Bad's design is lovely, too — the cool blue of Walt and Jesse's meth is an especially nice touch in a show often dominated by drab oranges and browns. But, let's face it: Mad Men has a Banana Republic clothing line, for God's sake.

Advantage: Mad Men

 

Deeper Themes: Mad Men's ambitious commentary on American values is interesting, even if it isn't always successful. The first season of Mad Men was too smug: we could laugh at the misogyny, hypocrisy, and racism of the 1960s without being forced to confront any of these issues as they still exist today. But, in the later seasons, that on-the-nose moralizing gave way to a more nuanced treatment of past and present. Don Draper and his advertising firm are on the wrong side of history — the developments he dismisses, like the rise of irony in advertising copy, or JFK's candidacy, are the ones modern audiences are likely to relate to the most. But Don is so charming, and his advertising pitches so good, that it's easy to forget that we're watching a dinosaur. Rather than reveling in our decade's superiority to theirs, we're seduced into seeing the world like Don does — into feeling like we're on top of the world when in fact the topology of that world is radically changing right under our feet. Breaking Bad is very different; for all its narrative elegance, it's a simple show. Walter White makes a choice to start cooking meth, and the show documents the long, painful aftermath of that choice. Breaking Bad is very good at what it chooses to do, but I'm a sucker for grandeur.

Advantage: Mad Men

 

Writing: Neither Mad Men nor Breaking Bad could survive without their incredible scripts, weekly masterpieces on a small scale. Though both shows took a season to find their feet, the writers now know their characters so well that every scene bristles with dramatic energy. Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston's monologues are indelible; lines stick in the mind long after the episodes fade to black. Mad Men has established several effective season-long narrative arcs, but Breaking Bad has it beat in the long game — the five-season story the writers have planned for Walter White. Rather than portraying him as a good man caught up in an ugly world, the show has gradually peeled away Walt's facade to show his essential brutality. Mad Men's writing is excellent for how it makes us like a leading man who does unlikeable things; Breaking Bad's is excellent for how it make us hate a man for whom we once had boundless sympathy. This is such an audacious, novel track for a show to take, and it makes Breaking Bad the best-written series on TV.

Advantage: Breaking Bad

Conclusion: The final tally of our little match-up? Four to three, in favor of Mad Men. And while that may seem like conclusive proof that Mad Men is the better show, I prefer to call it a draw. Of course, some of you will call that a cop-out and will demand that I name a winner, so here I go: the winner of our competition is America, because every week we get to watch two television shows so good that it's impossible to say which is better. Congratulations. Your prize is you don't have to watch this week's episode of Whitney.