Breaking Good: "The Good Wife" Meets "Breaking Bad"

Like many people I know, I've become obsessed with "The Good Wife." And it struck me at some point that it follows an odd grammar for television, but a grammar I'd seen before — in "Breaking Bad." Both shows disrupt, indeed derail, the common formula for serial television. Rather than having characters relentlessly perform themselves — Ross is always Ross, Rachel is always Rachel (why do I always use "Friends" as my example? It's humiliating) — both "The Good Wife" and "Breaking Bad" give us something else: characters who are in flux. Alicia and Walt are in a state of becoming — not becoming anything per se, just becoming. The shows are propelled not by the sameness of the characters but by their change.

What seems conspicuous is that both explore, to a greater or lesser degree, the conditions of becoming within the confines of culturally defined gender roles. Walt wants to be a man — but a man as he's been fed it his whole life. What sets the whole mayhem of the show in motion is not just his cancer but the way he's provoked by Hank. From the outside, Hank is a man's man. The show undoes this by revealing his anxiety attacks, his self-doubt, his fears. But his persona is all man, as it were, and he goads Walt, even acting as the surrogate father to Walt's son.

Walt feels emasculated — by the students in his class, by his former lover, by his former colleague who cuckolded him, by his boss at the car wash, by the medical profession, by his looming poverty, and it all comes to a head (ahem) in his castration by Hank. So what does Walt do? He sets out to dominate. If he just wanted the money, he could have had that. But he wants the masculine power as defined by our culture — the power to physically control: "Say my name!" He wants to be the one who knocks. And it's, of course, what kills him. Masculinity in our culture is a zero sum game. (This is not to say there aren't ways of being a man that are not violent or dominant. It's to say that those are the major modes, as it were.)

Just like "Breaking Bad, "The Good Wife" opens with its main character, Alicia, at a juncture. She's been the dutiful politician's wife — proper, respectful, doting while he philanders, bribes, scares, dominates, does what he wants. But now her husband is humiliated and in jail. So she tries to return to the work world and, as we learn in a flashback, her self-deprecating and insecurity will not suffice. But nor will fear and domination. And so she flirts. That is the device, the tool, culture has left her. Her intelligence, her capability, her knowledge are not enough, at least not at first. She has her sexuality and she uses it, subtly but knowingly.

Her sexuality moves into the background. But she maintains her tether to masculine power through her husband. She doesn't divorce him because she needs him — if I were still in college (and it was still 1988), I'd say she needs his phallus to wield her power. She can't just dominate and intimidate the power Walt does (or at least tries to do). The mechanisms of control and senses of self are different for her as a woman than they are for Walt. She is constantly assessing whether she's doing the right thing, if she's being proper whereas Walt heads into rampant amorality, if not downright cruelty, without a second's hesitation. His power lies in breaking bad; hers, in playing, and playing with being, the good wife.

In some sense, what drives both is survival. But the meaning of survival is quite different for them. Yes, Walt wants to survive cancer — or, rather, to survive by providing a future for his family (money and meth won't cure his disease). But that's mostly bullshit. He wants to dominate. As he says, he's not in the money making business; he's in the empire building business. Alicia needs to support her family as her husband is in jail. And this is a very real fear for women: financial destitution (I'm not making that up; that is a well researched sociological finding, whatever that means). But both Alicia and Walt are dead inside and need to survive as human beings within the cards dealt them, within the structure of identity, class, and gender that limit them. 

I had an interesting conversation with a female friend of mine who, like me, had recently become obsessed with "The Good Wife." She believes that what drives Alicia is care for her children. I countered that, like Walter White, she has an emerging will to empire. But, unlike Walt, she can't — nor would want to — dominate through physical violence. She uses what she knows — the law, just as Walt uses chemistry — but she also uses sexuality, misdirection, and her relationships to men. Different tools, different ways and means, not such a different will. 

Of course, the shows are quite different. "Breaking Bad" comes out swinging like gangbusters and doesn't relent. If all human relationships are chemical as the pilot of "Breaking Bad" suggests, then Walt is a highly reactive element. When he comes in contact with other elements, there are often explosions. Alicia is less immediately volatile but her reach is, in a way, greater for being more subtle. She sends ripples far and wide.

We see this in the grammar of the two shows. "The Good Wife" is looser — more characters come and go, more small reactions take place, ripples move from the social to the work place to the political. The show is brilliant in this fashion; it doesn't constrain itself very much, not even in its tone and style. "Breaking Bad" is highly focused, denser, more regimented, each shot and exchange something exquisite.

Of course, while we know what happens to Walt in the end, while he has his reckoning, we've yet to see how Alicia ends up (if there is such a thing as "end up"). We don't know quite what drives her. Or, rather, we know that it's not one thing. Yes, she cares for her children. Yes, she wants to feel alive. Yes, she has some will to empire. She is multiple. But both shows give us the pleasure, even if sometimes painful, of watching life become.


Thanks, J. said...

"whereas Walt heads into rampant amorality, if not downright cruelty, without a second's hesitation"
Bzzzzt. I'm sorry but that's incorrect.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Thanks for your thoughtful, insightful comment. I know rethink the whole architecture of serial television. I'm glad someone is the gatekeeper of truth. Thanks again.