Complex TV


A comparison between two similar climactic moments, each coming from the penultimate episodes of their respective seasons, highlights these dual approaches to complexity. Breaking Bad’s “Phoenix” sees Walt estranged from his partner, Jesse, who is immersed in a heroin habit with his girlfriend, Jane; Walt goes to Jesse’s house to try to win him back but finds him passed out in bed with Jane. When Jane starts vomiting and choking, Walt reaches out to turn her body to save her life but hesitates—for the next minute, we watch Walt wordlessly realize that Jane’s death provides him an opportunity, and thus he rationalizes letting her die. Bryan Cranston’s stunning performance portrays Walt’s interior thought processes, as discussed more in chapter 4, as we watch his character’s morality erode through rationalized selfishness—the dramatic action here is within Walt’s unspoken psychology, conveyed to viewers through the shared layers of his experience and memories.

At the end of The Wire’s first season, we also witness the death of character at others’ hands, as Bodie and Poot shoot Wallace per Stringer Bell’s orders. While there are certainly character resonances between the three friends, and we recognize that this is a point of no return for Bodie’s and Poot’s commitment to “the game,” it is clear that they have no real choices: their only source of livelihood is as part of a drug crew, and the game demands that they demonstrate their loyalty or end up like Wallace. Ultimately what underlies the emotional impact of the scene is the social conditions and institutional logics that led inevitably to this moment, not complex moral calculations or psychological developments for the characters—Poot and Bodie undertake an all-too-common action dictated by their institutional marginalization, while Walt’s act is fully unique and individualistic, not standing in for larger social forces. Both deaths are powerful, memorable scenes that resonate emotionally. But Breaking Bad’s impact is felt more through Walt’s complex psychological characterization and the lingering shadow it casts on his relationship with Jesse, while The Wire uses Wallace’s death to put a memorable human face on the social costs of urban poverty and the drug war.

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