Walter White and Nancy Botwin: #OccupyYourTV

I was literally on the road last week when Showtime sent out its press release announcing the upcoming 8th season of “Weeds.” But I wanted to talk about it all the same, as tardy to the party as I might be. That announcement came at a point in which a few disparate things were rolling around in my brain. And when that email came through on my phone, those disparate things seemed to coalesce all at once. I’m not sure I have the final answers here, but I thought I’d throw this out as food for thought for people to mentally munch on. ‘Tis the season and all, right?

Comparing “Weeds” to “Breaking Bad” might be sacrilegious for some. But having finally gotten on board the Walter White train over the past few months, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about how well that show does things that are seemingly impossible to achieve for almost anything else on the air. It’s easy to draw a line between Walter White and Nancy Bowtin as two people who have had their lives spin out of control thanks to their decision to either produce or sell illegal drugs. It’s also easy to draw a line in the sand right there and demonstrate that “Breaking Bad” had taken that decision to its logical places whereas “Weeds” has stubbornly refused to make Nancy pay in a meaningful manner. With “Breaking Bad” having a fixed end date and “Weeds” continuing to chug along after its expiration date, it’s even clearer which of the shows has taken its central premise seriously.

weeds_nancy.jpgNow, I wouldn’t have said this about “Weeds” a season ago, where it made an improbable leap into my Top 10 shows of 2010. That was a season in which the show finally seemed willing to take its characters into logical places…which is to say, consistently on the run and in fear for both their lives and their souls. Seasons 4+5 simply took the show from Agrestic/Majestic and plopped it into Ren Mar. But Season 6 felt like a season in which the chickens finally came home to roost, and fleeing the pen gave the Botwins some of their strongest material to date. Sadly, Season 7 stripped away all of that danger, ensconced them in a neutered New York City, and drained any drama in the show and compassion/interest from the audience.

But here’s what I want to throw out there to you, O Interwebs: put aside the sheer mechanics of each show now. Forget about the ways each show goes about its particular business. After all, it’s probably unfair to slam either show for not attempting to do exactly what the other is doing. Artistic visions are sacred, and what Vince Gilligan and Jenji Kohan are doing should be judged on their own merits and not in comparison to one another. THAT BEING SAID: I wonder how future generations of viewers will view Walter White and Nancy Botwin, particularly in the context of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement that may or may not be in its own death throes at the moment. Neither “Breaking Bad” nor “Weeds” are a reaction to that movement, obviously. And I don’t many tent dwellers would cite either protagonist as a political influence. But I can’t help but feel like there’s a connection between the choices perceived by Walter/Nancy and the choices perceived by those hopeless in the face of a horrific job market.

So I am curious if, with proper distance and context, Walter and Nancy will be seen as 1) the poster characters for the road not taken by those faced with mortgage payments, child costs, medical bills, etc, OR 2) as the poster characters for a lazy America that took shortcuts in lieu of hard work.

walter_white_breaking_bad.jpgIn Case 1, Walter/Nancy represent the darker impulses of everyone given full flight. Their journeys become an extension of wish fulfillment, even if deep down we want them to be punished. Why? Because if they are not, they it throws off our moral compass. Season 7 of “Weeds” had no such compass, which made it feel tonally bizarre. Season 4 of “Breaking Bad” ended with two words: “I won.” But what did that character win, exactly? And at what cost? There’s the temporary thrill of victory, but then the slow onset of dread as we the audience realize we’ve been rooting for a fucking monster. In either case, I can see plenty of criticism/scholarship that seeks to trace the roots of contemporary cultural angst about the job market back to these two characters.

In Case 2, the simple initial acts Walter and Nancy took towards their respective live of crimes might represent the inherent selfishness of a society that expects certain creature comforts without any particular RIGHT to them. The idea that life should be “fair” for either the Whites or the Botwins is understandable, but it’s also not a given, either. It’s easy to curse God or society for the specific ills within one’s one family, but there’s also a way in which people telescope these problems in order to make themselves feel like the sole aggrieved party in the universe. Watching the shows now gives the illusion of moral choices made in “real” time, whereas mainlining a series in two weeks yields a much different experience and therefore potentially much different sympathies/empathies with the show’s characters. You could argue that Walter’s initial impulse is the more selfless of the pair, but he refuses money very early on that could have put him off the path that he eventually goes down. You could also argue that Nancy didn’t look very hard at options after her husband’s death to make her homelife more economically viable. Both parties bought into the American Dream, but took shortcuts to achieve that most sane people would find horrific.

I’m more prone to viewing things through the first prism versus the second, but given how intense political discourse has become over the past decade, it’s only a matter of time in which the burgeoning world of online television criticism starts to be part of it. It’s certainly part of the current landscape as well, though I don’t we’ve even scratched the surface of how prevalent it will become. It won’t ultimately swallow up the non-political spaces, but it will definitely take up a bigger piece of the overall pie. And when it does, I think we’re going to see a lot of writing that re-contextualizes shows such as these and takes them out of our televisions, out of our living rooms, and place them directly into the most pressing socioeconomic issues of the day.