Last Sunday’s much-discussed episode of Breaking Bad inspired George R.R. Martin, the author of Game of Thrones, to take to his blog and call Walter White “a bigger monster than anyone in Westeros.” He then added, parenthetically, “(I need to do something about that.)”
It’s a short post, and Martin’s discussion of Breaking Bad quickly transitions into a preview of the upcoming Emmy contest for best drama—but it’s an illuminating reminder that today’s most celebrated television shows are essentially extended conversations about evil, a sort of one-upmanship game between people like Martin and Breaking Bad showrunner Vince Gilligan for how much audience fascination can be wrung out of bad men (it’s usually men) doing bad things. To Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, we can add to this list Mad Men and House of Cards. And of course it was The Sopranos who got us started on this track in the first place.
It doesn’t pay to be puritanical about such things, of course. But it’s interesting that some of the best recent writing about Breaking Bad has something of a “what have we wrought?” feel about it: whether it’s Emily Nussbaum lamenting the “bad fans” who view Walt as some kind of badass hero, Matt Zoller Seitz wondering why so many viewers feel the need to rationalize Walt’s every transgression, or even Anna Gunn wondering why audiences respond to her character’s opposition of her husband’s plans with poisonous misogyny.
Behind these pieces I sense a common anxiety: the worry that perhaps this cultural fascination with difficult men is unhealthy on some level, that for some it signals a real monstrosity that isn’t at all fictional.
And where do I stand on all of this? Oh, you can usually find me on the couch, watching the latest episode of Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones through my fingers, a pain in the pit of my gut as I anticipate with fascination and dread what monstrosity will be revealed next.