TV Show Comparison: Weeds vs. Breaking Bad
There was a time, not so long ago, when you didn’t talk about drugs on television. Then, when you did, you only talked about them in an after-school special kind of way. While you could trace this evolution down the lines of television history, that is not what we’re doing today. Today, we’re going to take a look at two main characters — protagonists even — who are fronting two of the most acclaimed shows on television. These characters are every day working class suburbanites. They have kids that talk back, they have houses to maintain, heck they even both have zany brothers-in-law. They’re both a morning talk show and a talking woodchuck away from being Full House’s Danny Tanner. However, these two shows are not the kind you sit down with your kids and watch on TGIF, because the main characters of both of these shows are drug dealers.
The Weigh In
In the blue corner, weighing in Monday nights at 10, we have Showtime’s Weeds, with its widowed mother of two to three, Nancy Botwin (Mary Louise Parker).
In the red corner, weighing in Sunday nights at 10, is AMC’s Breaking Bad and sad sack chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston).
Critical Reception & Popularity
First, for a quick look at the shows. Weeds is now going into its seventh season on Showtime which makes it Showtime’s longest running narrative show, not to mention one of the longest running shows on Showtime (losing out only to “Penn and Teller’s B.S.”). When it first debuted back in 2005, it was a surprise hit. Critics loved it, fans loved it, and it was like nothing else on television. Its mixture of wacky humor, incredibly written and acted characters, and an ability to suddenly turn very serious without warning made it the show to watch on Showtime. Weeds is largely responsible for the current crop of great original shows on Showtime including: Dexter, Shameless, Episodes, Californication, Nurse Jackie, The United States of Tara, and The Big C.
Breaking Bad was in a tough spot from the beginning. Less than a year after AMC delivered Mad Men to the world, they premiered their next big original, Breaking Bad. Mad Men took off like a rocket, while Breaking Bad fulminated just out of the view of the public. That is, until last year when it took home both the leading and supporting actor in a drama Emmys. Last season (season 3) was critically acclaimed and this season’s return was one of the most highly anticipated returns for any show. Mad Men may have set the bar for American period drama on television, but Breaking Bad is AMC’s little show that could.
The ‘Heroes’ Back Story
Now, Nancy and Walter are very similar characters in a lot of ways. These are two people who were living perfectly normal boring lives until they were struck by tragedy. Nancy’s came in the form of her husband’s death. Walt’s came from the revelation that he had deadly and near incurable cancer. Both characters had a family to consider, a house to keep up, bills to pay and no money to do it with. Nancy had to figure out how she could keep her kids happy, healthy, and in their own home without the sole source of income in the household. Walter had to figure out how his wife, son, and soon to be born baby girl could make it without him. In a way, Walt is Nancy’s husband, just with a bit more lead time. So what do they do to provide for their families? They sell drugs.
Nancy begins dealing pot in her already stoned suburban neighborhood. She picks up the business she knows is there. Nancy does her best to hide her other life from everyone. Nancy is willing to work with distributors, growers, and even a few other dealers. It’s this willingness to compromise that brings her up in the game fast.
Walt begins cooking crystal meth with a former student. Knowing that this student has cooked in the past, he even goes as far as to seek him out. The relationship is less than ideal though, as within a couple of days Walt has pissed off other cooks and the local distributors. When it comes to his product and his money, Walt is never willing to compromise.
Both characters are willing to go to whatever lengths they need to in order to take care of those they love. For neither one of them is legality an issue. Their similarities end there.
Interpersonal Relationships & Business Acumen
Nancy’s approach to the drug game is much the same as it might have been to Avon. Nancy is defined by her personality. It is because she is likable, because she is sexy, because she is unpredictable that she is able to flourish. Nancy doesn’t have a plan; she’s just doing things as they come to her. It’s her way with people and her thirst for survival that keep her alive. Nancy has never met a supplier she couldn’t seduce, a cop she couldn’t sweet talk, or a kingpin she couldn’t marry. She is a woman’s worst enemy and a man’s worst nightmare.
Nancy may know how to sell, but she knows nothing about the product or the process. While she occasionally makes an effort to learn, she is dependent on others to provide her with product.
Walter, on the other hand, has all the salesmanship of a recorded message. He has to depend on others to run the game on a street level. If it’s not his former student Jesse, then it’s one of a number of other people Walt meets. Unfortunately for Walt, he is generally bad with people and in his line of work, Walt keeps meeting the worst types of people.
While Walt has very little sense of decorum; he is a hands on, do it yourself guy. This gives him an edge on Nancy, because he makes and can monitor the quality of his own goods. And Walter accepts nothing but the highest quality from his goods. In fact, Walt is successful in the drug game because he has a neurotic need for perfection.
When the chips are down, the drug game is dangerous. This is not a fact that either of the shows neglect. The difference is really how they deal with it.
Nancy depends largely on her charisma when things go wrong. As I’ve said, she’s incredible at talking her way out of situations or convincing other people to back her up. However, the more people she uses the more depleted her circle of friends has become. At this point. Not even her own sons trust Nancy. Every time she squeaks by, you can’t help but feel that she’s one slip up away from losing it.
Walt, however, is at his best when the chips are down. He really has one thing going for him in the drug trade. Walt is smart, really smart. Chemistry isn’t just what he teaches, it’s what he loves. Walt can jury rig a car battery with pocket change. Walt can kill a guy using only beans. Walt can break into a secure compound with an etch-a-sketch. Unlike Nancy, Walt makes his own product. He understands everything about crystal meth inside and out and knows that his abilities make him irreplaceable.
The largest difference between Nancy and Walt is how they develop over the course of the show. Naturally, when you do the things that these characters do, it tends to have an effect on your ability to go back to normal life. Both characters say they would love to go back to life the way it was before, but for neither of them is it actually true. Nancy loves the game. It’s never a question of stopping for her. She’s actually been given several fairly straightforward chances to walk away from the table, but she just can’t bring herself to do it. In the beginning, it was about the money for her. She had to get by. She had to take care of her kids. However, when things got good enough, she didn’t step back, she kept pushing forward.
Life outside of the law has brought out Nancy’s narcissism. She feels an insatiable need to be the most important thing in the lives of all of her family members. She always has to be the most interesting person in the room. If Nancy were to take her ego out of the equation at any point, she would find herself perfectly safe and happy, but safe is not enough for Nancy. As soon as she survives one near miss, it’s on to the next big score.
Walter, on the other hand, has become something different. There is something narcissistic in him, but that is the least of his issues. When the series first started, Walter was a sad sack. Despite his obvious intelligence, he was forced to work two jobs to support his family: one as a chemistry teacher and one as a car washer. Walt was stepped on and caged in by his overbearing wife Skyler. Walt couldn’t even stand the company of a stronger, more in control man like his brother-in-law the DEA agent. That was all before Walter got cancer. When he became sick, he decided the rules didn’t apply to him anymore. He would be dead shortly and the only thing he could do was make his presence mean something to the people he will leave behind.
Before the audience knew what was going on, Walt quit his job at the car wash, started cooking meth full time, and was beating teenagers up who messed with his son. Walt had a new lease on life as it was all coming crashing down. The worst thing that ever happened to Walter White was being cured. With his cancer gone, Walt started making plans to pack it in and go back to being a family man and a chemistry teacher. That didn’t exactly work out though. That world he knew as a meth cook started creeping back in.
Walt is the best at what he does and he cares very little who gets hurt in the process. He has joined up with some of the biggest and nastiest in the game, melted the bodies of other drug dealers in vats, and even ordered the murder of innocent people. Walt doesn’t enjoy the game, though he holds very little interest in the opinions of others. While Walt misses the simple comforts of being a husband and father, he prizes what he is now much higher. Walt is ready to win the game, even if it means cheating. He’ll knock all the pieces off the board if he can’t win. Walt has become a hardened criminal.
Nancy Botwin wants to play, although even in her darkest hours her game has rules. Nancy may do bad things, but she does her best to remain a good person. Walter White has moved beyond that. He still thinks of himself as the good guy, but he’s had to rearrange the entire board to do so. While Nancy Botwin is unwilling to pay for her crimes, she is also unwilling to sacrifice an innocent person in her stead. Walter White doesn’t care who he hurts and that makes him a monster. What is truly amazing about Breaking Bad as a show, is despite all that, I’m still rooting for him.