2 Angry Men: The Postmodern Realities of Mad Men and Breaking Bad

What you call love was invented by guys like me… To sell nylons.

We hate to say it, but postmodernism is everywhere. It’s been in our books, plays, movies, criticism, and plainly put, art for decades, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. More recently, postmodernism has found itself in American scripted television. It’s been extremely apparent in the meta, fourth wall breaking sitcoms like It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, Arrested Developmentand Community, but postmodernism has been much more important in what’s been called our most recent “golden age of TV.”

Starting with The Sopranos in 1999 and ending with Mad Men in what will be the spring of 2015, this so-called golden age has been strung together by one thing: control (or the lack thereof). Whether it’s the crazed showrunners who work behind the scenes, or (to use a term coined by Brett Martin) the difficult men who find themselves as protagonists, control is an essential theme that embodies these shows and concerns their postmodernism. Some of the easiest examples of this lie within the last two shows of the golden age: Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

In Mad Men, nothing is really defined. Everything in Don Draper’s world continues on without question, even if Don  asks one himself. When the series started in 2007, the primary question it asked was “Who is Don Draper?” Mad Men answered that question at face value early on, and what’s important is that it responded with a simple “Who cares?” As the series went on, it went against the natural instincts of a television show and asked more questions than answering them. As viewers struggled to figure out what Don Draper was and what kind of world he was living in, he himself showed that he had no control of his life and even asked those questions too.

Throughout the years, viewers learned more about the world Don Draper was living in, but somehow it still remained indistinguishable. Don Draper and the eponymous Mad Men were seen to be manipulating everyone around them through their work. Happiness, love (see quote above), safety, and above all, life in Don Draper’s world were all proven to be fake, and even if the Mad Men themselves were creating these lies, it was evident that none of them had control over their own lives. Mad Men showed that there were no fixed rules, values, or meaning in its world, making it the ultimate postmodern reality. As Don Draper said himself, “The universe is indifferent.”

Like Don Draper, Walter White might be under the impression he has control in his life, but he really doesn’t. Walter White made the choices that brought him from mild-mannered chemistry teacher to meth manufacturing kingpin, but that doesn’t mean he has any control over what happens to him. It’s not Walt’s choices that advance him in his life, but the reality of Breaking Bad that jerks at and propels the man into the wild and intense situations he finds himself in so often.

Throughout the entire run of Breaking Bad, Walt never figures out that it’s the postmodern reality he’s living in which leads his life. The man has no control over any decision in his life, and every instance that he finds himself in flies right by before his eyes. Breaking Bad flies by so fast that Walt (or any of the given characters) are never given a moment to breathe. There is no definition or meaning to Walt’s life, as he finds himself without any control in any given situation, ultimately living a life directed by postmodernism. One moment, Walt might be having breakfast with his wife and child, and the next speeding through the roadway with gun in hand.

Both Don Draper and Walter White live in postmodern realities. There are no rules, values, and no one has control. Yet, no one does anything about this. In both Mad Men and Breaking Bad the realities keep on advancing, without any of the characters’ say. Perhaps it’s this acute sense of postmodernism that makes these shows so golden.

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