DOWN AND ALIENATED IN HBO’S AMERICA
STONE the crows! You don’t need the polls to see how upset Americans are with politics, you just have to watch television. And it’s not Fox and Friends that explains American antipathy to the political process, its HBO and its competitors. Certainly conservative commentators are liberal (well not really) with their opinions and give niche markers what they want to hear, so does the soft-left.[i] But it’s the dramas people watch, which reflect and reinforce their world-views. If what people watch on television is a guide to public opinion, the Yanks are now interchangeable with the Europeans – cynical about the state and convinced capitalism is corrupt.
The heroes and villains on American TV, and the causes they contest, say a great deal about the state of the union and all of it is awful.
For a start, high art on the box always assumes that government is irredeemably corrupt – that’s government, not politics. In Martin Scorsese’s Boardwalk Empire, an Atlantic City machine boss uses the money prohibition makes him to buy whoever is buyable and shoot the others to make easier his looting the public purse.[ii] And everybody on his side and in the opposing factions is utterly corrupt. Elections rarely rate, except in the way they are bought.
The show, Simon Maxwell Apter suggests, is “not overtly political” and that is the point. Politics is just a means for the insiders to make money at the expense of everybody else.[iii] If anything, it is even more cynical than Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, loosely based on power struggles between Irish immigrant and nativist American ward bosses in the Civil War era.[iv] In Boardwalk Empire, the boss who runs bootlegging among the black community is accepted as an equal comrade in corruption, with all sides seeking his support.
This is a series intended to appeal to populists and libertarians alike. All public officials are corrupt and regulation, in the form of prohibition, mints the coin of their corruption. The possibility that any public servant (with the exception of a woman federal prosecutor) could be straight does not appear to have occurred to anybody involved.
It is much the same in the unjustly ignored, at least here, Justified.[v] Based on, and extended from, an Elmore Leonard novella and set in a Kentucky backwoods mining community, the series pits a federal marshal against neo-Nazi, drug-running, clan-feuding gangsters.[vi] While it is all drug deals gone bad and standard stuff in Leonard land (not celebrated for his sunny faith in human nature), there is a political subplot about control of the county.[vii] In one episode a local official explains how much booze buys an election and a candidate debate is manipulated by the moderator until somebody speaks up for the miners – not that it does them any good.
Once again, it never occurs to anybody that the state supposedly exists to help them. As Francis Wolcott famously put it in Deadwood, “I am a sinner that does not expect forgiveness. But I am not a government official.” [viii]
Nor is capitalism seen as an engine of opportunity for ordinary Americans. Where once the trans-continental railway was seen as nation building, in Hell on Wheels capitalism is a con.[ix] The railway is less about creating wealth than transferring public money to the builders.[x]
The message in all these dramas – that everybody is on his or her own – is explicitly spelt out in Breaking Bad.
This is perhaps the ultimate, realist, dystopia of contemporary American life – the story of schoolteacher Walter White who cannot support his family as a chemistry teacher, and takes to manufacturing meth to pay his enormous medical bills.[xi]
Some suggest White is an Ayn Rand hero, utterly self-reliant, taking clear-eyed responsibility for his life and decisions.[xii] He isn’t. White is a conventional criminal, who has a vested interest in the existing social order in the way he wants to live his life. And he relies on the law banning the crystal methamphetamine he manufactures to create an artificial scarcity, thus allowing him to charge a premium.
But it’s less the way Walter becomes Macmeth than the reason he started that is interesting.[xiii] As two critics David R Koepsell and Robert Arp put it, Breaking Bad appeared:
… deep in a never-ended recession … our dreams and hopes for ourselves and our futures seem crushed by the every day. Middle-aged, over-educated and struggling to make ends meet, the bright shiny futures we had been promised if only we lived right were never more elusive. [xiv]
The contrast between Walt and just about the only honest person in the series is stark. His brother in law, Drug Enforcement Administration agent, Hank Schrader, “is the only character who doesn’t sell his principles short for convenience or self-preservation.”[xv]
It helps that the DEA looks after Hank when he is shot, which the school system can not do for Walt when he falls ill. Sure a rich friend offers to pay for his care. The implication is obvious, unless protected by a pension and health insurance the only thing standing between anybody and the abyss is the faint hope of charity.
The idea that there is no protection for ordinary Americans also inspires apocalypse-vision, like J J Abrams new series about life after electricity stops working, Revolution.[xvi] In the episode the Crows watched last night the message was clear, fathers who care for their families beat looters to death.
And what about all the zombies? It’s not the environment or terrorists or even vampires that are the threat now – it’s other Americans, albeit undead ones. [xvii]
They are all metaphors for a society that has lost confidence that the state exists to assist citizens, that the market works for all, that life is not a case of every family for itself. And it has happened very quickly. The West Wing was all about the power of the presidency to protect people. And a sign that the rule of law and a legitimate market economy had arrived in Deadwood, a series about creating order from chaos on the frontier, was the establishment of a bank. [xviii]
A bank! Since when did anybody in the US trust banks? Not since 2008.
[i] Tim Groeling, “Who’s the fairest of them all? an empirical test for partisan bias on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox News,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, 38, 4 (December) 2008, 631-657, 653
[iii] Simon Maxwell Apter, “In ‘Boardwalk Empire’ an all-to-real world,” The Nation, October 1 2010 @ www.thenation.com/article/155139/boardwalk-empire-all-too-real-world# recovered on October 21
[iv] Alex Williams, “Passion Play,” New York December 16 2002, @ http://nymag.com/nymetro/arts/features/n_8115/index1.html recovered on October 21
[vi] Gary Hoppenstand, “Kentucky Noir,” Journal of Popular Culture, 44, 2, 2011, 193-194 recovered on October 21
[x] Zachary Leeman, “AMC’s ‘Hell on Wheels’ delivers a conservative blast of western values,” Breitbart TV, August 12 @ www.breitbart.com/Big-Hollywood/2012/08/09/AMC-s-Hell-on-Wheels-Deserves-a-Hell-of-a-Chance recovered on October 21
[xii] “Is Walter White the ultimate Ayn Rand hero?”, Quora August 21 @ www.quora.com/Breaking-Bad-TV-series/Is-Walter-White-of-Breaking-Bad-the-ultimate-Ayn-Rand-hero recovered on October 21
[xiii] Emily Nussbaum, “Child’s play: ‘Breaking Bad’s” bad dad”, The New Yorker, August 27
[xiv] David R Koepsell and Robert Arp, Breaking Bad and Philosophy: Badder Living through Chemistry, (Chicago, 2012) vii
[xv] David Thier, “Why Hank is the real hero of Breaking Bad,” Forbes, April 9 @ www.forbes.com/sites/davidthier/2012/09/04/why-hank-is-the-real-hero-of-breaking-bad/
[xvi] Troy Patterson, “J J Abrams Revolution,” Slate, September 17 @ www.slate.com/articles/arts/television/2012/09/j_j_abrams_revolution_it_s_no_lost_it_s_no_alcatraz_.html recovered on October 22
[xvii] Kyle Bishop, “Dead man still walking: explaining the zombie renaissance,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 37, 1 (Spring 2009) 16-25