In Time, critic James Poniewozik raises an important issue about the finale of Breaking Bad, suggesting that the show won’t be flawed if it doesn’t give Walter White the comeuppance that he deserves. He writes:
Because Breaking Bad is so probing about morality, the finale also raises the inevitable question–as did The Sopranos, as did The Shield–of what Walter White deserves in the end, what would constitute justice. Is death the only fitting end for him or (a la The Shield’s Vic Mackey) a long time spent living with himself? Given how he used his family to rationalize his crimes, is his only fitting punishment to lose his family–and if so, is there any way that he can face the consequences without more innocents having to suffer too?
Poniewozik concludes that it’s all right if we settle on one desirable outcome, while the show gives us another because “at some point you get old enough to realize that evil acts don’t necessarily get punished, even if they should. Any system of morality that has a chance of working in the world, among grown-ups, has to make the case for doing the right thing even if you won’t be rewarded–even, in fact, if you will suffer for it and bad people prosper.”
I’d go a step further and argue that some of the best television shows end on ambiguous notes because their subject — or among their subjects — is the failure of institutions. The Wire ends the way it does because David Simon is making a dual argument about institutions like the Baltimore Police Department and the Baltimore Sun, and about human nature: his argument seems to be that passionate people often respond to flawed incentive systems and damaged bureaucracies not by rising above those imperatives and restrictions, but by acting out in ways that are more destructive to them than to orders they’re raging against. At the end of The Sopranos, one of the reasons it doesn’t seem likely that Tony Soprano is heading to prison is that the FBI’s attention has turned — as is also the case in The Wire — to terrorism, and that within that focus, Tony is marginally more useful than he is malevolent, and besides, the sandwiches at Satriale’s are irresistable. And if Walter White goes free, it will be in part because the Drug Enforcement Agency has been distracted by race, geography, and ultimately terrible coincidence long enough for Walt to cover many of his tracks, or perhaps to die of cancer before he can be successfully prosecuted.
But a different issue about how to judge characters arises in Ross Douthat’s response to Emily Nussbaum’s defense of Sex and the City, particularly in a section of the argument that seems to be drawn from Ross’s personal views on faith, sexuality, and family. He writes:
Now of course the moral tone appropriate to a show about a murderous mobster is different from the moral tone appropriate to a show about single women in Manhattan. But the problem for “Sex and the City” was that it never established a clear moral tone at all: It was a celebration of female independence and choice, but that celebratory style made it difficult to portray any kind of freely-made decision as truly, deeply wrong. (In this, it differed sharply from the Bushnell columns, which had a chilly, fin-de-siecle judgmentalism that never really showed up on the show.) As Nussbaum notes, where the various differences between the female protagonists’ feminisms were concerned, the show’s “basic value system” generally aligned with Carrie: “romantic, second-wave, libertine.” But as values systems go, a romantic libertinism is hard-pressed to condemn anything except repression. And so the possibility that some of Carrie’s freely-made choices — in sex, love, and conspicuous consumption — might actually be not only mistaken but actually morally corrosive could only be hinted at, never fully explored.
Much of Ross’s writing on these issues depends on the idea that certain modes of living are not only morally correct, but also produce superior outcomes. “A more honest, less triumphalist case for gay marriage would be willing to concede that, yes, there might be some social costs to redefining marriage,” he wrote, for example, about equal marriage rights in the New York Times this May. “It would simply argue that those costs are too diffuse and hard to quantify to outweigh the immediate benefits of recognizing gay couples’ love and commitment.”
Sex and the City has a different mathematics of morality, but I think Ross is wrong to suggest that the show is “hard-pressed to condemn anything except repression.” Morality isn’t a gateway question for Sex and the City: that’s the much more difficult, but no less historically important, inquiry into what makes a good life. But it is a critically important part of the algebra of the answers.
When Carrie embarks on an affair with her former lover Mr. Big, after he has impulsively married another woman, the show’s moral perspective was clear. Walking down the street, Carrie lapsed into a reverie remembering their first sexual encounter, shot in a sexy, gratifying way, only to have the camera snap back to Carrie in the moment, and to her snapping shut, as if she’d been struck with overpowering nausea. While Carrie initially sought counsel from Samantha, the friend most likely to understand her actions, she was ultimately forced to confront the reaction of her other, much more judgemental friends. And her long-term deception harmed her relationship with Charlotte, who ran into the couple on the street near a hotel where they’d been trysting, and was genuinely grieved both by Carrie’s dishonesty and moral transgression, particularly given the contrast between Carrie’s behavior and her own impending wedding. Ultimately, Carrie slept with Big in his own apartment and was discovered by his wife, who broke a tooth chasing Carrie down the stairs to confront her.
Carrie’s moral transgressions caused someone else physical pain, and resulted in real shame for her. Carrie may have been a libertine, but the storyline made it clear that her libertinism wasn’t without limits or consequences. The same was true for an episode where Samantha was socially blacklisted for making advances on the husband of powerful socialite.
The show could be similarly nuanced about the moral issues involved in the fetishization of marriage as an end goal. When Charlotte York became so desperate to achieve an engagement that she railroaded her beau of about a month, Trey MacDougal into a proposal. The night before the wedding, Charlotte discovered that Trey was impotent, but married him anyway, more concerned with appearances than with her actual happiness. And whatever its title, Sex and the City didn’t suggest that sexual compatibility is the only necessary component to marital felicity. Once Charlotte and Trey resolved their sexual issues, it became clear that Charlotte and Trey were incompatible on much deeper levels.
In a wrenching episode, after their efforts to get pregnant ran up against repeated obstacles, Trey asked Charlotte “That could take years. I’m 43. When does it get easy?…I can’t keep doing what we’re doing. I love you, but I don’t know if I’m cut out for this…I don’t think I wanna have a baby anymore. I don’t have the energy. I work hard, and I like to play golf. I just want to be for a while.” That basic incompatibility in their priorities, in the amount of effort they were willing to invest in achieving them, and Charlotte’s lack of an occupation other than attempting motherhood, all added up to two people who were badly suited to building a marriage together. I don’t think Ross believes that marriage is a magical state that removes all obstacles between couples and guarantees prosperity to their offspring, but the show did raise important issues about what marriage is meant to look like, and how to make it more stable and rewarding for the participants involved, in a way that was deeply thoughtful about the morality of interpersonal relationships.
But taken together, the question of judgement in Breaking Bad and Sex and the City is a revealing one. It’s easy to come to a consensus that there’s a right answer in the case of Walter White, that cooking meth and doing murder to satisfy your ego is deeply wrong — though the assumption of that consensus ignores the not-inconsiderable number of Breaking Bad fans who see Walt as a hero, throwing off his beta training to become the master of his domain. But it’s harder to come to an agreement about the best way to achieve happiness in the realms of sex and romance, much less to agree that there’s a clear path that is both effective and moral for all of us. Sex and the City isn’t, as Ross suggests, a lesser show because it refused to provide a definitive answer. Instead, it deserves credit that it’s often been denied, for asking a more broadly relevant, and less easily-resolved question.