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Dead Tree Alert: Walter White, the Greatest American Antihero

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Frank Ockenfels/AMC

I’m back! And so, nearly, is Walter White and the first half of Breaking Bad‘s final season. I’ve been away for a week, but while I was out, TIME published my essay on White and the past decade’s army of cable-drama antiheroes (originally planned to run a week later, but pressed into service early for our special SCOTUS health-care-decision issue). [Update: the full essay is subscription-required, sorry.]

The piece has three prongs (like Steve Carell in Anchorman, I like to wield a trident). One, how over the past ten years or so—since The Sopranos, but especially with the explosion of followup dramas like The Shield, the morally-compromised protagonist has gone from a novelty to a serious-TV-drama convention, and why the genre works:

[W]e’ve had a decade-plus of real-life news about betrayed trust: bad mortgages, sexual abuse in colleges and churches, prisoner torture, business fraud. These stories involved some flat-out monsters (see Jerry Sandusky) but also a lot of enablers and go-alongers, bosses who didn’t punish, colleagues who didn’t blow whistles–people who weren’t exactly evil but who found, when tested, that they couldn’t make themselves be good enough. (Not unlike Skyler, who decided to stand by her husband and launder his drug money.) Were the rest of us, shaking our heads, better than them? Or just lucky that we never had to find out? Antihero dramas let the viewer take a kind of moral test drive.

Two, why Walt—who starts his journey as a struggling everyman—is the apex and maybe the peak of this kind of figure, the guy who lets us see the potential for evil in the ordinary schlub:

The title of Breaking Bad–now entering its fifth and final season, whose first half begins July 15 on AMC–is a slang term for the process of turning criminal, as creator Vince Gilligan has explained. It’s a telling choice of phrase, describing evil not as an immutable character trait but as a turn from one side to another, a drift across the yellow line on a late-night drive… Walt’s choices might not be ones you would ever make. But his problems–medical bills, debt, midlife crisis–could be anyone’s.

And three, that the antihero drama could maybe use a rest, or at least some more variation:

Several of TV’s reigning antiheroes have an expiration date: Don Draper will run out of 1960s in two seasons, and both Damages and Showtime’s Weeds (cable’s other citizen-turned-pusher story) are starting their final seasons. After all these years, we get it: yeah, the world can be rotten. Edgy has started to feel like the new safe.

I like morally gray TV as much as the next guy—actually, as the ratings of my favorite shows suggest, probably more—but we’ve reached the point where that by itself is no longer daring. (This is not a slam on Breaking Bad—I’ve seen two new episodes, and without spoiling, the second in particular is terrific.) As I’ve written before, I’m not crazy about The Newsroom, but I do at least recognize that it’s trying to do something different in cable/HBO drama nowadays, which is to portray its cast in more or less straight-heroic (if not entirely perfect) mode. That’s not an easy thing to do well (Friday Night Lights, to me, is the best recent example of a great drama with good-guy lead characters), but then, challenging drama isn’t supposed to be easy. Who will being us the Great American Anti-Antihero?