Mad Men (2007 – 2015) and Breaking Bad (2008 – 2013) feature invisible, ‘ordinary guys’ who reinvent themselves in a hostile world, and go on define their success. Don Draper in Mad Men steals the identity of a fellow soldier killed during the Korean War and, using his newfound persona, escapes his troubled working-class background by becoming a feted advertising creative. Walter White in Breaking Bad is able to provide for his family’s future by giving up his job as a high school Chemistry teacher and becoming a drug dealer.
In their new roles—advertising executive, and drug dealer—they operate in previously unfamiliar worlds: Don Draper goes from his deprived upbringing into a middle-class world of moneyed sophistication, mingling with the affluent Madison Avenue crowd, living the ‘jet set’ lifestyle where old and new money merges—where people are motivated by the power that success brings: status, glamour, wealth, and influence. Walter White goes in the other direction, on a journey from a dull and financially insecure middle-class existence into the murky criminal underworld. The criminal underworld is a dangerous place where the stakes are high. While the financial rewards can be great, the ever-present danger of a violent death permeates everything.
Don Draper and Walter White have similarities beyond their unassuming, alliterative first and last names. They have a disturbing dark side, and are capable of doing things that people around them (including their families) would never suspect. To survive in a difficult world, they are prepared to do what they deem necessary to bolster their chances of getting on and ensuring a decent future for their families. But the self-advantage they are fighting for comes at a price, leaving them guild ridden and conflicted, and eventually driving them away from their families. Don Draper attempts to escape from his guilt and fear of being discovered through alcohol abuse and casual sex. Walter White becomes addicted to the business and comradery of organised crime.
Both Don Draper and Walter White do unpleasant things, and yet they remain watchable and likable characters, because the audience empathises with their love of their family, especially their children, and their morally conflicted nature. Looked at objectively, these are both morally and ethically ‘bad men’ and yet their charm, charisma, and dry humour wins us over. They have dramatic and close relationships with another male character: Roger Stirling in Mad Men comes across as an older version of Don Draper, a mentor of sorts; and Water White is a mentor or buddy to Jesse Pinkman, a disaster-prone loser-criminal type who becomes White’s sidekick.
Breaking Bad has a satisfying story arc, because Walter White’s ‘heroes journey’ feels complete, the loop is closed. Don Draper’s journey takes him back in on himself, but it leads to where it began: as an advertising executive struggling with the next tag line. This time he’s thinking up a new Coke advert, instead of a motto for a cigarette brand. We leave him able to return to his life, older and wiser, but essentially unchanged. An ad man looking for the next by-line—his journey, a work-in-progress, unfinished business. Breaking Bad delivers Walter White to a narrative conclusion that feels complete.
Both these stories celebrate the resilience and audacity of two troubled men, both fathers, both living a lie, both forced to endure dark secrets, and both forced to do unpleasant things in order to become the person they dream of being—a slick ad man, a feared criminal. Neither of them are innocent, because of what they have done. They provide a stark warning that everything comes with a cost—nothing is free.