Horror and crime: Breaking Bad vs. The Shadow Line

There are a couple of TV shows I’ve been watching recently. One’s British, the other’s American. One’s a limited series, the other’s currently on its fourth season. I like one far more than the other, but they’ve both taught me a lot about a certain kind of crime show, and when an examination of morality ultimately fades into a horror story.

“…Because you’re wearing gloves.”

 The Shadow Line is a seven-part drama series aired on the BBC recently. Written and directed by Hugo Blick, it follows the dual investigations of the police and criminals into the murder of a gangster.

While it’s byzantine, over-stylised and unafraid of being pretentious and self-indulgent, it’s also well-worth watching despite its flaws. Its creation of a specific and absorbing atmosphere is second to none. And this atmosphere is not entirely related to the crime or even noir genres. As this excellent blog post put it:

the monster of the show– and I very much use the word monster instead of villain on purpose to distinguish it from THE WIRE… That monster is very real and very much a part of our world– the monster is corruption.

The Shadow Line specialises in a kind of despairing, existential horror, the sort that features in HP Lovecraft stories. The characters can struggle all they want, but this is The Way The World Is – the good are crushed and the bad triumph in the end. It’s a worldview common to the conspiracy thriller sub-genre, particularly the ones the BBC did so well back in the 1970s and 80s (and to which The Shadow Line is explicitly harking back).

Breaking Bad, on the other hand, offers up a moral horror. It’s the horror that comes from watching an at-first sympathetic character becoming more and more irredeemable. Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a nebbishy high-school chemistry teacher and the series’ protagonist, is diagnosed with terminal cancer and makes the decision to start cooking crystal meth to provide for his family after his death.

It began as a (seeming) act of desperation taken by a dying man. But as the series has gone on, we’ve seen Walt take ever more ruthless measures to keep himself alive. We see him cause huge amounts of pain, suffering and death. And as the bodies pile up around him, he never falters in his constant efforts to justify himself. It’s not just Walt; all the characters know right and wrong. But they do the wrong thing anyway.

“A man provides. And he does it even when he’s not appreciated, or respected, or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it … because he’s a man.”

The message of The Shadow Line is “don’t go there/do that or the monster will get you”. Breaking Bad’s power comes from watching the hero become the monster. Walt has a lifetime of rage and resentment built up inside him, and his pride, along with the opportunity to excel at the work involved in his deadly business and unleash his id in the guise of his Heisenberg persona, create a deadly mixture.

(Brief aside: a regular featureof the Audio Assault podcast, named Lab Notes, specialises in discussing each episode of Breaking Bad’s current fourth season, and comes highly recommended by yours truly.)

The word “hauntology” has been applied to The Shadow Line before, and the surreal, often-nightmarish atmosphere it evokes suggest a kind of TV reality that is fuzzy at the edges. The figure of Gatehouse (Stephen Rea), in particular, appears as an echo from the wave of secret-state thrillers produced by British TV in the 70s and 80s.

They too, specialised in buried secrets, where knowledge was the real danger. Often the theme is of Britainas a small country packed full of history. Layers pile upon layers, the past granting the present more meaning – as with the ancient stone circle, resembling a target, where the climactic sequence of The Shadow Line takes place.

Breaking Bad offers a different geography. The show’s mileu is retail parks, fast-food joints and identical subdivisions, where horrific events take place hidden in plain sight. An alternate landscape of crime, horror and death is mapped onto suburbia – the meth lab under the industrial laundry, the shoot-out in the shopping centre’s car park.

At the same time, the series sketches in the background the disintegration of the middle-class American dream. Pre-diagnosis, Walt was forced to take a second job at a car wash to supplement his income as a teacher. The inability to meet medical bills, for Walt and others, is a recurring plotline in the show. The ghost haunting at the edges of Breaking Bad is the suggestion that this very middle-American nightmare, minus the meth-dealing, is now a fact for millions of people.

The nightmarishness of both series comes not only from the subject matter, but also from the pacing. They revel in the clenched-knuckle slowness of a car crash, of knowing something horrible is going to happen but being powerless to stop it. Breaking Bad specialises in “bottle episodes”; self-contained, single-location stories that show the characters trapped physically, as well as metaphorically (plenty of TV shows do this, but BB does it better than almost anyone else), drawing out the tension to almost unbearable levels.

Both The Shadow Line and Breaking Bad are horror masquerading as crime. They are perfect series for a world where we have ever more information, but less idea of what to do with it. We know of the myriad dangers lurking in the shadows, or about to meet us up ahead, but we simply remain glued to the screen, eyes open.

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