The One Who Knocked First

From start to finish, Breaking Bad has echoed the uncannily similar—and equally good—cop show The Shield.

Michael Chiklis on The Shield and Bryan Cranston on Breaking Bad.
Michael Chiklis on The Shield and Bryan Cranston on Breaking Bad.

Photos courtesy FX, AMC

My favorite TV show is a Shakespearean tragedy in which the antihero’s sins, spinning out from a fatal decision he makes in the pilot, slowly destroy everyone around him. The main character insists he’s doing it all for his family—but he’s lying, especially to himself. There’s a lot of collateral damage, but this murderer’s worst crime might be the corruption of his vulnerable younger partner. The show maintains a remarkable level of quality throughout its run, and helped put its network on the map. It was largely carried by a great performance from its lead actor, a man previously known mainly for comedy who transformed himself into an Emmy-winning badass.

Of course, I’m talking about The Shield.

As Breaking Bad winds down, conventional wisdom says it’s a contender for Best Show Ever, along with The Wire and The Sopranos. No argument there. But major argument here: The Shield should be in that conversation, too. Shawn Ryan’s saga of Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) and the Strike Team, which aired on FX from 2002 to 2008, remains—pardon the expression—criminally underrated. It was every bit as riveting and consistent as Breaking Bad. And the two shows are also remarkably similar. In many ways, The Shield was Breaking Bad before Breaking Bad.

There are notable differences between the two shows, of course, but these are fairly obvious and largely superficial. The deliberate pacing of Breaking Bad is a long way from the frenetic action of The Shield and its shaky-cam visuals (developed by director Clark Johnson in the FX series’ pilot). The Shield is a cop show, and Breaking Bad is a criminal show—though you could argue that both are criminal shows when you really get down to it. The Shield also had more simultaneous storylines going on than Breaking Bad has. (The best of these plots were usually the cases worked by Jay Karnes’ Dutch and CCH Pounder’s Claudette—the show’s good cops, who were no less complex than the bad ones.)

The similarities, on the other hand, are much more extensive—and downright uncanny. They start with the backgrounds of their creators, Shawn Ryan and Vince Gilligan, who each learned the ropes of the TV business in the geekier parts of town (Ryan on Angel and Gilligan on The X-Files). Their stars also share unlikely career paths and transcendent skills. Like Bryan Cranston, Michael Chiklis won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series after his show’s first season, impressing the award’s voters with his versatility after years doing lighter fare. Cranston won two more and counting; for reasons I’ll never fathom, The Shield fell off the awards radar after a while. Both Chiklis and Cranston have a remarkable ability to convey the fundamental humanity of their characters, even while doing horrible, terrible things. We see Walt let a choking woman die and watch Vic burn a guy’s face on a stove, and yet it is nearly impossible to turn on them completely.

Similarly, Vic’s and Walt’s second bananas—rogue cop Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins) and meth cook Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul)—evoke our sympathies despite engaging in many of the same gruesome activities as the big kahunas. Pinkman is so sympathetic and long-suffering you forget that the show’s “moral center” is a drug-making, drug-selling, murdering junkie. On The Shield, Shane Vendrell was even worse; he eventually murders team and family members. Yet his vulnerability, much like Jesse’s, never allows you to write him off as a human being.

These characters retain much of their sympathy for us in large part because they are manipulated and warped by their older partners. The two cops on The Shield have a big brother–little brother vibe; the meth cooks are more of a father-son duo. But in both cases the older partner ends up destroying the life of the younger, more fragile member of the team. Shane’s sins are, to a significant degree, Vic’s fault, just as Walt is largely to blame for some of the worst things Jesse’s done. And on both shows, the younger partner is more damaged and consumed by guilt than his mentor.

There are smaller similarities as well. Bumbling Detective Steve Billings on The Shield provided comic relief in the manner of Breaking Bad’s sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman. Breaking Bad had a severed head on a turtle; The Shield had severed feet all over the place, thanks to the foot-chopping Armenian maniac played by eventual Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter. Vic and the gang burned corpses; Walt and Jesse dissolved them. And Vic’s wife Corrine (Cathy Cahlin Ryan) was at times loathed by misogynistic fans, much as Walt’s wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) has been.

Lastly, both shows hit it out of the park in their final seasons. (Granted, the ball hasn’t reached the stands yet for Breaking Bad, but the trajectory is good.) “I’ve said for a long time that the best final season of any one of these kinds of shows is The Shield,” Alan Sepinwall recently told Bill Simmons, “and it’s such a good season that it kind of drags The Shield into the pantheon all by itself.” I disagree that The Shield needed to be dragged anywhere, but I can live with Sepinwall’s assessment of the current Breaking Bad season: “I think this year is a better version of that so far.” Both seasons are brutal, logical culminations of a series’ worth of conflict.

The reason these final seasons are spectacular is that they fulfill the Shakespearean promise of the shows’ pilots. Both protagonists doom themselves the first time we meet them: Vic shoots another cop in the face, and Walt starts cooking crystal meth. All the catastrophes that follow spring from these acts. Whatever comes next, Vic and Walt have only themselves to blame for their downfalls. For my money, this makes their stories more satisfying and rich than those of Tony Soprano, Dexter Morgan, Jimmy McNulty, Jax Teller, and so on—who all make terrible mistakes but seem fundamentally screwed by a set of institutions, their families, a personal trauma, or some combination of the three. Vic is a victim of Vic; Walt is a victim of Walt.

After Sunday night, we’ll be able to compare their fates and the shows’ finales. The Shield ended with a cathartic, karmic hellstorm that finished off the series unpredictably yet fittingly. We still don’t know if Walt will go to Belize or how he might get there. As with The Shield, I suspect the fate of the lead’s partner may be even more devastating than the fate of the lead. I just hope it works out for those crazy kids Lydia and Todd.

Whatever happens, Breaking Bad will have a spot in the TV pantheon—right next to The Shield.

Read all of Slate’s Breaking Bad coverage.