On TV, Gangsters Are Moral

One thing I was reminded of while watching the opening of last night’s very entertaining Breaking Bad: on television, if you are a gangster, you have been brought up to believe in the absolute importance of family bonds. The teaser, with its flashback to the origins of The Cousins and their family-based moral code, sums up what TV writers think gangsters are like: they may be ruthless killers, but they put family first. When, as in this show (and unlike The Sopranos), the gangsters aren’t the stars, their functional family relationships are almost like an implicit rebuke to the main characters — look, even these insane murderers have a moral code that hasn’t quite been corrupted yet. But I doubt if it’s thought out that carefully; “family” is just TV writer shorthand for the typical character traits of a TV gangster. Particularly when the gangsters are Spanish-speaking; that smashes together two different TV-writer stereotypes, the gangster with a moral code and the Spanish-speaking characters who believe in taking care of their own.

That makes it sound like I’m down on Breaking Bad, which couldn’t be further from the truth; the show has improved steadily since the season premiere, and last night it was at its creepy-funny best. (Though the last couple of weeks I’ve been feeling, more than usual, like they don’t have enough money for what they’re trying to put on screen. Scenes like the destruction of the RV have looked less than convincing to my eyes.) I do feel like The Cousins have not been my favourite part of the season, since except for the fact that they don’t speak in broken English, they feel like something out of an ’80s drug-bust drama like Miami Vice, or one of those second-tier Stephen J. Cannell shows where there’s always a Mexican gang with bizarre fashion sense. But since they provided the excuse for last night’s memorable suspense/action climax, they justified their presence after all.

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