If Walter White of AMC’s acclaimed show Breaking Bad were to campaign for mayor of Albuquerque, would he run as a Republican or Democrat? Syndicated columnist Jonah Goldberg has an opinion that might be unsettling for loyal fans. In the Aug.19 issue of the National Review, he asserts that, as someone who makes his own choices, Walter embodies the ideal of personal freedom. Goldberg points, for example, to Walter choosing his own course of cancer treatment against the advice of others. Furthermore, Walter exemplifies a remarkable sense of self-reliance by using his skills as a chemist to pay for his treatments and refusing charity from a former colleague. Freedom of choice is central to conservative thought and serves as the pillar of conservative proposals on issues ranging from healthcare to education reform.
Expanding the scope of Goldberg’s argument, it becomes evident that Breaking Bad is not the only contemporary show with conservative tendencies. It would be easy to label Mad Men a liberal show since it chronicles the social change of the 1960s. However, the show’s main character, Don Draper, is the antithesis of a liberal. Draper ascends from the poverty of the Dust Bowl Midwest to the executive ranks of Sterling Cooper due to his creative prowess and not as a result of any entitlements from the New Deal. During the 1960 election, Draper scolds JFK for his “silver spoon” and for “buying his way into Harvard,” a stark contrast to his characterization of Nixon as the “Abe Lincoln of California” and “A self-made man from nothing.” A reserved Korean War veteran, he often exhibits contempt for the apathetic laziness of his younger, liberal counterparts.
At this point one could make the case that the right-leaning Draper is simply meant to serve as a stark contrast to the 1960s political mainstream, with his numerous hardships representing the incompatibility of conservatism with the changing world. However, as the show now prepares for its seventh season, it is evident that Mad Men has routinely shown the darker side of liberalism, with Draper instead representing the nostalgia for the Golden Age. A major theme in season six was the violence and chaos associated with the nationwide protests of 1968, which paved the way for Richard Nixon’s “Silent Majority” speech and subsequent victory. For example, Peggy, Sterling Cooper’s first and only female copywriter, finally concedes to her liberal boyfriend’s demand to live in a more “diverse” area of Manhattan only to move out months later following routine vandalism and burglaries. Likewise, Betty (Draper’s first wife) is horrified by the vagabond culture she witnesses as she searches for a friend of Sally’s (Sally is Draper’s daughter) in an inner-city crack house. Most important, rather than glorify the anti-war movement, Mad Men essentially mocks the protests against the Vietnam War as misguided and pointless. Don has to use a personal connection to help a neighbor’s young and naïve son avoid being sent to the front lines after mailing in his draft card in protest.
Conservatism is also a recurring theme in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. The show’s protagonist, Nucky Thompson, develops a nationwide bootlegging empire through hard work and self-reliance. As the Republican treasurer of Atlantic City, New Jersey, he uses his entrepreneurial skills to create a booming city filled with vast opportunity. Although the show certainly touches upon the various progressive themes of the 1920s, Boardwalk Empire seems to illustrate the negative consequences of this social change more often than not. Throughout the first season, Jimmy Darmody’s wife has an extensive extramarital affair with a female companion she met while Jimmy was abroad during WWI. Rather than glorify her pursuit of sexual freedom and the overall promiscuity of the flapper generation, the show reflects upon the detrimental impact this relationship has on her husband and young son. Likewise, Nucky’s wife seeks to enlighten the women of Atlantic City regarding contraception, but her effort is portrayed as futile.
The Sopranos, often heralded as the best show in television history, is perhaps the most conservative of all. The unequivocal protagonist, Tony Soprano, is a socially conservative Catholic, who admits to voting for George W. Bush, and has an obvious disdain for the government. His nephew, Christopher Moltisanti, battles a horrific drug addiction over the course of six seasons, which affects both his professional and personal relationships. This is certainly a far cry from any endorsement of drug legalization (a point Goldberg makes on behalf of Breaking Bad). Perhaps the strongest indicator of conservatism in The Sopranos is the importance the show places upon a traditional family structure. For instance, a key member of Tony’s inner circle, Vito, seeks refuge in New Hampshire once he is discovered to be homosexual. Rather than glorify his new sense of sexual freedom, the show emphasizes the detrimental impact Vito’s absence has on his family.
What do the conservative overtones embedded in these popular shows indicate about the current state of society? Given the results of the past couple presidential elections, they certainly do not suggest that the country is becoming more conservative. On the other hand, maybe the United States is still at its core a center-right country, which has been perversely misguided by a liberal media. Perhaps these shows appeal to the inherent conservatism of a majority of Americans. Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, and The Sopranos could very well be the pioneering shows of a conservative revolution directed at television screens across America.