Breaking Bad, The Wire, and the casino

I began watching Breaking Bad in the fall of 2011, a full three years after the show’s inception. It started like other things have started, through pure stagnation, sitting on the couch late at night scrolling through the myriad options of Netflix. In no time, I’d already viewed the first season in its entirety, and by then my best friend, whom I lived with, was as hooked as I was. So that’s sort of how it went for awhile.

At the time he and I were in the prime of our casino infatuation; we both worked during the day, but by night we were back in our element. It became my routine to come home, change from my bullshit work attire into a T-shirt and some basketball shorts, go outside to smoke a bowl or two, eat dinner, and, usually, by then my best friend was walking through the front door. And, usually, he entered with the same cheeky grin on his face, locking the door behind him, asking me the same question that he always knew the answer to:

Sooo, are you trying to go to the casino tonight?”

Routine.

We coasted down the freeway listening to old mixed tapes, mostly compendiums of hip-hop we both liked, but whenever I burned those CDs off iTunes I always made sure to include a couple songs that were purely instrumental tracks. My best friend and I thought it gave us our own specific brand of luck at the casino when we freestyled over the instrumentals on the way. It’s the same shit we’ve been doing since we were 16, sneaking deftly past the security guards to eat lunch off campus.

At the casino, he and I generally played a couple hundred dollars apiece, looking to double our money; some nights we’d only be there for a half-hour or so; other times we were at the tables for five or six hours. It just depended on how up-and-down the cards were playing, or, if we were ahead, how far ahead we were trying to get. I can’t deny this greedy Nature. We played it smart as best we could, but even executing the correct plays at the tables doesn’t ensure winning, and even though I don’t believe in luck, that’s really the only way I can describe the muddled grey area between winning and losing most nights at the casino.

In retrospect, I tend to remember the good nights, the nights where we each won a couple-few thousand dollars. But the truth is, even when the cards were bad, when we lost, or had to hit up the ATMs to take out more money to lose, those were still a helluva time. We still knew we were living a life most 21 year-olds weren’t, still doing it the way we wanted to do it, and if the worst of our problems was shedding a little capital at the casino before stopping at Del Taco for some deliciousness on the way home, then life was still pretty good. Right? That, and the fact that losing money at the casino has always made me feel more alive than any amount I’ve ever won.

Maybe it’s because a kick to the balls puts reality in perspective. Maybe it’s the thrill of a comeback, never believing I’m out of it even when I’ve already lost. Or maybe I’m more comfortable, subconsciously, when it seems like the universe is taking shit on me than the wrinkles in time that I know I’ve already won.

I don’t know.

At 23, I know — objectively speaking — I’m still young as fuck. I’m still ripe in this grand scheme that people casually refer to as life. But since I’m still here, and since I can’t sleep on what’s already been roughly 8,500 days of existence, what I’ve come to realize is I am much better when I’m not better. When I’m not good, or cool. I’m bad at being the frontrunner, and if I don’t have a chip on my shoulder I might as well not even be here at all. Once upon a time the world was handed to me on a silver platter and I had everything I could have wanted, including a future, and I rejected it because at the time, I didn’t know how to handle it. I was too young and too stupid. Whether we’re talking about the casino or life, in general, even though it’s ecstasy to be ahead, the feeling is only transient. It’s how you play your cards after the fact that defines what you are truly about.

But anyway.

The rides home from the casino were the real fun part. If it was a good night, my best friend and I would replay almost every blackjack hand, whether we saw 20 or 120. If it was a losing night, we would sometimes have what we thought were Come To Jesus moments, you know, the ones where we’d say Man, we probably shouldn’t go to the casino for awhile. But inevitably we found our way back, because, shit, it was just too much damn fun.

After Breaking Bad was introduced to us, we came home and, instead of watching Family Guy, we’d watch that. It was an episode a night, until it wasn’t. Again, I got greedy.

Season 4 had just finished the month before, so Netflix only carried seasons 1-3, and I wasn’t having that. I rummaged through the Internet finding bootleg websites that streamed it for free, and I couldn’t pass that up because I was too curious to see what happened next. Obviously guns and drugs are appealing to almost everyone — two big reasons why my best friend and I enjoyed it so much — but it also provided a heavy dosage of reality, and philosophy, and wasn’t devoid of some good one-liners.

As a fan of hip-hop, I couldn’t deny that shit.

* * * * * *

Lately I’ve been watching a show called The Wire. Like Breaking Bad, it lasted (only) five seasons, but this show took place between 2002-2006. When I was in middle school, and high school, I’d see it on HBO, but since I didn’t see it from the beginning I saw very little value in it. So as much as I’d like to think I was a fan of it from the start — the same as Breaking Bad — I really can’t. I’m just another guy who jumped on.

The Wire takes place in Baltimore, and it deals in the inner-workings of drug trafficking and law enforcement, and the not so symbiotic relationship between the two. It has a bigger cast of characters than any show I’ve seen up to this point, and much like Breaking Bad every character has a specific role, and those roles actually matter. It’s not like watching Dexter, or some facsimile thereof, where new characters are introduced all the time with no real purpose. They’re just a flash in the pan to help lubricate an individual episode or two, and down the line one of the main characters will mention them in passing to say they moved to Denver, or some such dumb shit.

In The Wire, they don’t assume the audience to be a fool. They demand for the audience to be on the same page, and, if they aren’t, to catch up.

The difference between the two shows is this: In Breaking Bad, the direction of the show — at the beginning, at least — almost forces the viewer to be on the same team as Walter White. Even in spite of the terrible things he’s doing, it’s molded such that you are rooting for the bad guy to win. That’s, I guess, the point of an anti-hero. The Wire, meanwhile, offers seemingly as much air time to both the corner boys slinging dope and the police department that’s trying to catch them. The characters, on both sides, are easy to root for. Which is where morality comes into play. The characters you want to succeed are the ones you agree with, both in dialogue and in action. (Maybe I watched too many mob movies when I was growing up, but I still tend to always want the bad guys to win; The Wire is no different.)

Anyway, I thought I had some big picture motive I was going to say about all this, but I forgot. Fuck it. I guess all I’m really saying is that Breaking Bad was a great show, The Wire is a great show, and the casino is still the casino.

After that, not much has changed.

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