The profound truth that’s been lost in the desperate effort to end the federal shutdown is that, more than any time since the 1850s, a significant portion of the current government is hostile to what the rest of us call “union.” Well-meaning talk about doing what’s in the best interests of the country has about it a kind of heartbreaking naiveté.
The Breaking Bad Backlash begins 60 hours from now and, if you listen very hard, you can hear the stirrings already, through the fever pitch of the phenomenon that the show has become and the nearly desperate anticipation surrounding this Sunday’s series finale. Mere ratings can’t capture an intensity that’s beyond quantifying by even (or especially) a stickler for precision like high-school-chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-maestro Walter White; no conclusion since The Sopranos’ infamous cut to black has attracted this much zealous attention. If you haven’t seen a single episode of the show, odds are you know nearly as much about it as you do about shows of which you’ve witnessed every single inconsequential second, because for the last month the unhinged around you won’t shut the hell up about it.
From Macbeth to I, Claudius, what makes political drama irresistible isn’t the collective but the intimate. Television writers understand what many historians don’t: Politics is the epic expression of humanity at its most private. Rack your brains, and you might recall that at the center of last winter’s House of Cards was a battle over education legislation; less forgettable are the unctuous and slithery monologues about congressional sway and supremacy by master manipulator Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey). The Danish series Borgen roils with policy skirmishes over an African civil war and the legal age of punishment for crimes by minors, but all of it is a stage for the transformation of Birgitte Nyborg, her nation’s first female prime minister. A voice of idealism at the outset, Nyborg struggles with the hard trade-offs of uniting a coalition of fractious parties. As she becomes cannier and more confident at governing, however, she loses her grip on a crumbling family—a daughter afflicted by anxiety attacks, a small son who wets his bed, a husband forced to pass up a once-in-a-lifetime job offer because his wife is running a country.
Barack Obama’s presidency is a series of crossroads. The crossroads are moments of decision for a president who is utterly indecisive except, of course, when he’s not a ruthless tyrant trampling the Constitution (or, on more banal occasions, saving the national economy or pressing forward on health-care reform or ordering the execution of the mass murderer of 3,000 Americans).
Unless you’re tyrannized by the laws of calendars and clocks, the “Sixties” (as opposed to the 1960s) were born not on a day or at a given hour. Rather they emerged from the six months between August 28, 1963, and February 23, 1964, the midway locus falling on November 22—three dates marking episodes as irrevocable as they were momentous.