Moral Responsibility in TV

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I wrote this essay as a core part of my Creative Writing Masters degree. It’s about the theme of moral responsibility in The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad, and the industry context that enabled these great shows to be made. (It contains spoilers for all three shows.) Rereading it, I’m interested in its sense that America was getting entangled in a moral crisis – this was written in early 2016, just before the rise of Trump. For less serious analysis, read my attempt to prove that these shows have a sinister vegan agenda.

Why is the issue of moral responsibility such a central theme in great twenty-first-century American television drama?

Wallace, D’Angelo and Bodie in The Wire. Read my analysis of Season One here


The debut of The Sopranos in January 1999 inaugurated a new “Golden Age” of television.[1] This flowering of critically-acclaimed shows has transformed the way that television is created, watched and perceived.[2] Within this revolution, it is striking that the theme of moral responsibility keeps recurring. Moral responsibility is taken to mean the consequences, generally negative, of the actions of a character or institution within a television drama, and their relationship with those consequences. If they try to deny moral responsibility for the negative outcomes around them which we, as the viewer, know they have caused – that is, if they claim that it is not their fault – a dramatic tension arises which can only be solved through further negative consequences, particularly for the soul of the character or institution in question.

The three shows that are most commonly cited as the greatest, or among the greatest, in television history – The Sopranos[3] (1999-2007), The Wire[4] (2002-2008), and Breaking Bad[5] (2008-2013) – all have, at their core, an obsession with this theme.[6] An investigation into why this is will not only reveal something fundamental about these shows and their cultural context, but also lay bare what it is about this theme that offers so much powerful storytelling potential.

The Golden Age

All three shows and their themes must first be understood in the context of the “Golden Age” for which they are standard-bearers. Before major industry shifts took place, heralded by the breakaway success of The Sopranos, a theme as unsettling and challenging as moral responsibility simply had no place in television. “Television was an artistic dead zone.”[7] David Simon, creator of The Wire, emphasises one of the major reasons: the pre-existing business model of television was built on advertising revenue. Advertisers wanted large, contented audiences to maximise their returns, so the aims of American television were to attract the largest audience possible, keep them watching with manufactured cliffhangers and cheap payoffs, and avoid confusing or unsettling them.[8] Content was in the hands of advertisers and executives, not storytellers, and they were afraid that difficult characters or themes would drive viewers away.[9] America had no BBC, which in the UK allowed for bolder programming and pushed up quality across all channels.

Therefore, when the industry shifted, television was suddenly a very exciting medium to work in, with writers keen to tackle difficult themes to an extent that had never happened in the past.[10] One major factor in this shift was HBO’s subscription model, which meant it needed no advertising revenue but did need to produce television of sufficient quality to attract viewers and subscribers.[11] Another key change was the power given to the showrunner, with minimum interference from executives, which meant that one writer could create a unified vision into a television series with help from a small team of fellow-writers.[12] Thirdly, changes in viewing habits, linked to the proliferation of channels and the rise of the Internet and DVD sales, meant television shows came to rely on more committed viewers, who could be trusted to have seen every previous episode. So repetitiveness and accessibility could be replaced with grand, nuanced story arcs which ran across episodes and seasons.[13] These changes opened up for the first time the alluring possibility of telling stories which explored, in-depth, the issue of moral responsibility: a tricky subject which proved remarkably fertile.

The “Golden Age” writers pushed against the conventionally-accepted bounds of the medium, finding new ways to express themselves. Audiences did not just change their viewing habits on their own: shows such as The Wire aimed to “teach folks to watch television in a different way” and demanded a new level of loyalty from viewers, in exchange for a new level of payoff.[14] An extreme example is The Wire’s plotline concerning the murky past of the upstanding Cedric Daniels: in the third episode, we learn that he has “got dirt on him,” but this is rarely referred to for long stretches of the show, and it does not come back to bite him until the sixtieth and final episode.[15] This well illustrates how the likes of David Simon, and David Chase of The Sopranos, were re-forging the landscape of television to suit them. From the beginning, Chase fought to redefine the limits of the possible: for example, having a protagonist who could kill people in cold blood, as Tony Soprano did for the first time in the fifth episode of The Sopranos.[16] Chase also moved away from television as an aural medium, creating a richly visual, cinematic show, refashioning the medium’s very nature.[17] Later, Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad pushed the visual approach to such an extreme that it “attained a new degree of expression:” one in which the narrative is manipulated by the image.[18] All this demonstrates ways in which “Golden Age” writers were using television to tell more complex, searching stories. This involved not just weighty themes but also more fully-realised worlds, in which every action has a consequence further down the line – something previously unfamiliar in television. And the link between action and consequence is the bedrock of the idea of moral responsibility, which begins to explain why it was such a fertile theme.

Why were these stories told on television, rather than, say, in books or films? It was certainly a fresher and more exciting medium at the turn of the century. Interestingly, the two greatest pioneers, David Simon and David Chase, both came to television reluctantly, after their chosen fields – journalism and film, respectively – proved inadequate for the storytelling and the truths they wanted to tell.[19] This suggests that television turned out to be the best medium for their stories of moral responsibility. These stories were well suited to the new preferred structure of twelve or thirteen episodes per season, which combined the visual advantages of film, the complexity and depth of a novel – particularly Victorian serialised novels, in the common comparison to Dickens – and the episodic watchability of traditional television.[20]

The Sopranos and the start of moral responsibility in TV
The Sopranos: the show that changed everything

The Moral Responsibility of the Writers

The above explains how moral responsibility was able to feature so heavily, but it does not on its own explain why it flourished more than other similarly difficult themes. The first answer is that the shift to more challenging television opened up dark subject matter which required the writers to tell the story responsibly. “Violent crime” is the most obvious aspect which The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad have in common, probably followed by “drugs.”[21] These are complex issues allowing for complex storytelling; but the other side of the coin is that it would be irresponsible and false for the writers of The Sopranos and Breaking Bad not to look at the damage that a lifestyle of crime has done to the protagonists’ psyches and their communities. When The Sopranos was commissioned, even the idea of a criminal protagonist was deeply problematic:[22] a voyeuristic show that did not examine the consequences of Tony’s Mafia lifestyle would have unjustifiably glorified organised crime, as well as betraying the show’s great debt to The Godfather and Goodfellas.[23] In any case, an audience that was shocked by Tony’s murder of the traitor in Episode Five was not yet ready for the pointless violence of a show like Boardwalk Empire. Even now that we are used to the new style of television, such unpleasantness from our protagonists is off-putting and makes them hard to identify with. Nardi discusses how we bring our own set of moral values when we watch Breaking Bad, so the show has to mediate our moral judgements on Walt to avoid becoming too problematic for us as viewers.[24] It might be added that one way it does so is by addressing the issue of moral responsibility directly, because the audience’s conscience demands that this dilemma must not go unanswered.

As for The Sopranos, of the methods that it used to undermine the audience’s heady sense of irresponsible voyeurism, perhaps the most pointed is in the tenth episode of Season One. The Sopranos’ neighbours, the Cusemanos, are fascinated by their Mafia neighbours, revelling in their proximity to – yet insulation from – the glamorous criminal underworld. The Cusemanos are, of course, stand-ins for the audience – and we side with Tony against their nosiness.[25] Our voyeurism is punctured, and we form a new kind of relationship with the show: we must instead tackle its deeper themes if we are to be any worthier than the Cusemanos of being granted insight into Tony’s life. In exchange, the show has to reward this engagement by making the themes worth grappling with, and showing the true consequences of Tony’s criminal lifestyle.

The Wire had a different imperative for responsible storytelling. For David Simon, the televisual endeavour served the journalistic endeavour that was the heart of the project.[26] Its strong element of truth and realism is evident in the extent to which the show used real people and real events to build the story, and they owed it to these people that they treat the subject matter sensitively. In particular, the show is concerned with America’s hidden underclass as exemplified by the people in the streets of Baltimore. Sonja Sohn, who played Kima Greggs in the show, was particularly aware of its responsibilities towards these people. “To make TV out of a plague struck Sohn as somewhat exploitative,” though she eventually decided that “‘If it’s going to be entertainment, The Wire is the best choice for it.’”[27] That is, she came to agree that The Wire’s journalistic purpose justified its treatment of the subject matter – and that purpose was to draw awareness to the sorry state of inner-city Baltimore, and every American city that it represented, and ask how this could have been allowed to happen and what America was going to do about it. In other words, it asked America to address its own moral responsibility.

Guns and gangsters in The Wire

Moral Responsibility and the USA

Here is the crux of the matter: all three shows can claim to be “about” modern America. “This America, man,” McNulty is told in the opening scene of The Wire.[28] In the first scene of The Sopranos, meanwhile, there is a similar claim that the show is capturing something universal about the American experience:

Tony: Lately I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end – that the best is over.

Melfi: Many Americans, I think, feel that way.[29]

Tony Soprano, Walter White and Omar Little are the American Dream gone bad, the result of unchecked market forces and flawed ethical values.[30] They epitomise the American Dream’s mythology of making something of oneself, and its concomitant desire to earn success through capitalism – but the untrammelled nature of the illegal capitalism that they follow has to grapple with the moral questions that unavoidably arise as they relentlessly pursue their goals. As such, as all three antiheroes speak to something current in the American national psyche, so does the theme of moral responsibility. The theme is not just embedded in the shows out of necessity: it is there because it rings so true. Every work of art is a product of its time and place; twenty-first-century Americans are clearly drawn to television to tell their national story; and that story has been manifesting itself in the form of characters and institutions struggling with the consequences of turning their back on the negative effects of their actions. They try to bury their duties to community far beneath the surface, hiding beneath a materialistic mask which claims that everything is fine, but – these shows insistently ask – at what cost? In the face of twenty-first century global issues such as the Iraq War, Americans’ suspicions that the USA is no longer the hero can be linked to the rise of the antihero trope within their culture.

In all three shows, the failure to confront one’s moral responsibility damages social bonds. Destruction is wreaked on The Wire’s impoverished Baltimore citizens (such as the child killed in a shootout[31] and the locals who confront Colvin’s sergeant in a public meeting, embarrassing Colvin into the show’s first genuine attempt to fix the system[32]); on preyed-upon residents of Tony Soprano’s New Jersey; and on Andrea, Brock and Tomas, a whole family of victims in Breaking Bad’s drugs trade.[33] Moreover, the bonds of family – considered sacred by all three arch-villains, Tony, Avon and Walt – also get destroyed along the way. Avon and Walt are crippled by their loss and grief;[34] Tony, who recognised in the pilot that losing his family was his greatest fear, is now so mired in evil that he does not regret having his nephew, and in the show’s very last scene fails to realise that he is about to be torn apart from his remaining family forever.[35]

This breakdown of ties resulting from failures of moral responsibility, and the damage that this stores up for the future, is seen by commentators as a phenomenon relevant to all of modern America. Pierson sees the consequences and dangers of America’s neoliberal ethos dramatized by Breaking Bad and embodied by Walter White;[36] Beck sees the same phenomenon at work in The Wire and Omar Little.[37] Likewise, D. R. Simon says of The Sopranos, “The contradictions faced by its characters are representative of the American disposition and culture at this early moment in the twenty-first century – their issues are the issues with which our entire society is grappling.”[38] Yacowar even argues that “the Sopranos’ lawbreaking might be read as the nation’s retreat from its international obligations and from its commitment to established law… [They] personify a troubled America, made newly vulnerable by its combination of brute power and unquestioning certainty.”[39] The Wire, meanwhile, is explicit in its demand that American institutions stop betraying society’s most vulnerable members.[40] All three shows are thus dramatizing a crucial issue facing America today – and, furthermore, dramatizing America’s failure to face up to these problems.

Walter White, denier of moral responsibility
Walter White, denier of moral responsibility

Walt and Omar

One of the clearest and most disconcerting examples of this denial of responsibility is Walt’s reaction to the plane crash which ends Season Two of Breaking Bad. The fact that the crash is his fault – his moral responsibility – is not obvious from the plot alone: his connection to it is tenuous and he is at a remove from the disaster. However, Season Two has – with no dialogue whatsoever – firmly linked the crash to Walt’s illegal activities, via a series of characteristically disorientating cold opens.[41] The message is clear: Walt has set in motion a disastrous chain of cause and effect, so that the evil has spread beyond his own direct actions. Before can regain his humanity, Walt must at least acknowledge his role in events, and face up to what it means. He does not. It is not that Walt misses the point, and keeps going about his life as Tony Soprano so often does; rather, he evidently senses that he operates in a moral universe which ties him to the plane crash but fights as hard as he can to deny this conclusion. He collects news reports of the accident, following as the media try to apportion blame, and he is clearly projecting onto Jesse when he tells him, “You are not responsible for this, not in any way, shape or form.” “You run from things or you face them, Mr White,” responds Jesse, but Walt keeps running. He is almost the only person not wearing a ribbon in solidarity with the victims, and he gives a horrendous “look on the bright side” speech to his school, belittling the accident.[42]

However, Walt cannot bring himself to throw away the plastic eye, once belonging to a child’s teddy, which fell from the plane crash into his pool. It seems always to be watching him, and he is disturbed, but unable to part with it. Barrette and Picard call it “an ambiguous symbol of shattered innocence and the Almighty,”[43] but it is even more than that. Silently watching, silently judging, it is the conscience that needles him about his moral responsibility for the crash as he tries to drown it out; and it is the eye of the viewer as well, peering up at him from strange angles, helpless yet omniscient. This casts the audience directly in the role of Walt’s conscience.

More complex and less clear-cut is the case of Omar in The Wire. The audience comes to admire his integrity and the bold individualistic flair that he shows in the face of Baltimore’s callous institutions. In particular, during his colourful testimony at a murder trial, he has the following iconic exchange with the defendant’s corrupt lawyer, Levy:

Levy: You are amoral, are you not? You are feeding off the violence and the despair of the drug trade. You’re stealing from those who themselves are stealing the lifeblood from our city. You are a parasite who leeches off –

Omar: Just like you, man. I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase – it’s all in the game though, right?[44]

The audience despises Levy’s hypocrisies (Viti has an interesting discussion on Levy’s approach to his own moral responsibility,[45] though it does not go far enough because it overlooks his most heinous act, when, by implication, he advises the Barksdales to murder a witness[46]). As such, though reactions to Omar are as complex as the character himself,[47] in this moment we side emphatically with him, enjoying watching Levy squirm. Omar seems honest and clear-sighted about himself and his role as a lone warrior resisting the false institutions.

Yet this is turned on its head exactly one season later, at the midpoint of the show, when Bunk Moreland – the closest thing The Wire has to a moral compass – gives him a scathing dressing-down. He demolishes Omar’s heroic self-image, instead presenting Omar to himself as embodying all the city’s social ills. Before the social bonds were frayed, “we had us a community – nobody no ‘victim’ who didn’t matter. And now, all we got is bodies, and predatory motherfuckers like you… I seen kids acting ‘like Omar,’ calling you my name, glorifying your ass. Makes me sick, motherfucker, how far we done fell.”[48] The audience has been idolising a murderer, and we realise this at the same moment as Omar realises that he is indeed the “parasite” that Levy described. Omar is confronted with his own sense of moral responsibility, giving him a chance of redemption, which he pursues in his own idiosyncratic way for the subsequent third of the show. But when, in Season Five, he turns his back once more on moral responsibility, he regresses quickly and ends his days a haggard figure stripped of all dignity and murdered by a nobody.[49] Omar’s complex relationship with a sense of moral responsibility is at the centre of his tragedy, which in turn is at the centre of The Wire.

Omar, with his shotgun: does he accept his moral responsibility?
Omar, with his shotgun

A Challenge to the Viewer

Bunk’s speech jolts not just Omar out of complacency, but the audience as well. For something which the theme of moral responsibility does particularly well is present an interesting challenge to the audience, forcing them to actively engage with the material with which the show confronts them. As Yacowar puts it, “By immersing us in Tony’s life… the series challenges our moral judgment. …A moral work of art gives its viewer a challenge, not a confirmation… The Sopranos seems an exercise in moral relativism… As it betrays our knee-jerk reaction, it tests us… the series’ central tension between the viewer’s familiar morality and its violation by this criminal subculture.” The result “is an intense composition whose morality avoids the black and white in which we, confidently, naively, used to believe for the quicksands of reality grays.”[50] As David Simon puts it, “We were bored with good and evil… We were quick to renounce the theme.”[51] Klein discusses how “play with melodramatic conventions is employed in The Wire to subvert the passive, satisfied viewing position typically established by the primetime social melodrama. In its place the series constructs an active, socially engaged viewer” who will be more strongly affected by the show’s moral message.[52] This is not dissimilar to the way that Breaking Bad’s camera-work and stylised cold opens force the viewer to engage more closely with the show and the directorial decisions which have constructed it.[53] Evidently, moral responsibility is a theme that not only speaks to the heart of the American condition but also helps to bring the viewer into a heightened engagement with these shows.

After all, moral responsibility is ultimately a central theme because it makes for such good television. The best stories will attempt the meatiest themes, and watching characters confront moral tests provides an excellent narrative shape. It is evidently the case that creating and upholding a consistent moral universe, with consequences for characters’ choices, creates deep, fascinating stories which speak to us for the reasons outlined above. That is, the “Golden Age” shows are using the theme of moral responsibility to address important cultural issues facing America today, in an entertaining and thought-provoking way. It is possible to enjoy The Wire without becoming a social activist, because, among other reasons, it works as a modern take on Ancient Greek tragedy. The Wire, say Marshall and Potter, is tragic not because people lose – that is merely sad – but because they stake all to stand up for their human dignity in the first place.[54] In fact, the tension discovered by Omar in The Wire – whether he can absolve himself of moral responsibility by blaming higher forces – is already evident in Aeschylus, who is actually mentioned by name in Season Five.[55] Aeschylus’s interesting, ambivalent take on free will and responsibility is that the individual is not free from blame as he still actively makes a choice, even if the higher powers have shaped that choice.[56] The same dynamic is apparent in The Wire, showing how this complex aspect of moral responsibility has been able to create dramatic tension for two and a half thousand years.

Each show’s moral universe must be internally consistent – though not necessarily consistent with each other. In Breaking Bad, Walt’s actions set in motion a chain of events which lead to two armed men approaching Hank’s car and critically wounding him.[57] As with the plane crash, Walt is clearly and explicitly responsible; only Walt’s arrogance prevents him from seeing that he is guilty.[58] Meanwhile, in The Wire, McNulty’s actions set in motion a chain of events which lead to two armed men approaching Kima’s car and critically wounding her. [59] In this case, McNulty is clearly and explicitly not responsible, and only his arrogance prevents him from seeing that he is not guilty.[60] What matters is that the audience must understand how each moral universe functions. Thus we see Tony Soprano turning away from the light offered throughout the show, and we understand that by failing to take his opportunities and confront his moral responsibilities, he has forfeited his soul, as has everybody close to him. The result is riveting television, full of dramatic tension and irony. This tension and irony is effectively produced by the theme of moral responsibility elsewhere, too: Hank’s brave refusal to avoid facing the consequences of one moment of violence[61] contrasts powerfully with Walt’s cowardly insistence that he is in the right. The theme has proved flexible, absorbing and powerful, and doubtless there will be more great television that will approach the subject in the years ahead.

Every generation, in every society, will find the way of storytelling best suited to its cultural needs. This is what happened on American television at the very end of the twentieth century, and that the breakthroughs of The Sopranos were capitalised on by The Wire, Breaking Bad and others. They embraced the theme of moral responsibility – and the consequences of denying its imperatives – as perhaps the dominant theme confronting Americans today. By creating complex moral universes which the audience understands better than the characters, these television shows made their claims to greatness, not only because in so doing they spoke to something troublesome and current in the American psyche, but also because it brought to life a remarkably deep, rich new style of storytelling which challenges the audience and raises the dramatic stakes beyond anything previously seen on television.

Breaking Bad Season Five
Walter White and the cost of avoiding one’s moral responsibility


  • Alvarez, R., The Wire: Truth Be Told (2009)
    • Simon, D., “Introduction”
  • Beck, E., “Respecting the Middle: The Wire’s Omar Little as Neoliberal Subjectivity,” net,
  • Kelleter, F. Serial Agencies (2014)
  • Lesky, A., “Decision and Responsibility in the Tragedy of Aeschylus,” in Segal (ed.), Oxford Readings in Greek Tragedy (1983)
  • Martin, B., Difficult Men (2013)
  • McCarty, J., Bullets Over Hollywood: The American Gangster Picture from The Silents to The Sopranos (2004)
  • Pierson, D.P.(ed.), Breaking Bad: Critical Essays on the Contexts, Politics, Style, and Reception of the Television Series (2014)
    • Barrette, P., and Picard, Y., “Breaking the Waves”
    • Nardi, C., “Mediating Fictional Crimes: Music, Morality and Liquid Identification in Breaking Bad
    • Pierson, D.P., “Introduction”
    • Pierson, D.P., “Breaking Neoliberal? Contemporary Neoliberal Discourses and Policies in AMC’s Breaking Bad
    • Pribram, E.D., “Feeling Bad: Emotions and Narrativity in Breaking Bad
    • Sánchez-Baró, R., “Uncertain Beginnings: Breaking Bad’s Episodic Openings”
  • Potter, T. and Marshall, C.W. (eds.), The Wire, Urban Decay and American Television (2009)
    • Alff, D.M., “Yesterday’s Tomorrow Today: Baltimore and the Promise of Reform”
    • Braxton-Peterson, J., “Corner-Boy Masculinity: Intersections of Inner-City Manhood”
    • Klein, A.A., “‘The Dickensian Aspect’: Melodrama, Viewer Engagement, and the Socially Conscious Text”
    • LeBesco, K., “‘Gots to get got’: Social Justice and Audience Response to Omar Little”
    • Marshall and Potter, “‘I am the American Dream’: Modern Urban Tragedy and the Borders of Fiction”
    • McNeilly, K., “Dislocating America: Agnieszka Holland Directs ‘Moral Midgetry’”
    • Nannicelli, T., “It’s All Connected: Televisual Narrative Complexity”
    • Read, J., “Stringer Bell’s Lament: Violence and Legitimacy in Contemporary Capitalism”
    • Viti, L., “‘I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase’: Lawyering and Ethics”
  • Simon, D.R., Tony Soprano’s America: The Criminal Side of the American Dream (2004)
  • St John, A., “Why ‘Breaking Bad’ is the Best Show Ever and Why That Matters,” (2013)
  • Yacowar, M., The Sopranos on the Couch (2007)
  • Zoller Seitz, M, “The Greatest TV Drama of the Past 25 Years, The Finals: The Wire vs The Sopranos,” (2012)
  • , “The Sopranos: Definitive Explanation of ‘The END’” (2014)



[1] See, eg. Martin, B., Difficult Men (2013), pp.9, 14 and passim.

[2] Ibid., p.10 and passim.

[3] Yacowar, M., The Sopranos on the Couch (2007), p.9: “The Sopranos rules. In fact, it could be the best TV series ever made.”

[4] Kelleter, F. Serial Agencies (2014), p.1: “In a word, The Wire is ‘the best television show ever.’” (Kelleter is summing up the consensus, not stating this belief himself); Zoller Seitz, M, “The Greatest TV Drama of the Past 25 Years, The Finals: The Wire vs The Sopranos,” (2012) (note that Breaking Bad made it to the semi-finals even before the airing of its critically-acclaimed final episodes)

[5] Pierson, D.P., “Introduction,” in Pierson, D.P. (ed.), Breaking Bad: Critical Essays on the Contexts, Politics, Style, and Reception of the Television Series (2014), p.2; St John, A., “Why ‘Breaking Bad’ is the Best Show Ever and Why That Matters,” (2013) (note that The Sopranos and The Wire are cited as the two other major contenders)

[6] See, eg. on The Sopranos: Yacowar, Couch, pp.18, 349; on The Wire: Klein, A.A., “‘The Dickensian Aspect’: Melodrama, Viewer Engagement, and the Socially Conscious Text,” in Potter, T. and Marshall, C.W. (eds.), The Wire, Urban Decay and American Television (2009), passim.; on Breaking Bad: Pierson, D.P., “Breaking Neoliberal? Contemporary Neoliberal Discourses and Policies in AMC’s Breaking Bad,” in Pierson (ed.), Breaking Bad

[7] Martin, Difficult Men, p.21

[8] Simon, D., “Introduction,” in Alvarez, R., The Wire: Truth Be Told (2009), p.2

[9] Martin, pp.85, 87

[10] Ibid.,pp.94-5

[11] Ibid., pp.85-6; Simon, D., “Introduction,” p.2

[12] Martin, p.8

[13] Yacowar, p.12

[14] Simon, D., pp.3, 23-4

[15] The Wire 1.3, 5.10

[16] Martin, pp.89-93; The Sopranos 1.5

[17] Yacowar, p.13

[18] Barrette, P., and Picard, Y., “Breaking the Waves,” in Pierson, ed., pp.122, 125

[19] Martin, pp.8, 112

[20] Ibid., pp.6-7

[21] Drugs dominate The Wire and Breaking Bad, and in The Sopranos they are crucial to the downfall and death (in episode 6.18) of Christopher Moltisanti

[22] Martin, p.65

[23] Yacowar, p.350

[24] Nardi, C., “Mediating Fictional Crimes: Music, Morality and Liquid Identification in Breaking Bad,” in Pierson (ed.), pp.173-85

[25] The Sopranos 1.10; Simon, D. R., Tony Soprano’s America (2004), p.1

[26] Kelleter, pp.16-17

[27] Alvarez, pp.47-8

[28] The Wire 1.1

[29] The Sopranos 1.1

[30] Tony: Simon, D.R., pp.14-18. Walt: Pierson, pp.15-30. Omar: Marshall and Potter, “‘I am the American Dream’: Modern Urban Tragedy and the Borders of Fiction,” in Potter and Marshall, pp.3-4

[31] The Wire 2.09

[32] The Wire 3.4

[33] Breaking Bad 3.11, 3.12, 4.13, 5.15

[34] Breaking Bad 5.14; The Wire 3.8, 3.12

[35] The Sopranos 1.1, 6.18, 6.21. For a thorough argument interpreting the end of The Sopranos as Tony’s death scene: “The Sopranos: Definitive Explanation of ‘The END’” (2014),

[36] Pierson, pp.15-30

[37] Beck, E., “Respecting the Middle: The Wire’s Omar Little as Neoliberal Subjectivity,”,

[38] Simon, D. R., p.2 (the author is not to be confused with David Simon of The Wire)

[39] Yacowar, pp.346, 348

[40] Simon, D., pp.3-9

[41] Breaking Bad 2.1, 2.4, 2.10, 2.13; Sánchez-Baró, R., “Uncertain Beginnings: Breaking Bad’s Episodic Openings,” in Pierson (ed.), pp.140-51

[42] Breaking Bad 3.1

[43] Barrette and Picard, p.130

[44] The Wire 2.6

[45] Viti, L., “‘I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase’: Lawyering and Ethics,” in Potter and Marshall (eds.), pp.78-89

[46] The Wire 1.12

[47] LeBesco, K., “‘Gots to get got’: Social Justice and Audience Response to Omar Little,” in Potter and Marshall (eds.), pp.217-28

[48] The Wire 3.6

[49] The Wire 5.8

[50] Yacowar, p.18

[51] Simon, D., p.3

[52] Klein, p.188

[53] Barrette and Picard, p.127; Sánchez-Baró, pp.142-51

[54] Marshall and Potter, pp.4-8

[55] The Wire 5.7

[56] Lesky, A., “Decision and Responsibility in the Tragedy of Aeschylus,” in Segal (ed.), Oxford Readings in Greek Tragedy (1983), pp.15-22

[57] Breaking Bad 3.7

[58] Breaking Bad 3.9

[59] The Wire 1.10

[60] The Wire 1.11, 1.12

[61] Breaking Bad 3.7

One Reply to “Moral Responsibility in TV”

  1. Thanks Ollie. well argued, well written. I’m grateful to have my concerns about my feelings of moral responsibility in watching and enjoying these offerings addressed so thoughtfully. Thank you and thank HBO.

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