Breaking Bad vs. Mad Men: The Breakdown

My brother and I have many debates. Most of them are good-natured and typically revolve around television and sports. My brother is the sort of the guy who insists that he always right. As a matter of fact, he often punctuates this point by saying, “You can either be mad that I’m right all the time, or you can just agree with me and be right all the time too.” Of my brother’s fun catchphrases (of which there are many), that one is undoubtedly my favorite.

I bring it up because one of our favorite arguments is the one that yields over 2 million results if you type it into Google: Which show is better, Mad Men or Breaking Bad? My brother maintains that Breaking Bad is superior to Mad Men, while I have contended that Mad Men was the better show. That being said, I am an open-minded individual, so I decided we should assess the merits of each one. To accomplish this feat, I selected several categories that I picked completely at random believe best compare the two shows. Plus, I haven’t done one of these in a while, so I thought it would be fun. Let’s go to the tale of the tape.

Star Power

Mad Men Season Finale The Phantom Season 5 Episode 13

It’s hard to imagine two television actors who get more praise heaped upon them then Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston. Their huge performances coupled with handy alliteration have assured that Don Draper and Walter White are first ballot Hall of Fame television characters. These men are two of the biggest stars on television. Their massive success is also starting to translate into big time movie roles for the two men as well.

So which one brings the greater degree of star power to their show? Hamm certainly has the women vote, but Cranston has become omnipresent since Breaking Bad returned for its fifth season. While Cranston has become truly beloved for his work and his willingness to have a good time in every interview he is in, it’s hard to imagine a world where Bryan Cranston can generate more heat then Jon Hamm.


Eye Candy

No offense to the fans of Aaron Paul and Anna Gunn, but look at the above picture. Mad Men has a little something for everybody. There’s a square-jawed lead, a buxom redhead, a French speaking woman, and even a WASP thrown in there for good measure. Breaking Bad never tries to make anything, or anyone, look good. They wouldn’t be interested in competing in this category even if Meagan Fox was playing Jesse’s love interest.


Seminal Moments

Mad Men has had its moments, but Don recklessly proposing to Megan doesn’t exactly carry quite the same weight as a man straightening his tie with half of his face blown off. Breaking Bad continually produces moments that linger with the viewer. I, for one, will always remember the closing scene from “Dead Freight.” Mad Men is beautifully shot and directed, but the moments don’t stick with you like the emotionally relentless moments that seem to be commonplace on Breaking Bad.


The Visual Spectrum

Mad Men is wonderfully directed, but this category is not close. Breaking Bad is the most visually exceptional show on television.


Acting Chops

Both shows have standout performances from supporting players that they can lean on occasionally. Mad Men garners nearly yearly Emmy nominations for Elizabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks, and John Slattery. In addition, they added the universally destructive force (in a good way) of Jessica Pare as Megan Draper this season. It’s a large ensemble that is driven by Hamm, but can feel comfortable focusing on any of these other characters. It’s a truly impressive cast.

On the other side, Breaking Bad doesn’t have many slouches either. We all know about Cranston and Paul, but have you been watching the impressive work of Anna Gunn this season? Add her increase in performance to the perpetually underrated work of Dean Norris, and the ascension of Jonathan Banks, and you have a show maybe putting on their best acting display in its fifth season.

Which one’s better? I suppose it’s a matter of preference. Personally, I am a fan of people who can play huge roles with a largely understated performance. Mad Men doesn’t do understatement. Breaking Bad trades in understatement. The decision is made.


Plot Coordination

Both shows have interesting approaches to plot. Breaking Bad‘s longer narrative is some of the more intricately plotted television the medium has ever seen. However, people gripe occasionally about the feasibility of some of their week-to-week plotting. The pacing of the plot is also quite slow. In over four seasons, we have only managed to cover a year in the life of Walter White. The slow plotting allows for more intricate detail, but forces some things to blow along at a faster pace than normal.

Unlike it’s AMC brother, Mad Men moves along at a fairly quick pace. We lose a month in between episodes and sometimes years in between seasons. Within those episodes, Matt Weiner and the crew like to tell a contained story while continuing to feed the larger narrative. While Gilligan’s methods are clear and precise, Weiner’s are often dense and occasionally difficult for the viewer to follow. As far as viewers’ issues with plot difficulties, Matt Weiner couldn’t care less. It’s just enough to give this category to Breaking Bad.


Binge Watchability

Mad Men Commissions and Fees Season 5 Episode 12 (2)

As a veteran binge watcher of both shows, I feel confident I can weigh in on this topic. Binge watching Mad Men is a feast for the eyes. You drink in the competent acting, stylistic direction, and hilarious interactions between the different people at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. As long as Betty Draper doesn’t get too involved, I could watch Mad Men all day.

On the other hand, binge watching Breaking Bad feels like you are trying to disarm a bomb for 6 consecutive days. You feel like you should walk outside, have a smoke, and surround yourself with soft furry animals. The tension is nearly too much to handle. I watched the entirety of season four in a span of 3 days over the summer. I recall staying in the corner of my shower for the next 3 days. I just couldn’t get clean. As a result, Mad Men wins this category because it’s not detrimental to your mental well-being.


Jaw Dropability

Breaking Bad Dead Freight (Season 5 Episode 5)

Let’s look at it like this: It didn’t take nearly as long to recover to from Joan’s night out with the guy from Jaguar as it took to me to recover from the end of “Dead Freight.”


There is an argument to be made that we are watching two of the greatest shows in the history of television. They attack the viewer in different ways, but both have the ability to dazzle, stun, and horrify. Breaking Bad‘s relentless plunge down the rabbit hole is equaled by the relentless effect of time on Mad Men. Two mega-watt television stars command the room in every episode of either show. Incredible, Emmy-nominated supporting actors can carry scenes or entire episodes by themselves. The writing and direction are beautifully crafted. The visual spectrum is fully-realized in both shows.

So who has the final edge? Personal preference will play a large role, but when you look at the tale of the tape, the answer becomes clear: Walter White gets what he wants again. Just don’t tell my brother I said so, okay?