I’m going to get this out the way right now—Breaking Bad is my favorite show of all time. You might see that statement and think, well, this is going to be a biased article, especially if it’s against The Wire. But the thing is, I can be as objective as possible when it comes to both of these amazing shows. After all, The Wire is my second favorite TV show of all time.
Obviously, it’s very pedantic to say that. It was even parodied on Family Guy for crying out loud. But when it comes to most modern discussions on what’s the greatest show of all time, Breaking Bad and The Wire are usually the two shows up for contention. That’s not to say that Seinfeld, The Sopranos, and The Twilight Zone aren’t also in the running for BEST SHOW EVER territory, but they don’t get mentioned nearly as much as Breaking Bad or The Wire. So, out of these two shows, which one is really the best? I hope to answer that question throughout this article.
To start, let's look at where both shows take place, as the setting is an important element in both The Wire and Breaking Bad.
The Wire's Setting: Baltimore
Baltimore is a city riddled with problems. You have the streets, the police department, the school system, and the news room. And then, you also have the docks, which are unique to Baltimore itself. Any of these places would make for an excellent setting, but The Wire highlights ALL of them. And it shows how everybody, in some way, is connected to one another in this problematic city. In truth, the setting itself is the main character of The Wire, which is kind of mind-blowing when you think about it.
New Mexico is a fascinating setting since it’s connected to so many other states and also so close to Mexico (and in turn, the Mexican cartel). And with its arid deserts, you get a sense that people are struggling just to breathe there, which is intentional. New Mexico is also a character in itself on Breaking Bad. Just not the main one.
Which one comes out on top for setting: The Wire
New Mexico is great and all, but when you have entire seasons dedicated to different aspects of your setting, you win.
Here we're looking at all of the major players in The Wire and Breaking Bad. Not so much the smaller ones.
You cannot fault The Wire for its audacity. It is a true ensemble cast, featuring characters who are in one season, and then gone the next. But they’re all memorable. Clay Davis, played by Isiah “Sheeeeeiiit” Whitlock, Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), Cedric Daniels (played by John Wick’s Lance Reddick). I mean, the list goes on and on. Omar (Michael K. Williams), Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), and even a VERY young Michael B. Jordan get memorable moments. There are just so, so many characters to choose from on The Wire, it’s insane.
That said, while all the characters on The Wire are memorable, the show doesn’t have a single character as good as Walter White (Bryan Cranston). The chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin is such a dominating force on Breaking Bad that you really can’t think of the show without picturing him at the center of it. His transformation from a sympathetic man to an outright villain is so intense that you can’t help but get swept up in his maelstrom. And then you have all the supporting characters, like Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk, who got his own excellent show). I mean, a lot of these people won awards for their performances. The characters on Breaking Bad are just second to none.
Which one comes out on top for characters: Breaking Bad
While the characters on The Wire are all excellent, the real protagonist, as noted earlier, is Baltimore, which is kind of nebulous when you think about it. In the end, the characters on The Wire can’t touch the ones on Breaking Bad.
Here, we're talking about which series had the most consistently good seasons.
There are five seasons on The Wire, and they tackle different aspects of Baltimore. As mentioned in the settings section, Season 1 is about the police force and the drug trade, Season 2 is about the docks, Season 3 is about the politics, Season 4 is about the school system, and Season 5 is about the media. There are side-stories that connect each season, but in a nutshell, the seasons are all very different. And if we’re being completely honest, some are better than others.
Breaking Bad also has five seasons, and each season progresses Walt’s character to new and despicable heights. Each season is also better than the last, building to a conclusion that is both satisfying and conclusive.
Which one comes out as far as seasons go: Breaking Bad
Look, I’m one of the few people who LOVES Season 2 of The Wire, but many people will say that Seasons 3 and 4 are the best of the series. Whereas Breaking Bad gets better and better each season. That’s why it gets the W.
Here we're going to talk about overall message you get from both shows.
The Wire is all about cycles. It deals with the drug trade, and how the city clumsily deals with it. It also goes into what black youth tends to go through in urban environments, and how they’re almost fated to be the next generation of drug pushers and drug abusers (if they even make it to adulthood). In other words, The Wire actually has something to say, which may be its biggest strength of all.
Sir John Dalberg-Acton probably said it best when he said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” because that’s exactly what happens to Walt. Sure, there are multiple themes running throughout Breaking Bad, but the main one is that anybody can break bad. Especially if they experience a little bit of power that they never had before.
Which one comes out on top in terms of themes: The Wire
The theme of Breaking Bad is right in the title. That’s good, and it makes for compelling storytelling. But you could spend whole college classes discussing the themes of The Wire, so it wins this one. Obviously.
Finally, let's talk about which series wrapped up the story better.
At first glance, The Wire has a very unsatisfying conclusion. Chalk that up to Season 5 being one of the lesser seasons. But I think the one character who really brings it home for me is Duquan “Dukie” Weems. I don’t want to spoil the show for you if you haven’t watched it yet, but what happens to him at the end of the series is so heartbreaking (and so real!) that it really drives home the notion of the vicious nature of cycles.
Walt is repentant, but I can’t say the ending of Breaking Bad isn’t satisfying given everything Walt has done. Season 5 also has one of the greatest episodes in television history with “Ozymandias,” so it has that going for it, too.
Which one comes out on top as far as the ending: The Wire
This one is REALLY tough, because I’ve never felt the same way watching an episode as I have with “Ozymandias.” But at the end of the day, the conclusion of The Wire resonates more, especially when taken in as a whole.
The Wire vs. Breaking Bad: Which One Wins?
The Wire ultimately wins. Breaking Bad is a thoroughly engaging show, and I love every second of it. But in the end, which one actually has something to say? The Wire does, and whenever art can not only entertain you, but also make you think, it will always win. That is why The Wire is the greatest TV show of all time.