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On AMC and James Holmes

AMC, the cable network, originally began as a movie channel in the mid-1980s. Now, however, we most commonly laud AMC not for its airing of The Godfather trilogy  in chronological order during at least one holiday weekend per year, but rather its groundbreaking stable of television series that seem to garner the most Emmy nominations. Although it’s no ESPN or MTV, AMC has successfully re-branded itself to the point that many of us cannot recall what each letter in the acronym represents. AMC has seemed to grasp the Sopranos rubric more than any other network. That is, at the core of the TV shows that get the network so much viewership and acclaim is the white, male anti-hero in crisis.

Now, much has been said about these AMC shows and race. Namely, critical darling Mad Men, which centers on a New York advertising firm in the 1960s, might be derisively called White Men Behaving Badly. The show is full of misogyny, alcohol, cigarette smoke, and racism. It is not, however, full of people of color. As such, many critics have blasted the show for its lack of attention to the black civil rights movement, which is occurring as the firm tries to land a car deal, among other things. Now, I have been a staunch defender of the show’s lack of color. After all, it’s advertising, a world that, even today, remains white. There are simply places where I don’t expect black people–and an advertising firm in the 1960s is one of those places. That said, although I am attracted to the series because my first desire is that I am told a good story–and Mad Men generally does just that–I understand that others might be attracted to the show for different reasons. And one of those reasons might precisely be in the way the show renders the era: as decidedly white (privileged male), misogynist, and racist. For some, those were the days. Word to Archie Bunker.

Similar words might be said about Breaking Bad, arguably AMC’s second best show. That show centers on the perfectly named Walter White, a chemistry professor-turned-meth cook and dealer. Walter’s life ain’t been no crystal stair. (Spoiler alert). Although he has never smoked, he is diagnosed with lung cancer. Although he is a brilliant chemist, he has been forced to teach in a public school, a job that pays so poorly that he must take a second job working part-time for the immigrant owner of a car wash. His son and namesake, Walter Jr. has cerebral palsy. Unable to pay for bills and aware that he will leave no proper inheritance to his family, he turns to drug dealing to solidify their future, shaving his head and growing a goatee along the way. Initially, viewers empathize with Walter. What a hand he’s been dealt. But we grow alarmed as he becomes more ruthless and arrogant, brazenly killing his employer/rival, Gus, at the end of last season.

Breaking Bad might be called White Man in Crisis, a state that storytellers have blamed on all those movements of the 1960s and 70s. All those marches that worked to end the misogyny and racism we see on Mad Men. The result of those efforts isn’t simply equal rights, but the illusion of equal rights at the expense of white men’s power. White men are seemingly emasculated by the end of the civil rights era. Don Draper no longer exists. Instead, America is now full of 80s sitcoms with dead mothers (Full House) because they are all working, I suppose, and Don Draper has been exchanged for Walter White, who must answer to men of color, who are all in charge.

As alarmed as many of us are at what Walter has become, others surely celebrate him for reclaiming his proper place as The Man, for violently refusing to be disempowered by immigrants of color taking over his country. That White shares a name with a former head of the NAACP is so ironic that I wonder if creator Vince Gilligan chose the name for that very reason. That digression aside, as news continues to filter in about James Holmes, the man who opened fire in a Colorado movie theater last week, I also cannot help but question if Holmes’ motivations were also partially grounded in the idea that the white male is unjustly disempowered, a notion that seems to center AMC’s offerings. If Roger Ebert can suggest that Holmes wanted publicity, I think it’s okay for me to speculate aloud that this is just another bloody sequel to Falling Down.

It makes sense that the victims of the shootings thought Holmes’ very real violence was simply part of a movie. After all, the unjustly disempowered white male is a archetype that has increased in popularity. The media will spend the coming weeks putting together a profile of James Holmes that does anything but call him a domestic terrorist, that will never question how he was taken into custody relatively unscathed compared to young black and Latino men who are accosted by the police for an ounce of weed or nothing at all. And no popular news network will openly consider the idea that Holmes was a white male who felt entitled to something better, his alleged American birthright. And because he didn’t have better, he responded violently–tragically.

And that’s a tragedy, right? It’s a tragedy that suburban folks cannot go to the movies in peace. But it’s a tragedy because we understand that as a right, a protection that class gives us. A privilege that many do not have. Random and reckless violence is only a tragedy when it erupts in places we do not expect. How tragic would this have been if it were a Magic Johnson theater? Or Chicago or Detroit? Sadly, in those venues we might simply call it Friday night. I do not say this to suggest that we do not mourn these deaths, but rather to help shed light on our desires to do so here and not in other instances. More importantly, I say this to hopefully quell the impulse to jettison Holmes as crazy, but rather to invite us to wonder aloud at the possibility that this is the latest violent reaction to a narrative we’ve been telling all too well. For the likes of Holmes and his victims, it is tragic it is falling down. But for so many disenfranchised others it is simply a day in the life.