Breaking Bad, The Wire, Orange Is the New Black: Jewish Stereotypes, Without the Guilt

Again and again, T.V. shows acclaimed for their nuance and character development rely on a two-dimensional depiction of Jews.

About a month has passed since the airing of the last episode of “Breaking Bad,” the most surprising, riveting and impressive original television series of recent years. The episode - the twists and turns of which are revealed in this column (spoiler alert!) - redeems our hero, Walter White, and comes full circle. Though the redemption may have been too emphatic and the circles a little too neat for a series that was always unconventional, in general, the series said goodbye to its fans with riveting events. One of these, at the beginning of the episode, occurs at the home of the Schwartzes.

Gretchen (Jessica Hecht) and Elliot Schwartz (Adam Godley) each have a backstory intersecting with White - Gretchen was his lab assistant in college and a former love interest. Elliot started his successful pharmaceutical company, Gray Matter, with Walter - Schwartz (German for Black) and White makes Gray. However White never enjoyed the honor, prestige and money generated by the company, which is now jointly owned by Gretchen and Elliot. Walt accuses the Schwartzes of having ruined his life, betraying him stealing the credit that should have been hi,s along with the respect due to him. We don’t know exactly what led to the severing of the semi-romantic ties between Walt and Gretchen (long before she paired off with Elliott) that led to Walt’s unsatisfactory career as a high school chemistry teacher, only that Walt broke off the relationship and his research without giving an explanation after Gretchen took him home for a weekend to meet her parents.

The scene in which Walt, looking like a weathered cowboy, breaks into their house is meant to restore dignity to the hero and satisfy the viewers, who, like Walt, despise the couple. Before they notice the intruder, Gretchen and Elliott are chattering about restaurants and travel, a parody of a bourgeois conversation that is cut short with the appearance of Walt in their living room. He forces them to unload $9 million in cash from his car and then, with the money heaped on the table, instructs the terrified couple to set up a trust for his son. He lays out his demands to the quaking Schwartzes who have (fake) sharpshooter’s rifles pointed at their chests.

The wordplay on the names – the white and black binary – is of course important in a series that treats the symbolism of colors with utmost seriousness, from the blue of crystal meth and the pink in Jessie Pinkman to the purple of Mary’s sweaters. But the most immediate association of the surname Schwartz, at least in the United States, is with Jews.

Yes, the name is sometimes simply a German surname, like the name Gretchen, and Hank’s surname, Schrader; however, the association with Jews is especially strong if those named Schwartz are thin, pale and dark-haired, and especially if, in their yuppie babble, they remind one another that they really ought “to invite Bill and Miriam Cohen.”

The representation of the scared, money-grubbing swindlers who prefer to fraternize with their own kind, standing next to a pile of money they aren’t allowed to touch, is a stereotype. In the series, set in a world of crime, there are people far worse than the Schwartzes: Todd, the soulless psychopath; Tuco, the violent, cold-blooded gangster; and even, some would say, Walt himself. But there aren’t any characters more loathsome or corrupt than the Schwartzes.

One can’t claim that executive producer Vince Gilligan is unaware of the associations with a Jewish surname. One of the main characters - soon to be getting his own spin-off series - relies on Jewish stereotypes. Saul Goodman, Walt’s attorney, who will star in “Better Call Saul,” a prequel series to “Breaking Bad,” changes his name from the Irish surname McGill to Goodman, a Jewish one. His reasoning is that clients prefer a Jewish lawyer, who they assume will be an unscrupulous shyster. (The surname of Jesse’s neighbor and lover – Jane Margolis – is also Jewish, though there is no indication that this is the reason Walt felt she was a bad influence on his protégé.)

“Breaking Bad” is not a show to take shortcuts. It depicts prejudice and socioeconomic disparities with suspicion and innovation. It has a nuanced approach to the moral distinction between good and evil. With chemistry at its core, the show breaks down processes, including social ones. The infiltration of the dark matter of Jewish stereotypes is irksome not only because it is racist but also because it hurts the series. Is it any comfort that it’s a widespread problem?

Clear allusion

Last summer, with the rising popularity of “Orange Is the New Black,” a writer for The Daily Beast, Sigal Samuel, wondered if the series has “a Jewish problem.” According to Samuel, the screenwriters of the show, which centers around the experiences of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) as she serves a 15-month sentence in a federal women’s prison, have the “uncanny ability to subvert stereotypes at every turn. Each character is wonderfully nuanced, and nobody is who they seem to be.” The article listed several examples of such characters: “Piper, a New York WASP who loves juice cleanses, artisanal soaps, and her fiancé Larry Bloom” is serving a term for having run drugs for an international cartel, while Suzanne, “whose loopy behavior has earned her the nickname ‘Crazy Eyes’ but turns out to be an uncommonly smart woman who can recite from obscure Shakespeare plays at will.”

Some would say that this in itself is a stereotype or at least a tired convention (Suzanne seems both scary, tough and unstable, but is in fact sweet and intelligent), but according to Samuel the only people who are stock characters - cut from cardboard and not allowed to evolve or change - are Larry the fiancé and his parents, the Jewish characters in the series. “The more you watch them, the more you start to feel like these three people are really just sad caricatures of themselves.” Larry (played by Jason Biggs, perennially cast as a Jewish character even though, as it happens, he is not himself Jewish) is “a struggling writer and Nice Jewish Boy, he’s got that tortured, brooding, nebbish quality we’ve come to associate with Woody Allen – despite the fact that he’s young and conventionally good-looking,” says Samuel. “He jokingly attributes his dark view of the world to the fact that he’s a Jew. His helicopter mom, who’s forever butting into her son’s personal life and nagging her husband to eat another bowl of soup, fits the Jewish mother stereotype to a tee. As for Larry’s dad, he is (what else?) a lawyer. And not just any kind of lawyer, but the kind who’s not afraid to use his legal and monetary capital to put pressure on higher-ups. It’s a quality that comes in handy for Larry on more than one occasion,” she writes.

As an example, Samuel cites the way the prison authorities relate to Larry and his parents after Piper has been sent to solitary confinement: “You’ll notice that the actors in the scene never once utter the word ‘Jew.’ They don’t need to. The implication here is veiled but obvious.” The same is true of the Schwartzes in “Breaking Bad.” Samuel traces the source of the negative attitude toward Jewish characters to a media that is obsessed with the influence of the Jewish and Israeli lobbies in America. According to Samuel, “Because it’s exaggerated in today’s media, it makes sense that American TV shows – even the brilliant ones, even the ones whose writers aren’t lazy – are picking up on and reflecting that trope.” Samuel is aware that the show's creator, Jenji Kohan, is Jewish. (Kohan created other interesting characters, both Jewish and non-Jewish, in “Weeds.”)

It may be that in the case of “Orange Is the New Black” the connection lies in the memoir of the same name written by Piper Kerman about her experiences in prison. In the book, similar to the series, empathy and compassion is extended to almost every prisoner; however, in the book, one prisoner is notable for her evil. Kerman introduces her as “Levy, a tiny French-Moroccan Jew who claimed to have been educated at the Sorbonne.” Kerman reserves special loathing for Levy, and she is totally up-front about it. She not only doubts Levy’s academic credentials, she also imitates her accent in English, a type of mockery that her Russian and Puerto Rican fellow inmates are spared. After her release, Levy is interviewed by a newspaper and, in Kerman’s opinion, lies in her prison descriptions. “I thought I knew why Levy had lied,” she writes in her own book. “She didn’t want to admit to herself, let alone the outside world, that she had been placed in a ghetto, just as ghetto as they had once had in Poland.”

It’s the author's right to hate anyone she wants to hate, but her (somewhat confused) explanation is not specific to Levy. It is something more general, theoretically based on the Jewish people, and it’s simply racist. And it makes no difference that Kerman is currently married to a Jew.

“Orange Is the New Black” may not be as great as “Breaking Bad” and therefore some readers will object to the comparison between them, but when it comes to “The Wire” there are no doubts. It remains the best TV series ever aired and so it is surprising that it too fell into the trap. In an essay called “The Politics of Brisket: Jews and The Wire” published in Dark Matter in 2009, Keith Kahn-Harris writes: “’The Wire generally avoids simple characterizations of heroes and villains in favor of ambiguous, finely drawn characters. Our expectation of characters’ behaviors are constantly challenged and played with. But in this world of complex motivations and contradictory actions, the lawyer Maurice Levy [Michael Kostroff] stands out for his near constant repulsiveness.”

At the outset, Levy is shown to be “not just a defense lawyer, but a part of The Game himself” who at one point essentially advises his clients to “dispose of any possible witnesses to their criminality,” leading to the murder of a key prosecution witness. In the fifth season, “Levy is shown to be a criminal himself. He is discovered to have purchased court documents and to be involved in high level corruption of the justice system in Baltimore.” Yet he somehow gets off scot-free, whereas the other characters in the series pay dearly for their misdeeds.

In the essay, Kahn-Harris explains that often in “The Wire” family is used to humanize even the most immoral characters. In the first season, Avon Barksdale is seen visiting a sick relative… and extolling the virtues of family” and even Marlo Stanfield’s stone-cold hit man, Chris Partlow, “is shown briefly with his ‘peoples’” in the fifth season. In Levy’s case, only two references are made to his family in all five seasons of the show, and both, writes Kahn-Harris, “link Levy’s family life to his Jewishness." The first references occurs when he is called to attend an interrogation. "On his way to the interrogation room," writes Kahn-Harris, "he complains to McNulty: ‘Shame on you McNulty, dragging me from the Levy family preserve on a Friday night… Yvette made brisket.’” He was perfectly fine working on the Sabbath, says Kahn-Harris, but “he sees his time with his family at the Sabbath table as sacrosanct.”

The second reference takes place in the final episode of the last season. After Herc, a former police officer now in Levy's employ, provides crucial information, Levy, in caricatural Jewish delivery, exclaims, “Kiddo, you are a goldmine to me, you know that? You’ve taken this law firm to a whole new level… Now if Marlo takes the deal he’s going to take a walk after being charged in a multi-million drug seizure. That doesn’t happen very often and when it does happen the name and number of the lawyer goes in the front pocket of every respectable drug trafficker. You’re a genius for what you brought me on this… Here [handing Herc his address], you should come over for dinner tonight. Yvette’s making brisket… You’re mishpocha now,” using the Yiddish-inflected Hebrew word for family and playing on the stereotype of Jews always sticking together. Kahn-Harris sums it up: “The home, a source of succor for other characters, is in the case of Levy a source of corruption.”

He continues: “Levy’s crookedness, his cynical exploitation of the drug trade and his ‘seduction’ of Herc all recall common negative stereotypes of Jews as sinister, venal and secretive.” Still, the other two major Jewish characters on the series, Sergeant Jay Landsman and Assistant State’s Attorney Rhonda Pearlman are much more sympathetic than Levy. But their Jewishness “is not referred to as explicitly as Levy’s is [in the final episode one can hear someone calling Landsman a Jew] and it is not treated as a significant source of either character’s strengths and weaknesses.”

When David Simon (a Jew), creator of “The Wire,” was asked why he made Levy into a Jewish character, he said he was simply being true to reality: “…[w]hen I was covering the drug trade for 13 years for the [Baltimore] Sun, most of the major drug lawyers were Jewish. Some of them are now disbarred and others are not but came pretty close. Anyone who is anyone in law enforcement in Baltimore knows the three or four guys Maury Levy is patterned on.” He was trying to reflect Baltimore as it was, and not necessarily be politically correct. “The Wire” dealt with the fact that everyone in the city was enabling The Game to persist. Simon’s attitude is that a Jewish writer has no right to censor himself; this is especially true coming from a place where talented, ambitious Jewish lawyers have done so much to damage the city. But Kahn-Harris’ articulate essay presents a much more complex reality of the Baltimore Jewish community, a representation totally absent from the series.

In 2006, Jay Michaelson published an essay in The Jewish Daily Forward entitled “A Jew and a Lawyer Are Sitting in a Bar” in which he draws our attention to the fact that in “The Wire,” the Jewish lawyer is a walking, talking stereotype among a cast of complex, stereotype-shattering characters. “Levy’s absence of conscience is perhaps to be expected from a supporting character, but the degree to which he conforms to the stereotype of the corrupt – and Jewish – lawyer is still somewhat striking. His lips curl with a smile when he outwits his opponents on behalf of his crooked clients. And if he has any compunction about using technicalities to free the iniquitous, he doesn’t show it. On the contrary, he seems only too willing to be a pawn in the vast chess game ‘The Wire’ depicts," writes Michaelson. “And then there is the gender," continues Michaelson. "Just as Jews have been ‘feminized’ by anti-Semites for generations, so, too, in a show dominated by masculinity – 35 of the 41 cast members are male – Levy stands out." Michaelson was writing about the first three seasons, but the ratio didn’t change much in the last two. "He tends to mince around his scenes, gesturing and occasionally rolling his eyes," writse Michaelson. "His voice is higher than all the other men on the show (and several of the women, as well), and it swells and rolls around his lines. And he is the only character in the show not shown to drink, curse and fight.”

It may be that the pervasiveness of Jewish stereotypes stems from the fact that the American Jewish community isn’t weak and can perhaps take this type of criticism. Perhaps it is because in certain cases, a Jewish writer is critiquing his or her own community – such as in the cases of Simon or Jenji Kohan – in a way that viewers aren't privy to.

But these are talented artists, able to create characters that do not represent their respective ethnic or religious groups: Simon did it with almost all the other communities of Baltimore – the Poles, the Irish, the Greeks; Gilligan and Kohan do it with Latin Americans, Mexican and African Americans. So too should depictions of Jews separate the individuals from their religious affiliation without feeling any of that old Jewish guilt (speaking of stereotypes).

AP