Despite its surface appearance as a joyous if trite ritual, the birthday party has been known to cause a great deal of social and psychological headaches. Often involving a culmination of the most important people in a person’s life, the event is naturally a treacherous hotspot where bubbling tensions finally boil over. More than that, though, birthday parties are finite markers that locate a person in their own life.
Given all this, it only makes sense that episodes of TV shows that center around a birthday tend to be… intense. (I’m assuming I’m not the only one who physically recoiled at the news that tortured golden boy Kendall Roy was throwing himself a birthday bash in the newest season of Succession).
Within these episodes, revelations are typically made about a characters’ descent into corruption, or their ruin via external forces. And more often than not, they’ll also reveal something unseemly and sinister about the world itself.
Given the weight they carry, it is unsurprising that many of TV’s beloved prestige comedies and dramas have important birthday episodes of their own. From Succession’s already-iconic luxury soirée from hell and The Office’s Michael Scott’s (Steve Carrell) big day that is overshadowed by a coworker’s cancer scare, to Mad Men’s uncomfortable surprise party and the three (three!) birthdays that stamp the sinister arc of Breaking Bad’s Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the birthday episode has the ability to affirm a show’s thematic material in a way that no other episode truly can.
In many ways, The Office and Mad Men are polar opposites; the former is a half-hour sitcom rooted in excruciating cringe-humor, while the latter is a somber and thoughtful period piece. But when examining the shows’ respective birthday episodes, it becomes clear that their protagonists represent two sides of the same coin. Both businessmen swept up in corporate America, they embody a resistance against the ever-shifting definition of the so-called “modern man.”
On Mad Men, Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) birthday episode, “A Little Kiss,” comes at the beginning of Season 5. The episode starts with a protest. It’s 1966, and a crowd of people are marching in favor of equal opportunity in employment regardless of race. An old-fashioned man, Don is resistant to the concept of change, and is adamant that things stay the way they are.
And while on first (and second and third) glance, the buffoonish, desperate Michael Scott is nothing like the slick, old-fashioned-drinking womanizer Don Draper, they both represent the same thing: an opposition to change in a modernizing world that threatens to leave them behind. From Season 1 of The Office, the Scranton, Pennsylvania branch of the Dunder Mifflin paper company overseen by Michael Scott is on the precipice of demise. And the obliteration of the paper business is only destined to get worse: in the early 2000s, when The Office is set, the internet was rapidly increasing in popularity, and with it, physical paper was becoming less valuable.
But Michael is still desperate to uphold the ideal of a sales-based workplace, and, ultimately, the modern corporate man. In “Michael’s Birthday,” he fights to be the center of attention, which reflects his daily struggles to persuade his employees of the importance of the “boss” figure in a society where workplace hierarchies are becoming more and more arbitrary. Michael’s bid for the spotlight is ultimately overshadowed by his employee, Kevin (Brian Baumgartner), who is awaiting a potential skin cancer diagnosis. A lack of regard from Michael’s subordinates for his birthday—paired with the fact that the primary thing he is vying for on his birthday is recognition—indicates the fact that, without these hierarchies, Michael would feel utterly displaced in his life.
Unlike Michael, at Don’s birthday party, he is the center of attention; and, unlike Michael, he doesn’t want to be. Don’s new wife, Megan (Jessica Paré), throws him a surprise party against the advice of his co-worker Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), who knows he isn’t fond of being made a fuss over. At the party, Megan performs a provocative dance for Don in front of all of his coworkers. This moment epitomizes Don’s opposition to the changing times, as a birthday present is often a signifier of who a loved one thinks you are. Indeed, while Don consistently embodies the rigid traditionalism and privacy of the 1950s, Megan—particularly via her dance number—symbolizes the freewheeling optimism of the 1960s. And like Michael’s unwillingness to let go of the old-fashioned work model, Don is ultimately unable to coexist with his independent wife.
But an uncomfortable confrontation with the changing times isn’t the only thing Don comes head-to-head with in “A Little Kiss.” The case of his stolen identity (an issue that he seldom acknowledges) is brought up, as this isn’t Don’s real birthday, but rather the birthday of the man whose identity he nabbed ages ago. It is often suggested that, as a person gets older, they get closer to becoming who they really are, and approach their true identity with every passing birthday. And this is true for Don, who, with every opportunity he is given to push back against modernity, evolves more into the white-collar man he has spent the past couple decades posturing as. Similarly, in Breaking Bad, Walter White’s birthdays act as a vehicle that move him toward his true identity, while also existing as distinct markers of the changes in his life that reflect his descent into corruption and evil.
The pilot episode of Breaking Bad takes place on Walt’s 50th birthday. His life is a picture of pleasant suburban mundanity: his loving wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn) arranges his bacon in the shape of a “50” at breakfast, he teaches chemistry to bored teenagers at the local high school, he drives a squeaky Aztek. But when he decides to start cooking meth after his cancer diagnosis, it isn’t his illness that is the catalyst of this shocking life decision—or, arguably, even the main one. That the decision lands just after his 50th birthday is no accident: nothing makes your failures stick out more than turning a year older.
Walt has two more birthday celebrations in Breaking Bad; on his 51st birthday, featured in Season 5’s “Fifty-One,” he is deep in the throes of managing a behemoth meth empire. He presumes that Skyler will throw him a surprise birthday party, despite the fact that she is (understandably) unsupportive of his recent career change. Instead, she forms his bacon strips into a 51 as if she’s doing so at gunpoint, begrudgingly bakes him a chocolate cake, and then attempts to drown herself in their swimming pool.
Although turmoil unfolds throughout Breaking Bad’s five seasons like a 50 car pile-up, Walt’s 51st birthday is a measurable marker of the changes that have occurred since the pilot episode, and where Walt stands with his loved-ones. Looking at the disparity between 50 and 51, it’s evident just how far he has really fallen—not unlike how quickly things start to change for Don once he enters the 1960s.
At the end of “Fifty-One,” the camera focuses on an expensive watch given to Walt by his business partner and friend Jesse (Aaron Paul). The shot becomes increasingly ominous as the camera cuts closer and closer, and the ticking grows louder and louder. This feeling of impending doom, brought on by Walt’s 51st birthday, leads us to his 52nd. Featured in a flash-forward earlier that season, Walt eats breakfast at a diner in New Hampshire and tells the waitress it’s his 52nd birthday. The waitress asks to see his ID for proof, and he provides her with a fake ID. Ultimately, this is an unsurprising move. With each year, he ventures further and further from the identity of bored, suburban Walter White via his street name, the iconic and dangerous “Heisenberg.” It is fitting, then, that by his final birthday, he has a new identity altogether.
And, last but certainly not least, poor Kendall Roy’s (Jeremy Strong) 40th birthday party in Succession Season 3 similarly reflects an inner-battle of epic proportions. Throughout all of Succession, Kendall has been plummeting deeper and faster into despair. But unlike Walt who is a monster of his own making, Kendall’s battle is one of him trying, in his own misguided way, to do the right thing and yank the family company out of his father’s nefarious grip.
The primary reason for Kendall throwing himself a birthday party in “Too Much Birthday” is to prove that, despite endless taunting and abuse from his family, he is still well-liked. Birthdays tend to be a good litmus test of such things; you can kid yourself into thinking you’re more popular than you are until no one shows up to your birthday party. And, given his luck, it is unsurprising that something to this effect happens to Kendall. His siblings only show up so they can wager a deal with a tech-mogul on their father’s behalf, and when they’re done doing that, they’re relentlessly cruel to Kendall. To rub salt in the wound, his girlfriend Naomi’s (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) gift to him—a watch—is dishearteningly impersonal, and gives the impression that even she doesn’t really know him.
Why do all of these guys have such crappy birthdays? Perhaps the answer comes down to this: all of our favorite TV antiheroes exist deep in the throes of capitalism. All four derive pleasure primarily from their work: Michael needs to be considered a good boss; Don’s career helps him feel like he’s making something out of a stolen identity; Kendall is trying to become the CEO of a media conglomerate; and Walt is obsessed with making money—even if that means killing a number of people in the process. Their need for validation and output in the workplace is so intense that a strict marker of time (and what is a better marker than a birthday?) is entirely indicative of their professional and social success. It’s a moment of truth: Walt can be in denial about the fact that Skyler is afraid of him… until she doesn’t throw him a surprise party. Similarly, Michael can trust in the saying on his mug—World’s Best Boss—until he’s neglected on his birthday.
Whether these events bring our characters closer to their final form or further from their disillusioned dreams, one thing is certain: we’ll know exactly where they’re headed once their birthdays roll around.
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.
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