September 26, 2013

Walter White Is Just a Huge Tool

Trying to be a good little culture vulture, I recently watched seasons 1 and 2 of Breaking Bad and a bit of season 3. But when I got to the season 3 ep where Walter goes to Skylar's office to confront her boss (with whom she's started an affair), I couldn't take it any more. I could not watch one more hour of this asshat and his passive-aggressive asshattery.

Walter White is a terrible character. I don't mean "a complex mix of good and evil, deeply layered and conflicted." I mean terrible. The stylishness of the show—its great cinematography and direction—plus the soap opera nature of its plotting threaten to obscure just how big a jerk he is.

Let's take his marriage. In the first two seasons, his wife Skylar knows he's up to something. He disappears for hours or days. She catches him in lies big and small. She realizes he has a second, secret cell phone. He occasionally turns aggressive and hostile to her and others. She does the right thing: asks him to please tell her what's going on.  Over and over. And over and over he dismisses her, makes up outlandish stories, acts the rational husband to her paranoid wife-ishness.

I'm a fan of the advice columnist Carolyn Hax, and Carolyn Hax says one of the most destructive things one person can do to another is to vitiate their inner voice. Wives and girlfriends write to her about suspicions that their partner is having an affair, which the partner denies with either eyerolling or anger, turning the tables with "I can't believe you're accusing me of this." The wife becomes the bad guy, the one on the defensive. Carolyn always directs the letter writers to their inner voice: "You don't trust this person. Face that fact." Sometimes the letter writer will later have found out that the guy was indeed having an affair and feels ruined by the months of denial.

Having someone attempt, over a long period of time, to discredit your inner voice, your instincts, your perception of reality . . .  it's one of the worst things someone can do to another. It's the heart of abuse, what allows abuse to continue. It's why Carolyn doesn't recommend that people harass an abused woman about leaving or try to talk someone out of a relationship that looks to be bad news. They should ask questions and make their support clear, but never tell them that they don't know what they're doing or that they need to ignore their feelings and simply do what others are telling them. This, Carolyn points out, is exactly the message of the abuser: you're stupid and can't trust yourself.

Walter replays this scenario over and over with Skylar. And what's worse, he drags others into his power play. After he finally admits that he's making meth and she tells him to leave and stay away from their children, he moves back into the home and dares her to take action. Their teenage son Walt Jr. is a clueless observer, angry at his mother's coldness and rage toward the calm and patient Walt Sr. "This isn't your mother's fault," he'll say, his sweetness in the face of her hostility giving lie to his own protestations. When she calls the police in an attempt to oust him from the house, they come upon him with an apron on, feeding their baby daughter while watching the pasta pot, the picture of good suburban fatherhood. All the while secretly telling the world: she's crazy, she's crazy, she's crazy.

And if this seems like the only way out, it's not. He could sit down with his son and say, "Listen, I've done something really terrible. I can't tell you what it is, but trust me, your mother has very good reason for her feelings. But despite this terrible thing I did, I want to try to rebuild our trust." That's a far different thing than what Walt Sr. does, and the only moral response.

Then there's his role as a teacher. He's a high school chemistry teacher who hooks up with a past student, the fumbling Jesse, to make meth. We admire Walter's competence, his seriousness, his bad-ass way with chemicals, which allows him to make bombs on the fly and improvise when they run out of gas in the desert. We are meant to understand that Walter is one of those teachers, slightly dowdy but dedicated, whom students remember with affection. Long into their new relationship as meth producers, Jesse continues to call him "Mr. White," a nod to Jesse's essential boyishness and innocence as well as Walter's essential goodness.

But the reality is that Walter is terrible to Jesse. Right from the start, he shows not one bit of compassion or patience or affection for this lost kid. He yells at him when he makes mistakes, treats him like scum that he's forced to deal with, won't give an inch of warmth in the face of Jesse's stabs at friendliness or schoolboy nostalgia. In one episode Walter and Jesse watch a demented drug lord murder one of his underlings, the two of them united in horror at what they're seeing. And the next episode Walter is in his face, telling him to do the same.

At moments like this, Walter reveals a cold-hearted cruelty that we are supposed to be able to reconcile with his basic decency and love of family. This dichotomy is crucial to the series. We are supposed to understand Walter as a complex, deeply flawed character of the type that peppers American culture and is generally so fascinating. We are meant to respect his knowledge of science, this competency a newish trope in nerd culture that asserts that the people who have skills really will inherit the earth. And there may be in Walter's character a bit of vicarious thrill for all of us bland, office-job-holding suburbanites: we may look harmless, but there's a lion just beneath the surface. Push us too hard, and you'll see. You'll see.

But there's a fine line between complexity and contradiction. Not every incongruity of a fictional character can be reconciled by appealing to human complexity. At some point, you can't claim to love your family and then manipulate them. You can't lie to them and put them in the sights of Mexican drug cartels. You can't be brutal to your teenage student and then be the soul of understanding to your teenage son.

This is particularly true with Walter's refrain that he's making meth for the good of his family. He has chemotherapy bills, true, but he also has many ways of paying for his chemotherapy that don't involve meth cooking. But these other ways involve taking charity, a notion that seems to make Walter psychotic. When his son sets up a donation site online, the camera shows Walter's eyes becoming more furious with every $10 donation that appears: he wants credit for providing for his family. When his former business partners offer to pay for chemo outright, he politely declines, all the while raging that he was cut out of the business right as it took off, making the others multimillionaires and leaving him a lowly public school teacher. Did he ever approach his former partners about fair compensation? Did he ever talk to a lawyer? There are responses to such a situation that lie between being a doormat and being a psycho.

The nature of Walter's socioeconomic status is another tripping stone for the series. He split from his business partners ten or fifteen years before, but there's no indication that Walter has come to grips with what happened. He's angry that his friends ended up rich, as if no time has passed. Perhaps he could have faced his own mistake in leaving the company. Perhaps he could have decided he has a legitimate claim to some of the company's profit and sued for compensation. Man up, buddy. Tell your friends you want money not out of charity but because you are owed it.

At the very least he could embrace the life he has with gusto and appreciation.  The series wants us to perceive his life as (initially) homey and sweet and yet somehow sad: the lighting is always dim inside their home, and he and Skylar always look a little dumpy. But if these design and costume choices are supposed to reflect how Walter and Skylar feel about their life, I'm not sympathetic. He has a nice home, a good job, and a wife who doesn't work. Grow up; millions of people live, literally, in garbage piles. 

I understand the show's popularity. Not only is it well made but it appeals to something primitive in us: our desire to have the ability to dominate our circumstances. Movies like American Beauty and Falling Down celebrate the conformist who rebels and is revealed to be a formidable force of nature. Breaking Bad represents the absolute worst take on this theme because Walter White finds his strength, his manhood even, not in virtues like endurance and honesty but in rage and violent daring. That's not what even an antihero looks like.

September 16, 2013

Jon's Take

My friend Jon responded to my Red Dead Redemption post, and below is part of his response. Although I don't think the save and skinning mechanisms function in the way he rightly defends (allowing the player to choose when to pause the action or participate in restful sequences, like the campfire that pops up occasionally in RDR, is a better choice), it's a great defense of rhythm in storytelling:

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For those with the time to invest in a good game, bookending a play session with mundane events can have a grounding effect on the player, much like cracking open a book and thumbing to the bookmark, or closing the book and setting the bookmark and putting it back in its place.  While these actions may be repetitive, they can be purposeful and even artful.  Consider TV: Aside form the traditional action-packed intro-sequence with theme song, and the outro-sequence with credits, a serialized art form can employ things that get you in the mood for the upcoming show.  Specifically, consider Mr. Rogers returning home, and changing into his "around the house" clothes and singing to the audience.  It's the same every time, but it's a pace-setting technique that allows the viewer to bring to mind all the feelings and thoughts they had the last time. 

It's only the most puerile games that needlessly suffer from the desire to keep everything at 11 the whole time.  If you're going to have good action beats, you have to have good slow moments in between.  If you made a movie full of jump-scares and gunfights, with no heart and no feeling to it, you're unable to reach the same kind of tone that I think Rockstar was looking for in RDR.  So, while the written word avoids repetition, look to other mediums to see its power.  Imagine the Latin Mass where every 15 weeks everything needs to be replaced.  Picture Babylon 5 without "It was the dawn of the third age of mankind."  So, while some repetitive elements can get in the way of the enjoyment of a game, or merely pad out the length of the game, I wouldn't say that an option to manually save with in-game metaphors is a storytelling problem.  On the contrary, it's a storytelling element that suffers from pacing/timing elements.  If it were the *only* way to save, I would partially agree that some better editing of that sequence could improve it, but it's these tiny slice-of-life elements that elevate the medium beyond that of mere words on a page. 

Reading the same paragraph detailing a repetitive sequence, at the start of every chapter would be frustrating.  You'd zone out after the first sentence.  But as part of much longer experience you're controlling and participating in, as a bookend to your experience for the day, repetitive sequences can reinforce, or allow for the computer to load things in the background (think of criticizing stage hands for moving scenery between scenes - just to pad out a play's runtime!), and allow for the player to make a mental note of what they're going to do the "next day."  Will they advance the Main Plot, go for some side missions, gamble, break in some horses, achievement-hunt, or see how long they can evade the long arm of the law?  These brief respites are intermissions that allow the audience to take an account of what has happened and what may yet happen.  Only in a game, the audience pulls triple duty as director and actor.  Also, save points are typically action/conflict free, and allow a small oasis from the chaos of the rest of the world.  Even for the grizzled, conflicted protagonist, living on the fringe of society, even he has a place to hang his hat, at least for a moment, free from the cares of his world. 

So while we can argue the execution of such scenes, including the ability of the player to skip them, I think they hold weight as a storytelling device within the context of their medium. 

September 15, 2013

Red Dead's Storytelling Problem

I know people love Red Dead Redemption, and I understand why, from a character point of view. But, among my (granted, limited) experience of video games, it's one of the most annoying to play minute by minute because doing very common actions (saving the game, skinning an animal) takes forever. You've killed an animal and go to skin it? In some games you'd click one button and be done in literally a second; but in RDR, you click that button and then have to watch a mini-play, complete with dialogue and sound effects. EVERY TIME. And you can only save the game while camping or sleeping in one of your properties. How tired am I of entering the saloon, crossing the crowd-filled floor, up two flights of stairs, down two hallways, and finally into my room before I can save?

It's as if you were reading a novel, and every time the main character did anything outside the house, you had to read that he got his keys, went to the closet, put on his coat, opened the door, went to his car, started the engine, and pressed the gas. If the text describing that were really well written and evocative, you'd enjoy it the first time. The fiftieth? Not so much.

September 11, 2013

Daughter of Smoke and Bone


I adore this series by Laini Taylor. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is the first installment, and I just finished the second book, Days of Blood and Starlight. The third and final volume comes out this fall. I'm amazed by the perfection of the plotting, how deeply engaging it is, and the fine literary details. It's become my favorite fantasy world aside by from the incomparable Middle Earth and Narnia.

September 6, 2013

Linguistic Equity

I feel like, for the first time, there's a male corollary to the word "bitch." Something that is gender-specific, cutting, and semi-ubiquitous. The word is "douche." (Runner-up: "creep.") I've seen men complain about these terms online, and I understand, dude. It's not nice, is it?

There have been other male insults through the years (dick, asshole). But these tend to be male terms for other males, whereas douche and creep are homegrown by the ladies. And many of those traditional terms are kind of lame, almost a compliment. "Bastard!" is something a Bond girl might say as she throws a martini into the face of an amused James Bond after he bests her. They are kind of the equivalent of "honky," an attempt at equivalency that never really took.

Of course, "douche" still has the female tie-in, as if the grossest thing you can be is something associated with a woman's body. But still: at least there's a parity here, albeit a nasty one.