August 17, 2015
Breaking Bad: A Hatchet Job
Breaking Bad, the AMC series that ran from 2008 to 2013 about a lowly chemistry teacher who becomes a drug tycoon, is one of the most acclaimed series in television history. It had a stellar cast, great plotting, great directors, and rich cinematography. And I effing hate it.
It's rare for me to actually hate a series. With regard to art, my general categories are Love, Like, and Don't Care. I love Outlander, and I like Blackish. I don't watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians, but I don't look down on those who do; it doesn't fill me with rage that these people have a TV show. I don't care. Just like I don't care about Nickelback or Train or soft white bread with no nutritional value or discernible taste.
But Breaking Bad pushed my buttons. We are introduced in the first episode to the antihero, Walter White, who is a stereotype of the emasculated white middle-class man. He has a wife and a teenage son with whom he has warm if not particularly interesting relations. His house is modest, always shot with dull lighting and muted colors, telegraphing its humble, slightly sad nature. Walter teaches high school chemistry, one of those old-fashioned sticklers with no charisma but a stubborn dedication that garners him his own type of affection from his students. His brother-in-law is the family Big Deal, an daring DEA agent who ribs Walter about his humdrum life. Walter doesn't seem to have any real friends, but he dutifully shows up at his rich friends' birthday parties at their beautiful estates and lets the other guests think he's a college professor. These encounters are painful, yes—especially since Walter left the company they all co-founded right before it went big—but Walter is a good sport about it because he's just that type of guy. Decent. Appreciative of what he has. Content with his good family and small blessings.
Then he's diagnosed with cancer. He has little savings, what with his modest teacher's salary, and suddenly he's facing a painful treatment regimen that will almost certainly leave him dead and his family bankrupt. What to do, what to do.
Luckily, he has those rich friends. As soon as they hear the news, they offer him $100,000 with no strings attached. Not a loan—a gift. Walter says no. It turns out that underneath that nice guy exterior, Walter nurses a little resentment about how he lost out on the company's big payout. We the viewers learn nothing about his separation from the company. Was he pushed out? Unfairly fired? Did he quit in frustration and merely have the bad luck to have missed the jackpot that followed? We don't know, but we do know that the unfairness of his diagnosis is getting to him. One by one, all the things that have bothered Walter over the years are bubbling to the surface: his lack of money, his brother-in-law's bravado, his wife's old affair. And like many a semi-privileged white man before him, he's decided its time to let his inner lion out. Walter White is going to become a man again.
When he sees a former student running from the police, Walter sees his chance. He will make meth, and the former student, Jesse Pinkman, will be his grunt. Jesse will amass the supplies, get the meth to the dealers, handle the transactions. Jesse has some nostalgic affection for ole Mr. White, but Walter has nothing but disdain for this punk, and he lets him know at every pass. While teachers can be overidealized, most teachers I know have a baseline affection for even difficult students and understand the psychology of youth: how they need support, need people to believe in them, how they flourish under loving attention. Not Walter. He is hard as granite and has not a smile nor a supportive word for this kid who so obviously craves his approval. While I realize that the showmakers (rightly) didn't want to sentimentalize their relationship, Walter is nearly pathological in his lack of emotional affect.
This is my BIG PROBLEM #1 with the show: compartmentalization. At the same time that Walter is treating Jesse Pinkman like trash, he's shown being the soul of sensitivity and support to his son, a teenager with a slight disability who has struggles of his own. Obviously we are complex beings and we are often better to some people than we are to others. But in order to treat lovingly and wisely with his son, he has to have love and wisdom within him already. And that can't be thrown out every time you want to take the plot another way. The same is true with his wife. The show presents Walter as devoted to Skyler, but when she begins to suspect something's going on, his treatment of her is contemptible—not just exposing her to danger but denying her instincts, trying to convince her she's crazy, eventually even manipulating the police to that conclusion. These aren't the actions of a "complex character" but of a sociopath.
As the story progresses, Walter starts becoming a big deal in the drug world. His Blue Meth, informed as it is with Walter's chemical expertise, is a hit, and soon he's a target of other dealers who don't like Walter's success. Walter's old-fashioned know-how is one of the show's greatest charms. In one scene he is cornered by rival dealers and things look bleak until—kazaam!—sneak chemical attack! Isn't this every middle-class drone's fantasy? That while others—the bad guys—might have money or weapons or swagger, we have the work ethic and actual know-how that could trump them all. You know, if push came to shove.
All of us enjoy the fantasy of strength and daring, of vicariously experiencing what it would be like to be able to act without consequences. To be so [fill in the blank] that our employers would put up with us, our friends would forgive us, our enemies bow before us. Sometimes that [fill in the blank] is strength (Sarah Connor in Terminator 2) or money (Tony Stark); sometimes it's technical expertise (Tony Stark again) or sheer mental brilliance (Sherlock Holmes or The Mentalist). When that kind of power is put in the hands of a Mr. Everyman like Walter White, the fantasy is all the more potent. Breaking Bad is more like a superhero movie than a gritty crime drama.
That is for me BIG PROBLEM #2: The show taps into a self-serving and subterranean fantasy of competence and domination on the part of viewers while collaborating with the viewer to make it appear otherwise. If you're watching Iron Man, you know you are indulging in fantasy and the movie doesn't try to convince you otherwise. If you're watching Twilight, you know you're enjoying the vicarious experience of being adored by the most perfect boy ever. But people talk about Breaking Bad—critics, fans, and showmakers alike—as if it is the opposite of those things, when really it is the apotheosis of those things, but sublimated. It's a Disney princess movie for arty intellectuals.
The deeper Walter gets into the drug trade, the more dicey his moral decisions become. It must have been a full-time job for the writers to craft every episode so that Walter is ever more the badass without actually becoming evil. A friend once said that the show is easier to understand if you see Walter as a villain. But in reality Walter is not constructed as a villain but as an antihero—a function of BIG PROBLEM #1, compartmentalization. (Spoilers ahead.) Every single action of the series is weighed and weighted to achieve the perfect moral balance. His actions get his brother-in-law killed, but his death wasn't Walter's intention (despite Walter's seething jealousy). Walter lets Jesse's girlfriend die, but he doesn't outright kill her. He doesn't actually harm his old rich friends, but he does tell them that he's hired a hit man to kill them when they least expect it, so that the rest of their lives will be spent in fear. Even at the very end, when Skyler confronts him about his motivations and says, "Don't tell me you're doing it for us" Walter is allowed his moment of self-knowledge. He wearily confesses before he dies that he did it for himself, because he liked the way it made him feel. This shuts Skyler up, as Walter's words and actions are so often intended to do. (No wonder that Skyler was absolutely hated as a character while fans wore Team Walter tee-shirts to the bitter end.)
In the end, Walter gets everything he wanted. He was always going to die, thanks to the cancer. But he makes his fortune, provides for his family, acts the badass, takes revenge on those he wishes, gets his moment of self-revelation, shuts up the ever-accusing Skyler, and even dies a heroic death to save someone he had wronged. He gets it ALL. Think how different it would have been if in that last scene with Skyler, instead of saying "I know I did it for myself, so I could feel like a big shot," Walter had continued to angrily contend, as he had throughout the whole series, that he was only doing it for the good of his family. If he had gotten angry with Skyler. If he had remained sunken in that self-deception and self-justification. Wouldn't that have been more realistic?
That scene reminds me of a counterpart in Martin Scorsese's great gangster film Goodfellas. Scorsese's film starts with the protagonist, Henry Hill, as a boy fascinated by the gangsters in his Brooklyn neighborhood. He starts running errands for them as a boy and grows into a full associate by the time he's an adult. Because Henry was drawn in as a child, seems so affable, and narrates the film himself, the viewer—almost subconsciously—regards him as not as bad as the other gangsters, as someone taken in. In the end, after Henry is forced to testify against his partners in crime, he is put in Witness Protection and has to live out his life in the burbs. It's a shock when, after surviving all the violence, after getting home free, his last words to the audience are: "Anything I wanted was a phone call away. Free cars. The keys to a dozen hideout flats . . . When I was broke, I'd go out and rob some more. . . . And now it's all over. [I] have to wait around like everyone else. . . . I'm an average nobody... get to live the rest of my life like a schnook." We took Henry for an antihero when the whole time he was a villain. And it's not till the last line that Scorsese lets us know. THAT's a gritty crime drama. That's lack of sentimentality. That's myth-busting.
BIG PROBLEM #3 for me the most damning of all. I hate pre-cancer Walter White. He's a teacher who doesn't care about kids. He's a brother-in-law who doesn't have the guts to say "Stop talking about me that way." He's a (maybe?) wronged colleague who has nursed a deadly grudge against his co-workers instead of pursuing legal action or alternatively owning up that missing out was his own damn fault. And he's a fraud. While Walter pretends to be modest and hard-working and happy with the blessings of family and friends, the show itself, through every possible means—lighting, set, dialogue, cinematography—tells us the opposite. The show tells us that being a high school teacher is for schmucks, that having a family and a home hardly counts, that having modest finances really does make you a loser. That all of those gangster values that the shows pretends to be showing up—money, weapons, swagger—really are what matters. We are supposed to be sad at his little life, just like he is.
Well, eff that. Lots of people on earth never own a house. Never have kids or a loving spouse. Spend their entire lives working in silver mines in god-awful conditions. Only children think as Walter White does. Bryan Cranston deserves every single acting award he got for that role, but Breaking Bad has been graded on a curve, and it's time for a re-test.