Monday, November 11, 2013

Breaking Down Breaking Bad: You Can't Destroy to Live

(Note: If you intend on watching Breaking Bad and don't want to be spoiled, stop reading. This post is heavy on spoilers as there's no way to write about the show without them.)

I finally did it. After some good old fashioned peer pressure and one very good argument, I watched a man recently diagnosed with cancer slowly die over 62 episodes of a television series. This wasn't a tragic tale of a disease debilitating an honorable man either. This was a descent into evil and madness--a cleverly plotted, deeply dark, and difficult to watch modern Western that serves as a depressing and scathing indictment of the American ideal.

Over the five season run of Breaking Bad, protagonist Walter White transformed from mild-mannered science teacher Walt to America's-Most-Wanted Meth kingpin Heisenberg. The show is the story of that transformation. What happens to a man when he becomes pure evil? Every character other than Walt is nothing more than a tool to demonstrate how he has changed.

 Skyler, Walt's wife, and Jesse Pinkman, Walt's protege, are two sides to the same coin--prisoners who suffer the depth's of Walt's emotional and intellectual manipulation. Hank, Walt's brother-in-law and foil, is the constant reminder that Walt isn't meant to be viewed as a hero. Gus, Walt's distributor-cum-boss and another type of foil, is a reason for Walt to resort to even more ruthless and reckless methods. Everyone else is just a bit player, including Walt's children--necessities of plot development or the fleshing out of the situations that brings about the rise of evil.

I mean, what exactly does Walt Jr. aka Flynn do with his friend Lewis in all that time they spend together? Hell, why did he specifically choose to be called "Flynn?" The answers to these questions don't matter, just as it doesn't matter what happens to any of these characters when Walt isn't around anymore. Not since 8 Mile where Eminem's Jimmy Smith was in every scene have I seen a motion picture, let alone a television series, focus so intensely on one character.

Perhaps for that fact alone Breaking Bad should be applauded. Television series are known for being ensemble pieces, long drawn out sagas where each character and actor gets a turn in the spotlight and under the microscope. At times this approach can become tedious and trivial as we learn Claire once dressed like a goth (LOST) or mostly anything that happens with Jason Street beyond the pilot (Friday Night Lights). There are no such deviations from Walt's world however, and that's just how he wants it.

Despite any pretense to the contrary about family (not-so-subtlety planted by corrupt lawyer Saul Goodman), it's all about Walt (and Bryan Cranston's sublime portrayal of him). Sorry Jesse fans (and I may mainly be speaking for myself here), if you hoped for more than 10 minutes of screen time for him in the final episode (or any other character for that matter), you were severely disappointed. Perhaps you should count your blessings though. Jesse may have limped away at series end as a physical and psychological mess, but that's much more than most people who crossed paths with Heisenberg can say.

The other reason to laud Breaking Bad with praise is its well paced and compelling plotting. As with any descent into drug culture, it's a narrative of escalation. As Walt goes from unknown cook to kingpin of a Meth empire, he deals with more and more powerful drug movers and dispatches them with more and more complex and violent schemes. He becomes intertwined with an international company based in Germany. He hires neo-Nazis to off six people in different prisons in a two minute span. Early on, I thought this plot pattern would become redundant. Thankfully, in the middle of Season 3, the introduction of Gus signaled a shift in quality and scope. Suddenly the developments are compelling and logical as Walt is a pawn in the schemes of a drug lord embroiled in a feud with the Cartel. Of course, if there's one thing Walt hates, it's being a pawn.

Throughout the series, Walt hides behind the veneer of self-interest and rationality while working toward the antithesis of rationality--destruction. He harps on the fact that people owe him because he devised the formula for the purest meth ever and repeats that he earned all his money from cooking it. Yet somehow he thinks that whenever anyone else tries to assert that they deserve a piece of the pie, they're illegitimately controlling him and thus killing them is justified.

Walt can give lip service to the idea of creation and earning as much as he wants. In reality, all he does is take. He sees everything as a power struggle. Either you're in control of other people or they're in control of you--and whoever's in control takes from those people he controls. Logically, such relationships can only progress to one point--force, either through manipulation or violence. That is exactly how Walt treated every character in the series until his empire crumbled. When someone stopped allowing Walt to take from him, either emotionally or financially, their death arrived sooner rather than later.

If you followed my live-tweeting of my viewing of the series, you know that I frequently compared Walt to the eponymous main character of Dexter. Both protagonists are anti-heroes who live a double-life that involves manipulation, violence, and a search for self-actualization. Notice how that description also applies to many contemporary television characters--Francis Underwood from House of Cards, Dr. House from House, Don Draper from Mad Men, Nucky Thompson from Boardwalk Empire. The list goes on. Also note how each of these characters work and/or exist in fields, locations, and time periods that are revered parts of the American identity: education, justice, medicine, politics, advertising, Washington DC, Manhattan, the 50s, Prohibition.

Shows like Dexter have fallen short at taking a stance on their anti-hero and his self-indulgent ways. At the end of its final season, Dexter had its psychopath protagonist suddenly develop empathy and lose his desire to kill. Breaking Bad makes no such misstep. Walt is unequivocally one of the worst villains in television history (perhaps in American lore). By series end he is compared to the Unabomber. His laser-like focus on asserting his control on the world has destroyed the lives of everyone he touched, including his own. That irony is what Walt never realizes. True evil never does. (In contrast, Dexter's new-found humanity helps him realizes the destruction he brings so he exiles himself by disappearing to a logging job and one-room cabin in the Northwest.) You can't build anything, an empire or a life, through destruction. It's a chilling commentary on how Americanism viewed solely as empire building changes a man.

Still, despite the quality plotting, production, and protagonist, I'm still left with the same question I had when I started the series, the one that kept me from watching it for a good while. Why do I want to spend my time watching a show completely focused on pure evil? Is the point to understand it? Can't that goal be achieved through other types narratives? Bryan Fuller's Hannibal gives a closeup look at evil through the gaze of Will Graham, a man trying to stop and not succumb to it. Sometimes his struggle feels harrowing, others hopeful. In contrast, there were few moments that moved me in Breaking Bad, and when I was moved it was most often to a deep hatred for Walt. What value does that add to my life?

As an aspiring writer, Breaking Bad enriched my life by teaching me plenty about plotting and some about characterization. As a viewer seeking to be entertained, the show shined through with a few glowing moments before leaving me like Jesse Pinkman--limping away, glad its over, finally free of its control.

1 comment:

Drew Millard said...

I'm sure you'll see this Justin. Totally agree with all of the above. If not for Jessie's arc and development over the course of the show, the story would have been so one dimensional. Intensely and masterfully so, but not that complex. I'm glad Aaron Paul gets as much credit as he does, because his multiple note portrayal of Jessie was the perfect counterbalance to Cranston's descent in to evil. And really a kudos is in order for the rest of the cast too, they may have just been support to Walt's journey, but it was pretty darn solid support. Each character may have been just one facet of a reaction to Walt's story, but when blended together they create a pretty intricate world for Walt to destroy.