It could be a telling sign of being out of touch with popular culture to admit that until two weeks ago when our children showed up for the holidays, I had never heard of the cable TV drama series ‘Breaking Bad.’ Of course, this sort of admission damaged my already fragile credibility with those under 30. And when I discovered that ‘Breaking Bad’ was in its fifth season, and had received numerous awards, receiving praised by leading media critics as ‘the greatest television drama of all time’ (according to the Megacritic website, ‘Breaking Bad’ is the highest rated cable show ever, earning a rating of 99/100 on the basis of 22 reviews) my self-esteem took a big hit for being so out of the loop. Having overdosed on the series during the recent past I may be about to fall from one trap to another, now putting myself forward as an ‘instant expert,’ a role not less tasteless than instant coffee. Intimidated by such a prospect, I will limit myself to a few random impressions with the goal of stimulating others to set me straight.
At this time I admit to being in danger of becoming a ‘Breaking Bad’ junkie with serious addiction issues, having watched more than 25 of the early episodes with family members during what has become an almost obsessive nightly ritual. I am left wondering, ‘what is the source of this fascination?’ ‘what is ‘Breaking Bad’ telling us about ourselves, our reality as a nation and globe-girdling capitalist powerhouse state?’ Whatever else, ‘Breaking Bad’ is tale of crime, violence, and personal adventure is quintessentially American, it could not be set elsewhere. On the most superficial level, there is no doubt that the writing, the acting, and cinematography are of a high caliber, holding one’s attention week after week due to an engagement with the lives of the characters and the subtle and innovative movements of the plot. It is obvious, as well, that both the technical and dramatic direction is quite masterful if measured by the metrics of craftsmanship and captivating storytelling. The form of episodic presentation, 47 minutes each week, imposes its own constraints. Each episode needs to combine a self-contained mini-drama with continuities of plot and character that create links to earlier segments and create suspense and curiosity about what will happen next. The result is a strange hybrid of soap opera and panoramic moviemaking.
There is no doubt that the series creator, producer, and director, Vince Gilligan, knows what he is doing (and came to ‘Breaking Bad’ with past credentials as a producer of another killer TV series, ‘The X-Files’), which is to interweave in compelling ways the complex inter-ethnic world of drug dealing in the American southwest with the humdrum nature of suburban living in Albuquerque, New Mexico: throughout, the ordinary is repeatedly trumped and undermined by extraordinary happenings in episode after episode as the perils and pleasures of Walter (Walt) White, hero-villian’s life accumulate. In the process Walt’s struggle for survival is turned upside down, being transformed from an underachieving, overqualified high school chemistry teacher having trouble making ends meet to becoming a cash rich overachieving, under qualified supplier (in the harsh business of allocating drug markets) of crystal meth to local gangs linked to some big drug cartels. Actually, a layering takes place as Walt continues to teach chemistry as his daytime job, a vocational calling, as well as a job, that he never gives up on, showing an abiding concern for his students and exhibiting his talents as a teacher, although the strains of his secret life finally take its toll, and he is forced to take an extended leave of absence during the third season of the show. There is a certain ironic tension between his teaching routine in a high school setting and his use of sophisticated chemistry to produce the highest quality meth available in the Albuquerque market, with an outreach that extends to the cutthroat cartels south of the border .
There is no doubt that Walt White (brilliantly played by Bryan Cranston) is as intriguing a character as has ever flitted across my TV screen. Some critics have treated White merely as an acute casualty of a mid-life crisis, where the comforts of the bourgeois life are exchanged for the excitement of the drug underworld, with its violence, risk, double life, and big payoffs, but this seems facile and almost willfully superficial. What gives White an edge is the fact that his ardent embrace of crime coincided with receiving a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer, giving rise, among other things to a desperate need for large sums of money to pay the huge bills for medicines and treatment, as well as to the realization that his family will be destitute after his death. The storyline also offers a bit of caviar to tease those who fancy themselves gourmets of high culture. White, as drug dealer, is known in the trade by the moniker, ‘Heisenberg,’ a cute play on the idea of ‘indeterminacy,’ (just who is White is tantalizingly elusive; and a lookalike is actually hired to confuse the police). As well, there are various bonding lines drawn between Walt White and Walt Whitman, especially relating to his celebrated poem, ‘Song of Myself.’
To my way of thinking, one of the great achievements of the series is the interplay between Walt and Jesse Pinkman (brilliantly played by Aaron Paul), an almost likeable young punk who takes some hard knocks, and has a kind of innocence that is displayed by kindness to animals, empathy with a young child caught up in a violent family situation, and by his own victimization resulting from hatefully insensitive parents. There is left the impression that Jesse manages to survive, but barely, wants a cleaner, safe life, but can’t quite muster the will to escape one and for all. He is at once too tender a person to flourish in the cutthroat world of hard-core drug business and yet too dependent to avoid the maelstrom of use and dealing. Jess is unlike Walt in all ways, more consistently emotional and romantic, less calculating, as much an addict as a supplier, a cultural casualty rather than a good citizen who goes awry by succumbing to the lure of the gigantic drug profit margins.
Throughout ‘Breaking Bad’ there are numerous implicit and explicit commentaries on the tawdry character of American life, replete with contradictions and complex filmic and cultural juxtapositions that link benign pretentious hypocrisies with lethal, violent realities that lie just beneath the surface. The relationship between law and crime is examined from many different angles, and it can be no accident, that the lead lawyer puts himself forward falsely as a Jew, Saul Goodman, when in fact he is a shabby abettor of criminality whose ethnicity in Irish. The lie at the heart of his law practice is multiply signaled: a huge balloon version of the Statue of Liberty is attached to the roof above his office, the room where he meets and greets clients uses the text of the U.S. Constitution as wallpaper, and his professional interest in lawyering is to make use of law and lawyers for the sake of promoting crime and safeguarding criminals, and all for the sake of making some extra bucks. There is in the series a second more ‘honorable’ lawyer who is no more loveable, using his knowledge of the intricacies of law to further the cruelties of capitalism. Actually, doctors fare only slightly better than lawyers, offering treatments motivated more by their professional ambitions than a patient’s likelihood of cure, and in the spirit of Michael Moore’s ‘Sicko,’ making even the most urgent health care a slave of one’s bank balance.
The series also a hard look taken at the fakery surrounding family values and community camaraderie. Walt is the main focus of attention, but is not alone, being portrayed as someone driven to crime by a true and abiding love for his wife and children, and in return receives the unconditional love of his disabled son. He says over and over again that all that he cares about is his family, and this gives him a mask of decency no matter how pervasively he falsifies his life. Walt faced with the prospect of his own assured death within a couple of years due to cancer and lacking the capacity to provide a decent future on the basis of legitimate work as a gifted high school chemistry teacher or as a helper in an auto repair shop turns to the lucrative work of ‘cooking’ high quality meth in large quantities. In effect, we are informed only a turn to crime can achieve what hard, honest work of a constructive nature cannot provide. The message within the message is that there is the scantest difference between Princeton graduates embarking on Wall Street careers with a clear conscience and those making their living from the drug trade, although the latter is far less obviously violent and dangerous, but also contains fewer illusions about normalcy, decency, honesty, and morally and socially acceptable life styles. Of course, ‘Breaking Bad’ portrays those on the top of the drug trade as mimicking in dress and life style the paragons of business and societal virtue, further blurring the boundaries between criminality and legitimacy. Indeed, ‘Breaking Bad’ occupies the whole social space in Gilligan’s America as there seems to be no available option to encourage breaking good!
Part of what makes Walt such a memorable character is his mercurial personality that contains unpredictable, yet plausible swerves and shifts, and is dramatically punctuated with completely irrational outbursts that he laments after the fact, as well as by highly rational discourses on what line of action to take. For instance, at a silly poolside party (epitomizing what goes on in polite middle class Albuquerque) Walt pressures his disabled teenage son, Walt Jr., to get disastrously drunk on tequila for no obvious reason, and gets furious when his Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) brother in law, Hank Schrader, interferes in an effort to prevent this patently improper father-son interaction from doing any further damage. This disturbing incident is out of character for Walt as he normally treats with loving kindness. In another episode, Walt is stopped by a highway patrol officer while driving at a normal speed in the desert countryside. The police man steps from his car and explain that the car was stopped because its windshield was shattered, making it unsafe and unlawful to drive. When the officer starts writing out a ticket for driving such a vehicle, Walt goes ballistic. He had earlier told the policeman that the damage to the windshield was caused by debris that fell from a fatal plane crash that had occurred in the city a few days earlier. The policeman responded by saying that it does not matter how the damage was done, that driving a car in this condition is against the law and deserves a ticket. Walt remains defiant, disobeys orders to stay in the car, yelling insults at the officer shouting he has ‘rights.’ After being warned, Walt is bloodied and taken into custody. He is soon released when Hank, his DEA relative, intercedes, and again law, such as it is, takes a back seat to the play of personal relations. In both of these incidents Walt after the fact apologizes, insisting that he was acting out of character, and makes vague intimations that his medical condition may have been the explanation.
There is an unusual structural feature throughout the series. There are several dyads or pairings of character. Walt and Skyler (his wife), Walt and Jesse, Walt and Hank (DEA), Skyler and her sister, Marie (also Hank’s wife), two lawyers, two drug enforcers. Walt and his wife are the primary pair, with Skyler the seemingly good woman and loyal wife, but also dipping her toes into dirty water by covering up the crimes of her boss as well as indulging in a workplace romance with this sleazy character. Nothing is as it seems, especially nothing that purports to be good is really good, except perhaps the sincerity of the biologically damaged Walt, Jr., who also at least flirts with indeterminacy by adopting the name ‘Flynn’ to alter his identity until he reverts to Walt, Jr., when his cherished father is banished from home by Skyler after she finally discovers that he has been lying to her for many months, maintaining a secret double life, and obtaining funds far beyond his salary by dealing in drugs, and not as he has insisted, through the generosity of (hated) rich friends who had actually made a fortune by stealing his ideas.
As with any imagined fiction, from Shakespeare to Gilligan (and his team of nine writers) what engages an audience is the vividness of the characters and the suspense, illuminations, and hypnotic strangeness of the narrative. The message and cultural critique are secondary to these dramatic qualities, and definitely, ‘Breaking Bad’ holds our attention mainly by sharing a wild roller coaster ride with its principal characters. The series doesn’t really need the scenes of extreme violence that are present in almost every episode, bloody beatings and killings with gory details, almost unwatchable brutality, but they seem thematically integral, and punctuate with exclamation points the crude justice of both the underworld of drugs and the proper world of law and police. There is even one grisly murder in which a stolen ATM machine is used as a weapon to crush a totally unsympathetic victim’s head. A symbolic eloquence is present in such a crime: the complex interplay of money, violence, and criminality is epitomized. Why? In some ways I believe that ‘Breaking Bad’ is itself a symptom of what it decries. It ‘entertains’ us by its exhibitions of extreme violence and criminality because anything less is assumed not to engage the modern public imagination, especially here in America where even the idea of minimal gun control proposed after a series of horrific domestic massacres is met with collective rage and derision. The gun lobby’s incredibly influential NGO, the NRA, tells us that there will be no ban on even assault weaponry while gun enthusiasts stock up such killing machines because they are fearful that a ban may be imposed, and this would be intolerable, itself grounds to take up arms against the already hated government in Washington. Also, of course, AMC network and Sony Pictures Television are both providers of the ATM used for making ‘Breaking Bad’ at $3 million per episode, and reap the monetary benefits of the show’s great success.
In the end, the question posed for me by ‘Breaking Bad’ is whether moral, political, and societal authenticity is any longer possible given the overall present nature of American popular culture. The government is far from exempt from such criticism if account is taken of the heavy militarist and carbon American footprint throughout much of the world, and the damage done to young Americans sent off to die in wars of no meaningful consequences for the protection of the homeland. I am someone who has spent his entire life in this country, appreciating its freedoms and supportive of its moments of moral progress (for instance, the selection of an African-American to be its president), although long critical of the gap between its proclaimed values and behavior, especially in relations with the non-Western world. I find myself now for the first time tempted to adopt an ‘expatriate consciousness.’ I interpret this temptation as an expression of political despair, a giving up on the future of the country. It is not only discouragement with the failures of substantive democracy that leaves the 99% in a permanent condition of precarious limbo, while the supposedly ‘liberal’ leadership and citizenry seems to sleep well despite terrorizing distant foreign communities with drone violence inflicted for the supposed sake of our ‘security.’ It is also the increasing failures of procedural democracy, the chances offered to the public by elections and political parties, that makes me feel that the most I can hope for during my lifetime is ‘the lesser of evils,’ allowing me recently the pleasure of a sigh of relief that it was Obama not Romney who was elected in 2012. Yet this was an electoral campaign in which both sides refused to act responsibly. Each side refused to take the risk of raising such issues as the predatory nature of neoliberal globalization, the ecological death trip of climate change, and the idiocy of ‘the long war’ with its global battlefield that was unleashed after the 9/11 attacks. I fully realize that I am transforming ‘Breaking Bad’ into a metaphor for my own malaise, and I am unsure how Vince Gilligan would react if confronted with such reactions. But does that matter?
Whatever may be the intention of those who put the series together, I do think ‘Breaking Bad,’ whether deliberately or not, raises disturbing political and cultural questions, somewhat analogous to issues powerfully posed a generation ago by David Lynch in ‘Blue Velvet.’ This movie remains one of the great filmic chronicles of the underside of America that has become almost indistinguishable from the self-congratulatory America of patriotic parades and holiday speeches by politicians. This dark criminality that lurks just below the surface of polite society is air brushed out of our collective consciousness by the mega-escapism of spectacles, sports, and a pacifying mainstream media. What I am saying, in effect, is that ‘Breaking Bad’ works fantastically as entertainment, but that it is also a reliable journalistic source confirming the bad news about several uncontrolled wild fires burning up the country, and the world.