Monday, April 4, 2016

Breaking Bad

[spoilers …]

Okay. I’m a little late to this party. Anywhere from three to eight years or so.

Purely on a whim, I picked up Season One of Breaking Bad from the local library about a month ago, looking for something to watch when I ate my lunch. And after the pilot episode, I was mercilessly hooked. I burned through all five seasons over the course of the thirty days, averaging two episodes a day. What can I say that hasn’t been already stated by others? The series, thanks primarily to Bryan Cranston’s epic portrayal of Walter White, is equal measures brutal, ugly, sympathetic, pathetic, intense, heartbreakingly sad, funny, clever (adjectives in order that came immediately to mind), and more addictive than, I’ve learned, crystal meth.


Well, first and foremost, the character of Walter White. Fifty-year-old high school chemistry teacher, married to a domineering woman, father to a sixteen-year-old son with cerebral palsy and an unplanned baby daughter well on the way. He makes $43,000 a year, has no savings to speak of, and has a lifetime of regrets and bad decisions.

The regrets and bad decisions will continue as he decides to cook crystal meth to provide a financial future for his family – after he is unexpectedly diagnosed with an aggressive, malignant form of lung cancer and given a year to live.

So … why is the character of Walter White so riveting?

Allow me to get personal for a few moments here. I am not saying I am Walter White. Nor will I be saying you are. But I believe the head writer, Vince Gilligan, has created an archetype, a Jungian archetype if you will, that appeals – to wildly varying degrees – to the average middle age man of 2010 America. He has tapped into something authentic.


– We all want to excel at something.

– We all want to be paid well for excelling at something.

– We all have that unnerving, uncertain sense that, in this crappy economy, we are not providing adequately for our family.

– We all live under the Sword of Damocles (for Walt, the cancer diagnosis; for me, for example, the pulmonary vein stenosis aftermath; for anyone else, perhaps, a car accident, a layoff, a divorce, who knows?). We all live with a death sentence. Though some sentences have due dates much earlier than others.

– We all believe our motives are more selfless than selfish; however, and we usually know this, the opposite is usually the truth.

– We all tend to feel that the major decisions of our lives have been made for us, not by us, when in reality, and again we usually know this, the opposite is often the truth.

– We all feel overqualified in what we often find we have to do. Overqualified and underappreciated. Unfortunately, this is usually true.

– We all see others merrily and easily advancing in their careers, experiencing glorious success in their life circumstances and situations, leapfrogging over us, and it hurts. (Been on Facebook, lately?)

– We all have deep, cutting, lasting past regrets. For Walt, it is cashing out as a young rising star from ownership in the Gray Matters corporation, for $5,000 (a few months’ rent) on what would turn out to be a $2.1 billion company. For me – I don’t go there, for if I made different decisions in the past I would not have the few things that truly bring me joy now. For you – who knows but you, but you and I both know there’s stuff there.

So Walter White immediately appealed to me, as I believe he appeals to a lot of men today. Right from the first couple of minutes of the pilot episode (after the cold open, I must state), I felt a strange, magnetic kinship with him.

Here’s where I – and I believe ninety-nine point nine-something of us, differ from Walter. Walter’s first biggest mistake, I believe. As a chemist, he never prays or develops a spiritual faith after his cancer diagnosis. (Though he does utter one “prayer”, so to speak, in the series finale, asking for the car he is attempting to steal to start: “Just get me home. I’ll do the rest.”) Though I have been struggling through months of utter silence, I do believe with every fiber of my being, if and when I get that visit from the oncologist, soon after I drop to my knees answers will be forthcoming.

So, by taking the fork the vast majority of us rightly never will or would, Walter puts us in the uncomfortable position of rooting for him. Rooting for the bad good guy, or the good bad guy. Because we watch him slide hyperbolically, faster and faster, down into moral depravity, and we are unable to do anything about it except strap ourselves in for the ride.

Despite initial intuition, Walt is not the moral center of Breaking Bad. There is no true moral center, as every character is portrayed warts and all, no true center except, perhaps, brother-in-law and DEA agent Hank Schrader. Hank grows from a pilot episode caricature into a mature, conflicted, and ultimately good man – and surrogate father figure for Walter Junior – that is one of the best surprises of a show that consistently surprises you.

All the characters, not just Walt and Hank, are affecting and effective: Skyler, Walt’s wife; Marie, her sister who’s married to Hank; Walter Jr. with cerebral palsy; Saul the crooked lawyer; Mike the fixer. But even better are the plethora of really, really nasty bad guys, menacing, lethal, intimidating, but still human and grounded in reality bad guys: Krazy-8, Tuco, uncle Tio, members of the Mexican cartel, Gustavo Fring, the Twins, aforementioned Mike to a certain extent, creepy Todd, the white supremacists. The show, without a doubt in my mind, has the best secondary characters, and of these secondary characters, the one who undeniably has the best introduction is Saul, of Better Call Saul fame. His first scene alone is priceless and essential viewing.

For those in the know, I liked Season Two the best. I found its frame story, the future tidbits mysteriously hinted to us in the black-and-white cold opens, immensely intriguing. Like deciphering a puzzle. If you string together some of the episode titles you might anticipate the incredible vision in the final moments of the season’s final episode. While Walt is not bumbling and inexperienced, he’s beginning to find his way around, and prove to us he’s a quick – and deadly – learner, and the ruin and wreckage of lives hes never physically touched come crashing down around him.

The final season, Five, had a much much darker tone. Walt has devolved fully into drug kingpin Heisenberg, and his meth “empire” reaches its zenith early on. Hank, as we guessed he would from the very beginning, is finally on to Walt. There are gruesome jail house murders, a neo-Nazi gang, the enslavement of Jesse (Walter’s surrogate son and partner from Day One in the meth business), creepy Todd, and the deaths of several major “good guys.”

The series has many highly memorable moments. Two that struck me the most were the Gus Fring–Uncle Tio showdown and the completely unexpected and shocking death of Hank Schrader. I felt certain (well, I weighted it with the greatest probability) that Walt’s brother-in-law Hank would be the one to kill him in the final episode. How wrong I turned out to be.

But without a doubt the most memorable moment, the one that still brings goose bumps to my arms, is the series’ hugely satisfying ending, which I immediately compared to The Sopranos. Breaking Bad has about the same number of episodes as The Sopranos – both are “sixty-hour movies.” But Walter White is more complex than Tony Soprano. Tony Soprano is evil, was born into evil, and becomes more or less eviler as that series progressed. Walter White is initially good – flawed, but essentially good, like the vast majority of us. But Walter consciously chooses evil means for a good end, and in so doing, becomes evil and loses everything that means the most to him. And at the finale of both shows both main characters die – though the creators of both series leave the door slightly open to interpretation on that count.

In one sentence, Walter White was pitiably good at the beginning of the series and pitiably bad at its end. And the most pitiable thing of it all was when he said:

“I liked it and I was good at it, and it made me feel alive.”

Grade: A+++

PS. To this day, Huell is still sitting at the safe house …

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