[NB: read my earlier review before embarking on this essay.]
About two weeks ago, sometime in mid to late December of last year, I finished watching all five—or six—seasons of "Breaking Bad," the AMC series starring Bryan Cranston as chemist-gone-bad Walter White, Aaron Paul as his ex-student (and assistant/familiar/henchman/Igor) Jesse Pinkman, Anna Gunn as Walt's beleaguered wife Skyler, Betsy Brandt as Skyler's comically kleptomaniac sister Marie Schrader, Dean Norris as Hank Schrader (Marie's husband and Walt's DEA-agent brother-in-law), RJ Mitte as Walt's CP-afflicted son Walt Junior (who rebelliously goes by "Flynn" for much of the series), and a whole slew of recurrent stars and special guest stars who fleshed out the story's universe.
The series ran from 2008 to 2013. The first four seasons varied in length; the first season had only seven episodes; the second, third, and fourth had thirteen episodes; and the fifth season had sixteen episodes, but was divided into two half-seasons of eight episodes each. (The first half of Season 5 ended on a marvelous cliffhanger: the moment when Hank finally realizes he's been chasing Walt the entire time. Per the series's wicked sense of humor, Hank's realization comes to him while he's on the toilet.)
How to define "Breaking Bad"? It was, to be sure, a genre-transcending story. At some points, it was a family drama; at others, it was a police procedural; at still others, it was the blackest of black comedies. My buddy Steve doCarmo wrote me, in a recent email, that he felt progressively dirtier while watching the story unfold. Vince Gilligan, the show's creator and primary writer, said his aim was "turning Mr. Chips into Scarface," and I think he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams: "Breaking Bad" is an amazing study in human evil—but we'll focus on that a bit later in this review.
A warning: you should know that I'm going to be revealing plenty of spoilers. It's nearly impossible to talk about the issues I want to talk about without revealing plot points from the show, so if you're interested in the show but don't want anything spoiled, stop reading now and come back after you've binge-watched all five seasons.
Let's start off by discussing who the most interesting character in "Breaking Bad" might be. In principle, almost everyone will say it's Walt, whose transformation from a meek and mild high-school chemistry teacher to a fear-inspiring drug kingpin is the most obvious of the various character arcs. And I wouldn't disagree: Walt's descent into hell is absolutely fascinating to behold, and it's played perfectly both in terms of the story writing and the acting: Walt, even as he becomes a darker and darker character, still holds on to some of those early meek-and-mild traits from the first season. By the time he becomes powerful toward the end, he often still finds himself acting frustrated and powerless: witness the moment when he kills tough, grizzled old Mike Ehrmantrout out of resentment at Mike's seeming ingratitude. So, yes: Walt is a definite contender for Most Interesting Character. We could discuss the leprous state of his soul all day long.
But I'm not sure enough people give credit to Skyler, Walt's wife. Her arc takes her to some strange places, psychologically speaking. At first, she gets suspicious about Walt's newfound furtive behavior as he teaches high school and cooks meth with Jesse during his free time. Later on, she finally discovers what Walt is really doing... and she decides to help him do it. Over time, she resents Walt for his attitude toward his terminal lung cancer, then sympathizes with him when he decides to fight it, then feels betrayed by him and his secretiveness, then finally comes to fear her husband when he attains the status of meth kingpin of the American Southwest. Skyler is fascinating because she starts off as an honest and virtuous character whose maternal pragmatism may, in some sense, be her undoing. She understands that letting her son know what kind of person his father is would destroy the family, so for practical reasons, she falls in with Walt to keep up appearances—not for the sake of the public, but for the sake of Walt Junior.
There's a psychic cost, though: Skyler, honest to a fault, consciously and unconsciously finds ways to telegraph her distress at the ruse she's involved with. It could be said that she's one of Walt's greatest victims, sucked into his maleficent event horizon like Faust being tempted by the Devil. (Jesse Pinkman, talking with the DEA, actually calls Walt "the Devil" at one point.) Skyler screams "Shut up!" repeatedly at her sister on a particularly bad day. During a nighttime family gathering, she wades slowly and hypnotically into her own backyard swimming pool, seemingly wanting to drown herself or at least to separate herself from the criminal world she's been plunged into. Through it all, her top concern is her two children: Walt Junior and her newborn daughter Holly, but Skyler's native sincerity makes it increasingly difficult for her to hide the truth.
Walt's character arc is a pure descent. Skyler's arc is more circuitous, less direct, arguably more subtle. There are plenty of Skyler haters online—she does often act like a controlling bitch—but I found her to be one of the characters with whom I sympathized the most.
And while we're on the subject of character arcs and sympathy, I want to devote some space to talking about the story arc as a whole. I'm sure it's quite deliberate that Walter White is written to be a sympathetic character at first, but by the fifth season, the reasons for sympathizing with him have, by and large, evaporated. This isn't something you see that often on TV dramas, or even in movies: we're used to dealing with flatter characters, not heroes who go rotten and turn into antiheroes. A person might plausibly sympathize with Walter up to the bitter end, but I'd argue (as some of the actors have themselves jokingly argued on late-night talk shows) that, if you're still sympathizing with Walter White by the end, you've got problems of your own.
Earlier, I wrote that "Breaking Bad" was a study in human evil. To me, it often felt as though Vince Gilligan had been basing Walt's character arc on M. Scott Peck's book People of the Lie, which was Peck's examination and analysis of the nature of evil. Much of what Peck describes in his book is evident in the show. Peck makes several claims about what evil is: it's ego-based and narcissistic, which means an evil person normally (and often secretly) holds a very high opinion of himself; as a corollary, evil is accompanied by blindness to one's own faults. Evil is also kept hidden from others because an evil person is deeply invested in projecting an image of goodness and moral uprightness. Walt constantly justifies the evil acts he commits by playing the family card; he spins his murderous nature as a function of his selfless desire to care for his loved ones. Dr. Peck also notes that an evil person constantly lies: there's deception and self-deception, often carried out with instinctive cunning. Evil is also pathological: the evildoer has trouble relating to or empathizing with his victims. Walt poisons a child in a later season—not enough to kill him, but enough to wreck his partner Jesse emotionally because Jesse had come to love the child. Walt's awareness of Jesse's emotions has nothing to do with care or empathy; Walt's awareness is more like the cold awareness of a chess player who understands the consequences of the next few moves. Evil, of course, isn't merely a lack of care: it's active destructiveness, of which Walt becomes a smoldering, infernal incarnation. True: Walt does seem to recover a scrap of nobility toward the very end of the series, but it's too little, too late, and it's not enough to make him sympathetic again.
Another genre might be considered for "Breaking Bad": the morality play. The series doesn't glorify drug use, despite some darkly comic moments. For the most part, drug use is shown as leading to horrifying consequences (e.g., when Jesse's girlfriend overdoses and chokes on her own vomit while Walt looks on and strategically does nothing to help her). Morality plays link evil to choice, and "Breaking Bad" explores the notion that bad choices are just that: choices. This means that each fork in the road of life is laden with moral significance; Walter White might initially feel that his life is out of his control, but as he gains power and influence in the world of meth-making and meth-dealing, he comes to realize just how much freedom he enjoys, and he continues to make morally bad choices despite that realization. During a lucid moment with Skyler among the very last episodes, Walt finally confesses that he hasn't been involved with meth for the sake of the family: he's been doing it for himself all along. It's a rare moment when Walt both sees himself clearly and takes responsibility for his actions.
But all of this is so serious, and there's a whole other side to "Breaking Bad": the comedy. Many of the cast members have a chance to show off their comic chops, from Walt on down. Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman is initially hilarious before he becomes a more tragic character; Betsy Brandt, as the klepto wife of a DEA-agent husband, has her moments. And as I'd written earlier, Dean Norris should be singled out for praise: his Hank Schrader is the funniest asshole you're ever likely to meet. But the reason why we like Hank is that, despite his distressing political incorrectness, he's basically a decent man who has a noble sense of duty and mission.
Hank doesn't have much of an arc: he stays pretty much the same man the entire time, right up until he gets killed by some of Walt's white-supremacist henchmen near the end of the series. But I suppose you could argue that his character goes from mere comic relief to a tragic figure: it's his unbending nature that becomes his undoing. I saw Hank as pretty much doomed from the start, so his death didn't come as that big of a surprise. I did, however, like the way the scene of Hank's death played out: he accepted his fate stoically, but was denied the dignity of even finishing his final sentence. An episode or two later, Walt shot the man who shot Hank, and in the same way: while the man was in mid-sentence. Poetic justice.
Hank was a reflection of Walt's self-deception—one of the traits of evil described by M. Scott Peck, as mentioned above. Walt genuinely liked (perhaps even loved) Hank and didn't want anything bad to happen to his brother-in-law, but at the same time, Walt had to have known that a man as smart as Hank was bound to figure out that Walt was the meth kingpin going by the moniker "Heisenberg" that entire time. Conflict between Walt and Hank was inevitable, and the series milked the potential for conflict for all it was worth, not crystallizing it until halfway through the fifth season. Hats off to the show's writers for making the Hank/Walt conflict part of the show's climax.
I'm currently watching "Hannibal," the other series that my ex-coworker had recommended. It's nowhere near as good as "Breaking Bad" was; I'll be reviewing it soon. "Hannibal" might arguably be another study in human evil, but it's cartoonish and hard to take seriously. Walt's gradual rot from Season 1 to Season 5, by contrast, was as gripping as a slow-motion airline disaster. "Breaking Bad" was onion-like in its layers of styles and meanings: it crossed genres, dealt with big issues like evil and human freedom, and somehow did all this with actorly professionalism and a gleeful sense of fun. There's much more that I could say about the series, but for now, it's enough to note that "Breaking Bad" is a most excellent morality play whose stage is the darkest recesses of the human soul.
Monday, January 04, 2016
[NB: read my earlier review before embarking on this essay.]