In Praise of “Breaking Bad”

I just finished watching all six seasons of “Breaking Bad” on DVD. It took me only a couple of weeks. It was an engrossing experience. I didn’t want to pull myself away from the gradually unfolding tragedy. I loved reflecting on the many multi-dimensional characters. I think the best way to share my thoughts on this television series is to go through each major character, and list some reflections on each of them.

By the way, if you haven’t watched the series or only seen part of it, you shouldn’t keep reading, unless you don’t mind a spoiler.

Walter White: I keep asking myself, who is this man? Part of me wants to sympathize with him. He’s in a tough situation. He’s a high school teacher with a low salary (he has to work at a car wash to supplement his income), has just received a cancer diagnosis, and has a kid with cerebral palsy and an infant on the way. Making a lot of money off the sale of meth makes some sense. Skyler and the kids might have a hard time getting by without Walt. Skyler’s income is not great either, and even if it were, she has to stop working for at least a while to take care of the newborn daughter that is on its way at the beginning of the series. Walt Jr. has cerebral palsy and his earning potential doesn’t seem high. He seems kind of simpleminded, too.  The cost of Walt’s treatment sets back the White family financially a great deal. I think Walt truly cares about his family. He keeps saying throughout the series that the welfare of his family justifies his illegal behavior.  I think he is sincere, but his expression of his care is twisted.

Walt, in spite of the difficulty of his situation, does not have to cook meth. Money for his treatment is available from the Schwarz family. Walt is proud, though. He hates depending on others and he resents the success of the Schwarzes. There is a lot of tension with the Schwarzes, including a romantic entanglement with Gretchen and the fact that Walt used to work with Elliot at the highly successful company, Gray Matter. I can see how Walt doesn’t want to be the ‘little guy’ in relation to the Schwartzes by accepting their money. But, even without the money from the Schwarzes, the White family could get by without Walt resorting to crime. Skyler could continue to work. Elliot actually offers Walt work at Gray Matter at a party, and so Walt could earn more money, not just accept it from Elliot as a handout. Hank and Marie are very supportive. Skyler might eventually remarry, Walt Jr. could get a part-time job. The family might be able to get help from the government, and Walt could purchase life insurance. There are plenty of lawful ways by which Walt might solve his financial problems.

As he admits to Skyler in the final episode, Walt likes cooking meth. He enjoyed being out in the desert with Jesse, dodging law enforcement and coming up with lies to deflect Skyler’s attention. The amount of money Walt makes cooking meth builds up his ego. He keeps wanting more and more. There are plenty of times when he could have stopped cooking—he had made enough. But, he can’t turn away from the prospect of expanding his market. Cooking meth immediately improves Walt’s sex life. He gets much more impassioned and lusts after his wife with a new vehemence. It’s like, to use a tired cliché, Walt feels like a real man when he cooks meth.

Walt doesn’t fit into the innocent, legal world of the high school and his wife and kids. He always seems forced when he talks about doing ordinary things like making repairs in the home or going on a weekend trip with his family, getting treatment for his cancer or going over to Hank’s home for a barbecue. It thrills him, and titillates his ego, to be an outlaw, engaging with dangerous thugs in the meth industry.

Jesse: I think Jesse is more sympathetic than Walter White. He’s lazy, in the wrong crowd, immature, with little prospects in life. He doesn’t like rules, and resists growing up. He lacks confidence, and one of the themes as the show evolves is his development of confidence as he gets better and takes on more responsibility in cooking meth and getting him and Walter White out of the seemingly impossible problems in which they always find themselves. The irony is that, in spite of the fact that Jesse is improving competence and making a lot of money cooking meth, it is still the case that he is breaking the law. There is some discussion in the series about whether meth, and other drugs, should or should not be legal. If people want them, the arguments goes, then what right does the government have to stop entrepeneurs from distributing them? But, the reality is that meth ruins lives. It’s highly addictive, and as viewers we don’t see much of the consequences of Jesse’s contribution to the meth industry: thousands upon thousands of minds and lives wasted because of an addictive drug. We see some of the side effects of meth when Jesse is alone in his aunt’s house and has paranoid hallucinations of scary-looking and armed men walking up his front lawn. Jesse flashes some talent in cooking meth and coming up with schemes, but he is applying his talent to a justifiably illegal activity.

Jesse has a good heart, though. He often is the voice of reason in the partnership with Walter, urging him to stop when they’ve accumulated a lot of money. He loves Jane and his later girlfriend Adrian, as well as her son Brock. I think he is even able to empathize with Walter, who treats him with utter cruelty. In their last encounter, Jesse has an opportunity to kill Walter but refrains. Neither Walt nor Jesse throughout the series become hardened criminals. There is always a tender side to both of them, though ultimately I think they are both bad people. Jesse’s character was also kind of annoying in that he always seems to be going on a tirade with exaggerated facial expressions. I got a little tired of seeing him with spittle collecting on his lips and a haunted look in his eyes, choking with outrage. Another thing to note is that for a long time Jesse is the only person to whom Walter shows his real self. This may account for the bond between the two men.

Skyler: Skyler took a lot of heat online from angry fans, and even Anna Gun, the actress who plays Skyler, began to fear for her own safety because of the animosity directed at Skyler. Anna Gun wrote in the New York Times that the animosity came from the fact that her character was a strong woman who stood up to her scheming husband. In other words, Skyler awakened a misogyny in the viewing audience. But, I don’t see Skyler as a strong woman. Throughout the series, she is often silent, with a scowl on her face. She disapproves of what Walt is doing, but she cannot stop him. She admits to him at one point that she lacks Walt’s ‘magic’ for finding his way out of difficult situations. It takes her awhile to see through Walt’s lies, and when she does, she is helpless to stop her husband. She helps Walt by laundering his money. She grows depressed and attempts suicide. She seems prone to passive- aggressive behavior, not direct, impactful action. She does things like having an affair with her boss Ted as a way of acting out, instead of addressing herself to some concrete improvement to her situation. So, I think she is a woman of principles, but she is confused about how to solve problems and ultimately helplessly goes along with what Walt is doing. She is dependent on Walt, as she often shows by asking him if the family is safe.

Walt Jr. (Flynn): I think Walt Jr. and Hank, whom I will discuss later, are the representatives of innocence in the drama. Walt Jr. is a loving soul who cares about his family. It pains him to see his dad suffer from cancer, and the friction between his parents that leads to their separation. Walt Jr. shows initiative at the end of the series by throwing his body in front of his mother to protect her from Walt and also by rejecting his father’s offer of money when he calls him from a bar up in New Hampshire. Walt Jr. values family time, and, unlike his father, does not feel at all uncomfortable in the world of innocence and legality. Walt Sr. has an edge to his personality—he is a type A personality, an Aries, who needs to conquer something. Living out the remainder of his life teaching chemistry to high school students and leaving his family with a mountain of debt from his cancer treatment is intolerable to someone like this.

Hank: Hank has a vulgar sense of humor and is so blinded by his love and trust of Walt that he fails to see how the man is hoodwinking him until it is too late. There are a number of instances where Hank should have picked up something fishy—for instance, when Walt deliberately involves them in a car crash. But, the fact that his own brother-in-law is Heisenberg is unthinkable to him. Aside from these flaws, though, Hank is a dedicated cop and husband. He has a temper and loses his cool a few times, but his anger is always understandable. His flaws are not tragic, like those of Walter. I love Hank’s last words to Walter, after Walter tries to save him from the criminal gang he hires. Hank recognized that there is still tenderness in Walt, and he shows that his anger and hatred of Walt, which drove him to arrest Walt, is also not complete, by saying, “You’re the smartest man I ever met.” The care and affection Hank showed towards Walt at family gatherings was real. There are a number of occasions where Hank offers his help to Walt, and I think that if Walt had decided to confess at these times and reveal his illegal activity, Hank would have found a way to get Walt a light sentence. He is lenient and understanding towards Walt when he hears about the alleged fugue state and the story about the gambling addiction.

 

All in all, “Breaking Bad” reminds me of “Macbeth,” a great tragedy by William Shakespeare. Macbeth at first appears sympathetic, but as he pursues his ambitions, finds himself committing deeds of escalating immorality. Walter too keeps getting more deeply entangled in evil, having to lie about lies and murder to cover up a murder. Like Skyler, Lady Macbeth is a divided accomplice to the crimes of her husband. Both couples have a stark division between what they present to the world and who they really are.

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