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Investing in “Breaking Bad” — A Matter of Life and Death

I believe in Walter White, his family and his friends. They aren’t just objects of interest and curiosity and occasional sympathy …. I actually care deeply about whether they live and die.

—Ross Douthat

Ross Douthat’s June 15, 2010, New York Times piece turned up during an online fishing expedition baited with the tag, “Breaking Bad/Dostoevsky.” It’s not that I’m looking to put a Dostoevskian spin on Vince Gilligan’s AMC series about a cancer-stricken high school science teacher turned methamphetamine overlord; it’s just that Breaking Bad has elements and characters that the author of Crime and Punishment would find fascinating. Same for Balzac and Poe and Hawthorne, and don’t forget Robert Louis Stevenson, since anyone watching Walter White cooking up batches of crystal blue meth is sure to visualize Dr. Jekyll in his lab and the macabre fate he meets when the chemically induced Mr. Hyde takes complete possession of the good doctor’s soul.

I came late to Breaking Bad. No one tugged at my sleeve and said, “Don’t miss it.” I was unaware until recently that Bryan Cranston had won the “Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series” Emmy three years in a row. One thing for sure, if I’d read somewhere of Vince Gilligan’s concept for the show — to turn his central character from protagonist to antagonist, from Mr Chips to Scarface — I’d have jumped on board a year or two sooner. The concept, not to mention the acting, writing, and cinematography used to explore it, is what makes Breaking Bad superior to any series since HBO’s Big Three, The Wire, Deadwood, and The Sopranos. HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, which recently launched its third season, is an impressive production but not in the same league as Breaking Bad, which will end its five season run next summer.

Breaking Through

My online search took me to a short essay by Corey Pung quoting Dostoevsky (“Without God, anything is possible”) on Walt’s reaction to the death sentence he receives in Breaking Bad’s opening episode. While his primary motive is to provide for his family (wife pregnant, baby’s arrival imminent, teenage son with cerebral palsy), as soon as he’s told he may have only months to live, he begins to challenge the reasonable, responsible limits that have ruled his life, struggling to make ends meet teaching high school science while moonlighting in a car wash. Most good providers (and Walt becomes a good provider with a vengeance) would still observe the limits, pursuing medical treatment (as Walt does), setting their house in order (this too), or looking for moral support in religion. Religion? Not Walt. He takes the anything-is-possible route. The spectre of death releases the genius seething inside him.

More Than Adrenaline

Writing on Good Reads, a blogger from India wants to know if there is any novel “as adrenaline pumping as the Breaking Bad TV series?” So far the only book that comes close, he says, is Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. He finds the thriller writers like Patterson, Grisham, and Ludlum wanting because “they seldom really make the scenes absolutely memorable along with keeping me on the edge of my seat.” He wants an experience that “stays with” him “long after” he reads it: “Just like Breaking Bad is doing to me.”

That says it: you don’t just watch Breaking Bad; it does things to you, it stays with you, stirs you, moves you, haunts you, and makes you care about the characters as life-and-death intensely as Ross Douthat suggests when comparing the show to AMC’s other hit series, Mad Men.

The Moment of Truth

At this point it’s necessary to announce a modified spoiler alert, since the scene I’m about to focus on concerns the death of a character, a sad, ugly, needless death that occurs late in the second season and could have been prevented. The sequence, in its subtle but stunning way, is one of the defining moments in this savage series where violence explodes, bloodily, outrageously, gruesomely, sometimes with gory black comedy overtones (like the notorious raspberry slushie sequence in the first season). Not to worry, nothing’s going to blow up in your face in this small, hushed room where a young couple lies cuddled together, spoon style, deep in a heroin stupor on a mattress at Walt’s feet. He intends them no harm. There’s even a sense that as he looks down on these two kids, he’s touched, briefly bemused, and a bit embarrassed to have invaded their privacy, for they really are like two children, innocent, helpless, vulnerable (“Shades of Romeo and Juliet,” was Gilligan’s comment in an interview about the scene).

Then the female, the Juliet, turns over on her back and begins softly coughing. She’s choking, and he knows that if he doesn’t do the right thing, the simple obvious human thing anyone else would do, she might die. Yet he’s hesitating, holding back, you can see the pressure of the thought closing in on him as he realizes that a solution to the problem that brought him to this place is at hand: a threat to his enterprise is about to be nullified. If he allows it. This death will be to his advantage. So he thinks, he hesitates, allows it, and watches, in pained amazement, as death happens. It takes less than 30 seconds. As he watches, he has to press his hand over his mouth to keep from crying out, tears spring to his eyes, he’s torn, hurting, because what’s left of the father, the teacher, the good provider is appalled and ashamed and sick with sympathy, as if he’s been standing by and watching, allowing, the death of his own child.

Why You Care

I found the loss of this character, this Juliet, truly hard to accept even after I’d moved on to the third season. This is the “caring deeply” that Douthat’s talking about. The loss hurts not just because you liked her, cared about her, and even valued her as a rare glimmer of sweetness and light in her lover’s life, but because you know her death is going to devastate if not destroy a character you care about a great deal more — Walt’s partner in meth cooking, Jesse Pinkman, who is played with an intensity second only to Bryan Cranston’s by Aaron Paul (winner of two Supporting Actor Emmys). By this point in the second season you can’t help but share some of Walt’s quasi paternal/fraternal feelings for this seemingly hapless loser, the F student forever even though he’s earned his half of a fortune, survived brutal beatings and unthinkably dire near-death dilemmas with the science teacher who flunked him years ago. One of the most lovable things about this series, which may be the most bizarre buddy movie ever made, is that after all they’ve been through together, Jesse still calls Walt “Mr. White.”

The repercussions from this same scene are immense, and it’s here that Breaking Bad does what great shows do, it transcends probability, defies reason, takes an already shameless coincidence (a meeting in a nearby bar between Walt and his victim’s father) one giant step forward. With the wound of that silent death scene still smarting, the consequences of Walt’s moment of deadly hesitation explode like an action-movie version of God’s wrath writ large on the bright blue sky as a passenger plane collides with a private plane, hundreds die, and all of it, the bodies and body parts and personal odds and ends in effect descend on the man who stood by while someone’s child died, and in case you doubt that he’s culpable, you’re taken up to the sky, to the point of impact, and sent down down down with the debris of the explosion, the target below a small blue rectangle: the swimming pool in the Whites’ back yard where the man responsible is standing, staring upward, once again watching death happen.

Investments

By the time a dead child’s stuffed dog falls from the fiery collision into Walter’s swimming pool — the charred toy, one eye out, an image that has been flashed ominously forward from the first episode — you’ve been hammered by explosions, shootings, stranglings; you’ve been dazzled by the cinematographer Michael Slovis’s artistry; you’ve enjoyed the sleazy ingenuity of one of the most charming shyster lawyers you’ll ever see, Saul “Just Call Saul” Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). You’re half in love with Skyler, Walt’s beautiful resourceful wife (Anna Gunn) and handsome disabled son (RJ Mitte); you have an insider’s knowledge of his extended family, including his blustery Drug Enforcement Administration brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) and Skyler’s ditzy kleptomaniac sister Marie (Betsy Brandt). For four seasons, you’ve been horrified, shocked, touched, and amused by these people and the things they do. To quote Douthat again, from his column explaining why he thinks Vince Gilligan’s creation outranks Mad Men as the best show on television (and why I think it ranks with the best shows ever), “what’s struck me watching Breaking Bad is how much more invested I am in its characters as human beings.”


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