Thursday, 30 January 2014

To Heaven in a Push Chair
or to Hell in a Handcart (with a small spider)

Walter White at the start of his spiral

I am sitting at my desk by the desk light watching a small spider stay perfectly still just under the window. His body is a compact mass, two of his legs spread like antennae the rest curled in. The curtain folds away from him. He is not entirely in shadow but the desk light isn't directly on him. He has a sort of cunning, or maybe stage fright. There is only half a metre between us, if that. I doubt he registers me at all: we don 't impinge on each other.

Most nights for the last couple of weeks we have sat down together to watch more of the box set of Breaking Bad, which, as everyone knew a year or more ago, is an epic work of cinematic brilliance with a script that is even better. As everyone therefore knows, it is the story of a shy failure of a man, Walter White, who works partly as a chemistry teacher at school and in a car wash the rest of the time to support his paraplegic son and his wife, Skyler, whose lifestyle requires this extra work from Walter. He isn't much. He gets patronised by everyone.

Then he gets cancer, is given a short time to live and his life changes. As everyone knows (I am trademarking this phrase as 'aek') he discovers a way of making very high quality crystal meths, goes into partnership with small-time druggie, Jesse, and things spiral on from there. When I say 'spiral on' it really is a Dantean descent into hell in ever decreasing circles. Walter's character changes, as does Skyler's and, aek, it is alternately very funny, tragic and horrific. Most of all it is gripping and generally convincing in terms of terrain, symbolism and psychology.

One of the readings of Breaking Bad - and I'd go along with it - is as a study of the collapse of masculinity. Walter is emasculated. He has to sit and listen while his extended family decide what he should do with what is left of his life.  He is close to impotent, hesitant in his speech, incapable of asserting what he feels is his identity. It has been lost somewhere along the way, perhaps when his friends stole a business that his work with a Nobel Prize winning scientist, to whom he was an important colleague, had enabled him to propose. The friends have made a fortune: he has made a pig's ear. Nevertheless his family loves him in its own way but in the way they would love an invalid - which his son already is. Symbol echoes symbol, which is one of the great pleasures of the series.

Then Walter breaks out. He does so in order to 'provide'. It is the one thing he should be able to do for his family. His potency returns. He undertakes acts of ever greater courage, foolhardiness and evil. His one concern, as he keeps saying, is his family. But it is also his pride. He must find himself even if he must go to the jaws of hell in order to do that.

The old Walter's problem was that he was too nice. He was being killed by kindness, his own and his wife's. She had control of the situation. Hers was the domestic empire and he was killing himself for it. He had no control, except in the class at school, and the class was way below his level. We can see he is a fine teacher, but the class can't.

In order to find himself, to locate the provider within himself, he must move out of other people's control and exercise his own. He both can and can't. That balance of control and lack of it l leads him into evil.

That is the proposition. For a man like Walter you either go to heaven in a pushchair or to hell in a handcart. He is compelled to choose the latter or suffocate. He chooses the handcart and burns.

This, gentlemen, is the alternative with which the modern world of the imagination presents you. In real life there are many choices, but in the psyche, in the flaming hotel rooms of the heart, the binary burns with an intense energy.

Meanwhile the small spider is exactly where he was half an hour ago. Nothing has changed for him.  Life is OK for now.

It's a marvellous series, a myth played right through with wit, lyricism and just the right kind of fierceness.


Roger Boylan said...

I entirely agree, George. And the setting is memorable: The desert serves as ideal stage for high drama, as in the old Westerns. Nature's indifference is heightened there. And it's a good place to bury the loot (and the bodies).

Jacqui Carter said...

I loved BB George, and for me it left quite a horrible void once it was finished. It was therefore a joy reading your evaluation - this is a terrific and beautiful synopsis of the series. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Im now fearful of you, George.

George S said...

The desert makes another marvellous symbol doesn;t it, Roger? It is arid, apparently endless and supports more death than life. Some of the figures and images remind me of visions experienced by the Desert Fathers.

David, it's OK. I don't have meths to sell, nor am I likely to knock at your door. What I am arguing is that we all have a Heisenberg in the imagination. It's the uncertainty principle as met in the desert. It is something that certain people turn to in extremis.