Saturday, 8 February 2014

Breaking Bad: Walt v Skyler
via James Thurber and Homer Simpson

Seeing the series as, in some important respects at least, an exploration of the 'crisis in masculinity' I propose that the core conflict is not so much between 'good' Walt and 'evil' Heisenberg as between Walt and Skyler, or to put it another way, albeit rather crudely, as between patriarchy and matriarchy.

The issue is control.

When we first meet Walt he is distinctly not in control. He is running himself into the ground, working flat out at both school and the carwash, open to humiliation in both. His early promise - he is a genius of sorts as his production of blue crystal meths demonstrates - has become a story of failure. Even his son is, in some physical regards, a 'failure'. The house is Skyler's domain. All he has is the classroom and that is a thankless arena. He develops cancer. He is all but impotent as we can see from the early scene where Skyler tries to hand-start him.

Once his cancer has been diagnosed he decides to ignore the family advice to take an expensive cure. The fact that he is all but ignored in the decision about his own life at this critical point is clearly important to him. The worm turns here.

Once the worm turns and Walt breaks bad, he heads off into uncharted territory, but at least he is making the decisions. He is taking the risks, using his gifts and - all importantly - he is, as he keeps stressing, providing for his family. He has a function.

What happens as a result? In the first place his cancer goes into remission, and he is sexually potent once again, in other words he is healthy, and while none of this comes easy to him - his range of anxious expressions grows ever more intense and he is frequently in a state of terror - it gives him one last chance to assume control over his life.

But that control is restricted. When, after the separation, Skyler becomes party to at least some of his schemes, she immediately wants to take control again and, when with her, he returns to his earlier condition of subservience while bursting at the seams. She has no idea how often he has been close to death or what he has seen: she simply assumes he is incompetent. His actions have, after all, impinged on hers and her control of the immediate, which includes her own and the family's security.

Control of the immediate is the starting point. Walter had no control of the immediate before. He has established a space for it now. Each time he acts he overcomes an immediate, which is thrilling as well as desperately frightening.

Control of the long-term is a different matter. Both Skyler and Walter have some sense of the long-term but, in the meantime, there are all the immediates to deal with. In one sense though Walter's conception of the long-term is clearer, because he understands that one way or another there will be no long-term for him.

The terms matriarchy and patriarchy are both loose and mostly polemical terms, especially the latter. 99% of men have no great control over their own lives. At work they are employees, a majority of them very low grade employees. Nor are most of them bosses at home. The home is traditionally women's domain and sphere of control. Under the old dispensation women decided which domestic task to do when in their own time - the men had no such choice. The great problem for them both was that they were restricted to their particular domains.

House as seen by James Thurber

Walter and Skyler were in fairly traditional domains. Skyler had control of hers, Walter was not in control of his. His genius - his power, his control, his identity - had been stunted.

Neither Walt nor Hank, our other, developing protagonist,  is truly happy in fully domestic circumstances. When confined by his injuries Hank becomes withdrawn, cold, and rude. He only starts to recover once he is back in action with the DEA.

Control heals.

Skyler's domain meant impotence and cancer to Walter. Not because she ever intended such a thing but because her own moral balance is predicated on Walter remaining as he is.

Heisenberg is another matter. Heisenberg may be healthier, more potent (not that he shows any interest in women) and more in control, but he is on a road that leads him - and maybe his family too - to hell.

Control is danger.

In this respect the series, though focused on the crisis in masculinity and doing a fascinating and honest job of exploring what that means, actually takes a rather feminist line.

Masculinity, in extremis, as genius, is hell.

Male control is hell.

Hank - a highly competent and, on the whole, decent version of Homer Simpson - places his energies at the service of legality and the household and is therefore salvageable.


Unknown said...

And Hank is therefore also doomed, in the stark universe of Mr. Hyde/Heisenberg. Greek drama looms large in this series, too: Medea, the Iliad. Brilliant analysis, George.

Guy Walker said...

'Male control is hell' Does that mean don't even think about it!?...presumably because nothing good, honourable, measured or just can emerge from inside a man? As you suggest, Walter's unifying motivation throughout is his desire to preserve the household or the family. Skyler dedicates herself to the immoral very readily on more than one occasion. I think 'Breaking Bad' is a more relative world than you propose.

George S said...

I wish you were right, Guy. Do bear in mind, that it is the programme I am discussing, not my opinions.

I personally disagree with the programme's premise. That premise, I suggest, is encapsulated in one scene near the end of the fourth series where Hank, Walt and Walt Jnr are all in the same roon with Skyler. All three males are physically damaged.

In the same series we get a view of Ted Beneke, Skyler's ex-employer, who is recealed to be not only incompetent but a liar, a blackmailer, a coward, and utterly irresponsible.

There is no male character in BB who is not deeply flawed except, Hank. They are all damaged at one or other point. But what would one expect in a series about high end drug cartels?

There is moral complexity of course - that is the whole point and why the series remains gripping from beginning to end. Neither Skyler nor Marie are 'good'. Skyler is not a 'better' human being than Walt, and Marie is a kleptomaniac bore. As I say in the post itself it is implied that Skyler's matriarchy is a part to Walter's cancer. She controls the family for her own needs.

I don't really think you have read the post properly. Of course I don't think, to quote you, that "nothing good, honourable, measured or just can emerge from inside a man". There is much good and honourable in Walt, in Hank, in Jesse, in Mike. That, to re-emphasise, is the whole point.

The series, I proposed right at the beginning, springs out of 'the crisis in masculinity'. I do think there is such a crisis, not caused, in the vast majority of cases, by the crude caricature of 'patriarchy' but by historical changes in society, largely due to advances in technology. which has opened the way for women to move into traditionally male positions (hardly ever the other way). One important result of this is the uncertainty about a male role. This is the discussion that BB has entered.

Guy Walker said...

George, I have reread your post carefully and these are my conclusions. The opposition is not with Skyler and the matriarchy but with American society and the impossibility of obtaining the American Dream for much of middle America (note that Bryan Cranston played the put upon Dad in Malcolm in the Middle((although middle here has other connotations also))). Walt is disenfranchised , not because of a matriarchal conspiracy, but because of a wicked conspiracy by those who hold the dream - such as the deceitful proprietors of Grey Matter and the Drug cartel owner of the Chicken (Hermanos) franchise.Hank and his like (red-blooded american manhood) support this dubious establishment in thier law enforcement roles. We love Walt because he is an outlaw like Robin Hood, who has seen society for what it is. Hank dies because he hasn't and, so, becomes a victim of it. Walt dies holding the whip hand and, thus, succeeding in his masculinity, although, for me, this is not the real issue.

Guy Walker said...

Sorry George. I rudely neglected to address the thesis in your final paragraph of your recent comment about the 'crisis in masculinity.'

Hank has no problem in asserting his masculinity in traditional american roughneck manner. He's all man whereas Walt is much more sensitive. Yet Hank loses in the end and probably, via his unrestrained and unreconstructed masculinity, contributes largely to his wife's dysfunction.

I just don't think its about a crisis of masculinity. It's more about an individual's relationship with society in economic terms.

George S said...

I disagree, Guy, for all the reasons given in several blogposts, but thank you for the comments.

Guy Walker said...

Very happy to agree to differ George, but also excited, as a recent comer to your blog to hear there are earlier posts on BB. Will definitely be reading them.