Saturday, 8 March 2014

Back to Walt: Back to Breaking Bad

Walter White / Vince Gilligan

There was much more I wanted to think and say about this remarkable production but needed to finish watching it first, which I have now done. You may think that is obvious and that I should have waited with those other earlier posts but I was excited not only by the story, the script, the characters, the acting, and the direction, but by the ideas that animated it and the ideas it started in me.

I don't think those ideas have changed greatly with the end of the series, in fact I think they have been fulfilled in that they have run their course, and that the difference by the end is one of added layers rather than of re-reading or revaluating. Nevertheless it is possible to see more clearly now where some of those ideas have gone.

Briefly to recap, I took the whole as a reflection on the predicament of maleness in a contemporary yet conservative world. The 'contemporary' world of Breaking Bad was not in set up to question maleness as a political structure in the series. There was no overt feminist challenge, no particularly powerful female figure to disturb the  tenor of a relatively traditional society. The women presented are old fashioned wives whose domain and power-base is the home.

But first I want to return to the beginning with a lightning sketch of two of the three main male characters, Walt and Hank, to see how they exemplify masculinity. I want to do this without going over all the earlier material here, here, here, and here,

Walt and Hank

We first see Walt as a schoolteacher under a female principal, but that is never raised as a problem. In fact both Walt and his brother-in-law Hank, the DEA cop, lead what one might think of as vestigially traditional roles, as earners and providers away from the home, each as assertive as his work requires him to be.

Hank is the more pumpingly masculine, running part of the show in a macho DEA culture - one that has to be macho if only because it is dealing with very dangerous people, mostly other men outside the law that the DEA is bound to enforce. Hank is likely to be earning good money. The only thing preventing us from seeing Hank as the perfect traditional husband is that he and his wife, Marie, have no children. That situation is never explored in the series, we just take it for granted. In every respect bar that Hank is a model provider and family man with a stable and affectionate marriage. Marie has her quirks - chiefly kleptomania - but that is a relatively small crime compared to those we are going to witness.

The trouble with Walt is that he is weak and failing as a provider to the extent that being a 'provider' has become his first level fixation. Walt does have an adolescent but physically disabled son and a baby is on the way to Skyler, his wife. Walt is dashing between two jobs, one of them as a menial in a car wash, the other as a frustrated potenitally visionary chemist teaching a mediocre class in an average school. He is working on the car wash because he isn't providing enough.

Once Walt is diagnosed with cancer he realises that the cost of treatment - which may very well be ineffective treatment - would ruin his family and prevent his son paying his way through college.

This is too much for him. He has failed as a chemist, he has failed as a father, he is failing as a husband (he has in fact become impotent): in other words he has failed as a man. The nadir of his self-worth is when his extended family is sitting around discussing his cancer and what to do about it. He doesn't even get asked. At this point he announces his decision not to have treatment. He has realised he can achieve more by going outside the law, by using his talent - in fact his latent genius - to produce a drug so extraordinarily pure that people would pay fortunes for it.

That decision is the premise on which the whole stands.

I am going to think on my feet as seems right for a blog which is neither a scholarly essay not entirely a personal diary. It' a place to think. That means a few more posts to work things through, persisting with the idea that the theme of masculinity is in fact central.

What Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad actually said was this:

If religion is a reaction of man, and nothing more, it seems to me that it represents a human desire for wrongdoers to be punished. I hate the idea of Idi Amin living in Saudi Arabia for the last 25 years of his life. That galls me to no end. I feel some sort of need for Biblical atonement, or justice, or something. I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen. My girlfriend says this great thing that's become my philosophy as well. 'I want to believe there's a heaven. But I can't not believe there's a hell.

The question is, whose heaven and whose hell? Who is Walt? Where is he in the order of things? Why do we care enough for him to follow him? And why does he do what he does? What of Jesse, Skyler and Marie? Next time.

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