Binge & Purge: Breaking Bad
On Thursday, February 20th, I consumed the finale of Breaking Bad, one of the most brilliant episodic series in the history of television, completing an approximately three-month binge. I had to absorb it in spurts, mostly catching episodes while on flights or in hotel rooms. This proved to be the best way to do it instead of plowing through all 62 episodes in a a couple of weeks. Breaking Bad is a series that must savored like a full course meal, not wolfed down like drive-thru cheeseburger.
Friends and family have been after me for years to watch, to the point of annoyance. I made a decision to watch quietly. I told immediate family and a couple of friends, but other than that, I kept it to myself. I wanted to soak it up on my own terms. Those same friends and family who have been on me will likely still not believe I've actually watched because I've been doing some trolling during this time of viewing. What can I say? It entertained me. So, whether they wanna believe or not, I watched it. And I loved it. Breaking Bad is a brilliantly scripted, exquisitely shot, and marvelously acted series. Its peers in the annals of scripted television are few.
In the end, though, I honestly didn't like Walter White.
Breaking Bad seemed to me going in to be the story of a man turning from good to evil. It's way much more than that, though. This is an examination of power and what it means to be a man, especially as defined through narrow lenses. Breaking Bad is the chronicle of the slow, tragic, lonely descent into the man Walter White always wanted to me. The desire was always there from the moment he lost control of Gray Matter, the company he was supposed to share with college friends Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz. He resigned himself to the life of an underpaid but brilliant high school teacher with a loving wife, a son who worships him, and a baby on the way. A cancer diagnosis finds him faced with the potential for crippling debt even after the disease will have killed him. He decides the best option is to put his scientific brilliance to work cooking meth with a former student turned junkie/low rent dealer named Jesse Pinkman. The goal is to make just enough money to secure his family's finances after his death. In and out. Clean. No one gets hurt.
Of course, this is bullshit. Walter kills a man after their first drug dreal goes horribly wrong. Some of the scenes in the first two episodes are played for gallows humor, especially in Walt's and Jesse's attempt to dispose of the body in a bathtub. They are presented as inept, bumbling amateurs. Then, a scene occurs that suggested to me that Walt was already starting to get off on this new life he was starting. He attempts to seduce his wife Skyler in their kitchen. She is playful at first, but then Walt gets rough and tries to "take charge." Skyler resists, Walt persists and the encounter edges to the brink of a sexual assault. Right then, the show, for me, became about Walt wanting power that he felt life had denied him. His obvious genius had not been allowed to maximize its potential, thus leaving Walt without the life he thought he deserved. He kept saying everything he did was for his family, but obviously he was lying to himself. Only in his final scene with Skyler did he confess his motivation. "I did it for me," he tells her. "I liked it. I was good at it. And, I was really...I was alive."
Many of the show's most iconic lines are expressions of power and assertions of dominance from a man so desperate to be viewed as a masculine. "Say my name." "I am not in danger. I am the danger." "I'm the one who knocks." "Maybe the best course is to tread lightly." I admit I reached points where every time Walt put on the black hat associated with the Heisenberg identity that he adopted I would chuckle.
I've read and heard Walter White described as an anti-hero and I suppose that's an apt descriptor. Yet, I couldn't help but view him as the villain of his own story. He's certainly a tragic figure, as his pride, arrogance (and, God, is he arrogant), and even his genius, proved to be his undoing. I did understand Walt's initial motivation for getting into the meth business (the show's early commentary on healthcare debt is compelling), but he soon stopped being a sympathetic figure in my eyes. The decisive factor here was letting Jesse's girlfriend die gruesomely to further his own cause. At that moment, Walter White became a monster to me. Then, as he entered into the partnership with Gus Fring, he saw what he wanted to be.
Let's talk about Jesse. My heart has never broken so completely for a television character as it did for Jesse Pinkman. What that man went through because of Walt was soul-crushing. Frankly, I hated Walt for it. I know some have spoken of the depth of their relationship and, yes, I saw signs of genuine affection for Jesse from Walt. But, ultimately, Jesse was a means to an end. The dichotomy between the two men is compelling. Walt is presented early as this milquetoast shell of masculinity who really is ticking timebomb ready to unleash himself. Jesse, on the other hand, comes across as this tough guy of the streets, but he is compassionate, kind, loving, and generous. The antithesis of Walt. As such, Jesse is more relatable and at times, I felt as if Jesse was the audience. We started out on this journey with Walt for some kicks, but soon Walt is dragging us along regardless of how it makes us feel. Does Walt care about Jesse? I could offer up some backhanded defense by saying, "yes, in his own way." This doesn't prevent Walt from exploiting and manipulating Jesse on multiple ocassions, including poisoning the young son of another love interest. Walt spends 62 episodes tearing down every meaningful relationship he has so he can experience what he felt he was owed: power, status, wealth, and masculinity.
Which brings us to, ironically, probably my favorite character, DEA agent Hank Schrader. He is Walt's brother-in-law who starts the series as a poster boy for toxic masculinity but evolves into something more complex. Yes, he still exhibits problematic behavior. He is borderline verbally abusive to his wife Marie. He is casually racist. Like Jesse, though, there is a softness underneath that is exposed after a couple of traumatic near-death experiences, one of which leaves him temporarily paralyzed. Hank is good at his job and his obsession with finding Heisenberg consumes him. The moment he puts two and two together (literally while he is taking a shit) is at once hilarious, exhilirating, and heartbreaking. He has been played by someone close to him, a direct hit to his pride and machismo. And Hank admires Walt. "You're the smartest guy I've ever known," he tells him. Walt uses his relationship with Hank as leverage, which is understandable under the circumstances. I do think Walt loved his family, including Hank and Marie. He sought to protect them, even as he manipulated them. In the end, though, I wanted Hank to take him down. I wanted Jesse to take him down. I wanted Skyler to take him down.
Ah, Skyler. Wife to Walt and mother to their children. I read critiques of her saying that she was judgmental of Walt while being no better a person. Perhaps one could argue that. She did, after all, sleep with another man behind her dying husband's back. And she ultimatey helped Walt with money laundering, but what I saw was a woman in survival mode. I'm not sure how Skyler was supposed to handle what happened to her family, but I thought she did the best she could. Like Walt, everything Skyler did was for her family. The one selfish (for lack of a better word) thing she did was the affair with Ted, which she ended. Side note: the resolution to the Ted storyline was the only mildly dissatisfying plot element. I rooted for Skyler, though.
I did not root for Walt. On some level, yes, I wanted him to find that redemptive arc. Yes, he spent the final episode desperately trying to find financial security for his family, but these were the desperate final acts of a dying man. This is foreshadowed in a Season 1 episode where Hank talks about Walt maybe wanting to "die like a man," whatever that means. In the context of the series, perhaps he did. His family was provided for and, as Gus Fring told him, "a man provides."
Whoa, boy, there is so much to unpack here. I didn't get into the precision of the writing and the way even the seemingly slightest details became relevant. The cinematography was amazing throughout and I was fascinated by its use of windows, landscapes, and, of course, all those shots looking up from within a container. I began to think it was possibly Hell looking up at Walter, waiting to claim him as its own. Then, there is the acting. Bryan Cranston delivers a tour-de-force for the ages as Walt, perfectly capturing his essence and showing his evolution. Aaron Paul is a revelation as the tormented Jesse Pinkman. The way the two men work off each other is enthralling. My favorite character was Hank and that in large part is due to Dean Norris. Hank's PTSD is handled brilliantly. Anna Gunn hits every note as Skyler. I haven't really addressed Gus Fring, Saul Goodman, Mike Ermentraut, Jane, Todd, or any of the others in the rich tapestry of characters. I do think an unsung hero is R.J. Mitte as Walt, Jr., who also adopts another name, Flynn. He is the innocent who idolizes his father and demonizes his mother for the majority of the season. When he learns of his father's secret life, the fallout is heartbreaking.
I didn't get to talk about how deftly the show integrated seemingly innocuous details or the way it shows us a scene completely out of context and then spends several episodes (or an entire season) building that context. I could write entire posts on how shattering the final episodes of season two were or how "Ozymandias" is one of the finest hours of television ever produced.
Breaking Bad is brilliant, no doubt. I've read some analysis claiming it celebrates toxic masculinity rather than critiquing and I suppose that is a valid argument. I tend to see it as a critique up until the final moments. Walt got to die on his own terms, more or less, and that is perhaps what Hank meant with his "die like a man" comment. In that sense, I'm not sure justice was served. Walt didn't get what he deserved, in my mind. But, part of the genius of the show was the way it subverted moral absolutes. I wanted Walter White to be caught and face his crimes because of how I came to feel about him. I didn't see him as an anti-hero. As the series progressed, I rooted for him less and less. Oh, I felt for him and wished he go back and make better choices, but I stopped wanting him to succeed because his successes meant more heartache for everyone else.
When it all ended, I loved Breaking Bad, but I hated Walter White.