Dear friends and readers,
I’ve gone on watching Breaking Bad, why? because it’s about cancer, about the cancer epidemic among us. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) has lung cancer when he never smoked a day in his life. Half way through this set, he and Jessie (Aaron Paul) are outside the camper they cook in and it takes one look at Walt’s chest for Jessie to recognize the telltale signs of radiation since Jessie’s aunt had a similar treatment and died within 7 months not long ago. Seconds more and Jessie knows why his ex-teacher is cooking meths: he needs money to pay for treatments and he wants to leave his family with some money to live on.
This is not just generally relevant to me; it’s personally relevant, and my guess is this personal connection is common — even when not acknowledged.
I was struck how all three episodes (4-6) may be watched as a genuinely single slow-moving continuous story. Downton Abbey and many serial dramas do not work that way: each week you really have a separate episode worked out and finished by the end of the hour, sometimes with a character or set of characters who appear in it and are never seen again — or only brought back many episodes or seasons later. In this mini-series you are screwed in by the cancer and money center and its violence in reaction continuously, with the underlying thrill is the action and words show the amorality — the unacknowledged amorality of American life, and not just for the ceaselessly competitive or self-guardedly self-preening males, but the women around them who have not managed to achieve sexual respectability and are treated cruelly in a casual way, e.g., the cop’s scornful derision and threatening of a prostitute who offers herself to Jessie for buggering (a favorite motif I’m beginning to see) in one of the first three parts. It provides an uncanny exhilaration for what happens is Mr White gets back as when he blows up a super-fancy expensive car of a man who he has watched from afar all episode long enact all the “winning” traits of the US male life — demanding higher money on a cell phone, breaking in a line, parking his car in a place Walt was about to drive into, showing off ceaselessly. I just wish there was a real portrait of a real complex woman alongside him getting back, perhaps less obviously, less violently (as women do get back much less obviously and violently — there are studies to show this) too.
I’ve been told the moral of the series – the great recognition at its close is Walt, the central character sees that he has not been behaving the way he has for his family but because he enjoys power and violence. Well there needs no ghost come from hell to tell us that surely this was nonsense. Does anyone believe it? Men want to be promoted to get to the top and buy himself fancy expensive houses, have libraries, pools — like Walt’s friend who made good in business based on Walt’s knowledge of chemistry to start with. He turns down a (slightly fantastic, unreal) offer of a job by a friend, Elliot Schwartz (Adam Godley) with fabulous health insurance to pay egregious sums out of pride or (another moral is claimed here) so he can take control of his life by paying for his treatments himself even if through law-breaking selling of addictive drugs. Was there no other story the writers could think of to demonstrate this supposed moral breakthrough into strength? I did feel it was improbable and perhaps the offer was made part of the plot so that Walt could keep both Skylar and his brother-in-law off the scent: had they not assumed he was getting the money from Schwartz they’d begin to wonder where it was coming from? Anyway he didn’t want the treatments and is coerced into these by Skylar’s (Anna Duke) refusing to stay in bed with him and be affectionate and compliant sexually until he agrees?
Underlying these episodes is the same idea I find in Andrew Davies’s adaptations of classic and recent novels and that of many another successful male film-maker: they present men torn to bits by the demands for masculinity defined as super-paid job and ruling people which they just can’t meet except through excruciating effort. It’s also demanded they have a sexually compelling compliant woman — that hasn’t quite surfaced as yet, though we are made to guess that Gretchen (Jessica Hecht), the good businessman’s wife with long luxurious dark hair, and a soft look and a rounded belly (her dress and the way she was directed to hold her hands accents this) was once Walt’s mistress:
but it’s early days in the series. Or maybe it will taken another common American ploy to keep women in the discardable margins. As yet Walt wouldn’t dream of discarding Skylar.
So I found the second 3 episodes of the first season gripping: they focused on Walt White as a man who has to deal with how his family responds to the news he has lung cancer, especially his wife, Skylar; on how much a supposedly “dream” expert doctor and his treatments that Marie Shrader (Betsy Brandt) his sister-in-law has access to cost ($5,000 in advance for consultation, $90,000 for the series of chemotherapy when there is no insurance company to pay a pre-set fee) and how he is pressured to take these horrible treatments and accept the offer by Elliot Schwartz of health insurance; and on how in a parallel thread Jessie Pinkman (Aaron Paul), Walt’s sidekick ex-student seller of drugs in a parallel thread attempts to break out of his sordid occupation, obtain a respectable job as a salesman in a suit and is (in effect) insulted with an offer of dressing up as a street clown to lure people into an office, and ends up making and selling meths for lack of any other occupation he can live with.
In our case it was me who (like Skylar) tried to get Jim to try for one of these super-expensive people I was told about by an investment-banker friend. We would have had to pay out of pocket, paid to go stay in Boston to get the consultation, but I don’t know if I would have gone through with it if it meant bankruptcy — which clearly Skylar is willing to do. Unlike Walt who succumbs to her moral bullying, Jim wouldn’t hear of going to such a person — it was so inconvenient. And so he died. I can’t stand Skylar with her self-righteous talking pillow but I know I also resent her because she could pull off what I couldn’t.
Now I know we should have gone on a vacation trip to England but I didn’t realize how hopeless it all was and when Skylar turns round several times from some pamphlet or book she’s reading to say to Walt, see “how hopeful this is,” I want to shake her and wish I could feel for her, but I cannot identify or bond with her self-satisfaction, lack of understanding that she has what she does out of luck and genes (born white, into the middle class). I was appalled by her intrusive insistence demanding behavior to Walt, her trying to manipulate by threats, by her talking pillow and demand her sister and brother-in-law pressure Walt to take treatments (when they agree if he doesn’t want to use his last two years taking chemo it’s understandable). She’s such a fool to fall for the “dream doctor.” $5000 for consultation and $90,000 for treatment is an exaggeration yet I wanted Jim to try and was fleeced (for much much less but still in the hundreds) when I went outside the HMO once for a second opinion.
What violence there is is spectacular but is only resorted to by these men when driven by frantic need, intense grating soreness at not being appreciated and/or having to watch a total shit of a person going about living what is seen by others as an admirable life — at the close of episode 4 Walt sets a well-suited bully’s fancy car to blow up (as I explained above); during episodes 5 & 6 after failing to get the decent job, Jessie returns home to watch his baby brother exemplify a pious academically-inclined male student’s life, be blamed for smoking pot (which is this brother’s) and when driven by Walt to go to another powerful murderous distributor be beaten up so badly he ends up in an intensive care unit in a hospital (for which Jessie has no insurance); at the close of 6, White returns to this same lair with a bag of crystals that look like meths but are explosives and manages to blow up said lair and obtain a promise of high sums of money in return for his excellent product. Tellingly it ends on Walt cuddling wads of money his face grim and exhilarated as he wins what his society will not admit to having driven him to.
The ironies are visual as well as narrative and psychological. In other mini-series the far shot of enchanting landscape does not have at their center a camper for cooking drugs in which violence, murder, and people dressed in suits that make them look like astronauts do their dangerous pungent thing:
Chemistry is at the heart of every aspect of the story; that’s why it begins with the periodic table and uses its lettering as paratexts. Its suspenseful: Walt’s brother-in-law, the wrestler-looking cop, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) engineers an investigation which quickly discovers the equipment used for the “new drug-maker” in town comes from Walt’s lab in the high school, and while Hank arrests the hispanic cleaning man (Walt does show some guilt at this), Hank looks at Walt quizzically. It’s not easy to hide an operation which takes time (Walt is suddenly gone from the home for long afternoons), lots of human connections and produces money to spend. Walt’s profits are hidden by the doctor who is fleecing him — another sort of robber, only allowed, legal.
No one in this story has the slightest political opinion or sense of larger perspective to their lives. Not one character has opened or read a book; they flip through magazines in doctor’s offices. Not one book in their house: the elegant library of what looked like 19th century books in Schwartz’s house looks like a stage set. No one is ever in there to read; it’s there to be seen. Vacant minds who never discuss anything beyond narrow gossip. I was watching a Whit Stillman film yesterday where the characters discuss topics beyond themselves, cultural worlds, wonder about their aspirations and it seems natural. It does happen even in the US; I’ve seen and heard people do it at dinner. That this is left out altogether, so completely should be noticed.
So these episodes seemed to me consciously critical, but as is so common in popular entertainment, there are odd lacunae which in my case keep the film alien. There is as yet no woman for me to bond or identify with. It’s not that feminism has made no inroads (though it hasn’t) but that the types of women named as are only those men think of as what they have to cope with for real in life — entrapping, demanding. This is a central way in which it differs from Downton Abbey where there are several women for me to identify with and they have far more subtle characteristics of all sorts. It makes DA as a film for women even if not scripted by a woman. The one character I like so far is Jessie — how he tries to make contact with his parents, his brother and even Walt (“yeah, man, touch base”) and have hopes he could yet chose a girlfriend I could identify with. He shows some feeling for others, reminds me of Tom Bransom a bit in his awareness that this is a hard world to cope with people in and how their hierarchies work.