Dear friends and readers,
Ironically, “Breakage,” the title for the 5th episode of Breaking Bad‘s Season 2 captures how the next 3 episodes of Season 2 functioned for me — as I gather it functions for many others who attribute their decision to stop watching to the multi-series’s high violence. Its surface cracked to reveal the emptiness of any serious thought in its highjinks, excitingly dissonant music and macho male-scary women scenes. Startlingly fun games with how many ways one can do “death” (this is an ex-head of a man) and hostile caricatures of obstacle characters were what was beneath the surface of these 3 episodes. I thought perhaps the complete real disregard for human life and dignity in them could be a distorted mirror of a society that permitted torture and now will not punish the perpetrators, but this is no Syriana.
The characteristics of this serial holding the episodes together become in these 7 episodes altogether (the second season thus far) those of the crime adventure story: central male characters trying to survive, but instead of saving the world they are trying to take it over as “their territory,” they master the tools and weapons they need; they are playful figures, Walter super-chemist, myths, farce, technology, many stereotypes. In such films women are usually either the loyal Godfather wife-daughter-sister types or women who cuckold understandably humiliated men.
Walt’s (Bryan Cranston) desperate naively bigoted wife, Skylar (Anna Gunn), is now moving towards sexual unfaithfulness by getting a job with an ex-boss she had a romance with. She reads a book when Walt tries to talk to her (recalling George Smiley’s wife — it’s a typical motif of male detective stories):
I have asked myself why I find this mini-series’ alignment with junk enough to stop me watching while Downton Abbey‘s equal alignment with junk (in another genre) acceptable and decided it comes down to this: the thrust of this story is domination; the hero (Walt) is showing his ability to dominate others utterly; the women we are to respect want to dominate and interfere with the lives of the people they live with. I’ve seen so many readers like this sort of thing in a character and profess to dislike as heroes and heroines (Fanny Price anyone) who does not act this way. The premise is this is more than what is, it is admirable, to be expected, and when Walt can’t deal with it (say in his wife), and tries to escape he must be at fault. Maybe it’s overtness is the American way. such abrasiveness is inimical to me. Or this central premise puts me off. What I liked about Jesse (Aaron Paul) until Episode 7 was he eluded and evaded this way of being.
As some last comments (as I don’t mean to continue), I suggest to those who say they reject the mini-series on the score of its super-violence, it’s not. There are a lot less deaths in the 14 episodes I’ve sat through thus far than say a typical 2 hour gangster thriller. I count 8 dead, and only 2 killed by Walter White; Jessie has yet to kill anyone. It is true the deaths are done either realistically (2 people beat to death, one riddled by bullets) or in ways that approximate to bizarre jokes: Yo, Mr White, says Jessie, you made him into raspberry sauce. Done in by cracked crockery, someone’s head crushed by money-machine (har har), and the piece de resistance (Vince Gilligan congratulates himself in one of the features that no one on TV this season came up “to this”) a man’s head cut off and plastered to a turtle (whose arrogant nickname was turtle in Spanish). Gilligan laughs to think what fun the crew had and Dean Norris (plays Hank) remarked how “Apocalypse Now” followed: the turtle had a timed bomb which exploded and destroyed one man’s leg.
I suggest to those who disliked the series intensely by the end of season 2 that what is unpalatable is the series’ unpleasantness and its source: a mirroring of some common grating aspects of US cultural life: poverty everywhere — the streets outside the private house middle class block where the Whites, Jessie and Schraders live, the cheap malls, the fast food groceries: all epitomized in the reeking bad taste of “Peekaboo,” the 6th episode, a hostile caricature of the couple on meth drugs living amid filthy debris where the woman is imagined as a vile mother who doesn’t even bother to find Mr Rogers on TV for her unfed half-naked child. That last reference, that watching Mr Rogers is good for children, a surreptitious joke, like much else on the show, refers to a subset of linked shared experiences of US life. These include the huge authority given to the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) whose clowns spend much time showing off in front of one another, shaking down minor law-breakers — useless to do any good, unless you think bullying and putting poor, powerless and minority people in jail for a long time is good.
I’m not sure how accurate these melodramatic exaggerations are. In the feature the people making the film remain clueless about whatever ethical message their story has: they still go on about how the point is “the turkeys come home to roost,” that is, the bad acts of the increasingly bad Walter White are closing in on him as his lies are found out by people, forcing him to lie more. Bad man.
This refers to a scene where yet another of these respectable women (the supposed loyal wife-daughter types) of this series: Gretchen Schwartz (Jessica Hecht, rich Jewish woman) insists she has the right to demand our hero, Walter White, tell her all that he has been doing to pay for his cancer treatments since he used her name as part of his cover-up before his wife. She threatens him with the seething intrusion we’ve seen his wife, Skylar enact throughout.
Walt is sound when he tells her he owes her no such information as he’s done her no harm.
Women come in two types in this series: either the respectable who harangue and exploit the salaries of the men the live with, triumph over them with their own jobs, but who the men go to bed with — apparently gratefully:
This type includes Jesse’s mother who (like his father, but she is the one we see) cannot or will not offer her son any acceptance and emotional support because he is not succeeding in prescribed middle class fashions as seen middle class magazines.
The other type of woman is the despicable, the prostitute who is easy prey for insults, the “skank” mother, recovering girlfriend addicts — weak people, weakness being what is scorned most.
What I think is noteworthy here is just about everyone who has written on and off-blog to say they couldn’t stand the show by the end of the second season have been women. Why other women can tolerate or don’t mind such misogyny I can’t explain — except maybe at some level they buy into these stereotypes of “the rights of women” and don’t on any level identify with those women who end up outcasts from endurable lives. I need a female character I can like, care about, at least empathize with and there is no woman in sight who is not at some level mean, asserting “boundaries” (how the series’ film-makers love to refer to this idea) or performing insincerely as central to their being.
Why did I suddenly see through the hype? (upon examination the wikipedia article is as heavy on obsessive hype as sites for Downton Abbey; is after all written by a single person. This series was at best a minor sociological event, nothing in comparison with say the 1995 Pride and Prejudice which profited from the prestige public TV still garners. HBO still doesn’t cut it.)
It may have been that the night after watching Episode 7, I re-watched the 1980s astonishingly rich and intelligent, My Beautiful Laundrette (scripted Hanif Kureishi, directed Stephen Frears, famously starring Daniel Day Lewis, Roshan Seth) with its suggestive and wide-ranging political and cultural critique (there is such a thing as class in this film; women are emerge as complex heart-felt characters too). The difference is drastic. My Beautiful Laundrette has some characters who are drug addicts too: they are not monsters.
But more (I agree with those who say) it’s simply that Breaking Bad in this middle of the second season begins radically to move away from its original theme — or I’ll call it here narrative arc. In the feature Cranston is still talking of Walt’s cancer, but it is providing but minor interludes of silent throwing up, or intermittent collapses, or a man getting his chemotherapy, none of which are motivating the plot-design. A person with cancer is sick and weak — can’t have that. I was not surprised to discover that by the end of this season Walt is told his cancer is in remission. These three episodes were psychologically strained. Hank is suddenly supposed to be having some kind of stress disorder to the point he vomits (instead of Walt) and nearly shoots Marie (Betsy Brandt) in his nervousness. Jesse’s affection for the unfed child is touching but the demands of the story line (he must not be found out, he must move on to adventures) require he abandon the child.
It’s a shame, for from the point of view of filmic art it’s quality TV: the acting is good, the script still has much wit, though as Jesse’s character deteriorates into obeying Walt’s ideas and Jesse enacts the part of a bullying businessman (by lying to others who are easily deceived), his earlier sound grasp of what is going on dissolves away. The series began well — with a centrally visceral core — Everyman dying of cancer who cannot afford the useless treatments. His Sancho Panza Son who sees through his posturing but has no chance in a society of exclusive cliques (which he has not been helped to attach himself to somehow or other) to earn a decent income through ordinary week-long work. It has a single parallel pair of stories slowly evolving which offers opportunities for suggestive development and juxtapositions. It certainly does however unconsciously mirror US values, norms, common lives.
As a wild adventure story I concede this mini-series might have very well done episodes later on — and reading about the praise and prizes the fifth season is said to have garnered it became a internecine Godfather, complete with famous quip lines, e.g., Time listed Walter White’s “I am the one who knocks” line as one of the best television lines of 2011; or the critic’s comment that “Walter White is a bigger monster than anyone in Westeros [?].” There are few surprises to come — as a mainstream plot-driven formulaic genre matter that’s par for the course: as one was led to expect, in Season 3 Skylar is horrified when Walt tells her the truth about his business enterprises; in Season 4 we foresee and then in Season 5 Hank is murdered — he was remarkably dull not to catch on to Walt by this time.
By Season 5 Walter’s family are helping the police; Walter has one last visit with them (natch) and then dies (bad men must die) and Jesse, freed by this death from his father-master-Frankenstein figure, ends up rightly feeling sick abhorrence at all that has happened and escapes.
In their suggestive Alternative Scriptwriting, Ken Dencyger and Jeff Rush suggest that recently thrillers and other kinds of action genres are using psychological character layers to appeal to audiences, and these bring with them visceral issues of viewers’ lives about identity, careers, family life. But for me it’s not enough to give characters details to allow the viewer to dream up a believable interior life — which is done for Walter White and Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad; the character has to go on an intelligible journey, with a consistent imagined foreground and felt background realistic and believable.
I feel I have given one of these popular male-oriented serial dramas a try. It is also tiresome & time-consuming to have only 3-4 episodes on a disk at a time, and feel I must write about what’s I’ve seen lest I forget by the time I rent another disk. (Netflix is too greedy.) It’s not worth it.
Still I will be sorry not to bond with Jesse any more. Here’s a still from the finale of the last season: he’d have done better to read Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky: