‘Let’s not bicker and argue over who killed who’ — Monty Python and the Holy Grail
The question is what we really want out of life, for ourselves, what we think is real… [has] to do with our social panic, with our fear of losing status. One cannot afford to lose status on this peculiar ladder, for the prevailing notion of American life seems to involve a kind of rung-by-rung ascension to some hideously desirable state — James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name
Dear friends and readers,
I finally bought the whole of the series on DVD so I could move back and forth between episodes while watching (as one turns pages back and forth when reading a book) and can cover more than 3-4 episodes or a disk at a time. After Jesse and Walter’s long night in their lab (Fly), two emotional explosions lead to horrifying killing sprees, sadistic and remorseful murders.
3:11-13: An outline of just the mad violence with cross-fire guns and cars: Jesse (Aaron Paul) carries on going to his rehabilitation group and still showing a moral nature capable of love, becomes lover-companion to Andrea Cantillo (Emily Rios), a young Spanish recovering addict whom he meets there, an important element of which is Jesse’s love for yet another potentially lost little boy, Brock. Through also involving himself with her ten-year old brother who Jesse sees on a bike on the corner where Jesse’s friend, Combo (Rodney Rush), was murdered Jesse works out that Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) ordered that killing done by the boy hired by two thugs; driven by guilt and remorse Jesse enlists his (frightened) prostitute lover-friend to help him poison the two thugs who hired the boy, is thwarted, coerced into promising Gus he will forgive and forget. Then double-crossed and driven half-mad when the ten-year old boy is murdered, Jesse attempts simply to shoot the two men face-to-face even if it means they kill him (he is asking for this); Walter White (Bryan Cranston) intercepts Jesse, kills the men himself and tells Jesse “run.”
4:1-4: An outline of just the slow grind of distressed and sadistic murder and justified paranoia: White realizes that Gus regards both him and Jesse as grating liabilities and means to replace White after he finishes training Gale Boetticher (David Costabile) who colludes with this plan, and then murder White and Jesse. When Mike (Jonathan Banks) shows up to murder White, White succeeds in persuading Mike to believe he, White, will turn Jesse over to him, in return for life; instead on the phone, White shouts Gale’s address to Jesse, which is understood as an order to kill Gale. Under duress and half-hysterical with reluctance, Jesse does just that — shoots the terrified, suddenly fawning Gale in the face. Mike is too powerful a man for Jesse and White and manages to catch them in the lab, to which Gus arrives, now seething and to show his power and punish a bodyguard for getting above his station (starting to cook meths), Gus slits the bodyguard’s throat, allowing the blood to spurt out all over himself, and slowly run down this man’s body. As Gus knows, no one cares for this nobody (perhaps an illegal immigrant, so no papers), and his corpse is the second to be put into a vat and corroded into non-existence. The terror and senselessness of this is reinforced by a camera set up in their lab to watch and tape them 24/7 (or when they are in the lab).
Bob Dixon argues that the continual killing seen in boys’ action-adventure stories in the US and UK seriously teaches children to accept killing as a way of sustaining an imperialist, capitalist, militaristic order. There it is glorified, made Christian, wrapped in a flag. In Breaking Bad it’s a nervous distraught horror. The power of the DEA. The killing way of life seen in cancer cancer everywhere.
Jesse is breaking down; after giving Andrea a packet of money, he closes himself off from her and Brock (won’t see them) lest he bring death upon them and because he cannot stand to give himself any warmth, any reward, and turns his apartment into a night-and-day drug-infested high decibel noise party. A nadir of despair. Even his two friend, Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) and Badger (Matt Jones) shy away from him at least to go home and feed a cat, water a flower. Jesse is careless, throwing his money at people (one man attempts to steal it), and as it would take very little to discover his connection to a drug trade in meths, he is last seen driven away by Mike. He puts up no fight. All of his conduct since the triple death of his beloved Jane (who would have destroyed him and herself with heroin), Andrea’s son (whom he identified with as a brother-father figure too), and the seeming innocent Gale is suicidal.
Walter’s parallel story is not told in the same melancholic vein. Skylar’s (Anna Gunn)’s persistent and finally fraudulent take-over of a car wash (which she seems to hate because her husband was once an insulted underling there) is an ironic comedy framed by both Walter’s indifference to the money-laundering procedures and Saul Goodman’s (Bob Odenkirk) exasperated anti-feminism: Yoko Ono over here, why can’t we do a nail salon, why must it be this car-wash.
She is the laundress controller (laundering money through a car wash) and Goodman squirms as she exposes his feebleness and transparent hypocrisies. She is so efficient she writes out the lies (a script to memorize whose words embarrass Walter) that Walter is to tell Hank about his gambling; they go to gambling anonymous; she teaches him to play cards. Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) is persuaded to come home through a bet Marie (Betsy Brandt) forces on him: if she can masturbate him into an orgasm and coming under the hospital covers, he is ready to leave. Hank hates leaving because he hates his crippled state, and once home he is insulting, callous and overtly scornful of Marie in turns. Marie resorts to a kind of comedy of house-hunt, pretending to be different upper class women with their story-book ideal husbands and families looking to buy and of course renovate already magazine-like obscenely appointed houses — all the while she steals small items and (alas) is caught, to be released through Hank’s influence with a police man on the scene.
Jesse’s world seems more lower middle to working class, having links to street people, Hispanics, addicts, the permanently under- and despicably employed. The White and Schrader worlds are a quietly grimacing exposure of American getting and spending for its own sake. Hank watches junk TV, eats junk food while Marie sleeps with a soft mask over her eyes for beauty and rest.
Here it’s a question of money — huge dollops of money for cancer, for Hank’s physical therapy (which we see him painfully painfully enduring). The games over house-fixing, house-buying, the occasional parties (given up just now), the business deals (which Skylar now comically does her proud book-keeping and hard-nosed negotations for), police bullies who can do you a favor — and yes status. Skylar and Walter are not bored.
I have come to realize that the series’ realistic up-close violence, nihilism in the streets, twisted family lives (the Pinkman family; Jane and her father; Mike’s daughter and granddaughter from whom he keeps away except to provide money; the unmarried Andrea), rehabilitation centers where people learn to blame themselves by rote; impoverished culture in the malls, streets; living on the edge middle-class protagonists — are us, serious funhouse and grave mirrors.
It is daring and exhilarating in its use of film techniques, tropes, colors, juxtapositions; scripts are not neglected (witty and epitomizing). Through the third and fourth season I noticed the prologues especially. They are not summaries of what happened earlier; nor are they forecasts; nor reinforcements of character traits. Sometimes we are thrown back in time to see Jesse and Jane when they spent a day at a museum looking at Georgia O’Keefe paintings; or Walt and Skylar when young and looking at the house they now own (or pay mortgage payments on); they can be bizarrely expressive: a fly is studied, the two brutal cousins are seen crawling in the sand to some burning destiny, Mike’s face is electrically outlined (he is a brutal yet seeming sane man); the products produced to cover up the meths are played games with; a clowning moment or a poignant one that is fitted into what we saw previously as if we had skipped a chapter and are invited now to come back and read it after all. Inventive, clever.
I’ve bought myself cheap studies of the series: an unofficial companion (where it is written emphatically on the cover that the film-makers do not endorse anything said about the series, suggesting to me they know that the simplistic moralising they do in their features misleads) and close-reading about its philosophical (no less) implications. If anyone doubts the US order is a killing way of life, read about the slaughters in Gaza (where we supply the money and weapons) and in any state you want the latest mall massacre (where we have forbidden gun control).
I admit I don’t love the Breaking Bad characters the way I love the Downton Abbey ones (or the Poldark ones or some of Jane Austen’s). Jesse and Marie have become my favorites: the best continuing element in the series is the characterization of Jesse: his story, a young man rejected by his parents, seeking some meaning in a better job, his ability to love, to form relationships with others who value him, his conscience, his slow descent into despair, all wonderfully acted by Paul. Little details: like after Jane’s death and his first bout of rehabilitation, he sits all he livelong day listening to her voice message, only after the death of the 10 year old does he start drugs up again and these filthy orgies in his house. Marie’s human feeling and vulnerability would be a match if she were given more screen time, more background history; we need to know more about her, but the series is relentlessly masculinist in its focus. But there is a hardness about the stance towards them that ought to be alienating if the viewer who watches had a heart. It’s comic and appropriate how Syklar’s character is consistent when she operates outside the law as when she operates within it; her coldness may stand for the attitude of mind of the culture she likes to think she is a success in (she’s been lucky), with Hank as the series’s unexamined “good” guy (thus with all his cleverness a dupe). Gus might stand in for world and US leadership if we were to allegorize this show, with Mike as Hank’s opposing parallel (Gus placates and Mike thus far does not kill cops).
When tonight I began watching the first season of DA again and tears came to my eyes as the characters appeared once again and I noticed yet more details I hadn’t before, I know Vince Gilligan and his crew are wanting what I require: a continuing humanity. Compare this program with another coming out of the cancer epidemic with Calendar Girls; and you can see what is is to have a heart and not have one.