A couple of days ago I saw that one James Atlas–about whom I have heard, a bit–had and op-ed in the NYTimes entitled “Get a Life? No Thanks. Just Pass the Remote.” I bit.
I was mostly about Breaking Bad, one of those high-quality TV shows with the continuous story, grimy texture, and moral ambiguity. You know, The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Mad Men, House of Cards, that stuff, the stuff that’s giving canonical lit a run for the cultural brass ring. So I bit.
And, yeah, Breaking Bad–which I’d heard about, which Netflix kept pushing at me–IS one of those. Why those stories, at this time? In part it’s that it took awhile for TV both to figure out how to do it, whatever IT is, and to allow itself to do it. Still, why the darkness? Yeah, I know, life isn’t simple. Real people aren’t purely good nor purely bad.
As Atlas says about Breaking Bad:
But if the story line propels me into my TV grotto, it’s the realism that keeps me there. There’s nothing artificial about “Breaking Bad” — the spell is never broken. The dialogue is pitch-perfect. And there’s a lot of useless but fascinating information: you can learn how a meth lab operates, how money is laundered and guns are sold, how to murder people. (This is not necessarily a good thing. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, accused in the Boston Marathon bombings, tweeted: “ ‘Breaking Bad’ taught me how to dispose of a corpse.”) And if you want to know how crack is smoked, how a heroin needle is inserted, the spoon heated up, I highly recommend this show. Self-destruction is interesting.
But reality’s notoriously difficult to judge. Atlas pretty much assumes that the meth lab scenes are, well, realistic, because that’s how they are presented. I make the same assumption. But I don’t know. I’ve never seen a meth lab and neither, I warrant, has Atlas.
It just smells real. The meth lab and a lot more besides. It’s not as though you can take a snatch of Real Life here and hold it up to a snatch of TV Life there and compare them. Fictional realism is a set of conventions.
But is he right about self-destruction being interesting? Breaking Bad IS interesting. And it swims in self-destruction. But, as they say in Statistics 101, correlation is not causation. I’m not so sure the connection is as direct as Atlas asserts.
Nor, for that matter, does he leave it at that.
The most compelling thing about the show, though, what makes it unique among TV series, is its depiction of how good and evil can coexist in one person. Walt gets into the meth business for an altruistic reason: he has lung cancer and wants to ensure his family’s financial security after he dies. Walt is a decent man. He cares for his teenage son, who has cerebral palsy; he feeds the baby. He’s monogamous even when he’s separated from his wife, Skyler. He’s a moralist: “It’s about choices, choices that I have made, choices I stand by.” And his knowledge of chemistry, displayed at odd moments, makes him endearing. (The show was pitched as “Mr. Chips” becomes “Scarface.”)But he grows comfortable in the bad-guy role and soon discovers that he’s capable of getting rid of his enemies without compunction and in the most gruesome ways. “I am not in danger,” he says to Skyler at one terrifying juncture in their descent. “I am the danger.” Where he once had trouble loading and drawing a gun, by the end of Season 4 he’s able to blow up an old man in a nursing home.
That’s getting closer. Mr. Chips becomes Scarface. Now THAT’s interesting. (Running it in the other direction would, I suspect, be impossible).
* * * * *
It’s not just that mild-mannered Walter White becomes a meth cooker to provide for his family. The meth he produces is of a superior grade, the stuff of legend. And his mild-manner is a cover for a great deal of disappointment and repressed anger. As the story unfolds we learn that he had once been part of a hot research team the other member of which has gone on to make big high-tech bucks. But not Walter. He’s been reduced to using his superior skilz to cook crystal meth on the down low. Alas, his criminal-craft leaves much to be desired, though perhaps it improves (I’m only 3/4 of the way through season two).
His partner, a former student of his named Jesse Pinkman, is no prize either. He seems mostly lost. Drifting along on drugs is easy to do. He’s constantly messing up. There’s a season two episode where they’ve taken their lab, which is in an old RV, out in the desert for a marathon cooking session. Jesse leaves the key in the ignition; the battery drains; the RV won’t start when it’s time to head home. Bummer.
Jesse just does stupid stuff like that. All the time.
This pairing is no accident. It’s important to the aesthetics of the series that Vince Gilligan (who created the series) has paired a middle-aged family man underachieving virtuoso chemical craftsman with a lost-puppy doper whose parents finally cut him off. Just why that’s important to the show’s aesthetics I’m not sure about. But there’s a deep connection there. Myth logic if you will.
It’s like Adrian Monk, the protagonist of the eponymous series, Monk, a more conventional series in the one-off style of production. He’s a superior sleuth. But he’s also obsessive-compulsive, has a couple hundred phobias, and is still mourning the death of his wife, Trudy. He’s so crippled that he needs an assistant to help him negotiate the world. That paring, superior intellectual skills as a detecting in a man who is emotionally crippled in his day-to-day life, is not an accident. It’s what keeps Monk together. It’s a matter of aesthetics, of myth logic.
And it’s myth logic that gives Walter White a brother-in-law who’s a macho agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency. So Hank’s looking for a drug lord known as Heisenberg and doesn’t know that his kleptomaniac wife’s sister is married to this Heisenberg, which is the street name Walt chose for himself.
It all hangs together as a package, of that I’m sure. But why it hangs together, and what else is part of the package, that I don’t know.