Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Breaking Bad

Henry David Thoreau once said that "most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them." Of course Thoreau himself had his detractors, who felt that his devotion to nature was a waste of his own potential. Certainly it's not an uncommon thing though, to give up on a passion in order to make a living. Ask any once aspiring musician who gave up playing gigs for more conventional employment. This happens all the time for any number of reasons, because what you love to do doesn't always pay. It's also true that being a talented musician doesn't make you a good business person. Perhaps we simply change goals as life goes on, having a comfortable family life can become more important, and certainly more achievable than breaking new ground in the arts. It becomes easier to make these adjustments, because we can tell ourselves we can always pick up what we love again, when the kids grow up, or the house is paid off. It's easy to imagine these things because we forget that we're going to die sometime. The knowledge that this will happen very soon, could cause a refocusing of your life. I've had conversations with friends about this subject, discussing outlandish schemes that would leave everyone I love provided for and without enemies. The idea being, if you're going to go out, why not make the most of your knowledge, and the sudden irrelevance of long term consequence if it helps those you leave behind. A death sentence in literature, and film is often used as a focusing agent. In the case of anthologized everywhere poet, Chidiock Tichborne, we were given an example of both. While waiting in London tower for his execution, he wrote this poem:

My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain;
The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

My tale was heard and yet it was not told,
My fruit is fallen and yet my leaves are green,
My youth is spent and yet I am not old,
I saw the world and yet I was not seen;
My thread is cut and yet it is not spun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

I sought my death and found it in my womb,
I looked for life and saw it was a shade,
I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I was but made:
My glass is full, and now my glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

-Chidiock Tichborne

Certainly Walter White is familiar with poetry. His fondness for Walt Whitman leads to some mojor developments, but Tichborne's elegy serves as a fine example of the thoughts one can have when facing the end, knowing that you haven't accomplished nearly what you thought you would. It's also worth noting that unlike Walter White, Tichborne "broke bad" before his sentence came along, being involved in a plot to murder the Queen. The series has run long enough however, that the impact of Walter's initial death sentence seems to have faded, so he could well end up in a spot more similar to Tichborne in time.

Series creator Vince Gilligan said, “Breaking Bad” is about a guy having the world’s worst midlife crisis; a guy who’s never littered or jaywalked, never broken the law in any serious way, suddenly finding himself doing something reprehensible and illegal. Why would he do such a thing? That's the experiment of 'Breaking Bad'  It's a show about change. Our main character, our hero, becomes our bad guy... And if we’re going to do this, we have to be courageous about it and we have to let the chips fall where they may."

The experiment was to take the sympathetic "good guy" and follow along as he turns into the "bad guy." Walter White doesn't spend very long as a clear cut good guy, but what he does hang onto for some time is some degree of sympathy. We meet him as a mild mannered chemistry teacher who cares about his family more than anything else. Walter's life is changed by a doctor's diagnosis of cancer. He has to cope with the fact that he's going to die and his family is not provided for. He's also reminded that his life so far has largely been wasted, even though he's a chemistry genius.

He knows that given the little time he has, there is no legal way to raise the funds he needs, or even to pay for his ridiculously expensive cancer treatments. We've all met people like Walter, an unambitious high school chemistry teacher. Whatever ambition he had has worn out of him and he's resigned himself to "quiet desperation." We learn as the series progresses, that Walter's ideas helped launch a company that's now worth billions, but he sold his interest for what seemed a respectable amount at the time, due to romantic entanglements that his ego demanded he distance himself from.

Teaching high school is the equivalent of sleep walking for a guy like Walter, but he tries not to dwell on resentment, instead concentrating on the best parts of life with his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn,) and son, Walter Jr. (R.J. Mitte) They're also very close to Skyler's sister, Marie (Betsy Brandt) and her husband DEA Agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris.) Walter's job keeps him in touch with chemistry, a field which he truly loves. He watches his students put in the minimum effort to pass the class, resigned to the fact that it doesn't appeal to them in the same way. One such student, Jessie Pinkman (Aaron Paul) defines the underachiever in Walter's mind. He turns to Jessie with an idea, which will allow him to show off his chemistry expertise, while taking care of his financial problems at the same time. Walter's idea is to start cooking Crystal Meth. Jessie agrees to help him learn the ropes and they're soon true partners, although Jessie's meth habit is both a cause for concern and a good source of contacts to get started. Given Walter's chemistry knowledge however, this won't be just any meth, but "perfect" Meth, which is colored blue as a trademark of it's quality.

Jessie soon realizes that rather than a little diversion, Walter has a major enterprise in mind. Very soon the pair find themselves at odds with dangerous elements of the drug underworld, as well as the New Mexico DEA office, with Walter's brother in law spearheading the search for the new meth source on the block. Once Walter's ego is unleashed, it becomes clear that no matter the danger there is no stopping him. He develops an alias, "Heisenberg" in order to keep "Walter White" out of it. Despite that effort, the meth business and the money to be made soon consume him, changing his relationship with his family drastically and it becomes clear that Walter is capable of just about any deed required to stay on top. His efforts to make the most money possible ensure that the danger is steadily increased, as the players change from small time dealers to major drug cartel connection Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) his employer and eventual adversary. To stay ahead, Walter steps over line after moral line, becoming a premeditated murderer, in addition to being a drug dealer. Jessie changes along the way as well, coming to terms with his addiction and becoming more capable. He ends up with blood on his hands as well, but unlike Walter he's bothered by the weight of what he's done.

Over four and a half seasons, Walter has made exactly the journey proposed by Vince Gilligan becoming a guy who barely resembles original Walter White, the resigned to his fate high school teacher.  He tells Skyler "I am not in danger. I am the danger." and we know that he's both right and wrong, as his biggest danger is his unrestrained ego which has become far more deadly than his cancer, and much more so to those around him.

Breaking Bad sets a new standard for quality American television. Using a number of writers and directors, the series maintains a remarkably consistent look and quality that never disappointing. The acting talent certainly contributes to that consistency. Bryan Cranston delivers especially well, which can't be an easy task as his Walter White has passed the point of no return for sympathy, and yet occasionally shows a glimpse of the decent guy he used to be, only to have it vanish as he does something worse than he's done before. Aaron Paul is excellent as well. His Jessie has undergone a journey as complete as Walter's, although in a different direction. His bumbling junkie persona has evolved into a more responsible person, no longer interested in the pay off and not crippled by the constant need to escape via his habit.

Anna Gunn's Skyler is another very challenging role, being the closest to Walter's transformation. She moves from being devastated at the prospect of her husband's cancer, to being terrified by the knowledge of what he's become. Betsy Brandt's Marie is a perpetual nuisance, although a fiercely loyal one. Weighed down with her own issues including a secret habit of petty theft, she nonetheless tries to helpful. Dean Norris' Hank Schrader is the closest thing to a good guy the show has although his powers of deduction are diluted by the impossibility of Heisenberg being his good pal and brother in law, the meek and not as manly as him, Walter White. R.J. Mitte's portrayal of Walter Jr., an awkward high school kid with cerebral palsy,  is commendable as he's the character most oblivious to the goings on. He likes to think the world of his father, although it becomes more difficult even though a great effort is made to keep him in the dark. He knows there's a lot he isn't being told and is tired of asking about it. There are many other standout performances, most notably; Giancarlo Esposito's Gus Fring, a drug lord with more than a passing similarity to Walter, Bob Odenkirk's Saul Goodman, the sleazy criminal lawyer extraordinaire  and Jonathan Banks, as Gus Fring's muscle and fixer, Mike.

While I wouldn't argue with someone calling the show depressing, I also find it mesmerizing and brave. The devotion to taking a character like Walter White full circle is something I haven't seen treated with this much intricacy and care. Rather than back away from the unsavory elements, the show gives us stylized cooking sequences, showing us how chemistry feels to Walter White. "Breaking Bad" pulls you into dangerous situations, only to have you questioning the the resolutions after they're resolved. It's clear that Walter lost track of his own motivations. He became Heisenberg to provide for his family but along the way he discovered he liked Heisenberg too much to give him up. We're left questioning how much his diagnosis made him truly worry for his family, and how much of that concern was just his pride's way of opening up a certain door. Faced with the ending of a life that didn't amount to nearly what he thought it would, the resentment he quietly nursed finds a way to be "top man." ignoring the fact that he was always complicit in his own shortcomings.

With half a season left, the possibilities for Walter are closing in. Certain showdowns now appear inevitable, due of course to Walter's careless ego. This is a man who kept the DEA from closing their investigation because he feared a lesser chemist would get the credit for being Heisenberg. It's very clear by now that this is not a story of redemption, but like many of the best tragedies, more a story about how difficult it is to let go when the end is staring at you. "How much is enough?" Skyler asks, surprising Walter just as he's succeeded in becoming the guy at the top simply by having the right conversation with the right person. He ponders this and he sees the logic in it but forgets that the people around him still remember the whole journey. While moral lines may mean nothing to Walter, others base their lives on them.

We end up back where we started, with Walter in an impossible situation. He made his choices based on the idea that he was going to die soon, but he's lived longer than he thought and seems to have forgotten again, as we all do, that he is still going to die. His motivation is no longer to be the top man, or to provide for his family, though it's likely to be a challenge to keep what he has.

Orson Welles once said, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” Based on what we know so far, that possibility has come and gone a long time ago. Walter could have decided to go out gracefully, but his ego was far too eager for a chance to break loose. It would be difficult to even say what a happy ending would be for these characters. Hopefully Walter will have time to question the wisdom of  adopting "Heisenberg" (known for his "uncertainty principle") as his alter ego.

Then again, he may just find it fitting in the end. Gilligan and crew have remained true to their mission showing the journey from white hat to black hat without faltering, and not discounting the fact that due to our amazing human powers of self justification, that even the worst criminal is the hero of his own story, for as long as it lasts.


Anonymous said...

An awesome write up for one of the best TV series I've seen in years. Huge fan!

INDBrent said...

Thanks, Pete! It really is some revolutionary TV. I'm just amazed they've managed to tell their story the way they wanted to. Nothing else quite like it.

3guys1movie.com said...

Actually just started watching this with the misses. We ended up catching up via netflix after a few weeks of marathon viewing sessions.

Can't get enough of it now

INDBrent said...

nice! I started watching pretty late in the game too. It just didn't grab me until my son talked me into watching, and after the first one, I also started the marathon viewing!