Breaking Bad is ending next week. It won an Emmy for Best Drama last night. My brother and I have both loved the show for a while and will be sad to see it go. This week I am taking the easy way out by listing songs that have to do with being bad (in the title or chorus) along with the hard task of trying to figure out what makes the show tick: Walter White is part Odysseus, part Faust, and part our father.
Michael Jackson wasn’t “Bad” back then. But things didn’t turn out great for him. Like the King of Pop, we all like to play at being bad.
When my wife and I were first living in NYC, we spent some time scraping by on a little under 25 thousand dollars a year while we were both in school. Credit cards ballooned. Depression ebbed and flowed. But we now look back on the time with the kind of nostalgia that the ‘good’ past usually attracts.During the time, however, money was a concern and we often fantasized about ways not just to make ends meet, but to get ahead, if only for some time. During one of our drives back from Maine to New York in the hell-beast Chevy Caprice that was always one step away from killing us, we talked about drugs.
See, as I have discussed before, we grew up in an area that was a bit permissive when it came to certain substances. Meth didn’t really exist; cocaine was still a non-starter; but ‘natural’ substances from mushrooms and peyote to the all-purpose marijuana were considered relatively safe and unproblematic. We had a neighbor with a greenhouse in the middle of the woods and a degree in botany. So, obviously, we talked about bringing drugs down from Maine and selling them in NYC.
Ah, metalcore from Five Finger Death Punch makes you feel bad or want to be bad. I don’t know which one is true for me.
Now, this was before the Showtime series Weeds made its debut but well after Half-Baked joined in the process of casualization. We were never serious, of course. And we found our own ways to make ends meet eventually (by entering into the debt compact). But the criminal fantasy represents something that is very real and attractive.
I start out this way because I am trying to put into words what makes Breaking Bad so damn compelling for me personally and what I think explains its far wider appeal. Let’s get out of the way the admission that it is a great television show. It is well-written, well-acted, and well-produced. But I think that that trio doesn’t do enough to explain it. The appeal starts, I think, with the overall siren-song of ‘being-bad’, the fantasy of stepping outside of yourself and breaking the law, breaking custom, and sloughing off the conventions that bind. On its own, this is limited, but when combined with the American fantasy of class mobility and the reality of stagnant wages and desperate times, the idea of dabbling in drugs temporarily to make ends meet is attractive.
Yeah, Lady Gaga is an easy choice, but “Bad Romance” does well to describe the strong attraction of a thrill that still might be terrible for you. We are, of course, our own worst enemies.
Part of what makes this show and Weeds redeemable, however, is that both shows reveal the devastating consequences of living out this fantasy through the anxiety, the toil, and the toll that the extra-legal worlds take on the people who walk in them. Yet it is also in this category where a show like Breaking Bad diverges from Weeds. The tone is totally different.
The other thing that makes Breaking Bad so damn good is that it explores our relationship with a protagonist using two classic patterns. First, Walter White is the classic trickster-hero, he is the Odysseus who accomplishes his feats through intelligence. Again and again during the run of the show, Walt’s luck and his wit help him to win out over much tougher and better prepared opponents. Like Odysseus—whose pride causes him to announce his name and suffer years of pain rather than let his cleverness be unknown—Walt knows he’s smarter than the average bear. And he exults in it. Yet his intelligence is another significant part of his attraction: we in the audience know we’re not gangsters like Tuco and Gus Fring or hard-edged mercenaries like Mike. But we might just hold out hope that we’re clever like Walt.
And this is part of the attraction of Odysseus as a hero. He’s not a son of a goddess like the Iliad’s Achilles; he’s not even a major hereditary king like Agamemnon. He’s a mortal man with limited skill in battle who just wants to get home to his wife and son. Odysseus is the first everyman hero. And, yet, like the rest of us (and like Walt), he cannot be satisfied with being No-man; he wants someone to know him. Walt’s desire to be known feeds the very arrogance that leads to his undoing. Just as Odysseus insists that the Cyclops Polyphemos hear his real name, Walt’s character is confirmed when he compels new associates to say his nom de guerre (Heisenberg) near the beginning of the final season.
Ah, this Marley tune was the soundtrack to Cops, that show that made us all voyeurs to the bad boys in our neighborhoods.
Anyone who has really read the Odyssey knows that it ends with significant ambiguity regarding the status of Odysseus’ slaughter of the suitors, his reception in his kingdom, and his future fate to go journeying again. The epic can only end because Athena, in a classic dea ex machina, declares the conflict over and causes the suitors’ families to forget what they’ve lost. It is divine intervention that brings any resolution to Odysseus’ tale; but this divine intervention indicates that our enthusiasm for this hero might be profitably questioned.
In a way, Walter White departs from the Odyssean pattern of the clever hero who makes heroic deeds possible for anyone and shares in part the pattern of the Faustian bargain, the legendary doctor Faust who makes a deal with Mephistopheles to ensure his own success and glory only to discover along the way that this glory destroys everything that could have been good in life. As the Faustian fiend, Walt presents a twin-archetype for the modern age. First, he disabuses us of the fantasy of easy (illicit) money by illustrating the corrupting force that his actions and his success exert on everyone around him. Walt’s life and lies destroy his relationships; his success corrupts his wife and endangers his children; his inability to step away from success brings death and destruction to those around him.
Yeah, this Bon Jovi tune is a little obvious but I have loved it since I could barely tie my shoes. And, since Walt says all the horrible things he does are done for love, he really does give love a “Bad Name”.
The second half of this beast is the due paid for the success. We all know that Walt will die (sometime); but the indeterminacy of his death makes his mortality no less pressing than his wife’s or even our own. And yet the bargain he makes—a bit of his life for financial security and then worldly success—is paid for in a series of compromises that starts with necessary violence and culminates in pre-emptive murder and fratricide. At once, Walt becomes a nexus for a thousand myths of man’s tenuous grasp of whatever it is we call humanity.
Walter White is, of course, the modern anti-hero in the beginning of the series, the good man turned bad because of the direness of his situation. We are encouraged to root for him and we, along with the show’s characters, justify his actions and prevaricate as he becomes less of a human being and more of a demon of death. Even in the final episodes as Walt’s actions get more heinous and unjustifiable, I find myself yearning to defend him. But I can’t.
At the end, Walt turns his world into Daniel Johnston’s “Devil Town” where everyone is a vampire—people are reduced to what they need and what they can get from one another.
And here’s where Breaking Bad achieves its most resounding success. No great show—or great art, for that matter—proceeds without playing upon our prior expectations and defying them. Breaking Bad forces us to contemplate the disintegration of our favorite modern heroic type—Batman, Robin Hood, Punisher—and gives us nothing in return. I keep hoping that there will be some redemption for Walt, but I think that a happy ending would be the greatest cop-out.
When it comes down to it, Breaking Bad has borne witness to the creation of a culture hero and the reduction ad absurdum of the type. There is an essential psychological truth to his character—we all fail in the end—but there is also a disentangling of modern fantasy from real life facts. Walt is faced with a death sentence and has to reflect upon his failures in life. He tries to make up for one of these failures by going to extremes, by breaking the law and by bending his character. He succeeds in destroying everything that made his life good. And this is the lesson we should all learn from the show; it is, pure and simple, an allegory for the compromises and consequences of modern life.
Guster’s song “Bad, Bad World” has a point. To one extent, the world is what you make of it. If you make it bad, then it is.
At the end, only two questions really remain. First, can we decide whether Walt was bad all along and just needed the right context to let the demon out or was a he truly a good man corrupted by extreme circumstances? (What we decide has real impact on what we think the nature of a human being is.) This uncertainty may be anticipated early on with the choice of the pseudonym Heisenberg. Why, I have often mused, does Walt choose this of all scientific names? in part, it is because of that scientist’s association with the uncertainty principle, which, in layman’s form and terms, anticipates the indeterminacy of measurement for things in motion (confused rightly and wrongly with the uncertainty introduced by the observer effect which states that the act of observation informs the character of the thing observed).
For a scientist like Walter White, the choice of Heisenberg indicates something of a joke (because it is a fake name for something unknown). But the resonance of Heisenberg as a scientist and that choice of name also connects to one of Walt’s first speeches in the series. During the pilot, Walt lectures high school students about the nature of chemistry, a discipline he characterizes as a “study of change”. He also remarks in detail about how the most benign and common elements with minor changes in combination and context can become suddenly and terribly deadly.
Ok, the title of the song is “Stranger than Fiction”, appropriate to Walt’s lies and life. But the band’s name is BAD Religion.
Here, then, at the beginning of the series, we have an interpretation not just of Walter White but of human nature. Walter, it seems, is like that basic element that is essential to life and beneficial under so many conditions. With the right combination and pressures, the benign becomes frightening and fatal. Walter’s nature is neither good nor evil. The show does not detail the unveiling of a hidden demon. Instead, it bears witness to the slow but show transformation of good into evil. This is all the more frightening because Walt could be anyone. And Everyone.
The final question that the show leaves us with is whether or not this chemist’s view of human nature devoid of morality and ethics applies as well to the other characters like Skylar, Hank and, of course, Jesse. If Walt can go from angel to demon, will Jesse find some path to redemption?
(That is a question for another day.)
My father loved this song. He like to think that he was bad. Or could be bad.
And, finally, I have to confess that I feel Walt play’s upon my affection so deeply because he reminds me both of my father and myself. Neither my father or I ever committed the level of compromise Walter White does, but I sense in both of us the moral flexibility that makes it possible to allow the ends to justify the means, to ignore the long-term real consequences for material gain and to make that Faustian bargain.
Walt’s most seductive power resides in his intelligence too: he, like Odysseus, can tell a lie that sounds like the truth. My father could do that. I know that I can do it too.
I’ll miss Breaking Bad, but I know that it needs to be over. I just hope it leaves the world a bit better in its violent wake.