11 March 2014

A Few Thoughts on Breaking Bad

I have two admissions about Breaking Bad. The first admission:  I like Breaking Bad, but I place in the level of a really great crime procedural, rather than an all-time great show that fully explores the human condition.  Sure it's absorbing and disturbing but it is not in the same category as The Sopranos, Mad Men, or even, House Of Cards.  

For a show revolving around an anti-hero to be truly effective, the anti-hero has to be part hero. In other words, he must have certain qualities which make him lovable.  We loved Tony Soprano because he possessed infinite charm, a ribald sense of humour, and couldn't help but reveal his own insecurities and vulnerabilities.  We love Don Draper because he's smooth, charismatic, and downright brilliant. We certainly love Frank Underwood because of his Machiavellian genius, political wile, and seemingly magical ability to relate -- however falsely -- to others. These traits don't excuse or soften their dark sides, but they paint a more nuanced picture of a character, and ostensibly, make for more captivating television because we find ourselves empathizing with someone who we know does not deserve our empathy.

Walter White is different from those other anti-heroes because he's not a hero at all.  He's just anti. Sure, he's a genius at cooking meth and a seeming wizard at extricating himself from completely untenable positions but that's not something that I find all that laudable. There doesn't seem to be any kind of great struggle going on inside of him.  He cooks meth.  He makes lots of money. He destroys his life and that of his family's. He pretends to care, but it's obvious he doesn't.  Over the course of five seasons of the show, Walter White goes from a mild-mannered and unlucky Everyman who decides to spurn an ignominious fate to a greedy, selfish, drug kingpin with a healthy sadistic side.  Where is his humanity?  Where is his softness or vulnerability?  His sole motivation seems to involve outfoxing those around him, be it his competitors, his "colleagues", or his family.

I've arrived at admission number two. Perhaps my overall criticism of Breaking Bad stems from my prejudicial disdain for Bryan Cranston.  It probably stems from his Seinfeld days, when he played Whatley, the dentist who converted to Judaism for the jokes. Unfairly, I'll always associate him with that unctuous character. On a purely aesthetically superficial level, I find his mannerisms and demeanor aggravating and unpleasant.  His physicality is overbearing and feels forced, meanwhile his facial expressions range from grizzled scorn to grizzled horror to grizzled derision. I get it, he's pissed off, determined, and hates everyone.  

One thing I do love about Breaking Bad is its attention to detail.  There is a sense that Vince Gilligan, the show's creator, wants to convey a banality of evil that pervades the high-level drug trade. It's not glamourous, it's not exciting.  It is desolate, horrifying, and often repulsive.

However, Walt's misanthropy infected the show as a whole. Before the final eight episodes aired, a friend of mine asked me what I thought was going to happen. I told him I knew exactly what would happen.  Think of the most fucked up, disturbing scenario, preferably with as much murder, mayhem, and horror as possible and that's what we'll see. Part of the show's charm is the voyeuristic opportunities it affords to law-abiding, non-drug kingpin viewers everywhere.  We get to inhabit that dark and perverted world without any repercussions.  

Having said all that, I acknowledge that the final eight episodes finally allowed Walt to embrace his humanity and instantly he became a more interesting character. The scene where he pathetically offers Robert Forster's extractor character $10,000 to stay with him an extra hour during one of his monthly visits is a sublime spark of humanity and vulnerability. His anguish over Hank's murder (Hank, by the way, is my favourite character from the show because he's everything Walt isn't: funny, vulnerable, nuanced, empathetic) is also revealing.  It took Hank being murdered in cold blood for Walt to finally come to terms with the consequences of his actions.  Finally, his scheme to siphon his ill-gotten gains to Walt Jr. via the Schwartzes and admission to Skylar that he in fact built an entire criminal enterprise to satiate his own ego made him someone that is relatable.
Any effective work of art makes the audience care. We care about Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Frank Underwood even though we know we shouldn't but we can't help it.  They're just too likable. But what about Walter White is likable?  By the time he assumed the role of Heisenberg I found myself so disgusted by him I kept on hoping he would die or get caught or lose everything. He's just too damn unpleasant. With a pure villain as an anti-hero, the audience loses that tension between judgement and acceptance, empathy and disgust.