Breaking Bad: 2013’s Answer to 1968

October 2, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

Everyone else is doing it, so why shouldn’t I? I refer of course to blogging about AMC’s hit drama series “Breaking Bad,” now that it’s over. Usually I don’t much like serial TV dramas. To me, their reach usually far exceeds their grasp; they begin to outlive their artistic premises somewhere in season two or three. “The Wire” and “Deadwood” are favorites of mine and exceptions to the aforementioned rule, but even “The Wire” went off the rails in the end. That said,” Breaking Bad” held together very well for me.

What I find most remarkable is that, of all the commentary I’ve read on it (and that’s not even close to all there is) not one notices what for me is one of the core themes of the show — the conflict between crime, life on the edge, and the placid, predictable, suburban lifestyle. Rimbaud would have noticed it immediately as would the Fauvists of a later era, but I haven’t seen anyone else who has.

At the very first, Walt’s lung cancer and the fact that his family will be virtually destitute when he dies, start the ball rolling, and when he starts to cook methamphetamine, we immediately wonder what he’s getting himself into. He’s a high school chemistry teacher embarking on a side job in the dangerous world of drug dealing and is surely out of his league. The conflict is there; his dull, simple life and self versus the violent, unpredictable world of gangsters and the police.

And it never lets up. Seemingly every episode, sometimes several times per episode, the point is made. Skylar and Flynn have just sat down to dinner. Where’s Walt? Oh, he’s just blown up a meth dealer’s hangout, watched a young woman die of a heroin overdose, or finished up a cook. Hank and Marie have come over for cocktails by the pool, but Walt’s a bit preoccupied. It seems Mexican drug lords are after his hide or he’s just blown Gustavo Frehn’s face off with a homemade bomb. A matter of minutes after committing murder or burying $60 million in cash in barrels in the desert, there’s our Walt holding his lovely daughter Holly coochy-cooing contentedly.

Time and again we’re slapped by the juxtaposition of Walt’s underworld activities and the suburban world in which he and everyone he knows (or used to know) lives.

And, as Joseph Heller once said, “the chaplain had sinned, and it was good.” What Walt acts out before our eyes is the throwing off of the quiet desperation that can haunt the controlled, contained world of the suburban middle class. This, the show strongly suggests, is what we’d all like to do if only we had Walt’s skills and, most importantly, his courage. How many cubicle-bound drones would give their right arm for the exhilaration of giving the middle finger to every bourgeois value embodied by Skylar, Hank, Marie, the high school, et al, and getting fabulously rich into the bargain?

Not for nothing does Walt come home at night in one early episode to find Skylar already in bed. This is not the old Walt, the schlub, the wimp. This is the new Walt, the Walt with the secret life, the life with purpose. He slips into bed beside Skylar and, unlike anything she’s experienced in who knows when, he’s aggressive about sex. “Walt,” exclaims Skylar big-eyed, “is that you?”

Good question, because her husband has stepped out of his everyday skin and donned another. Chameleon-like, he continues to change from drug kingpin to responsible father and husband and back again throughout the series. Only in the final episode does Walt admit what we’ve known all along — that making money for his family was just a cover; all of this has been a blast, a thrill. All those brushes with death, all that outwitting of the police and other drug traffickers and all the money while never giving up the pretense of an ordinary life was far preferable to living and dying in a tract house on the edge of Albuquerque. Walter White was a renegade, and a legal and moral pariah, but he was alive. He’d do it all again, you know he would.

So Walter White had to die. The series that weekly confronted audiences with their own drab lives while simultaneously nudging them in the ribs and whispering “look what fun irresponsibility can be” couldn’t leave it at that. In the conflict between suburbia and life on the edge, eventually the producers, writers and directors had to take a stand. They chose suburbia. In the end, they made sure that Walter White’s “empire” was in ruins (remember Ozymandias), he suffered and died. Like Icarus, Walt flew too high and was destroyed. The series gives us a long draught of the drug of rebellion that so intoxicates, but in the end there’s only the hangover. We taste the joy of flight, but the show tells us, the ground is so much safer.

In short, “Breaking Bad,” despite its pretenses, is at heart conservative. Rebellion against the status quo leads only to solitude and death. Going your own way is narcissism, not self-actualization. It’s the 2000’s answer to the 1960s.

Like any good piece of dramatic art, “Breaking Bad” can be looked at from a variety of directions and each provides more and different value, greater nuance, complexity and depth. The conflict between suburban and underworld values is far from the only way to view the show, but it’s an important one.

Less important, but, in the context of present-day pop culture, still significant is the fact that Walt is a father and husband who does what fathers and husbands are supposed to do. Perhaps the signal value cited again and again by men in those roles is that of provider. Overwhelmingly, men who are fathers and husbands see their core value as that of the breadwinner, the one who provides the house, the food, the clothing, the schooling, the medical care for his wife and children. After decades of second-wave feminism, men still do. During that time, the theory has always been that men and women should cast aside their sex roles and some of that has happened. But despite all the preaching, the salient feature of today’s America is that it’s not much happening. Stay-at-home parents are overwhelmingly mothers and breadwinners are overwhelmingly fathers. The sex roles have remained remarkably the same despite the sustained onslaught of contrary messages.

On learning that he has only a short time to live, Walter White’s response is quintessentially that of a father: “I must find a way to provide for my family.” And so he embarks on his life of crime, insisting until literally the very end, that it’s all done for them. Just hours after Hank and his partner are gunned down before Walt’s eyes and just minutes before he’s to finally go on the lam to preserve his life, Walt shouts hysterically to Skylar and Flynn “We are a family!” Not anymore they’re not.

This is a statement about fathers, and not a complimentary one. According to it, a man can be the man Walt tries to be — independent, self-motivated, strong, resourceful and alive — but he can’t be that man and a father and husband too. He can be vital and alive and lose his family, or he can be a pallid loser and keep them. Not much of a choice. It’s a pretty pessimistic take on men in family life.

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