November 2012

Arts & Letters

Meth and Madness

By Robyn Davidson
‘Breaking Bad’

It is well known that mail is sent by the bucketload to the fictional town of Weatherfield, England, addressed to characters from the long-running television soap Coronation Street as if they were real people.

It is difficult to comprehend such stupidity. Until you become addicted to Breaking Bad, the HBO television series. Then you understand.

Here are snippets of conversation from my Skype online chat history.

Friend in London: “… currently devastated by the shooting of the boy on the motorbike. And I need to talk to you about the cliffhanger in episode eight. So WAKE UP.”

Me: “… I knew they were going to do something awful to him the minute he came into frame. Maybe there was some damage to Walt’s frontal lobe from the chemo or op. Remember Phineas Gage who got a crowbar through the cortex and seemed more or less OK until he began to turn mean? …”

There is similar gossip everywhere in cyberspace. Hoping to impress my friend with an order of psychological insight deeper than her own, I suggested in conversation that one of the characters might be gay.

“GUS GAY!?” she replied. “Hang on, I’m going to Google it. Is … Gus … gay.” Sure enough, there were thousands, possibly millions of people out there, not only speculating on Gus’s emotional and sexual history, but bothering to write about it on the internet.

Is this how readers responded in the mid 19th century to instalments of The Pickwick Papers or Oliver Twist? To the recently literate masses, Dickens’ serialisations must have surely raised as much expectation, speculation and involvement. Dickens was immensely popular with every kind of reader, and masterly at appealing to broad tastes and across classes. He knew how to plan each episode so that it kept his readership wanting more, while at the same time considering how the entire book would eventually hang together. Ditto Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad.

Alas, most people don’t read so excitedly, so avidly anymore. But perhaps recent marvellous television series such as The Wire, In Treatment (the American version and the Israeli original), Borgen (Danish), The Killing (Danish) and Prisoners of War (Israeli) are occupying that abandoned niche.

A new form of storytelling has emerged, made for weekly slots on telly, but best consumed in large batches, on a computer screen perhaps, at night in bed, right up close, requiring an intimacy and immersion once reserved for books. In this medium there is time for characters to unfold, to be as complex and contradictory as they are in good novels. And there is time for us to identify with them, to see the world through their eyes as well as our own – that weird double vision we agree to when we read.

To see through the eyes of Breaking Bad’s protagonist is a disconcerting experience. Known as Mr White to his friends, Heisenberg to his enemies, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is a Raskolnikov for our times. Like his literary forebear, he is capable of self-sacrifice at one extreme and cold-blooded murder at the other. Though when we first meet him, he is about the least likely candidate for a drug lord.

We learn that he is a gifted scientist who now teaches chemistry at an Albuquerque high school. He is diffident, possibly a bit Aspergic, and dulled to death by the daily grind – the archetypal defeated middle-aged man who wields no power, not even inside his own home. But he does love his family, who are the centre of his life: Skyler, his good-looking, no-nonsense wife (Anna Gunn), and their 16-year-old son, Walt Junior (RJ Mitte), who has cerebral palsy. Skyler is pregnant with an unexpected child, soon to be born. (That child will grow through the series, providing an angelic foil to Walt’s increasing demonism.)

The family extends to Skyler’s sister and her husband, Hank, who is a detective with the DEA. This little tight group provides Walt’s last source of meaning in a disappointing world. A portion of that disappointment, we learn, was that he long ago sold his half-share in what would become a billion-dollar company for $5000. This is the first intimation of Walt’s fatal flaw – an overweening pride – and the silent resentment it so often leads to.

In episode one Walt discovers that he has terminal cancer and proceeds, in his taciturn way, to go off the rails. On his salary, there can be no hope of providing for his family’s future, and his medical insurance isn’t going to cover the specialists’ bills. So Walt begins a new career cooking and selling crystal meth with an unlikely sidekick – Jesse, one of his doofus ex-students, now a hip-hop meth head with a tender heart.

The lung cancer death sentence, paradoxically, frees Walt from fear. He is now “awake”, as he puts it. And this awakening from the sleepwalk that was the first five decades of his life brings out his potential for heartlessness.

Walt’s moral dilemmas begin early on. ‘Do you kill one now to save ten later?’, the old question posed by moral philosophers, is handed to him in the first season. If he kills, he will be doing something appalling. If he doesn’t kill, he and his whole family might be destroyed.

We like Walt so much by this point that we cannot imagine his creators forcing his hand. In a different kind of film writing, Walt would find a way out. So when he strangles his victim with a bicycle lock, it is profoundly shocking. (Yes, there are more spoilers to come.) But we know why he does it; we would probably even do the same thing under the same circumstances. Thus begins our uncomfortable collusion.

All fictional characters are our own unrealised possibilities. That is why we love them and are horrified by them. Walt crosses boundaries that most of us will never have to get close to, but we can, through him, imagine the possibility. And that is what makes the show so compelling. We realise that it takes so little – a little self-deceit here, a chance catastrophe there – for someone to find himself beyond the moral pale, where everything loses meaning.

Walt ‘breaks bad’ again and again, and each time it gets easier, and he becomes a little more dangerous and self-serving. He is pathologically self-deluded as to his motives, telling himself that everything he does is to protect his family. Like Raskolnikov, he believes he has abilities that make him in some way extraordinary and therefore not bound by the laws of the lumpen. Both characters cut themselves off from authority and morality until they lose respect for human life.

Walt begins to feel a patronising contempt for the people he fools, notably his brother-in-law, who is out to capture the mysterious drug lord Heisenberg (Walt’s alias). And Skyler, the ‘love of his life’? How can we be certain what part of our relations with others is the result of our emotions, and what is determined by the constant power play between us? There is an absolutely chilling scene between Skyler and Walt when you know (and Skyler knows) that love has been trumped by power.

So great is Walt’s delusion that he is impervious to guilt. He allows Jesse’s junkie girlfriend to drown in her own vomit. (It is in his interest that she disappear.) Resisting the urge to help her, he watches her die as he presses a hand to his lips, and tears squeeze out of his eyes. When Jesse wakes up, he tries to revive her. Unaware of Walt’s presence, he believes he is responsible for her death and spirals into depression. The girl’s father, an air-traffic controller, also undone by grief, accidentally guides two aeroplanes into each other in the sky above Albuquerque. In an image foreshadowed throughout the season, a burnt pink teddy bear with a missing eye – part of that wreckage – lands in Walt’s swimming pool. But all of this is just blind chance to Walt. He is divorced from the consequences of his actions, just doing what he had to under the circumstances.

By season five, it becomes clear that he likes what he does, he likes the power and control he can exert – that’s why he keeps doing it. Walter White has changed beyond recognition. Can he be redeemed?

There are just eight episodes left in the show’s run, and they will not be written until next year. How all the intricate plot strands will be knitted together into a satisfying conclusion is beyond me, and, apparently, a challenge that’s making Vince Gilligan and his team of writers very nervous.

You get the feeling that everyone involved in this series will be heartbroken and at a loss when it’s finished. What could possibly top it? The actors are stunning. The writing is stunning. It has the moral vision of good fiction, rooted in an attentiveness to individual human lives, to the daily things we do that make us who we are, and which are the key to our survival or our doom.

Robyn Davidson
Robyn Davidson is a non-fiction writer. She is the author of the award-winning books Tracks and Desert Places, and the editor of The Best Australian Essays 2009 and The Picador Book of Journeys.

November 2012
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