Monday, September 23, 2013

Breaking Bad - Wrapping Up An American Story

“Things happened that I never intended." Walter White could not have summed up the last eighteen months of his life any better. But in retrospect, how could he not have seen that an idea built on criminality, lying to loved ones, and preying on the weak would have catastrophic consequences? It's a fascinating idea and one that has propelled this once cult show into the national zeitgeist. I had heard of "Breaking Bad" and lumped it together with those other hip, trendy, in-the-know shows like Mad Men and Walking Dead. You were cool if you watched it and, at my age, I don't feel the need to appear cool.  So I didn't think I needed to watch it.

I was wrong. No, I haven't chugged cyanide-laced Kool Aid. Nor is this band-wagon jumping. I was prodded and pestered to give the show a chance and I did and, possibly like that first hit, I was hooked immediately. I binge-watched the show, catching up in time to watch Episode 5.13 "To'hajiilee" when it first aired.

Breaking Bad deserves all the hype, accolades, acolytes, and attention it's been receiving (including its first Emmy win for Best Drama last night), especially as it builds to the series finale next week. It raises questions that plague many of us newly-minted AARP members as we ponder our life choices, our future and the legacy we want to leave behind. How far apart are we from where we thought we'd be by now?  Where did we think we were going, and where are we?  But the show also puts a spotlight on the aimless twenty-somethings, who don't necessarily plan much beyond what they're going to do that weekend. It has us think about family - what you owe, what you are owed, what really matters and what do we mistakenly think is important. There are morally grey areas to get lost in and bright lights that shouldn't be crossed.

The characters are so real that you find yourself physically ill at the sight of Jesse Pinkman's torture (both physical and emotional). You cry when Walt. Jr. Flynn has to confront his father and face the harsh reality that his hero was the devil in disguise.  Hank drove you crazy with his relentless poking around and you sometimes wished Skyler would just look the other way rather than know the truth. You sympathized with a hit man like Mike, you felt sorry for Saul getting in over his head. You understood Gus' motivations and you respected Hector's code of honor.

Through it all, you saw the wreckage left in the wake of that first lie Walter White told himself. That he was doing all this for his family. What has been at the heart of this show was the pull between the story that Walter created - I'm dying and I want to leave my family financially secure - and the truth that motivated him - I have fallen short of my hopes and dreams and expectations and I will not die until I have rectified that. Walt had been living a life of quiet desperation since he walked away from the company he co-founded, Gray Matter, losing out on the money, the notoriety, the feeling of self-worth that comes from being the best at something. You could see that he loved science and wanted to share his knowledge, but the blank stares he received in return from his students could not compete with a Nobel Prize or his face on the cover of a magazine. Instead, he was just marking time, a failure in his own eyes, literally on his knees scrubbing cars instead of at the pinnacle of his profession.

Then comes his awakening. The cancer diagnosis that kick starts him out of his inertia and semi-conscious state. The last time he spoke the truth was when he told Jesse, in Episode 1, that he was "awake." There was an awakening for Walt, but it was an awakening of a demon that had been dormant for years. This demon was fueled by hubris. Let loose, it bowled over everyone and everything in its path. He was invincible in his mind. He could take on drug lords and cartels and multinational organizations and the federal government. Nothing scared him. So cocky, so convinced of his superiority (as his brother-in-law, often reminded him, he was the smartest guy in the world), that he kept pushing his luck, kept trying to get more, to be more.

He told himself at first, that he was doing this to make money to leave to his family. $737,000 would do it, he said. But then it became, what is enough? Is there ever enough? If he was making money for his family, the answer would have been yes, there is enough. But Walt wasn't doing this for his family, he was doing this to make a point. He wasn't the high school teacher/part time car wash employee. He wasn't just some 50-year-old with a dire medical prognosis, he was someone to respect, to fear, to be in awe of. He was going to be on top.  So great was his self-pride that numerous times he could have gotten away, escaped detection, rode off into the sunset, but he needed not just to win, but for others to realize he had won.  It stopped being about money for his family (if it ever was for that) and became about building his reputation.

"You asked me if I was in the meth business or the money business. Neither. I'm in the empire business," Walt told Jesse late in their relationship. Perhaps if Jesse, or Skyler, had realized this earlier, they could have stopped him or at least put some distance between themselves and Walt. But by this point, it was too late for everyone. Not to justify selling meth to pay the bills, but had his motivation been to make enough for his family, had his ego and pride not gotten in the way, there would have been little fallout from his "breaking bad." But Walt needed to be acknowledged for his accomplishment. He couldn't stand the thought of someone else getting credit for his meth any more than he can stand his Gray Matter partners taking sole credit for the company. Men and their pride is a well-worn thematic force in for a good reason. It's in the DNA to want to do/create something and be applauded for it. Even when Jesse asks him, is building a meth empire really something to be proud of, Walt doesn't hear him. Building an empire, regardless of the type, is all that matters.

And what does Jesse Pinkman want? When we meet him, he wants to get laid, get high and get fat stacks. If Walt is all Ego, Jesse is all Id. It's all about pleasure - hanging with his friends, playing video games, and chilling. Jesse is a burnout, alienated from his family, running afoul of the law, and on a path that will lead to a mid-sized jail term if he's lucky. But where we see a transformation in Walt from milquetoast to kingpin, there is a different transformation with Jesse. He went from classic under-achiever, convinced that he was stupid, a loser, to someone who started to have confidence and believe he could accomplish something. He learned, he became more responsible, and he tried to grow. Where Breaking Bad succeeded so well is in not showing Jesse's path as on an upward trajectory.  For every gain, there was a setback. He put on a suit and tie to interview for a real job, but after getting nowhere, he immediately gave up. He met a girl and planned for the future, then let drugs derail that plan. He went to rehab, only to turn around and use the opportunity it to sell drugs.

Jesse did bad things, but unlike Walt, he was conflicted about and eventually destroyed by the bad person he became. We saw a character struggle, fail, and struggle some more with the damage he inflicted - intentionally or by accident - on others. He suffered for his poor decisions unlike anyone else in the show and yet could never seem to pull himself out of the depths of despair. If there was a lesson to be learned about drugs it was that one. Drugs - both as a user and as a seller - took hold of his life and set it adrift. No amount of kind heart or good intentions or impassioned promises to change could alter the path to destruction. As long as he was part of that world, he would hurt himself and his loved ones over and over.

Collateral damage is a big part of Breaking Bad. From the children destroyed by their parents' actions (whether it's the meth-heads' tow-headed son or Walt's two children), to those in law enforcement, to innocent bystanders in the crossfire, to loved ones, to total strangers on a plane, the reach of victims is staggeringly broad. The episode Ozymandias was a perfect platform to show how all that Walter had hoped to accomplish had instead crumbled beneath his feet. Lives destroyed, literally or figuratively, families pulled apart, human decency cast aside. All the unintended consequences of Walter's intentions were on full display.

Last night's episode, "Granite State," was chilling in its reinforcement of Walt's ability to destroy everyone and everything despite his intentions. While he plotted and planned to fix things or make things right, he ignored the one way he could have actually helped those he cared about - by giving up.  Instead, by the end, he was again propelled into action by his old pal Ego.  He could not bear the thought of his name and legacy diminished as it was by his old partners, and so he is coming back to get what he thinks is owed him. Whether it's his money or his reputation, whatever it is he's after, it's not what he really needs.  He won't have his family or their love and he's too blinded by rage to see that.

I'm glad I stumbled onto this show, luckier still that I did it before the end so I can take the final steps along with other fans. If you haven't watched it yet, it's not too late. AMC is running a marathon starting on Wednesday, to help you catch up in time for Sunday's finale. Surely you can spare 50 hours of viewing for a show this good!  It's not passive viewing, though.  It's tough to watch and will stay with you after you've shut it off.  But it's worth the ride.