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three ways of "reading" breaking bad

well it didn't take long. dom and i finished watching "breaking bad" in only a few weeks. and that's counting the fact that we purposely waited a few days before watching the second part of season five. we just wanted to stretch it out as long as possible before we had to resign ourselves to the fact that it was gone [something fans of the show have generally already done].

my thoughts?

well, as i'd been told, it is truly a triumph of screenwriting. the caliber of the script is nothing short of incredible and eclipses anything else i've seen on television. in fact, it eclipses most things i've seen on film. the progression of walter white from cowed, stooped, defeated high school chemistry teacher to vicious drug kingpin and finally to embittered, doomed antihero is beyond brilliant. and i fully believe that the show went out, more than any other show i've seen, when it was just about on top of its game. i'll get to what i meant by "just about" a little later.

being a writer myself, one of my favourite things about the show was thinking of different ways in which i could interpret the story. creator and head writer vince gilligan has said that he views the tale as a sort of western for the modern world, but i think that's selling the series short. so, i thought i'd share some of the ideas that came to me as i was watching it.

now, i will place the break in such a way that if you haven't seen the series and think you might want to, you can simply stop reading, because there are definitely spoilers to come. if you choose to keep going, i'm going to ruin everything for you.


hypothesis #1 :: it's mythical

there are certainly elements of traditional myth at play here. we see walter white's alter ego "heisenberg" represented as a crude drawing on an altar in a mexican shrine, where penitents crawl. he is, for many in the story, a legendary figure, a rumour or a monster. indeed, in the iconic "say my name" sequence in season five, the undisclosed punch line of the joke seems to be that no one, even the hardened criminals who run the meth trade, seem to believe that he is real.

there are more mythical elements to the walter/ heisenberg character. he is the subject of ballads, or at least one ballad, much like the heroes of yore. we get to see the "narco corrido" about him as the intro to an episode in season two. he is the character that is spoken of in hushed tones, a sort of bogey man for the narcotics world.

but the story of walter white has something in common with other myths. from the time we meet him until the end of the series, he is a man with a death sentence. we know from the beginning that he is dying, that the cancer that drives him to embark on his criminal enterprise is eating away at him. even when he goes into remission, we know that the cancer hangs there, never defeated, always waiting to return.

walter is destined to have those around him outlive him and to be overtaken by his children, both literal [walt jr.] and figurative [jesse]. throughout the series, we watch him fight to maintain his position of supremacy, his position of strength over those who would usurp him, much like the mythical figure of cronos, driven to devour his children rather than allow them to defeat him.

of course, the end is fated. walter will be overcome by his younger peers, no matter how desperately he tries to stop them and how much pain he inflicts on them in the meantime. his ultimate demise is foretold from the very premise of the story: everything that happens does so because walter is going to die, one way or another. the more he tries to fight this, of course, the more monstrous he becomes. this is what we see during the course of the series: his desperate battle to maintain control and supremacy until he is finally forced to concede defeat. we know it's coming, but it's still hard to accept, because he is positioned as our hero, frightening though that might be.

hypothesis #2 :: original sins

although they're hardly mentioned in the series, walter's parents loom large over everything that happens. in the first and second season, we hear his mother mentioned as a ferociously negative, angry person, someone whom neither walter nor his wife skyler wants to contact. as far as we can tell, she is a miserable human being with nothing positive to say about anyone.

walter's father is mentioned only once, when walter, drugged out with pain meds and grieving over his fight with jesse, breaks down and tells his son about him. the father died of huntingdon's disease and walter's only real memory of him was seeing him twisted and helpless in a hospital bed as a child. this image, we can deduce, has haunted him throughout his life and made him desperate to maintain control over himself, has left him terrified to show vulnerability to anyone.

the combination of the overbearing, embittered mother and the weak, absent father- as little as they figure in the actual story [neither ever appears in the series]- are evident in everything walter white does. his early persona as the impotent [figuratively and literally], sad figure beaten down by the demands and desires of others is the progeny of his mother. the character that emerges- heisenberg- is the reaction to his upbringing and to everything that he has done in his entire life.

early on, we see his self-loathing as he shuffles through his daily life, the sense that he has given up what opportunities he might have had, that he has been beaten down and left figuratively crippled. through the series, we see him rise from that state and become the dominant, aggressive alpha male who he never had in his life. in a sense, he becomes a figment of his own imagination made real, the ultimate masculine and the exact opposite of both the powerless father he remembers and the browbeaten mouse his mother raised.

it's interesting that despite the series' focus on family, not once does walter ever attempt to communicate with his mother, or any blood relative. his family is determined by his marriage- skyler, her sister and her sister's husband are the only ones with whom he shares a familial bond. the only time we hear him talk about his still-living mother, apparently shut up in a home somewhere, is when he tells skyler he is going to visit her as a cover story for spending the weekend cooking meth with jesse in the desert. in fact, we find out afterward that he never even tells his mother that he has cancer, indicating the profound alienation of their relationship.

his memory of his father, as much as it explains his character, is almost grotesque. while we might expect him to feel pity or sympathy for the man, he seems overwhelmed with a sort of disgust that informs his every action. it stops him from accepting the charity of his former business partners early on. it drives him to feed his son tequila to the point of throwing up as a way of competing with hank for his attention. and of course, it makes him outright vicious to jesse, who is the one person he knows he can dominate because they have no real history together.

in a way, everything that happens in the series can be laid at the doorstep of walter's parents, although they are barely present in the scripts. the shadow they cast over their son and everyone he touches is long indeed.

hypothesis #3 :: he's a femme fatale

about midway through season four, i started wondering how the series might have been different if the writers had made jesse's character a young woman instead of a young man. to my surprise, what i realised was that it wouldn't have made much difference at all. in fact, much of the story makes even more sense if you think of jesse as the leading lady of the series. a leading lady who happens to be a man. the only real difference is that, by making the character male, it removes the distraction of any sexual tension that would have seeped in otherwise.

after all, jesse has a number of traits that are normally deemed "feminine": he is repulsed by violence, something which ultimately starts to tear him apart; he is highly emotional and is driven by his feelings rather than rationality; he has an affinity for children that supersedes any of his other interests. [in the humourous alternate ending of the show, bryan cranston even refers to jesse as a "waif".] but what struck me most about the "femininity" of the character is the effect that he has on the more traditional men in the series. because no matter how emotionally detached and cautious they are, there is something about jesse that just draws them in [to an untimely end].

of course, jesse isn't a femme fatale in the barbara stanwyck in "double idemnity" kind of way. he's more like louise brooks in "pandora's box"; he doesn't mean for anything bad to happen to the people around him, but something in him simply invites chaos. he tumbles into the series half naked out a window and nothing around him goes smoothly from that moment on. he doesn't seem to have any particular skill or strength, especially at first, but there is something enchanting about him. how can you tell? because people who otherwise seem to know better keep getting enchanted.

both gus and mike warn walter about the dangers of putting his trust in jesse. gus tells walter in their first meeting that "you can never trust an addict". mike, in typically crusty fashion, cautions him not to make the same mistake twice. and what happens? both men change once they get a little closer. gus goes from being impressed by walter's businesslike approach to "firing" him in an empty expanse of desert and warning him to stay away from jesse from then on. no one in the series dares cross gus, but jesse defies him repeatedly and while that elicits something as close to emotion [shock] as one ever sees from gus, he accepts it. and finally, it gets him [spectacularly] killed.

with mike, the change is even more profound. what starts off as contempt and resentment becomes a true emotional bond. mike becomes genuinely impressed with and fond of his young sidekick, to the point where, as much as he wants to, he's unable to shoot walter simply because jesse won't get out of the way. earlier mike would have simply taken them both out. instead, mike ends up going into business with them, getting dragged along with events until walter- seen seething in the background at the bond between mike and someone he sees as his- shoots him.

of course, no one is as damaged or as damaging in their relationship with jesse as walter. hank is the only one who seems aware of this, advising jesse that walter seems to genuinely care about him and noting that much of what walter has done has been to keep jesse close by. it's one of the most acute observations that hank makes during the whole series [and he does make several]. walter isn't merely trying to keep jesse happy enough not to cause problems, he actively wants seeks to dispose of anyone who could come between them. he watches as jesse's girlfriend chokes to death. he kills mike. he quietly goads jesse into breaking up with andrea. and at his most sadistic, he sits jesse- his "mistress" figure- down to have dinner with him and skyler.

i would say that the one bit of disappointment that i had with the final episodes of the series stems from the treatment of the walter-jesse relationship. i find that the series flags noticeably when they aren't together, which makes the last few episodes seem oddly detached from the rest of the show. but ultimately, the thing that frustrated me was that this key relationship is given a very half-hearted farewell. the two are not just partners in some drug caper gone awry; they have torn each others' lives apart and we've watched them do it, many of us cheering them on. while i appreciate the writers' efforts not to sink into maudlin emotion, i really felt that there needed to be something more than a meaningful nod.

so those are some of my thoughts... one of the great things about this show is that it just keeps getting me thinking and thinking and thinking. that's always a good sign, i find.


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