September 23, 2014 / Mediation
“I don’t wanna talk about time travel ‘cause if we start talking about it then …
August 19, 2013
Zachary Thomas Settle:
All the Way Down the Rabbit Hole: Season 5, Episode 10
One of the most interesting things about the public’s reception of Breaking Bad is its overwhelming dislike of Skyler White; no other character has motivated such harsh critiques. I have to say, though, that Skyler has been one of my favorite characters since she found out the truth about Walt’s cooking meth. I am fascinated with Skyler because she has always been a survivor.
In last night’s episode, though, we experienced a major shift in Skyler. Her general disposition shifted away from the mode of existential survival, and she got caught up in the inevitable progression of Walt’s unavoidable demise, in the strange movement of the thing put in motion by his choice to start cooking. Previously, Walt trapped Skyler, and she had no options but to wait, to survive. She had to bear up under the tensions of her situation and hold everything together. She was prohibited from telling the truth because it would cost her what was most dear to her: her family. This is the point at which Skyler explained to Walt that her only possible course of action was to wait for Walt’s cancer to come back; Walt’s death was her way out.
And Skyler was right: once the truth came out, Marie tried taking her baby from her. Surprisingly, though, Skyler found no freedom in confession or the return of Walt’s cancer. In a strange way, her relational bond with Walt, her inextricable involvement with her husband, has changed her opinion, her very disposition. She’s all in now and she wants to ride this thing out a little longer in hopes of keeping the money.
I felt deeply for Skyler when Walt forced her into silence. The thing I loved about her was that she bore up under the weight of her own situation. She analyzed her context and lived within the limit, thereby becoming the ultimate existential figure of the show. This response in me, though, was nothing less than the rationalization of Skyler’s dishonesty and inextricable involvement in my own mind. I decided, with Skyler, as Skyler, that she was still on this side of some sort of moral limit, the breaking line of no return, because she was operating out some form of fidelity.
I was confronted with that logic last night, though, as Walt was so horrified by Saul’s recommendation to kill Hank. Walt does not live in a non-moral universe; rather, he operates out of a moral code structured by limits and faithfulness, and this strange form is the very structure we spent the first three seasons of the show creating alongside Walt.
The genius of Breaking Bad is found not in its characters or storyline; rather, Breaking Bad’s stroke of grace lies in the way it has fostered a certain experience in the viewer. We all know that the show documents one man’s demise, and there are countless interesting things to say about that process. But Breaking Bad demonstrates the evolution of Walter White in such a way that we, as viewers, walk down the path of destruction with him. In a strange way, we start off the show rationalizing Walt’s actions away. We are made to feel the tensions and dread of choice, action and consequence without resolve. Breaking Bad forces its audience into the position of Walter White, and we ventured all the way down the rabbit hole with him. The overarching question that seems to structure our role as viewers is: where do you draw the line? We rationalized with Walt, we walked with Walk, and we only lost support for him once he was in the thick of it all, maintaining the chaos that we created with him. Walt essentially serves as the inevitable manifestation of the consequences of our own choices, and we are left detesting the monster we created, the monster we became.
And with only six episodes left, we want to watch him, along with ourselves, burn.
All in the Family: Season 5, Episode 10
Sociopaths are born, not made.
At least that’s the theory of most psychologists. And rightly so, it would seem; even a cursory investigation of sociopathic behavior suggests that there is something heritable at the root, something in there very deep that is only awakened or nurtured by various life experiences and choices. My conversation partner, Zac, rightly observed last week that these final episodes seem to be hastening toward an inevitable end: the demise of Walter White. But the question remains: Is Walter’s wildly destructive path that of a sociopath?
Without trying to peer too deeply into the dark recesses of series creator Vince Gilligan’s mind, I am at least beginning to think that the title of the show is intentionally ironic. While on the surface it appears that the character of Walter White is a down-on-his-luck high school chemistry teacher who, when subjected to the pressure of terminal illness, makes a desperate choice to sell meth in order to leave a suitable inheritance for his family, the reality is something different. Namely, Walter has a preexisting condition – a condition that simply manifests and increases in power with each desperate decision. While Jesse mockingly questioned whether his old teacher was “just gonna break bad” in the pilot, the truth is, he was bad long before setting foot in that RV.
Because I’m no psychologist, I will filter what I’m seeing here through a theological lens. It would seem that Christian theology is trying to convince the world that there is something bad about all of us, and that something might be there from birth. It is a moral kind of defect, and it is mysteriously heritable. But while some perspectives on “original sin” overstate this condition (sometimes calling it “total depravity”), Walter provides an illustration that is closer to real life. There is a Lie deep within him, probably thin and small in its inception, and it’s been there for a long time. And, a traumatic experience – not, by the way, his cancer – simply triggered that Lie. Unchecked and unrestrained, it has now resulted in the Heisenberg manifestation and the ferocious spiral we are witnessing week after week.
Episode 10 is another revolution in the spiral. And while it builds primarily on the epic confrontation between Walt and Hank in Hank’s garage, it introduces a curious relational twist, in two parts. Part one: When Saul hints that maybe Walt should kill Hank (you know, send him to “Belize”), Walt growls, “Hank is family! What is wrong with you.” Part two: After Walt collapses on the bathroom floor back home (you know, because his body is filled with chemo and he just dug a gigantic hole in the desert to conceal ten huge barrels of money), Skyler consoles, “You can’t give yourself up without giving up the money. So maybe our best move here is to stay quiet.”
Is this the same Skyler who, in episode 4 of this season, so desperately wanted to escape Walter that she finally threatened, “All I can do is wait. That’s it, that’s the only good option. Hold on. Bide my time. And wait… For the cancer to come back.”
Right there in the bathroom Walt tells her that the cancer is, in fact, back, and she takes his side? Well, it probably doesn’t hurt that Hank essentially tried to entrap her in a diner after the garage confrontation, even going so far as to put a recorder on the table and discourage her from getting a lawyer. And, it also doesn’t hurt that Marie slapped her in the face and tried to steal the baby. You know, as family does.
With months of successful car wash business under her belt and the money hidden away (now, buried away) and Walter “out” of the meth game, perhaps Skyler has begun to see things from his perspective.
Perhaps she’s even begun to respect him and his plan to prosper the family.
That’s at least how it seems when Walter, on the bathroom floor, waking up from his collapse and looking half-dead, says, “I’ll give myself up if you promise me one thing. You keep the money. Don’t ever speak of it. Never give it up. And pass it on to our children. Give them everything. Will you do that? Please? Please don’t let me have done all this for nothing.”
Nah, let’s just lay low for a while.
This is a new Skyler White.
And this curious twist is one in which family – Walt’s odd deference toward Hank, and Skyler’s seeming loyalty to Walt – seems to be the active ingredient. We are left to wait and wonder, of course, whether the tie that binds will hold. And, more importantly, whether this is all just another manifestation of the Lie.
In a recent podcast, Gilligan admitted that he no longer feels any sympathy for Walt, the borderline sociopath who just so happened to publicly break bad.
I wonder – will we leave this show feeling any sympathy for Skyler?
I appreciate you engagement with Walt, Zach. I think that you are right that we are only now seeing the consequences of the Lie that was in Walt all along.
I totally agree with you and Vince Gilligan in that I no longer feel any sympathy for Walt. In fact, I want justice to be served, and I want him to pay. This is a strange phenomenon for me, though, because I was all in with Walt for so long. Skyler too, so I don’t think that the desire to justice comes at the expense of sympathy for me.
I think your question of the sociopath is fitting, although it’s a difficult one for me because of my experience as a viewer. I made those decisions along with Walt, and as I previously argued, I think that Walt now serves as the monster we created, the monster constantly confronting our own consciences. That being said, the questioning of Walt’s sanity is the questioning of my own.
Where do we draw the line? The line between madness and sanity is razor thin, ever in flux. And what’s so enticing to me about the show itself is that we as viewers have walked with Walt down his path to demise. We spent the first three seasons deciding with him. And even here at the end, we are just now finding a place that we are unwilling to go with Skyler. This is a conversation we have been constantly having with ourselves throughout this series. Who is breaking bad? And at what point?
The infamous graphic novelist Grant Morrison, quintessentially channeling the twentieth century French philosopher Michel Foucault, put it most gracefully in Arkham Asylum: “Arkham was right, sometimes its only madness that makes us what we are.” So is Walt the crazy one? Is Skyler? Or are we?
The image right before opening credits in the cold open of “Buried” is Jesse Pinkman laying at the edge of a playground roundabout, slowly revolving himself in the dark. The long take of this from above makes him look as if he is caught in a medieval wheel of fortune, impotent against the turning gear of fate. Todd VanDerWerff’s recent piece on Breaking Bad as Shakespearean tragedy (http://www.avclub.com/articles/how-breaking-bad-broke-free-of-the-clockworkuniver,101278/) made the case for Walter White as a tragic hero like MacBeth, or perhaps more accurately a central villain like Richard III. A Shakespearean tragic figure stands in a maelstrom of his own making, pulling everything around him into the vortex. Jesse’s spinning expresses a sense of being caught, but one can’t help but notice his feet slowing dragging him along.
This is the way of the Vince Gilligan universe. Characters constantly experience the feeling of not having a choice, of being caught in the gears– and they are, almost. Walt makes sure to present the choices to those close to him as very slim indeed. But there is Jesse, continuing to honor his allegiance to an evil man (often through tears); there is Skyler, tossing a coin at the Four Corners Monument, driving back to Walter when fate thrice tells her to leave New Mexico. They are certainly victims of Walt’s manipulation, and we feel deeply for their plight. But they are not blameless. And “Buried” is both the beginning of Skyler White’s reckoning and, as Zac mentions, a turning point for her character into darker territory.
Breaking Bad presents a compelling hamartiology in the idea that sin enslaves– or in the case of more dependent characters like Skyler and Jesse, sin becomes a commitment that one has to honor. Freedom has always been at the edges of the story, teasing the characters. “Three million dollars for three months of your time,” promised Gus Fring– financial freedom for the rest of his family’s life. The promise of this freedom led to Gus’s virtual enslavement of Walt and Jesse throughout seasons three and four. The freedom in Walt’s pile of cash means that Skyler will be working to launder the money in the car wash for the rest of her life. Jesse’s financial freedom in the wake of Gale’s death left him a zombie, addicted to the thrashing bacchanals that let him forget his murder. Walt spends the episode toiling alone in the hot sun to bury his money, almost dying from exhaustion. No one here is free.
The idea of sin as commitment is frightening indeed, because it takes something we recognize as good and twists it, leaving us morally confused. In season four, Mike tells Jesse that what Gus sees in Jesse is “loyalty– only maybe you have it for the wrong guy.” Jesse’s loyalty to Walter has been one of the most endearing qualities about him, even as it breaks the heart to see Walt use him over and over. One of the final images of the episode finds Skyler kneeled down next to Walt, lovingly attending to his wounds after he has passed out in the bathroom. It is the image of a devoted spouse, and it only serves to make the dialogue that follows more heartbreaking and repulsive. The episode is carefully paced so that we don’t know what Skyler will decide and feel the suspense that she might finally give up the fight and turn them over to her honest brother-in-law. But her final lines of the episode see Skyler turning into Lady MacBeth, vowing to keep silent and protect their money. She has gone all-in with her husband, because he is the only one she has left– he is the only one who is in her sin with her. Her complicity has cut her off from anyone else.
Breaking Bad asks us to take a very close look at the things we have enslaved ourselves to in the name of freedom, or committed to in the name of love or loyalty. Because it is not just the villains and masterminds that must pay. Our small choices to ally ourselves with sin begin a grip on us that is very hard to loosen indeed.
No More Heroes: Death of the anti-Hero, Birth of the Anti-heroic: Season 5, Episode 10
Breaking Bad is certainly the example of form embodying function, actually becoming a kind of digital amphetamine to those of its widespread and fanatic followers. The show is one of the finest examples of how pop serial episodic television can so completely immerse itself into the zeitgeist as to become indicative of the social and psychological condition of culture at large. Far more interesting than any allegorical critique or narrative observation is the moral topography charted by cultural texts like Breaking Bad.
There are no doubt numerous critiques, connections and observations to be leveled at the narrative and characters of Breaking Bad. The most obvious of these is the distorting and corrupting inertia of evil, as embodied in Walt, and its tendency to inexorably draw those around him, including his loved ones, into the gravity of its pull. Equally apparent is the desperate grasping after any redemptive glimmer, mainly sought for in Jesse, as the burden of guilt and anguish at the debasement and ruin of so many lives becomes too great for him to shoulder. Jesse’s attempts to assuage his guilt, as seen in his “charitable” contributions to the community in the act of throwing his money away, are demonstrative of how the pain of guilt and corruption descend toward madness. The introductory scene of the latest episode, wherein an embittered and numb Jesse spins mindlessly on a merry-go-round, is emblematic of the cyclical rhythm into which he has fallen and his apparent impotence at reconciling his conscience. Even Hank is caught up in the cycle, willing to surrender his moral and legal obligations in his feverish obsession with apprehending and bringing Heisenberg to justice. There are countless commentaries to be made on the social evils of drug trafficking and the debasement of innumerable lives by the characters of Breaking Bad. However, what is much more compelling than these available criticisms within the narrative and structure of the show are those that could and perhaps should, be made without. The callousness of Walt and the degeneration of moral good exemplified by those around him pales in comparison to the callousness that Breaking Bad foists upon the viewer. In short, the affect of the show is not in who or what is shown, but what it subtly teaches the viewer to feel and believe: ultimately, with what it demands the viewer participate, namely, the fetishization and commodification of corruptibility.
Simply put, there are no more heroes. Or rather, the heroes generally on offer in our media are neither lauded nor respected for their moral character or what have been traditionally understood as “heroic” qualities. Walt, while neither a heroic figure nor an anti-hero, is still somehow the protagonist: that is, the viewer not only pulls for Walt, but actually revels in the spiral within which he and his family are caught. Corruptibility is now a quality to be celebrated rather than scorned, and in this, Breaking Bad is the prime example of just how powerfully affective our cultural texts can become. The popularity of shows like Breaking Bad is symptomatic of a kind of cultural fetishization of fallenness as virtue, instead of vice. Take for instance the fashionable sister series’ to Breaking Bad produced by AMC: shows like the period drama Mad Men, the apocalyptic The Walking Dead, and serial western Hell on Wheels, to name just a few. Each of these shows, while vastly disparate in content, still relies on the suspension of redemptive qualities in the main characters and story arc: the onus of the series’ impetus falls on the degeneration of moral and ethical qualities in favor of corruptibility. Simply stated, the veiled virtue of the anti-hero has been supplanted by the vice of the anti-heroic.
What is perhaps most fascinating by this shift is the degree to which it has taken hold within the majority of social consciousness: the scale is almost total. The wild, implacable popularity of shows such as HBO’s Game of Thrones and NBC’s Hannibal, among myriad other series, is indicative of the widespread dependence of media on the perversion of virtue as centrally thematic. Slovaj Zizek, in his film Looking Awry, a Lacanian meditation on the nature and affect of cinema and digital media, states that film, as a cultural text, does not tell us what to desire, but how. Far more compelling than the stories media tell us is how these stories are told: how exactly they shape us as people and the degree to which they are involved in the formation of culture at large. What cannot be debated about Breaking Bad is its popularity and its ubiquity to the conscience of the social and cultural zeitgeist. Thus, what should be most closely examined is the phenomenon of how our media transforms and shapes our desires and thus used as plumb line to gauge the depth and value of our moral quality as a culture, if such an undertaking is still deemed valuable. In short, Walter White should compel us to ask what it means when a culture truly has no more heroes?
I think you are absolutely right, Andrew. More important than diagnosing and analyzing simple narrative archs is to examine and disucss the media’s affect on us as viewers. If Breaking Bad’s rampant popularity is nothing less than the embodiment of the zeitgeist, which I believe it is, then this show is actually functioning to both shape and gauge the people and culture at large.
Your proposal to ‘examine the phenomenon of how our media transforms and shapes our desires’ is an extremely helpful and distinctly Augustinian task. The ultimate factor, you essentially propose, is the way in which Breaking Bad is shaping our desires. How does Breaking Bad inform our conception of the good life, and how is it directing its viewers towards certain ends?
We look forward to hearing your answer to these questions you have propoed. Indeed, what does it mean when a culture truly has no more heros?
Zachary Thomas Settle
Zachary Thomas Settle currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where he will begin a PhD at Vanderbilt in the graduate department of religion in the fall of 2015. He is the theology editor for The Other Journal, and he has written for the Journal of Cultural and Religious Theory and Christ and Pop Culture. He is also the editor, alongside Dr. Taylor Worley, of a forthcoming volume on theology, phenomenology, and film, entitled Dreams, Doubt, and Dread.