March 1, 2011 / Mediation, Uncategorized
A recent article on Francis Schaeffer in Commonweal magazine highlights the “tremendous tension” in the …
Zachary Thomas Settle:
Feeling for Justice: Season 5, Episode 12
Last night’s Breaking Bad episode, “Rabid Dog,” picks up right where the previous episode left off: with Jesse dousing Walt’s house in gasoline. This episode, though, begins with Walt’s perspective, and we watch in eager anticipation as he frantically searches for Jesse. The most interesting thing to me about last night’s show, though, was how disappointed I was when Walt didn’t find Jesse at the house. I am ready for some sort of confrontation, for things to come to a head, but more than anything, I am ready to watch Walt burn.
I don’t think I am alone in this experience, either. As we have mentioned before, Breaking Bad’s stroke of genius lies in its affective nature. The show elicits, even demands, a sort of participation from and in the viewer. I have argued that the paradoxical tension we feel as viewers is a direct result of our participation in Walt’s downfall. We were sympathizers and rationalizers for the first three seasons, and we went all the way down the rabbit hole with him. Once we finally reached the bottom of the pit, though, where Heisenberg finally seemed to take over, the monster we helped to create in Walt, as well as the monsters we found in ourselves, began to horrify us.
I can’t remember when everything shifted for me, either. Maybe when I go back through and watch the series again I will be able to highlight a specific instance when I stopped rooting for Walt, but for now, I cannot. My feelings towards Walt, though, were only passive for a brief moment. I went from sympathizing and rationalizing, to mourning, to being overwhelmed, to where I am now: ready for the whole thing to be done and to have justice served.
In the pendulum swing of my experience, my sympathy did not simply die out. Rather, it was shifted to Jesse, who inhabits the obviously inversed narratival arch of Walt. We were intially annoyed at Jesse, but now we are crying out for justice alongside him. My disappointment with Jesse not pulling the trigger and burning Walt’s house to the down was suspended when Hank burst into the house and stopped Jesse at gunpoint. Jesse, about to set the match to the magazine to the gas, is just as ready to burn it down as we are, and when Hank threatened that urge in him, Jesse simply cried out, “He can’t keep getting away with it.” And then Jesse yelled it again, ever more impassioned, to which Hank replied, “If you want to burn it down, let’s do it together.”
The shot ends without a fire, and we are left fantasizing about burning it all to the ground. My disappointment and fantasizing were only confirmed when they were mirrored in Marie’s interaction with her therapist. I am completely aware of the inappropriate nature of violence. I understand that violence only begets violence, but as Marie so plainly stated, “It feels good to think about.” I am also aware of the absurdity of this experience in myself. In no way can I ever rationalize or justify the urges I have at this point, but I think that’s the point of the show. This experience only testifies to the profoundly affective nature of Breaking Bad, which is nothing less than a bit horrifying at this point.
In a profoundly revealing interview in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/10/magazine/the-dark-art-of-breaking-bad.html?pagewanted=all), Vince Gilligan briefly touched on this tension, a tension he no doubt carefully crafted in his viewers. “If there’s a larger lesson to ‘Breaking Bad,’” he said, “it’s that actions have consequences. . . .If religion is a reaction of man, and nothing more, it seems to me that it represents a human desire for wrongdoers to be punished. . . .I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something. I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen. My girlfriend says this great thing that’s become my philosophy as well. ‘I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.’”
Towards the end of the episode, we see Walt talking to Walt Jr. about his cancer. He explains to Walt Jr., who thinks that the gasoline incident was a mere byproduct of Walt passing out from the gas fumes, that everything is going to be ok. He comforts Walt Jr., explaining, “You think I came all of this way to let something as silly as lung cancer bring me down? Not a chance.” And for the first time in a season and a half, I hope Walt is right. I hope the cancer doesn’t win out because I want justice to be served.
What’s One More?: Season 5, Episode 12
Skyler White is on board.
In what is decidedly a transitional fourth episode in the final eight of season five’s second half (whew), we see the character so often maligned on the message boards for being Walt’s incorrigible adversary complete a full 180. The turn began in episode ten when Walt collapsed in a heap on the bathroom floor, his chemo-ridden body reacting to the exertion of burying barrels (literally) of money in the desert. There, Skyler uttered words we never thought we’d hear in a reassuring tone we previously thought impossible: “Maybe our best move here is to stay quiet.”
Our best move?
Perhaps this is some kind of bizarre Stockholm syndrome finally taking effect in the captive victim Skyler. In the first half of this season, we realized the devastating truth that she was trapped. Truly, fully trapped, by a monster growling and cornering her on her bed, to the degree that even she confessed all she could do was “wait for the cancer to come back” and kill her captor. Yet, with her captor’s potential killer crouching at the door in the form of cancer and, now, Jesse Pinkman, she has completely switched sides, defending the very one who dragged her to this hopeless dungeon.
And it is Jesse Pinkman who catalyzes the full switch. It all started last week, in showrunner Vince Gilligan’s signature move of thrilling us in the final five minutes. We witnessed Jesse beating Saul Goodman and racing to the White residence to douse it in gasoline. (Will Jesse kill Walt? His family? Find out next week!) And last night, we returned to find the gas can on the floor in an empty and intact house. Disappointingly, it seems, Jesse changed his mind (or had it changed for him).
That change of mind is proof enough for Walter – who lapses into moments of morality or fidelity like an actor trying to believe he really is the role he plays – that Jesse is worth saving, and murder is not an option. Not even Saul can convince him that this is “an Old Yeller type situation.” But it is Skyler who will not compromise on the basis of this faux fidelity, this grasping at straws of hypocritical fatherly forgiveness and delusional mentoring for a troubled youngster. No, Walter is a killer. And so is Jesse. She, it seems, has fully embraced the reality of the present situation as she withstands Walter to the face.
“Walt, you need to deal with this… [Jesse is] a person who is a threat to us. After everything we’ve done, you can’t just talk to this person. We’ve come this far, for us – what’s one more?”
These words are, truly, an eruption of the Real, burning all the hypocrisies to the ground. There’s no more room for Walter’s deceptions – or self-deceptions. The scrolls have been opened. The great Revelation has begun.
Stockholm syndrome or not, to say that Skyler is now committed to her own downward spiral of justifying evil in the name of family and security and escape is beyond dispute. And when the episode suddenly flashes back to where we left off last week, with Jesse still preparing the White house for its hellish demise, the sides in this final battle become even more clear. The lines are starkly painted as Hank enters, gun drawn, to stop Jesse from completing this act of judgment, to call him to a greater and more decisive victory. It is like witnessing a man in hell redeemed for the purpose of participating in a great plan of vindication.
And vindication is, indeed, what this man in hell wants most.
Not for himself, but over and against his enemy.
“He can’t keep getting away with this! He can’t keep getting away with it!”
The final four episodes will be, without a doubt, an apocalyptic showdown between good and evil – and the players will occupy all the shades of gray in between. Who will win? Who will lose? And can anyone be saved?
Regardless, we may all say with Saul Goodman: “I never should have let my dojo membership run out.”
Season 5, Episode 12
This week’s episode of Breaking Bad, while feeling a bit flat in comparison to previous episodes, offered a unique and surprisingly strange turn. In the midst of all the confusion and chaos, as Jesse revenges himself against Walt and prepares to ignite a war, for the first time, Walt is the person who preserves a semblance of empathy: he seems to be the only one who truly cares for Jesse. With only a few episodes left in the series, the confrontation between Jesse and Walt, which has been building over the entire course of the show, is finally coming to a head. As was predicted last week, Jesse seems to finally have broken, and his desperate crusade to destroy Walt has even driven him to working with Hank and Gomez. The characters are becoming defined by their regard and relationship to Jesse. Hank and Gomez are both willing to throw Jesse into the line of fire in order to bring Walt down. Skylar, in a complete reversal of her demeanor just a few episodes ago, has settled comfortably into her role as Lady Macbeth, and is fully ready for Walt to kill Jesse. Even Saul suggests that it may be time to put Jesse down like “Ole Yeller.” Walt is the only one who seems to hold any regard for Jesse’s life.
I’ve said before that Jesse may be the most important character in Breaking Bad. Jesse has become a kind of moral signifier against which the character of those around him is defined. If the redemptive weight of the show has rested on Jesse thus far, one wonders if Walt’s unwillingness to kill him may have shifted that trajectory back in the other direction. There’s no question that Walt cares for Jesse. The question instead is why? Jesse encompasses and represents the entire history and scope of Walt’s degeneration and corruption. Jesse, in a sense, is the only person who truly knows Walt and the only person Walt feels he can actually save. Walt can be a redemptive force only through Jesse: much of the story of Breaking Bad has been about Walt rescuing and fathering Jesse. And now that there is finally a compelling and urgent need to remove Jesse, perhaps the thing most desired and expected will again be deferred: perhaps Walt will actually do the right thing.
Is it possible that Breaking Bad’s viewership is so committed to Walt’s destruction and the accompanying sense of justice that we may be unable or unwilling to countenance the notion that perhaps, the show is actually about the most radical thing possible: Walt’s redemption? I have firmly believed that Breaking Bad is not a redemptive story nor is it or should it be. But as Jesse says: “Whatever is supposed to happen, the exact opposite is going to happen.” The biggest twist of Breaking Bad may be that all our expectations are wrong.
Robert Andrew Norman
Zachary Thomas Settle
Zachary Thomas Settle currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where he is a PhD student working in political theology in the Graduate Department of Religion at Vanderbilt. He is also the editor, alongside Taylor Worley, of a forthcoming volume on theology, phenomenology, and film: Dreams, Doubt and Dread: The Spiritual in Film.