Breaking Bad: What’s so good? (Ethics and Politics)

I have been a smoker for too many years to feel a natural attraction to a TV drama where the central premise is that the protagonist is dying of lung cancer. Nevertheless, a friend lent us the box set of Series 1 of Breaking Bad a couple of years ago and there wasn’t much else on TV (or my life) at the time so I overcame my queasiness and like many have come to be a fan of this show.

The main character Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is a middle aged, law abiding, poorly paid science teacher who on discovering he has terminal lung cancer, deploys his knowledge of chemistry to turn his hand to ‘cooking’ the drug methamphetamine as a means of securing the financial future of his pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and his son Walt Junior (R.J. Mitte). To address his ignorance of this ‘business’ he recruits as his assistant an ex-student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), a drug user and small time dealer. Understandably Walter wishes to keep this project secret from his family, not least because his brother in law Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) married to Skyler’s sister Marie (Betsy Brandt), is an officer in the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

There is a great deal about series 1 that is immediately appealing. The pace of the show is leisurely and gives significant time and space to delineating characters and establishing relationships. Strongly supported by perfectly judged and delicately nuanced performances from all concerned this encourages the development of a close and sympathetic identification with Walter and his role as part of the White/Schrader family. Essentially they are portrayed as a close and loving group of ordinary and decent people, muddling through the up and downs of everyday life together. Although they are not without their disputes and eccentricities (for instance, under stress Marie suffers from kleptomania) these are played for gentle comic effect.

In fact overall, this is often a very funny show with humour arising from Walter’s attempts to conceal his ‘double life’ from his family, his interaction with the feckless and often exceptionally irritating Jesse, and from the situations produced by their joint naivety and inexperience in their encounters with the ‘professional’ world of class A drugs. In these latter instances, the comedy is often dark and even gory. For example, there is a revolting but nonetheless very funny scene revolving around Jesse’s failure to buy the right chemicals when they find themselves needing to dispose of a body and Walter decides that the best plan is to dissolve it in acid in a (resin) bath.

The lead up to this incident, whereby to save their business they are ‘forced’ to kidnap a drug distributor and ultimately to murder him (a task which after much agonising Walter achieves, albeit in self-defence rather than cold blood), signals what is ultimately most gripping about this show. Having set out on this path Walter rapidly finds himself embroiled in a violent world where his and Jesse’s ignorant bumbling can have fatal consequences for other people. Initially, the viewer is not especially prompted to question Walter’s decisions. This is due to a combination of the strength of the identification with Walter as a ‘good man’, the drama’s comic tone and familiarity with the conventions of so many crime and gangster dramas, whereby the deaths of ‘bad guys’ and by-standers (however innocent) don’t carry much ethical or emotional weight.

However, towards the end of series 1 and increasingly throughout series 2 and 3 as he becomes more ‘successful’ in this enterprise (in terms of making money), we see how his descent into the underworld of drugs for the sake of his family puts in jeopardy, at first his relationship with them and later their very lives. Storylines make it increasingly hard to ignore the seriousness of the consequences of Walter and Jesse’s actions for others either in terms of the cycles of violence and retribution which they spark off, or simply in terms of their responsibility as suppliers of a dangerous and highly addictive class A drug.

It also becomes harder and harder to overlook the way Walter’s judgment and values have been changed by his criminality. There is a pivotal moment at the end of series 2 when arriving at Jesse’s house late one night to deliver some money, he finds Jesse and his new(ish) girlfriend Jane (Krysten Ritter) lying in a heroin induced stupor and stands by and watches as Jane chokes to death on her own vomit.

In dramatic terms a string of previous events ‘justifies’ a certain level of anger and exasperation towards both Jesse and Jane on his part as their use of the ‘product’ spins out of control. Nevertheless, if Jane is not exactly ‘innocent’ she is not a villain, or (in terms of the show’s genre conventions) a ‘disposable’ walk on part either. Rather she is a ‘featured’ character and portrayed as an attractive, intelligent and charming (white, middle class) young woman, who before meeting Jesse with his access to large supplies of drugs, was a recovering addict forging a new life as an artist. Walter is not directly responsible for her death and does not kill her, he simply fails to take action to help her and if he had not been there she would have died anyway. Yet her death is at least partly traceable back to his choice to make and sell methamphetamine and to involve Jesse in this enterprise in the first place, and his decision not to save her life is based on the fact that she represents an impediment to his business of making money from drugs.

All these elements combine to create a moment when there is a sense that Walter irretrievably crosses a line in a way that is so shocking it encourages the viewer (or at least this viewer) to reflect on how far an identification with this character has prompted the uncritical acceptance of his choices and behaviour, even as one step at a time, these have became increasingly selfish and corrupt.

The viewer is therefore implicated as a complacent witness in this process and despite its humour Breaking Bad potentially raises serious ethical issues. These relate to how, for the sake of ‘their’ families (at the expense of those of others), inch by inch ‘decent, ordinary’ people might slide into modes of thinking and behaviour which previously they would have denounced as unthinkable and unspeakable.

At the same time, the show underlines the potentially far-reaching consequences of an individual’s actions and choices within a social structure, where one way or another, we are all inextricably connected.

There is also a possible element of self-reflexivity in all this in relation to Breaking Bad itself as a TV drama. This in terms of encouraging contemplation of how certain ‘entertainment’ genres might reinforce, if not produce notions of certain categories of persons as ‘disposable’; as Judith Butler might say as ‘ungreivable’.

However, the New Mexico setting for this drama raises some questions about its own representation of Hispanic characters. Mostly these tend to be cast as ‘disposable’ villains, or as ‘victims’ or simply as bit part players.

Equally, the shows ethical concerns are undercut by a tendency to dwell on violence and gore as spectacle for sensational affect. It also favours a certain degree of dramatic hyperbole, whereby for instance, the impact of Jane’s death in terms of the theme of actions, consequences and interconnectedness becomes overstated to the point of losing its edge. Soon after, Walter co-incidentally meets Jane’s father Donald in a bar and later, a plane crash over his neighbourhood that sends debris falling onto and around his home, is caused by a distracted and grieving Donald, who is an air traffic controller

Nevertheless, the establishing of a potentially serious set of ethical questions at the core to Breaking Bad carries through to series 3 (which is as far as I have got for now). Walter’s point of view is still often privileged in ways that solicit empathy but as frequently he is portrayed in ways that create suspicion as to his motivations and encourages critical judgment.

More time is given to Jesse who literally and figuratively sobered by Jane’s death, moves from nihilistic despair and self loathing to a dawning awareness of the impact of his actions on some of the apparently ‘disposable’ characters from this and past series. He begins to make a somewhat muddled stab at redressing some of the wrongs in which he has played a part but typically, he ends by causing more death and destruction.

Significantly, the character of Skyler is also allowed to develop. In the first two series she was very much defined in limited terms as a concerned and loving ‘wife’ and ‘mother’. As such, she mostly functioned as a well-intentioned but from Walter’s perspective (which at this point the viewer is encouraged to share) a sometimes exasperating obstruction to the demands of his secret double life.

Having found out about his ‘cooking’, Skyler throws him out and seeks a divorce, forbidding him contact with Walt Junior and their newborn baby daughter. Nevertheless, she keeps Walter’s secret for their sake. Partly through the insistence of a bewildered Walt Junior who is therefore given no reason for the split, she gradually lets Walter back into their lives and eventually accepts his ‘worklife’ to the extent of becoming involved in laundering the drug money. This decision rapidly throws up unforeseen effects, which lead to the accidental death of her ex-boss and sometime lover. In short, once she starts down the same slippery ethical slope already trodden by Walter she starts up a train of consequences which also inadvertently pushes Walter himself to ever more questionable actions to safeguard his own life and that of his family.

I have been focusing primarily on character as a feature of what makes Breaking Bad so good but the excellent writing and performances that make these fictions compelling are supported by extremely clever narrative structures and dazzling cinematography (televisionotography?).

The opening sequences of episodes often show enigmatic ‘flash forwards’ which propose the narrative as a ‘puzzle’ to be worked out. The whole of series 2 is in fact framed by such an enigma, as each episode opens with shots of debris in and around the pool at Walter’s house which includes a singed Teddy bear. This is fall out from the plane crash that ends the series but since this is not ‘explained’ until the very last episode, the viewer is left to ‘guess’ its import. Each time this sequence is revisited more detail is provided but certain objects, such as one of the bear’s blue glass eyes caught in the pool’s filter, come under repeated and lingering focus, that suggests it has a meaning beyond its simple relationship to the narrative.

Stunning wide shots of the New Mexican desert emphasising its austere and inhospitable beauty, are a running motif in each series. Again, while these have a function in the narrative, the way they are introduced, framed and held and the cumulative effect of their repetition means that these become images for contemplation in their own right. As such they seem to hint at a significance less obvious and literal than apparent in the drama’s ostensible action. All of this can be seen as part of a strategy that seeks to implicate the viewer in this action and to invite them to think beyond the simple pattern of its events.

One last thing, that is good about Breaking Bad. The character of Walt Junior has mild cerebral palsy as does R.J. Mitte who plays him, a decidedly ‘ethical’ casting choice. Further, while Walt Junior’s health is touched on very briefly in series 1 as one reason for Walter’s concern for his family’s finances after his own death, this is not stressed and is seldom if ever again remarked or foregrounded as an ‘problem’ or ‘issue'(at least up to series 3). Instead, Walt Junior is represented as an average teenager, although an especially polite, pleasant and caring one. If this carries a hint of ‘positive representation’ with Breaking Bad perhaps making Walt Junior a little too good to be true, it is counteracted by Mitte’s performance especially towards the end of series 3 when he is giving more screen time and can be seen to visibly grow in confidence, depth and maturity.

Gerry

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