Sunday, September 29, 2013
A Farewell to BREAKING BAD: The Greatest Story of Our Time.
Writers have waxed endlessly about the show over these last few months, but I thought I'd pull back for a second and talk about some of the broader thematic virtues of the series. I could write for pages about the brilliance of the cast - the great Bryan Cranston in particular, in what will go down as perhaps the single greatest TV drama performance ever given. I could talk about the look and aesthetic and production value of the show - so unique and so consistently incredible. Or I could talk about the mind-blowingly good writing, that keeps you guessing week to week, that never fails to shock, disturb, or get your heart racing. But what I want to do is talk for a bit about certain feelings that Breaking Bad captures - certain themes and moments - that no other show has ever tackled with such effectiveness.
The Moment of Panic.
- We all experience it. We all know the feeling. Okay, maybe some of you are those rare Type A personalities who constantly have their $#%& together every waking moment. But for most of us, we have it: that moment when the clock is ticking, when we have to quickly weigh all options, when we feel backed into a corner and we're not quite sure how or if we're going to make it. Maybe it's a feeling that's heightened in our modern world, a feeling that's magnified when we're constantly overextending ourselves and trying to pack in as much as we can into a a day that feels increasingly short. Breaking Bad is a show that captures that feeling of modern panic better than any other. For Walter White is a man who has a literal ticking clock, a man who is constantly backed into corners. And when Breaking Bad goes into "panic mode," and hits us with one of its patented Breaking Bad sequences of pure heightened adrenaline, my reaction is a mix of excitement and dread. Dread because again, who doesn't know that feeling, even if in some small way? The feeling of oversleeping and realizing you've got ten minutes to get to work. The feeling of realizing that you've got 20 minutes to accomplish something that would normally take an hour. The feeling that your plans aren't quite coming together, and it's going to take a desperate move or calculated risk to pull 'em off. Breaking Bad's heightened reality is our modern reality cranked up to 11. Walter White's dread is our dread. On one level, all Walter wants is to reach some mythical happy ending where he lives out a life of peaceful tranquility with his family. But on another level, he keeps pushing forward and practically digging his own grave. In some small way, isn't that what we all do? We box ourselves in. We set ourselves up. We participate in actions that will come back to bite us, but we do so anyway, thinking "I may *just* be able to get away with this if I play my cards right." When Walter is able to overcome the odds, and somehow escape - when he outwits Gus Fring or lucks out and squirms his way out of a tight squeeze - we can't help but root for him despite his ever-decreasing moral compass. Why? Because we've all been there, in some small way. We know the rush that comes with getting away with something, with having a plan somehow work despite the fact that it shouldn't, and only thanks to a stroke of lucky timing.
- Here's another thing we all deal with in the "real world." The sad fact of adulthood that what is considered "good" is not always the same as what is considered required to succeed. As we get older, idealism can give way to self-preservation. And oftentimes, our own personal dealings - in business, in life - are framed as us vs. them. We're supposed to be ambitious. We're supposed to care about what's best-for-business. But how do we reconcile that with being kind, nice, caring, and good? In a world that seems to constantly pit us against one another, in which we're all scraping and clawing to be able to support ourselves and build a future, isn't it inevitable that people will get trampled along the way? It sounds bad to say that, and every day I think many of us grapple with these same issues. I know I sometimes come home from work feeling like I haven't been true to myself. I've spent all day trying to seem on top of things, trying to build up my own personal "brand," as they say. And yet what gets lost in all that is often common decency and altruism. We all see that to some extent in our own lives, and we also see it every day in the world around us. We see governments that kill in the name of a supposed greater good. We see entertainment that is exploitative. We see businesses that do harm in order to help the bottom line. Our world often constantly seems to be in a state of "breaking bad." And I think that's part of the reason why the journey of Walter White is so powerful, and why it speaks to us so clearly here in 2013. Breaking Bad spurs the conversation of: at what point do you still sympathize for, even root for, Walter White? And in turn, it makes us think about how we react - in a similar fashion - to our country, to corporations, to products we consume. Breaking Bad illustrates how behind a seemingly innocent business - say, Los Pollos Hermanos - lurks a darkness, a foundation built on crime and corruption and death. It shows us how business people like Lydia sit at the top of structures that are rooted in a similar sort of rot. Sure, the top of the hierarchy is glossed over with a fine coat of paint - its head is an attractive woman in business suits and pumps. But she is just one cog in a machine that includes gangsters, thieves, and killers. She distances herself from them outwardly. But really, how is she any different? Think about Walter White - the one thing we still sympathize with him about is his love for his family. It reminds me of during political season, when no matter how reprehensible a candidate is, we're always forced to acknowledge: "he's a family man," "he loves his sons and daughters," etc. The same sympathies that we extend Walter White could be extended to any number of corrupt, morally bankrupt, evil people. And yet ...
- At its core, Breaking Bad is a story about one man's quest to satisfy his traumatized and broken ego. And again, as loathe as we may be to admit it, who among us doesn't experience the desire for ego-boost, on some level, on a regular basis? We want credit for what we've done, compensation for work we've put in, acknowledgement from others so that we get our proper due. It's only fitting that the finale of Breaking Bad be set up to get right back to that central theme, with Walter White incited back to action after seeing his old colleagues on TV, downplaying his role in the company he helped get off the ground. Walter, for all his questionable actions throughout the course of the series, was never good at the kind of slick, subtle whitewashing that his old colleagues display. And again, in a weird way, I sort of relate. In today's world, we're bombarded with sound-bites, censorship, and revisionism. We have media outlets, politicians, corporations giving us *their* version of the truth, to the point where it takes a renegade to get to the real truth and the real, bare facts. And to that end, there is often a feeling that he who bull$%^&s best, wins. The ones who wear their hearts on their sleeves, who speak their mind, who say what they mean - they're marginalized and dismissed as cranks. And so therein lies some of Walter White's lasting appeal: he became a frequent liar and manipulator during the course of his break-bad, but he was never particularly smooth. Everything he did had an air of desperation, of reaching beyond his means. Walter pretended to be a mastermind - he became Heisenberg. He used his hat and sunglasses to become a mythical figure - a supervillain. But remember, he had the hat, the glasses, the badass shaved-head/goatee look. But he also still had the khakis, the loafers, the dorky button-down shirts. He was always out of his league, trying to be something that he was not. And for that, we can't help but feel for him. Who among us hasn't put on a mask to appear one way, knowing that it's not who we really are? But Walter needs props, clothes, mental conditioning to convince himself that he is the man who knocks. And why shouldn't he? He's smart, he's capable ... what, really, separates him from the likes of Gus Fring? We all tell ourselves this on occasion. "What makes him any better than me?" "What's he got that I don't?" And in Walt, we admire that what actually makes him more weak and frail is that he is sort of bumbling and dorky and yes, maybe even, at his core, more of a decent human being than his rivals. But the tragedy is that Walt's way of compensating is to continually boost his ego by playing fast and loose with morality. To be Gus, he's got to lie, cheat, and kill. And in the end, that's what checks a lot of our everyday ego boosts at the door. We know that maybe we *could* be that guy, but to do so, we'd have to be an asshole. We know that maybe we *could* get the upper hand in a situation, but ultimately, we'd rather be the better man, the better example, the version of ourselves that we can live with and like. Perhaps, on occasion, we fantasize about *not* being that person, about being the break-bad versions of ourselves. That could mean anything from telling someone off to speaking the truth even when the truth hurts. It could mean boosting ourselves by putting someone else down. For Walter White, when he turned that switch off, it took him on an insane journey into the heart of darkness. But as we've seen, acting in the name of ego is a very dangerous - and very often futile - path to follow.
And so, tonight I tune in to the final episode of BREAKING BAD, and man, it's going to be the end of a long and crazy and just-plain-awesome ride. Oftentimes I watch TV, and as a TV guy, I think with my ego and think "yeah, I could do better." But in this instance, I put all ego aside and simply take my hat off to Vince Gilligan and co. This is a towering achievement - not just of TV, but of storytelling. The journey of Walter - and Jesse, Hank, Skylar, Marie, Walt Jr., Saul, Gus, Mike, and the rest - it's been a wild ride. Dialogue that will forever remain in the pop-culture lexicon, characters that will forever be icons, and a narrative that has set a new bar. But even beyond that, BREAKING BAD is the quintessential moral parable of our times - the ultimate cautionary tale about the perils of the modern world.