Monday, September 16, 2013

How We Broke Bad With Walter White


If you are not up to date with Breaking Bad, this post is going to spoil stuff from pretty much episode one right through the third to last episode.  Consider yourself warned.

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

I haven't spent anytime on social media since last night so I don't know the broader reaction, but last night's (third to last) Breaking Bad was one of the hardest TV viewing experiences ever. (9/11 and similar news trauma notwithstanding.) After sleeping on it and taking in The Newsroom's uplifting finale as a palate cleanser, I've had time for reflection and processed my feelings somewhat.

I'm betting that there are viewers out there who are feeling betrayed, and that is an easy to understand knee jerk. If, after last night's episode, you still think Walt is a hero, or even an admirable anti-hero, then keep the hell away from my family. But if you are an emotionally and morally grounded individual, there was no escaping the reality that Walter White's descent has become irredeemable.

And here is where the real brilliance of Breaking Bad and Vince Gilligan comes to surface... We, the audience, were seduced into breaking bad right along with him. It was easy to go along on that ride down with him. Walt was a sympathetic (and initially simply pathetic) everyman in a very difficult position.  Expecting to die soon from cancer, he had to find a way to do right for his nearly destitute family - including pregnant wife and handicapped son.  How could we NOT be on his side?  Sure he went down a questionable road - cooking meth - but it was for his family!

And on it went.  Walt's choices were always for the right reasons and he solved his problems with ingenuity - it was always easy to look the other way.  Looking the other way was of course how Walt's descent really started to take control of him.  All Walt did when Jane was overdosing was (not quite literally) look the other way.  It was something that was happening anyway, Walt simply didn't intercede. And he was doing it for Jesse's best interest.  Partnering with Gus Fring allowed Walt to work in his sweet-spot (as a chemist) and avoid the dirty-work while still making a metric fuck-tonne of money for his family.  Convincing Jesse to kill Gale was simply understandable self-preservation, right? And it's not like Walt pulled the trigger.

By this point the slippery slope is getting quite apparent from our position of privileged hind-sight.  But back then, it all made sense - dark sense, that was apparent, but I know I went along for the ride and I am pretty certain I wasn't the only one.  If I had been the only one, the show would have been cancelled way back then.

I am of course skipping over all kinds of details and focusing on a handful of major events along the way.  Walt engineers the demise of Fring at the hands of Salamanca in one of the more brilliant machinations of the entire series.  How could we not admire Walt for that? After all it was, at that point, kill or be killed and Walt avoided being any more than the proximate cause of Fring's death. Poisoning Brock in order to get Jesse back in line...? Well of course Walt had to do something, right? And its not like Brock died - as Walt has pointed out himself, he knew exactly the right dose to administer in order to walk the line.
Killing Mike?  Well Mike was clearly not a good man, so killing him ought not be seen as a particularly bad thing, even if Walt did have to pull the trigger himself... again ultimately out of self-preservation.

The killing of an innocent boy... that was never on Walt.  Right?  It was Todd.  That was all Todd.  Todd did it.  Walt had nothing to do with it.

Are you calling bullshit?  Yes.  So am I.  But how easy was it to turn a blind eye six months ago?  That was an amazing episode and Todd's actions represented the darkest moment of the series at that point, yet Walt was our hero and the heist had been cleverly executed (who can resist a good train robbery?) so it was easier to look past the collateral in service of the larger narrative.  But what wasn't quite so apparent was that being inured to that violence - the dead of a complete innocent was the larger narrative.

I don't know about you, but last week when the action of the fire-fight cut to the credits, I found myself thinking that our man Walt was going to come up with some way out of his predicament.  He always had before.  And the only other way out was that Hank would be killed and that would just lead to disaster.

Well, disaster has descended upon the White family, Walt in particular.

We have been berated for going along with it - or was that Skyler?  No, actually it was us.  Skyler was merely the vehicle for Marie and Jr./Flynn to deliver the severely deserved chastisement through.

I don't know when it happened for you - one friend identifies Walt's spite filled admission about Jane as her point of no return - but for me, it was the confrontation with his family and ultimately the kidnapping of Holly that did it for me. (For others I know it was the phone call, which for me was merely proof of what I had already determined.) I even spoke out loud to the screen as the camera fell upon Holly and we knew Walt was taking her with him. "No Walt. No."  I knew that if (I was momentarily undecided) I could get past the knife fight with Skyler (she did pull it on him) that taking the baby would definitely be a step too far.  And even that as a father I can understand the instinct of... and hey... he did return Holly of his own free will, and he did it cleverly in a way that avoided capture.  But no... even with those justifications I can't do it.  Walter White is a bad man.  He may not have begin as a bad man.  He may have become a bad man by trying to do the right thing and even by making good choices on the way to the dark side.  But there was no turning back - Walt is Heisenberg - a bad man and has been for a lot longer than I was willing to admit.

I am unsure how I will be redeemed for going along with Walt so far.  We have two episodes to do it in.  I feel pretty confident that Walt cannot be, nor should be.  We, the audience will get our reward by having seen the error of our ways experiencing the catharsis of seeing Walt get his just desserts.