4 FLY FISHING
Moby Dick is the American equivalent of The Brothers Karamazov. The two novels are important but flawed. Both Dostoevsky and Herman Melville had finer moments. Crime And Punishment by Dostoevsky is both readable and profound. The best efforts of Melville are found in the great and complex Billy Budd and his fabulous and still provocative short story Bartleby. Like The Brothers Karamazov, the lumpen Moby Dick has a predictable plot, symbolic mouthpieces as characters and turgid prose. More than me, though, have read Moby Dick, cursed the damned thing and felt obliged to read it again. Moby Dick is an essential book that is examined rather than enjoyed. The sometimes stodgy text remains relevant. Somewhere a wag spun the alternative title Ish And The Fish. The irreverent option offers some relief to students.
In Breaking Bad, and after being told he has cancer, Walter White rejects the available and pragmatic solution that will enable him to pay for the cost of his health care. Walter has too much pride to accept the gift from his old associates Gretchen and Elliott. Walter has something to prove. The mild mannered schoolteacher becomes a vengeful drug dealer and, like Gretchen and Elliott, super rich.
Captain Ahab lost his leg attempting to catch Moby Dick, the white leviathan whale that defined the Universe. Kill Moby Dick, and Captain Ahab can establish that ‘the Milky White Way’ or Universe is nothing more than a white morass of particles. Ahab has contempt for what the scientist regards as knowledge. ‘He paints pretty pictures of the Universe but it is all space, all whiteness like the whale.’ Ahab can be difficult, testy and all too willing to sacrifice the lives of the men on his ship but he has a point when he insists that we see too much of ourselves in the world. Walter White is the clever chemist who can make and fix things but what he sees is distorted by the delusions he has about himself.
On board the Pequod there is debate between Captain Ahab and Starbuck, the second in command. They discuss the merits of the the decisions taken by Ahab. Starbuck and Ahab may be more polite to each other but, like Walter and Jesse, the two seamen argue. Jesse regards making crystal meth as a way of making money. Walter wants to stop ‘being scared’. When Starbuck realises that Ahab has ambitions other than collecting the sperm oil which will make the voyage profitable, he argues that ‘We hunt to live. We do not live to hunt.’ Walt is like Ahab. He lives to hunt. He wants power and vengeance against a wasted life. Both Ahab and Walter are wild men. Elsewhere, Mike is the able but sanctimonious hit man that assists major meth dealer Gustavo Fring. Mike realises that Walter is as capable as Captain Ahab of wrecking the ship. Neither Mike nor Starbuck prevails. Wild men believe in destiny. The responsible understand the power of fate. If Mike had read his Bible, he would have realised that Ahab and Walt are willing to be compared to wilful Abraham, to be like the prophet and have every man against them.
In Breaking Bad the name Walter White is a reference to Walt Whitman the American existential poet. Walter has a collection of the poems of Whitman in his toilet. The book is a gift from Gale, a drippy libertarian who, prior to being killed, was a fellow crystal meth maker. Raw existentialism, rather than mere alienation, has a poor record in American literature. The books have been fine but the philosophy of authors like Norman Mailer suffered from chest beating and an excess sense of male entitlement to personal freedom. The tone of Whitman also suggests too much ego but at least Walt understood that individual freedom could not be at the expense of others. ‘I celebrate myself and sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.’ Whitman was searching for an authentic existence, a life that could be lived in good faith and according to personal values rather than those imposed by society. This search, he urged, must be embraced by everyone or at least all those capable and willing. ‘But you a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known, Arouse! For you must justify me.’
Walter White changes after he knows he has cancer. ‘I am awake,’ he says. Walter realises that his life has been what has happened to him rather than something he shaped. Neither himself nor others ‘justify’ poor Walter. At the end of the series, and in conversation with his wife Skyler, he insists that because of his drug dealing adventure he is justified. ‘I did it for me. And I was good at it. I felt alive.’ Walter, despite the teasing references to Whitman, is not an existential hero. Walter, like Ahab, is a bad guy. His fate is that virtue and honour are beyond him. As a young man, Walter walked away from Gretchen and forfeited a once in a lifetime business opportunity. Because his potential will now be unrealised, Walter is obliged for the rest of his life to be either submissive or destructive. This is his fate. Walter is clever and has scientific knowledge but he has no understanding of these existential limitations. Ahab did not spend all that time staring across oceans for nothing. He understood. Walter the chemist or scientist only sees himself in the world that was around him.
Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan uses the episode The Fly to emphasise the metaphor. The use of a common insect as a substitute for the whale is both audacious and brilliant. Ahab wants to look the Universe in the eye and be its equal. Moby Dick is the white monument to ‘space’. Walter wants his crystal meth laboratory to be a pristine universe, something pure and completely free of ‘contamination’. At one point Walter recognises the impossibility of catching the fly, of creating an uncontaminated universe where the chemistry is controlled by the mastery of the talented chemist. In frustration Walter suggests abandoning the chase of the fly. The pristine universe is beyond him. ‘It is all contamination,’ says Walter. It is the hapless Jesse, the sidekick with the makeshift harpoon that kills the fly.
A more fanciful comparison between Breaking Bad and Moby Dick exists in the presence of Walt Junior. The son of Walter White has cerebral palsy and walks with the aid of crutches. R J Mitte the actor who plays Walt Junior also has cerebral palsy but he does not need the aid of crutches to walk. Despite them being used for dramatic effect momentarily in a couple of instances there is no obvious need to have the actor walk around on crutches. The son of Walter perhaps represents the wooden leg, the legacy from Moby Dick that Captain Ahab curses.
Both Walter and Ahab have skills and knowledge that make them valuable, a utility for others. ‘Do something scientific,’ pleads drug partner Jesse. Almost without realising, both Ahab and Walter cease to be a utility. Their knowledge feeds obsession and becomes a destructive power that leads to the premature death of others. Ahab destroys his ship the Pequod, and the interventions of Walter help explode a Boeing 737.
Walter controls his drug business in the same way Ahab is dictatorial on board his ship. The two men believe in an order based on merit, last in and first out, winners and losers, survivors and the deceased. The author Melville insists upon the opposite, we are all equal, Indians, Africans and the white man. According to Melville, the ruler is made infirm by his power and is not fit to have authority over anyone. Often the ruler is compelled to pursue valediction for this inappropriate enhanced status. The altar of a ruler is not a place where he seeks comfort but inspiration. His enemies are the altar. They inspire the powerful man to seek conflict and to triumph.
If Moby Dick is a tale about men then 150 years later Breaking Bad imagined a contribution by women. For a brief period Skyler helps Walter to launder his drug money. Ishmael became a confidante of Captain Ahab. For most of the voyages of Ahab and Walter, though, Ishmael and Skyler are obliged to be observers. Skyler sets out on a marriage with someone who perhaps she hopes may complement her own middle class ambitions. Instead she is led out of surburbia, and across the ocean that is Albuquerque, by a remote man with a private obsession, someone who ‘hunts to live’. In the final conversation between Skyler and Walter there is the revelation that Walter ‘felt alive’ as a drug dealer. Walter has made mistakes, done a lot of damage but has also had his Whitmanesque moments. At least Skyler at the end of Breaking Bad has her two children. Like Ishmael, she has returned to dry land. While Walter says goodbye and attempts to explain, Skyler remains silent. What she learnt from the voyage will remain a secret but, like Ishmael, she will remember the journey and now be alert to the mystery that is her fellow men and women. Walter leaves Skyler and returns to the ocean where he will soon destroy his enemies. He will then swallow what remains of the ocean and drown.
Howard Jackson has had nine books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.