4 TIGHTEN YOUR BOLT
The episode named Over from season two of Breaking Bad is not a crowd pleaser. Those honours belong to the episodes that contain stunning set pieces. Audiences like and expect circus tricks in their nightly TV, and there is no harm in that. The episode of Over, though, concentrates on domestic drama and, whether intentional or not, it exists as an American imitation of Chekov. Families in a Chekov drama are usually preparing for a celebration, commemoration or homecoming, a modest event that will unexpectedly redefine them. In the episode Over a party is arranged by Skyler to celebrate how the body of Walt has responded to the treatment for his cancer. In a Chekov play celebration and discomfort exist in oppressive disharmony. Chekov relied on this device for a reason. It exposed how his characters differed from what they presented to society. The party arranged by Skyler is intended to please Walt but it only confirms his alienation from the life he has been living.
When Vince Gilligan pitched Breaking Bad to studio executives, he gave them the idea of a Mr Chips becoming Scarface. The idea may have teased studio boss men but, because Walt has extreme alternative identities, it presented challenges for writers. At some point Walter White would have to change and he would need his reasons. A shortage of money was one option but this alone is inadequate and it does little to make Walt a complex character. There are three instances when Walt decides to commit to manufacturing crystal meth. The first of these occurs after Walt receives his initial cancer diagnosis and when he accompanies Hank on a drug bust. The second follows the news that his cancer treatment has gone into exceptional remission. The third happens when Walt relents and agrees to work again for major meth dealer Gustavo Fring. Although Walt at this point insists he is ‘not a bad guy’ this third instance is the least difficult problem for the scriptwriters. By then the plot has become complicated and the key characters are all capable of influence over the others. They all have reasons.
When Walt makes the initial or first commitment to manufacturing an illicit drug, the motivation for such a dramatic step is dubious. The scriptwriters sidestep the problem. They have Walt stare at an empty swimming pool and throw matches on to the surface of the water. The TV audience watches troubled Walt think. The viewers have to assume he has reasons and perhaps create some of their own. The scriptwriters handing the problem over to the audience is a neat trick. Let the viewers work it out instead of sitting there demanding explanations, one of the Breaking Bad writers must have said. This trick, though, cannot be repeated or it cannot if a writer has any self-respect. For the second instance, when Walt already has enough money to pay for his medical bills, more motivation is needed. For that we have the the celebratory party, or Chekov style commemoration, and a sly scene at the end of the episode that is not really believable. But, because the scene is so unusual a device, it is marked with defiant brilliance.
To push Walt over to the dark side the scriptwriters lean on whatever is available. TV critic Alan Sepinwall remarked that the episode of Over ‘wears its subtext on its sleeve.’ The phrase is smart and elegant but also post modern nonsense. In Over we witness real engineering focussed not on subtext but characterisation and motivation. And the bolts have to be tightened otherwise the series will come apart later. It may be a coincidence but the engineering skill required by the scriptwriters is echoed by the mechanical efforts of Walt to fix his boiler and wood rot. Walt will become a gangster, Skyler will indulge in adultery and Jesse will discover a moral centre. Each of these three trajectories, which are rooted in the new beginnings identified in Over, will all have consequences for the other characters.
Rather than be sympathetic to a man suffering from cancer Skyler enters into a conspiracy with her son, in-laws and neighbours to organise a secret party. The family of Walt consists of a decent but overbearing woman and a son who not only shares a secret with his mother but is too prone to use the easy option of Uncle Hank as a substitute father figure. A claustrophobic party is made worse by the cloying speech of Skyler and the antics of Hank and Marie who tempt Walt Junior with empty headed selfies. Skyler is not the Lady Macbeth that some Breaking Bad fans have assumed but, as she does with her impression of Marilyn Monroe in a subsequent episode, she can overreach herself. All of this inspires Walt to feel resentful.
Skyler also mentions to the guests the financial contribution of Gretchen and Elliot to the cost of the cancer treatment of Walt. This is the ultimate insult to Walt. His pride had insisted that he could not accept help from the super-rich couple and also obliged him to lie to Skyler. When asked to give a speech, Walt refers to his cancer and the success of his treatment in the same way. ‘Why me?’ asks Walt. His incomprehension refers, to much more than the cancer and the treatment. He is baffled by the life he is obliged to live. What should be exaltation and relief is dry as dust bitterness inside his mouth. Later, Walt provokes his son into drinking tequila. Walt Junior vomits into the swimming pool. The father is amused by his triumph. He has no sympathy for a son who, because of the conspiracy with his mother, has been transformed into an enemy.
Breaking Bad avoids political polemic yet the series depends on the notion that the subsequent violent mayhem and generally bad behaviour from Walt could have been avoided if the USA had a half decent public health service. This notion feels like a political statement and makes the show open to Marxist analysis. For Marxists, Walt exists as an example of how capitalism, whatever the abundance it creates, will, because it insists on mandatory excess, ensure that poverty is never ending. Walt and Skyler have an inadequate budget but this not untypical American family has two cars, a house with a swimming pool, clean clothes every day and a full refrigerator. At the party Walt, Hank and Walter Junior drink from an excessively large bottle of tequila. Sister-in-law Marie has to complement her blessings for the unborn child with an expensive and inappropriate diamond tiara. That she is compelled to steal the tiara is another story but both sincere goodwill and personal valediction can only be confirmed for Marie through materialism and consumption. Capitalism equates to affluence, or at least it does in the Western world, but because that affluence defines status we are all victims of poverty. And that is before we think about alienation and spiritual deprivation.
The performance of Bryan Cranston changes in the episode of Over. His accent becomes more blue collar. Cranston sounds as if he has stepped out of a Western movie. The confrontation between Walt and Hank at the side of the swimming pool resembles the showdown that exists in Westerns. If Walt is to claim whatever he needs, authenticity, good faith, feeling alive or perhaps some excitement, he will have to assert his masculinity. He needs to become the Western hero that is idolised in American culture.
When Walt meets two low life drug dealers at the end of the episode, he observes a not too bright and far from wealthy would be entrepreneur buying drug equipment in the local supermarket. Resenting the ignorance and arrogance of two people he regards or recognises as inferiors, Walt confronts the drug dealers. After the alienation that he experienced at the party Walt understands that his needs and desires will no longer be satisfied with the rewards of being a schoolteacher or through living a suburban lifestyle. Walt realises what his life has been lacking and what the really ambitious and fortunate not just pursue but take. Walt wants what the real winners have always had. This includes territory, power over others, status, economic freedom, hope and the ability to not be intimidated by anyone. The bad guy has arrived, and so has the cowboy hero who confronts his brother-in-law and who feels that his son will have to drink tequila if he is to be a worthy successor. No wonder Vince Gilligan told his cameraman that he wanted the series to look like a Sergio Leone movie. The Marxist Italian filmmaker not only changed the look of the Western. Leone was the man who insisted that the cowboy heroes had always been bad guys.
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.