BREAK OUT: BREAKING BAD

16 BEST DAD IN THE WORLD

 

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Walter White understood he had enemies.  He worried about them so much he may have even invented a few.  The same man, though, died without knowing about the enemies on the other side of the TV screen.   There were TV critics and viewers who thought that Walter was a real bad guy and that his enemies were smooth and cute.  Some of the hatred for Walt is about numbers.  More than a few of the enemies were happy to include a plane crash in order to attribute 199 deaths to the mild mannered schoolteacher.  The accident with the Boeing 737 required malevolent fate but the hatred of Walter extends beyond arithmetic.  Walter White is marked and branded by Breaking Bad.   He is a clumsy father and an uncool middle-aged male.

Of all the other men in the 62 episodes of Breaking Bad there are only two that function as fathers.  Donald Margolis is the father of Jane, the heroin addict who Walt lets choke on her own vomit.  The scene where Donald and Walt meet in a bar is contrived but memorable.  Two men seek a beer and short-lived solace.  Life will become worse for them.  Without knowing each other they will contrive to create the circumstances that will result in two planes crashing in mid-air.  Donald and Walt are confused fathers with what are in symbolic terms inadequate legacies.  The son of Walt suffers from cerebral palsy, and the daughter of Donald is a heroin addict.  If there is understanding of these two men, there is no sympathy.  Together both men are responsible for a terrible tragedy.  The father of Jesse makes a brief appearance.  Like the father in Rebel Without A Cause, he is overshadowed by the mother.  He overestimates one son and underestimates the other.  Now what does that remind us of?

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Back in the criminal world there is Mike.  He works for a vicious mobster that is flooding the southwest of the USA with destructive crystal meth.  Mike kills people and has a grandchild.  He once was a father but now has another identity.  The failed policeman has become a criminal and grandfather.  Because he is gentle with his grandchild, Mike is regarded as a good guy.  The taciturn Mike carries a gun and resembles a Western hero.  Grandad is cool, and Walt and Donald are not.

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The antagonism to fathers in American culture is well known.  Anyone who doubts this should watch Star Wars.  American cinema is riddled with self-sufficient and childless male heroes, especially in Westerns.   The fathers that procreate and enable real life to continue may have sexual supremacy but fail to compare.  This process of fathers being compared to fantasy figures and found wanting explains the presence of cool and tough Mike in Breaking Bad.  It is also fundamental to the relationship Walt Junior has to his own father and his Uncle Hank.  Walt Junior has no doubts about an Uncle who earns a living arresting villains but who enjoys pushing around the less fortunate.   Whatever Walt Junior is learning at his American high school it is not an ability to criticise authority.  The subsequent campaigns by American schoolchildren against USA gun laws are not anticipated by Walt Junior.  Most of us react to the behaviour of Walt at the swimming pool when he encourages his son to drink too much tequila.  The father behaves in a way that is unforgivable but that does not mean we are entitled to condemn.  Walt has had enough of pistol waving Hank, and who can blame him.

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Walt has been described by some TV critics as an absent father.  There are 62 episodes in Breaking Bad, and in some of them he is remote from his family.   But before Walt had to fend off gangsters he was attentive to his son.  He had breakfast with Walt Junior, and they travelled to school together.   Big Walt was also there for shopping trips with his family.  The scene where Walt attacks the teenager who has been making fun of Walt Junior may be more about the ego of Walt rather than parental affection but Walt was in the shop while his son struggled to try on a pair of jeans.  Some fathers would have been at home watching football.  Whatever the writers or fans claim all we can conclude from Breaking Bad is that building a drug manufacturing business reduces quality time with the kids.

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There are other consequences.  The criminal escapade takes Walt away from suburbia.  He buys a recreational vehicle, and Walt and Jesse make meth in the desert.  Walt leaves suburbia for distant vistas and Western adventure.  The schoolteacher reinvents himself as a tough guy, and, as his heart hardens, any feeling or sympathy Walt has for children dissipate.   Conscience free he decides to poison the child Brock.  Whether Walt intended to kill Brock is ambiguous but Walt was willing to risk the life of the child.  This extravagant idea occurs to Walt while he is sitting by his swimming pool and in a location where his primary role is that of parent.  By the time Breaking Bad reaches the end of season four the writers have decided against this harassed and uncool American father.  The previous self-sacrifice and willingness of an underpaid schoolteacher to endure are well forgotten.   The resentment of uncool American fathers by the writers has inspired not only a too complete transformation in Walt but also the serious creative errors that exist in the final season.

Breaking Bad is an unforgettable achievement from people with exceptional gifts.  Yet once Walt is defined as a monster and an undeserving and undesirable father the writers do peddle some nonsense.  Monster Walt is not only willing to recruit half-educated Neo-Nazis to organise a mass slaughter in a high security American prison but also believes that the same skinheads will stay in a room while a revolving machine gun fires bullets through all too yielding masonry and timber.  These lapses are more than dopey moments from writers having to meet deadlines.  This is contempt for another failed American father.

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In the main critics have welcomed this revenge.  In their view Walt was a detestable man who engineered his own destruction, an egotist obsessed with status and power.   Yet the same chap was prepared to scrub wheels at the car wash in order to earn extra money to support his family.  Walt was complicated or at least he was before season five.  No doubt he had flaws.   He was short-tempered and tyrannical with Jesse.  But Walt was taking risks and working with an indolent and irresponsible young man.  With better natures and in other circumstances the two men could have been good for each other.  The circumstances, though, are crucial.  In the final episode Walt takes a bullet and saves the life of Jesse who drives off into the distance.  Walt lies down to die.  The moment of compassion from Walt and his final satisfied smile honour underdeveloped references to the poet Walt Whitman but they feel false.   The existential triumph of Walt feels like a sop from the writers, something that critical sons offer their fathers at funerals.

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But there is still that ego and desire for power, insist the critics.  Walt has a grievance and in case we forget a double dose of cancer.  Apart from the terminal disease the grievance is significant.  When a young man he made a mistake that led him to losing not just fortune and fame but the opportunity to apply or express his exceptional talent.  The impact on the life of Walt has been disproportionate.  We are watching a once superior man stumble.  No one has the right to sneer.  If the professional failure of Walt is because of innate inadequacy rather than a single bad decision, that inadequacy is not explained.   The bad behaviour of Walt occurs when he is obliged to exist in the criminal world.   Before his life changes direction Walt is an admirable and self-effacing stoic.  He attends the birthday party of Elliot Schwarz and takes not just a present but good intentions.  Later, Walt feels patronised by what might be a well-meaning gesture.  Neither should Walt be criticised for not accepting the offer of Gretchen to pay his medical bills.  A desire for independence is not the same as destructive ego.

The transformation from schoolteacher to gangster requires the heavy hand of fate no matter what are the limitations of Walt.  What is revealed in season five of Breaking Bad is the supposed monster within.   When that happens Walt steps out of a mature and responsible drama and into accommodating soap opera.  The audience is fed the notion that fate is of less significance than character.  For that idea to apply there has to be a concept less extreme than a schoolteacher becoming Scarface.  Somewhere out there is an alternative universe where Walt either sidestepped cancer or lived in a civilised country where medical treatment was available for all.  Walt would have still had his flaws but there would have been moments when his son would have believed that he had the best dad in the world.

Howard Jackson has had nine books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   His latest book Light Work, which is about Jack the Ripper, is available here.

 

 

 

 

 

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