19 LIES AND WHISPERS
‘I can‘t lie,’ says Jesse to an old friend. ‘It‘s pretty hectic out there.’ Jesse is referring to his supposed busy sexual activity. He is telling the old friend an untruth. Jesse has no money, and the women interested in him are scarce. His motive for telling the lie to the old friend is unclear. It might be simple adolescent boasting or an attempt to convince the friend that Jesse has status and order in his life, that he can be trusted to stay in the home of the old friend for a couple of nights. If only we knew why we told untruths. Some have argued that lies are the handmaiden of ignorance. The clever have more facts and knowledge to share and that alone takes up time others spend lying. More assured than the ignorant the clever might not need to bluff. Yet clever politicians and the deceits of those in authority weaken the argument. This thought is not explored in Breaking Bad. Most of the lies of its characters are rooted in their need for survival. In some instances they exist for the purpose of hiding odorous appetites. They are not concealing their ignorance.
The simple view of some TV critics is that Walter White is a bad person because he tells lies. This is his graceless response to pressure and difficulties, they argue. Walt has been compared to the charming but corrupt ex-policeman Mike who at least understands that his work for gangster Gus is criminal and wrong. Walt has illusions, and Mike has self-awareness. Within this notion is the idea that the lies of Walter White exist because of his dual role as gangster and suburban father. Walt not only lies to other criminals, he is dishonest with his family and most important himself. The lies are a consequence of the terrible decision Walt made to manufacture crystal meth and become involved with gangsters, eventually becoming one himself. This, of course, is nonsense. Well before he started killing people Walt told lies to himself, his family and no doubt the high school pupils that he taught. Some of those lies would have been blatant, others would have consisted of avoiding honest answers, staying silent to maintain a fiction. A lie can exist in a simple false smile, a glance to somewhere else and sometimes a caress. Sex requires energy and purpose and operates on a different level. It delivers intimacy but not necessarily revelation and honesty. The promiscuous tell lies whatever they think but many of the rest have secrets. Big honest hired killer Mike attracts sympathy because he is kind to his granddaughter. The kindness may constitute his finer moments but it is not rooted in honesty. Sweet granddaughter has no idea that cuddly and patient granddad is prepared to kill people to earn his weekly salary. He has blood on the hands that play with the toys of the child. Mike needs to keep secrets from the people he loves. Those secrets are lies. Mike becomes a friend of Jesse but the friendship although genuine is established through deceit. It happens because Gus wants to puncture the kinship between Walt and Jesse.
Everyone in Breaking Bad tells lies or so it seems. If there is an exception, it is the disreputable and fast talking lawyer Saul. His only deceit is his assertion that he can help people. But if Saul is a hustler whose main interest is the money inside the pocket of the person on the other side of the desk, he does explain the way of a brutal world. All the others are tarnished by dishonesty. Walt Junior is not a bad son but he walks around pretending he is called Flynn. The lie may not be designed to trick others but because it denies an established truth it is a lie. Not so pleasant Gus attempts to conceal his intention to kill Walt and poses as a respectable businessman. The pose is a lie.
Jesse and Skyler, like Walt, lie when honesty will damage their interests. Under pressure Jesse darts around his imagination and blurts out nonsense. When challenged by his parents, he pretends he is working undercover with the Drug Enforcement Agency. Being married to a drug dealer qualifies anyone for victim status but despite decent intentions and a moral code the actress and extrovert within Skyler enables her to be the most convincing liar within Breaking Bad. Although seriously hurt by the evasions of Walt her prolonged sulk is nevertheless a calculated performance. There are other examples, the mistaken identity arrest in the jewellers and her dumb blonde act in front of the tax auditor.
Hank and Marie also need their secrets and they betray each other. These betrayals are not sexual but they are significant. Hank hides his post-traumatic stress, and Marie is a shoplifter. Hank knows about the criminal nature of his wife but not all her crimes. Despite those deceits the relationship of Hank and Marie solidifies and they acquire mutual respect. More important than the lies it seems are the reactions to what are inevitable deceits.
The lies of the characters in Breaking Bad are compounded by the dishonesty of writers and authors who edit conversations and sidestep what should be the next step in verbal confrontations. Such trickery happens in every drama, movie or novel. This is done to mitigate the narrative challenges that lie ahead. Put simply, Walt does an awful lot before Skyler opens her mouth and asks where the hell has he been. After that happens the opportunistic sulks not only add to the tension but allow Walt further time to establish himself as a crystal meth maker. For both the scriptwriters and the audience this is a win-win deal. We are the voyeurs who want Walt to continue his drug making career. Only after Walt confesses and Skyler discovers that he is a criminal is the audience permitted to see extended arguments between Walt and Skyler.
The writers may be obliged to be pragmatic but they also explore deceit and its impact on the deceived. For this they deserve credit. For Hank and Marie the consequences are modest. Their natures but also circumstances work in their favour, well, until a certain incident in the desert. Long before she discovers that Walt is making crystal meth Skyler is disturbed and unnerved by the change in the behaviour of her husband. It is the repeated lie about the second mobile phone that Walt owns which compels her to act. Skyler clamps her mouth tight and avoids both conversations and Walt. The married couple duel and use lies and evasion as weapons.
The best of this occurs in the stand-out episode Down in season two. Walt and Jesse become estranged from their families and each other. The parents of Jesse understand that because of the drug habit of their son it has become impossible to accept a word he says. The lie by Walt about the second phone offends Skyler and has also left her paranoid. She wants to know what are the other lies and why the lies are being told. Unlike Marie or Hank she does not understand the reason behind the lies of her partner.
There are two important movie references in the Down episode of Breaking Bad. In the opening scene Walt and Jesse meet in a supermarket and discuss their grievances. The scene is an obvious homage to the film noir classic Double Indemnity. In that movie everyone tells lies, including the two people who combine to kill the victim. For them sex has provided additional deceit because it masqueraded as affection. Insurance man Barton Keyes is too old and job obsessed to be tempted by sex. He is honest and he will survive but his curiosity and need for proof give him heartburn. So much for truth. After being made homeless Jesse falls through the roof of a chemical toilet. The incident adds helpful slapstick comedy to the gloomy Down episode but the trail of blue chemical that Jesse leaves behind as he walks away is more than comic. It echoes the murder of the espionage agent in the Hitchcock remake of his movie The Man Who Knew too Much. Deceit is also important to that film. Because their child has been kidnapped, a conformist American middle-class couple are obliged to lie to everyone. The episode Down is directed by ex-cinema man John Dahl. The director became famous by pioneering neo-noir which resurrected film noir for audiences in the 1990s but added more sex and violence. The lies of Walter White may be self-serving and reflect a lack of regard for others but compared to the callous protagonists of neo-noir Walt is almost decent.
Telling lies is like sexual infidelity, and we all disapprove of both. They are, though, a lot more popular than we like to pretend. Sexual infidelity for most of us causes pain. We would rather betray someone than be betrayed. It is the same with lying. Deceit creates double standards. Although lies may secure immediate survival for Walt it is his increasing facility with untruths that ensures Walt will not only lose a family but be doomed. Before then Walt will cease to know whether he loved his family or they were merely an important acquisition.
Lying is a dangerous business even if we all do it. Perhaps its ubiquity is why we admire people who pretend. We award celebrity to the writers and performers that create the most convincing lies. The final twists in thrillers and detective stories are more than plot revelations. They are confessions from the creators. These pretenders present pleas for pardon and insist that although their lies were sourced from deceit there was no harmful betrayal of the audience. Somehow we continue to believe them.
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.