21 FELLOW TRAVELLERS
Showrunner and creator Vince Gilligan is adamant. The adventures of meth maker Walter White and the drama his crimes create for his family have no political significance or none that was intended by the Breaking Bad writing team. Neither did Gilligan have polemical intentions when he was writing 29 episodes of The X Files. According to Vince Gilligan, the government conspiracy theme that existed in the show was added by people older than him. Unlike his senior peers Gilligan was too young to remember Watergate and Richard Nixon. Vince Gilligan described his political neutrality and trust in government authority on a Breaking Bad Insider podcast. The episode was recorded before the election of Donald Trump as President.
There are many on the left who have critical and severe opinions regarding the behaviour of the American Government. They also know how to be adamant. More than a few of them have condemned Trotsky the almost Netflix hit. The entertaining and always interesting Russian TV series has been condemned by some as a hatchet job. Not just those on the left have identified factual errors. The producers make the obvious retort. The show is entertainment and not history. This is why it looks and sounds like a toned down Peaky Blinders. Whatever its faults Trotsky is essential viewing. Whether intended or not the TV show reinforces a simple premise. Rather than dismissing radical thinking as impractical it should be welcomed. Utopian fantasies and off the shelf grand designs should not, though, define the radical alternatives. This was the mistake made by the Russian revolutionaries in Trotsky. Anything other than a full Marxist alternative by the end of October 1917 was regarded as a betrayal. I am exaggerating timescales but the idea should be clear.
Walter White, Tuco and Gus have one thing in common. They all need to sell crystal meth to someone. Walt is obliged to be a rival of both Tuco and Gus but most of the time he pretends his rivals are associates. Little or none of the rivalry that exists between the three men is rooted in arguments over remuneration or the distribution of cash. Prices at which they buy and sell the crystal meth are determined almost instantly. Yet each of the three men regards their business associates as a dangerous threat. Two rivals or enemies appears to be a minimum requirement for a drug dealer or a Marxist revolutionary. Walt, Tuco and Gus are all interested in power and control. Gus wants pliant employees, and Tuco has a paranoia that embraces everyone apart from Tio, his uncle and repulsive mentor. For most of the time Walt merely wants to stay alive but before Breaking Bad concludes in season five he has also acquired a taste for power.
These not always charming chaps are not the equivalent of Trotsky, Stalin and Lenin. But even without searching for political messages it is obvious that the social and economic ambitions and designs of the really powerful have shaped Tuco, Gus and Walt. In a similar way the inadequacies in Russian society at the end of the 19th Century facilitated the violent plans of Marxist revolutionary leaders. Walt, Tuco and Gus are three men walking the treadmill of a monetised society. For them it is the money rather than what it buys that is important. Making money or profit is what they do. Jesse may have his weaknesses but he does question why Walt continues to manufacture crystal meth. In Breaking Bad and the modern world it represents affluence and prosperity are essential but insufficient.
Imposing rule while contradicting legal restrictions makes demands on the average gangster. Ends are quoted as justifying means. Sometimes slaughter will be necessary As always, the means are confused with the ends. Walt thinks his criminal activity will provide a secure future for his family. The fortune is supposed to be a guarantee for the dependents of Walt, a means to an end. But once that has been achieved Walt wants more. Like Stalin, and to some extent Trotsky and Lenin, Walt wants to be enemy free. For that to happen excess wealth and the support of warriors are important.
When Walt needs to secure his empire and challenge his enemies with violence, he seeks the company of political extremists, low life and morally bankrupt Neo-Nazis. Although a murderous psychopath Stalin considered himself to be a pragmatist and a level headed alternative to the idealistic fancies of Trotsky and Lenin. There would be no worldwide purple revolution for Uncle Joe. If around today, Stalin may have been tempted to use the word moderate as self-description. Walter White does not regard himself as an authentic criminal. He is repelled by sadism and understands the difference between right and wrong. But it is moderate Walt who travels further than his rivals. The killings of Walt, the abundance of fatalities, require a narrative sleight of hand by Vince Gilligan and his co-conspirators and challenge credibility. But they also confirm that the previously self-effacing Walt has become a wilful monster.
Tuco may be the uncomplicated thug with an impulsive nature but he does understand his interests. He is vindictive and destructive but does not confuse the means with the ends. Walt explodes fulminated mercury in the office of Tuco. This does not prevent Tuco from subsequently agreeing a business deal with Walt. Gus and Walt are more civilised but they also desire control and eminence. It is the willingness of Mike to accept his subservient role that earns him approval from Gus. Walt and Gus base their decisions on rivalry and antagonism. They are political animals and for them business is personal. It may be whimsical but identifying Tuco, Gus and Walt as Russian revolutionaries is irresistible, and we are all entitled to an opinion or choice. Mine is Tuco as Stalin, Walt as Trotsky and Gus as Lenin. Tuco has the rough ways of the Georgia peasant, Walt is the argumentative intellectual and Gus is the chess player who thinks ahead, someone who can only rest easy when he is convinced his planned moves are steps ahead of his opponents.
Gilligan claims there were no political intentions in the scripts of Breaking Bad but the cost of the cancer treatment of Walt must have hardened the opinions of those Americans whose medical expenses precipitated bankruptcy. Each year there are supposed to be 500,000 such cases. Feminism is acknowledged in Breaking Bad. But if Skyler and Marie have jobs and strong personalities, neither is an independent woman. Each has a husband who regards himself as the head of the family. Walt tells Skyler that after he dies the part time wages of Skyler will be insufficient. In the final episode we see Skyler and Walt Junior living in reduced circumstances. This is her price for belated independence. Marie may be critical of her husband and assertive but she is also fragile. Lydia is a high ranking employee, a single parent and an affluent alternative to Skyler and Marie. She is, though, a pathetic neurotic. Breaking Bad does have well-adjusted independent women but they are restricted to the female directors, writers, editors and producers that were employed on the creative team. Sympathy for a Mexican working class struggling to survive on low income is also in short supply in Breaking Bad. The Mexican population is regarded as a threat to American society rather than a resource. Jesse is an ex-drug dealer and murderer but he survives and at the end he anticipates freedom. No doubt he has suffered for his sins but the final scene of Breaking Bad indulges him. Jesse, though, is from a white middle class family. The personal is political.
Right now there have been more books written about Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin than Gus, Walt and Tuco. Both left and right wing commentators have been drawn to the three architects of the Russian revolution. Whether we abhor the behaviour of Gus, Walt and Tuco or disapprove of the Bolsheviks we remain fascinated by characters willing to struggle for exceptional power and authority. Such men leave their mark, and the source of anything is always interesting. Breaking Bad succeeds because its ambitious villains are extreme but human. They are flawed characters that also possess potential. Their lives could have been very different yet they are also men who at one point crossed a line and refused to listen to warnings. Walt believes he crossed the line when he watched Jane die and did nothing to prevent her death. In his more honest moments he dwells on this crime. If we are to believe the Netflix hit Trotsky, the Russian revolutionary had plenty of those moments. Like Walt, the believer in a worldwide Communist revolution welcomes death as a relief. Walt does not have comparable remorse and regret but Trotsky lived a longer life and had ambitions for the whole world. Remorse and regret accumulate alongside ambition. Time adds compound interest. Walt, Gus and Tuco had self-belief and a strong sense of entitlement. Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin had that plus Marxist certainty. Willpower and conviction persuaded all of them to gamble for high stakes. Because of complicated fate, the results are never guaranteed. Something similar happens in sporting contests. This is one of the reasons why we like to watch the replays.
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.