BREAK OUT: BREAKING BAD

22 KINFOLK

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The capacity to amuse exits in Vince Gilligan.  It exists because he is talented and because he has also a desire to entertain.  Breaking Bad may be a tale that is shaped by the characters but plenty of time is allocated to delighting an audience.  The domestic drama demands attention from those who want jokes and thrills but what the impatient want is promised from the first episode of Breaking Bad when we see the recreational vehicle pass by.  The trousers of Walt float across the sky, and their owner appears in his white underpants.  Everybody laughs, and a few wet their lips in anticipation.  But Breaking Bad is more than someone who has the opportunity to meet really unpleasant but memorable villains.  Much of the screen time of 62 episodes examines the relationships between the characters.  Not all the conflict that exists in Breaking Bad is a consequence of criminal double dealing.  There is, though, plenty of that.

Walt, Skyler, Walt Junior, Hank and Marie are not a traditional extended family.  There are few children, and the grandparents are out of sight.  The mother of Walt is mentioned a couple of times but only because it is important to expose the deceit of Walt.  For the purpose of a modern drama the Whites and Schraders qualify as a familial unit comparable to the dynasties in Chekov.  People who would not choose to be friends are obliged to pretend they are.  Breaking Bad reveals what happens in a particular family.   The domestic drama in the hit TV show occupies more screen time than people remember yet viewers respond to the behaviour of the Whites and Schrader because, certain excesses apart, much of it feels familiar. Members of  most families experience at the behest of others betrayal, loyalty, reward, abuse, delight, disappointment, discovery, bewilderment, anger, solace and more.  They both trust and suspect, and these feelings sometimes occur in the same conversation.

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A family has limited scope and is insufficient for its members.  The members of the White and Schrader families need more.  What a frustrated Walt needs will shape the 62 episodes of Breaking Bad.  Walt Junior is more fortunate than his old man.  He is able to use Uncle Hank as an alternative father.  Meanwhile the real father Walt has paternal feelings for his business partner Jesse even though there is antagonism between the two of them.  Neither is Hank triumphant.  Work is important to Hank and he only overcomes his post-traumatic stress and injuries when he is given a case which he can investigate.  Prior to that the relationship between Hank and Marie was about to collapse.  Marie, unlike Hank, finds no consolation in her work.  This is one of the reasons she steals from shops and visits houses and leaves with some of the furniture.  Skyler who really does have a difficult husband is dissatisfied with the deceit of Walt.  She finds a job and has an affair with her boss.  Hit man Mike has a job that has taken away his pride and self-respect.  There are a few brief scenes where we witness Mike being affectionate to his granddaughter.  Her innocence offers a few brief moments of respite for the lost soul of a murderer.  He is, though, a grandparent.  The comfort offered by his family is that given to an outsider.

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Even self-appointed drifter Jesse has a family.  Whatever their merits or strengths the parenting they offer Jesse is inadequate.  They do, though, have a difficult son.  Relationships, of course, are a two way street.  Jacob, the hardworking and clever brother of Jesse, is a successful student and almost a gifted prodigy.  The parents of Jesse adore Jacob.  He is the son that they possibly feel is their due.  Jane, despite the efforts of her anxious father, has a heroin habit.  Before she forms a long lasting relationship with Jesse, and the two of them can consider having children perhaps, Jane dies.  After taking heroin she vomits and chokes.   This happens for various reasons but it is also evidence of the failure that exists between Jane and her father.  Neither of them provides what the other assumes is their entitlement, loyalty and understanding.  In this instance the consequences are serious.  Walt did not help, of course, but if the relationship of Jane and father had been successful the plane crash over Albuquerque would have been avoided.  The problem for Jane and her father is that the twist in fate that led to the plane crash occurred well before Walt made his decision not to rescue a choking heroin addict.  The likelihood is that Jane and father have no idea what was the initial twist in fate.  We may spend our lives living within a family but our simultaneous proximity and separation impedes rather than enhances our eyesight.

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Don Hector Salamanca is the old gangster called Tio which in Spanish means uncle.  Tio can also be a term for someone when the someone is a man.  After all the Hollywood Westerns who can blame the Mexicans if they became bored saying hombre.  The choice of the ubiquitous name Tio for this amusing but terrifying psychopath suggests family values that are more typical than we would like to believe.  Tio has three nephews.  These are crazy Tuco and the taciturn cousins Leonel and Marco.  Loyalty exists between the uncle and the three nephews but it has been achieved by assuming that rivals are enemies and worthless.  Watch Tio groom his cousins and we realise that conflict is not the only problem that exists within a family.  There can also be bad habits and disastrous legacies.  Tio encourages violence and creates off the shelf psychopaths.  Such bad habits, which are really bad habits, travel across generations and cause destruction and death.  This notion should make anyone pause before swallowing the defence of Andrea when Jesse accuses her of being an irresponsible mother.  Admittedly Jesse is not qualified to offer moral guidance but he does have a point.  Andrea has a drug habit. Her assertion is that she loves her son Brock and values him above anything.  ‘I take care of my baby.  I’ll do anything for him.’  Apart from give up the drugs that is.  We all have faults and have behaved in ways that have not valued our children. Human failure occurs when we endure emotional, social and economic pressure.  But the existence of universal irresponsibility is no excuse for something that has the potential for horrendous consequences.  As Jesse has explained before he meets Andrea, forgiveness for our crimes belongs to those who do not commit the crimes being forgiven.

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All this, of course, leads to Peekaboo the sixth episode in season two.  Peekaboo is also blessed with a musical extract by the iconic jazzman John Coltrane.  There have been occasions when the drug use of musicians like Coltrane has been romanticised.  There is nothing romantic about the nuclear family and their drug habit in the Peekaboo episode.  The toddler ignored by the meth addicted parents is unkempt, undernourished and feral.  He feeds off the television rather than watches the programmes.  Father is called Spooge, and mother does not even merit a name.  At the end of the episode Jesse takes the child outside the wrecked home and sits him in the fresh air.  Jesse understands that the only relief for this child is away from this terrible family.   In many families there are personal struggles because of incompatibilities.   It is part of the daily struggle.  The homicidal instincts bred by the vicious Tio are extreme but he might have also been groomed by his elders.  At least Tio and his nephews were fed and housed and enjoyed the attention of adults.  Or so it appears.  This is denied to the son of Spooge and the woman without a name.

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Within Breaking Bad the limitations of supposedly successful families are not denied.  The relationship of Hank and Marie is about as good as it gets.  There is communication between them but the two of them also need stimulus from outside the relationship.  For the survival of the marriage there has to be both pragmatism and self-denial.  Two middle class families within Breaking Bad that have prospered have casualties.  These are Jane and Jesse.  Jane dies but a crazed Jesse somehow survives.  There are also two single parent families in Breaking Bad that are important to the narrative.  In both instances the female head of the family dies.  Andrea, the mother of Brock, is shot while opening the front door.  Rich and corrupt Lydia is poisoned by an unforgiving Walt.  Because of his headstrong nature, Walt ruins all the lives within the extended family in Breaking Bad.  His wife and son will not only carry emotional damage, they live in reduced circumstances.  Hank is murdered, and Marie grieves over a man she perhaps did not love as much as she will now think.   Families are not just destructive but vulnerable and that vulnerability leaves its mark on a lot of humans.  The final irony is that although the number of those affected is immense it cannot be calculated.

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.