Author: Howard Jackson

Howard Jackson was born in Merseyside in 1948. He still lives there and has spent most of his life in Liverpool, although he has also lived in London, Nottingham, Glasgow and Preston. He reads, watches movies, listens to music (a lot), supports Liverpool Football Club and climbs hills in the Lake District and Yorkshire. Though not a keen fan of travelling he has toured extensively around Brazil and the Southern States of America. These journeys were a consequence of an interest in Brazilian history and the music of the American South.

BREAK OUT: BREAKING BAD

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We all accumulate debts during a life, and, because none of us are self-sufficient, most of us can remember more than one debt that has helped us to survive.   I left one behind in Albuquerque to an attractive Mexican barmaid.  Thanks to an articulate lady of immense personal strength I was able to say goodbye to a hostile crowd in an Albuquerque bar and lose nothing but some of my dignity, a camera and the twenty-odd photographs I had taken around New Mexico.   Walter White is not the only male in Albuquerque who has felt the need for vengeance.  Walter raised the stakes.  I was almost as angry as Walt but left town while I still had two hands that could grip a steering wheel.  I drove out of New Mexico State and to Amarillo in Texas where I met a pest called George but that is another story.

The abbreviation ABQ for Albuquerque has been credited to the painter Georgia O’Keeffe.  The ABQ episode of Breaking Bad climaxes season two, and somewhere around the conclusion Jane suggests to Jesse that they visit a local gallery to look at a collection of paintings by O’Keeffe.  The painter was born in New York but she included in her portfolio a few New Mexico landscapes.  The ABQ episode is remembered for the plane crash that kills 167 passengers, the pink teddy bear that falls in the swimming pool of Walt and the moment when Walt does nothing to prevent the death of Jane.   The episode title honours the abbreviation favoured by Georgia O’Keefe.  In a show that specialised in cryptic pre-credit teasers 737 Down Over Albuquerque would have been not quite right for the Breaking Bad brand.  It may also have alerted too many viewers to the plane crash engineered by the real life drug dealer Pablo Escobar.

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Albuquerque was established in 1706.   Just over three hundred years later the town has a population of 552,000 people.  Even though Walter White is now dead the town still has its problems.   The gun death rate in New Mexico is 40% higher than the national average of the USA, and in case not everyone has noticed the States is not a best in class leader for minimising gun deaths.  Billy the Kid moved to New Mexico when he was fourteen years old.  Like Georgia O’Keeffe, he was born in New York City, and similar to many other famous men he lost his father when young.  And like me, he had some support from a Mexican woman although in his case it was more substantial, more serious and longer lasting.  She did not, though, prevent Billy the Kid from being killed by Pat Garrett seven years after he had arrived in New Mexico.

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Some people would worry about the number of people being shot down on the modern streets of Albuquerque but the local police force has a reputation for nihilistic stubbornness and corruption.  20% of the population of Albuquerque lives below the poverty line and while that lasts there will be a good crystal meth market for wannabe Walter Whites to exploit.  People who have left Albuquerque to live elsewhere say that the people who remain in the city are distinguished by a lack of ambition.  Albuquerque is isolated.  The nearest city is a four hour drive away.   The mountains and the dry desert air provide consolation but the isolation means that in the commercial and social life of Albuquerque the stakes are not so high for its citizens.  The difference between the affluent and the very rich is not as great in Albuquerque as it is in some American cities.  This can be relaxing for the adults of Albuquerque or at least those who are living above the poverty line.   For the pesky teenagers of affluent parents, though, it suggests dullness.  This may be why the young are tempted to use narcotics and contribute to the widespread drug problem.   As did Walt, the children of the poor have their own and very different reasons.  Few dispute that the family is important to the citizens of Albuquerque.

Over the concrete dwellings there is a cable car that gives good aerial views.  The Sandia Peak Tramway travels 2.7 miles and takes the less athletic into the mountains and as high as the 10,378 foot Sandia Peak.   There are various mountain trails.  La Luz Trail is an eight mile hike and arduous.  If the mountains around Albuquerque are impressive, the strong winds can be a nuisance.  The air, though, is fresh and warm.  In a couple of episodes Walt wanders on to sandy slopes in between rocky mesas but mostly the mountains in Breaking Bad redefine a distant horizon.

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Apart from the scenic blessings there are man-made sights.   While still a small scale meth manufacturer Walt sets up a meeting with his street level distributors.  They discuss plans in the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History.  The setting implies criminal escalation and apocalyptic consequences.  Elsewhere the old town of Albuquerque is fey and contrived but after sacrificing a half decent camera I can think of worse places in the city to relax and have a beer.  It may have been my experience of the old town that made me less alert in the rest of Albuquerque.

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The most popular destination in the city is the home of Walter White.  Breaking Bad Tours have boosted the economy of Albuquerque.  Not all but some of the tourists like to imitate Walter White and throw giant pizzas on to the roof of the suburban house.  The cliché is that Albuquerque is a key character in the Breaking Bad TV series.   The location is important but comparing the town to a character is sloppy thinking and an exaggeration.  The original idea was to have somewhere in California where Walter White could pursue his exploits and make his family suffer.   This did not happen.  Albuquerque was probably chosen as a location for Breaking Bad for financial reasons.  Los Angeles was not suitable for a TV show that had some Western themes and suggested a hero tempted to reclaim undomesticated masculinity.   Filming in a small Californian town would have been almost as expensive as Los Angeles.  Albuquerque was a cheaper option.  If financial restrictions affected decisions as to what additional sourced music could be added to the soundtrack then the choice of the film location would be important.

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Albuquerque does, though, add ambience to the episodes and it provides a fitting context for the adventures of Walt.  The city has blue skies that are often clear, and when they are not they have bright white clouds.  Outside of town and below the blue skies there is a wide expanse of desert and tall mountainous vistas.  Add the occasional filter to the camera lens and this emptiness dazzles the eyes of the Breaking Bad audience and torments frustrated Walt.  The landscape exists as a permanent and relentless alternative to the restrictions of domesticity.   There is a moment in the episode 4 Days Out when Walt and Jesse stop after a day of hard work, take a breath and stare at the desert sunset.  The obvious filter on the lens is disconcerting and had to be used for practical reasons.  Yet the tint does not prevent the shot from being memorable and important.  The two crystal meth makers may be tired but standing on tired bones and in the middle of the desert they are able to respect and admire an uncompromising and spectacular landscape.  A silent paternal environment acknowledges their efforts.

It is to their credit that the writers of Breaking Bad are never tempted to incorporate the tourist spots of Albuquerque as visual ornaments.  Away from the mountains we see a lot of utilitarian concrete.  If Walt, his partners, enemies and rivals make the way into the desert, it is because they need isolation and to do something they should not.  The tourist attractions of Albuquerque are avoided.  When he is behaving himself, Walt is restricted to dull suburbia.  The houses used in Breaking Bad are authentic which is why we should feel sorry for the poor sod who has to scrape the pizzas off his roof after the tourists have disappeared.   But the suburban locations used in Breaking Bad can be found in the outskirts of any city in the USA, Europe and even the more affluent neighbourhoods in South America.

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Throughout the five seasons the Whites and the neighbours show little inclination to socialise beyond their own homes and swimming pools.  The scene where Walt over a beer meets the father of Jane is memorable for various reasons.  It is also a rare example of a character in Breaking Bad visiting an Albuquerque bar or restaurant.   No wonder Walter White looks so uncomfortable when he has to visit Gustavo Fring in the fast food diner Los Pollos Hermanos and talk business.  The real alternatives to modern Albuquerque suburbia for a would be Western hero are not modern bars and restaurants but empty places like the open desert landscape where Walt and Jesse take their recreational vehicle to first make meth.  Over a hundred years before a young Billy the Kid rode through this New Mexico landscape.  He needed to escape his enemies but also those who were doing their best to establish the ubiquitous concrete suburbia that followed.

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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BREAK OUT: BREAKING BAD

7 ROLL THOSE DICE

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First, folks, give poor Walter White a break.  He did not destroy a Boeing 737 aeroplane and cause the deaths of its 167 passengers.  Neither was he responsible for the damaged pink and less than poignant teddy bear that fell from the aircraft and landed in his swimming pool.  The plane crash was an accident and a consequence of circumstances beyond the invention of mere human beings even those created by omnipotent scriptwriters.  Walt was not at his best when he let vulnerable, attractive but tiresome Jane choke on her own vomit while she was sleeping after taking heroin.  Poor Walt was under pressure and had his reasons.

His presence in the bedroom where Jane and Jesse slept was a consequence of benevolent intentions.  Walt wanted to rescue Jesse from decline and make amends for previous misunderstandings.  Mr White knew he was not behaving well in letting Jane die.  This is why he said sorry although in not a very loud voice and why his action haunted him.  In a subsequent episode of Breaking Bad Walt confessed that he wished he had abandoned making crystal meth the moment before Jane died.  But in other moments Walt must have remembered how Jane was a destructive force.  The woman was blackmailing Walt and leading Jesse to a life of heroin addiction and self-destruction.  That was how a not disinterested Walt saw the situation and a troublesome young lady.  Poor Walter White was not to know that the father of Jane was guilt ridden and would soon let his mind go astray while looking at air lanes on his computer screen.  By letting Jane die Walt may have created the sequence of events that led to 167 aircraft passengers being killed but there is something called air traffic control and, in case we forget, the aeroplane did have a pilot.

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In interviews Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan has traced the destruction of the aeroplane to well before the moment Walt lets Jane die or, if we want to be judgemental, commits murder.  Previously Walt had planned to make enough crystal meth to earn $737,000, and it is that commitment or desire for financial security that initiates a sequence of events that lead to the carnage inside a Boeing 737.

Forget the chaos theory for the moment and the idea that all the events in the past make inevitable what will happen next.  More people than Walt are making decisions in their daily routine of survival and progress.   We all leave behind unintended consequences.  If Jane had stayed loyal to the drug recovery programme and if Jesse and her father had been made of sterner stuff, the damned aeroplane would have landed safely.  And before that there is Hank showing off to Walt and boasting how much money can be made from dealing in crystal meth.  We also have to wonder what would have happened if Skyler had not insisted on the toe curling party to celebrate the news that the treatment for the cancer of Walt had been successful.   Unintended consequences exist and have to be recognised.  They can and do explain history.  What they cannot do, though, is allow us to point the finger at inadequately informed individuals swamped both by fate and the unintended consequences of others.

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The story of Walter White is gripping and presented in brilliant fashion, and for that to happen the fate of Walt is determined often by accidental events, not all of which are negative.  Think of all those narrow escapes.  These accidental events lead Walter White to discover not just the dark side of his character but realise how it can be satisfied.  There are actions for which Walt is responsible.  Even some of the minor incidents involving Walt are repellent, his manipulation of Skyler and how he bullies his son into drinking tequila.  But unintended consequences for human beings bounce around like the balls in a pinball machine and with the same speed.   The game is called fate.

Neither is the alternative to avoiding unintended consequences pleasant.   Life should have surprises.  Walter is condemned as being a villain when he becomes Heisenberg and embraces uncertainty.  Heisenberg was the name of the physicist who identified in quantum physics the uncertainty principle.  Not all writers are as conservative as the creators of Breaking Bad.  More than a few have argued that a life defined by outcomes that can be anticipated with certainty is doomed to be joyless, something to be endured rather than experienced.  The successful endure in comfort but their affluence is no guarantee of happiness.   Empty spirits, they need the satisfaction of having the poor around to categorise as failures.  The emptiness of nothing but predictable consequences may be what Walter White ponders while he flicks matches into his swimming pool and responds to his cancer diagnosis or when he has to listen to Skyler give the embarrassing speech at the celebratory party for Walt.

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Sometimes a person just has to roll the dice and see what happens next.  The novel The Dice Man by Luke Rheinhart appeared in 1971.  The notion behind the book is simple.  The hero Rheinhart lets the dice decide what he will do next.  For some time Rheinhart has wanted to have sex with his neighbour Arlene.  After rolling the dice Rheinhart visits next door with the intention of raping the woman he desires.  Fortunately for Rheinhart, and probably the rest of the book, Arlene is a willing sexual partner.  Rheinhart then organises his life around throws of the dice.  He attracts followers, and the movement he inspires threatens society and meets resistance from the establishment.  There are lots of unintended consequences, plenty of fun but also some chaos and casualties.   The Dice Man is hippie nonsense that should offend anyone with half a brain but also a great read.  Rheinhart, the author, redeems the tale through his down to earth humour.    He also makes an impressive attempt at imagining what would happen if we all had the nerve to roll the dice and ignore and defy unintended consequences.   Walt may be a flawed human being but he rolls the dice.  It leads Walt to making drugs that damage people and to the murder of both the guilty and the innocent.  That pure moment when the dice are rolled by Walt, though, cannot be ignored.  Without it he would not in the final episode be able to say, ‘I did it for me.  And I was good at it.  I felt alive.’

The novel An American Dream by Norman Mailer lacks the sardonic tone of The Dice Man.  The gifted Mailer was not without a sense of humour but it disappeared when he sat at a typewriter.  Rather than rape the next door neighbour the Mailer hero Rojack has a drunken argument with his wife and kills her.  After the murder Rojack imposes his will on the maid Ruta in her bedroom and the two of them have sex.  This is really rolling the dice and not giving a damn about consequences unintended or otherwise.  Walt is freed by the threat of his premature death.  Rojack feels alive after killing his difficult wife and having sex with the tormenting fantasy downstairs.

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An American Dream divided critical opinion.  Feminists argued that Mailer was using the need for existential authenticity to justify his misogyny.  Even the male critics were divided.  Joan Didion, though, described the book as ‘the only serious New York novel since The Great Gatsby’.  Much of An American Dream is now repellent to a modern reader and, although always informed by curiosity and intelligence, it has nothing that compares to the imagination, wit and brilliance of Breaking Bad.    Yet the unpleasant arrogance of Mailer provides something beyond what the understanding and reasonable Vince Gilligan cannot.  Mailer has conviction and is argumentative but if he is a destructive force whose adolescent views on masculinity should be condemned his plea for authentic experience and identity remains intact.  The arguments in An American Dream may be rooted in narcissism and selfishness but they are like the crystal meth cooked by Walt and Jesse, dangerous but pure.

Breaking Bad is marvellous television and incomparable but its references to Walt Whitman and authentic existence fail to explain the principles of the poet.  Instead the references to Whitman are used to do no more than give a glimpse of the emotional needs of poor suburban Walt.  This reticence allows the scriptwriters to sit on the judgemental fence and be haughty about unintended consequences.  This is having your existential cake and eating it.  Whatever his critics and authors think Walt cannot be denied those moments when he embraced uncertainty and defied his emasculation in suburbia.  No wonder he died with a smile on his face.  And as the timid also leave behind their own unintended consequences, which is where the chaos theory came in, that final sly smile of Walter White cannot be begrudged.

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 is available here.