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

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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BREAK OUT: BREAKING BAD

15 CHECK OFF, UNCLE WALT

 

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In The Official Guide To Breaking Bad, the film critic David Thomson claimed that the TV series had ‘in its blood the bittersweet resignation of Chekhov’.  He compared drug dealer Walter White to Uncle Vanya.  Both Vanya and Walt protest against their existence but are hampered by their limitations.  Vanya fails to experience the transcendental he desires, and the already punctured ego of Walt is vanquished.  David Thomson was being succinct.  He might have wanted to say more.  The phrase bittersweet resignation underestimates what Chekhov achieves in his plays, and Breaking Bad is populated with too many obsessive personalities for any critic to be tempted by the word resignation.  If the cliché has to be used, it should be saved for Scott Fitzgerald.  Breaking Bad is a marvellous creation but, no matter what the inspirational detail, any Jekyll and Hyde tale of a schoolteacher who becomes a drug making criminal is obliged to be extravagant rather than resigned.

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There will be fans of Breaking Bad that the plays of Chekhov will send to sleep.  Chekhov does not write soap operas.  He attempted what he regards as realism.  For Chekhov, fate not only exists but is consolidated by the compound interest provided by long determined personalities.  In soap operas the decisions of the characters determine future events.   A soap opera will have multiple story lines and intense and uneven relationships which can be unbalanced further by either betrayal, confrontation, disappointing failure, rivalry, romantic temptation or the desire for reprisal.  Soap opera characters respond to the events that their actions create and they become either heroes or villains.  As the drama proceeds, the audience witnesses often surprising aspects of the personalities of the heroes and villains.   Breaking Bad has several extreme examples.  Skyler, Jesse, Walt and Hank all act in a way that shapes the fate of the others, and their personalities adopt different personas as the world around them changes, a world which they have helped create.  In Chekhov what happens to the characters occurs because of who they are and not because of what they decide to do.  In the plays of Chekhov we watch families and their members drift towards their destiny.

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The famous four plays of Anton Chekhov are called The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya and The Three Sisters.  The best way to watch them is in a small theatre where the actors are not obliged to raise their voices and can talk in a natural way.    Chekhov wanted his characters to have the kind of routine and measured conversations that existed in reality.  The Russian playwright was one of the first to attempt this and, because he was successful, people have claimed he was a genius.   If his short story The Steppes is any indication, he might well have been.  But even the geniuses cannot have everything.  All drama requires exposition, and when the servants and aristocrats line up to appear in the opening scenes of a Chekhov play, the dialogue can creak.  His most ambitious drama is The Cherry Orchard which mixes a family tale with political and philosophical concerns.  The Cherry Orchard is exceptional and marvellous but it also needs a political idealist to explain the failures of the Russian aristocracy.   His dialogue may be instructional but at least the aristocrats ignore him.

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Neither Breaking Bad nor any of the plays by Chekhov can be described as light comedies.  No one falls in love and lives happily ever after.  Jesse in Breaking Bad is particularly unfortunate.  The two women he loves are both murdered which has to be regarded as grim.  The women in Chekhov just about survive but there is an awful lot of unrequited love left walking around those Russian estates.  Walt makes crystal meth that ruins the lives of thousands.  The aristocratic families are pampered by servants and require the exploitation of Russian peasantry.   Happiness through virtue is beyond the characters of Breaking Bad and Chekhov.  But both Breaking Bad and Chekhov have comic moments.   The writers on Breaking Bad have revealed that the most urgent demand from showrunner Vince Gilligan was always for more humour.  Chekhov described his plays as comedies.

In Breaking Bad what goes wrong depends often on characters not saying what we would expect from them.  Skyler, Marie, Hank, Jesse and Walt all have prolonged and silent sulks.  It not only adds tension to the relationships but allows the writers to avoid narrative difficulties.  Considering the nature of their day to day partnership, it is odd how little Walt explains behaviour that is often his response to threats from others.  This trickery is accepted by an audience because it feels in character.  We make allowances.  Chekhov has a different technique.  His characters talk and explore their problems but most of the time with the wrong person.  An aristocrat complains about his boring life to an oppressed servant.  Secrets are revealed to people who are rivals rather than confidants.  In its most extreme form one character talks to an inevitably indifferent bookcase.  The equivalent of this in Breaking Bad is Walt cursing to himself.  In the past British actors had a habit of downplaying the humour in Chekhov.  The Americans have had more success with communicating the comedy.   Vanya on 42nd Street is the notable example.

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The extent to which Vince Gilligan and his writers will have had regard to Chekhov is not known but the playwright would have been a subsidiary and perhaps compulsory subject in American film schools.  Breaking Bad may be a melodrama but it does have Chekhovian moments when its characters sit down, talk and confess to emotions and mistakes.  Chekhov would have approved of the family discussion around the ‘talking pillow’ in Breaking Bad.

 Estates and private agricultural land ensure that the families in the plays of Chekhov are isolated and self-contained.  It also keeps a stage production manageable.  In Breaking Bad the characters have cars and mix with people outside the family but the Whites and Schraders also function together as a self-contained unit.  Their houses may be surrounded by suburbia but in the rare instances we see a neighbour it occurs when the family is in crisis.  Hank at the end of an argument with Marie notes the small child playing near his house.  Walt says hello to the elderly neighbour next door but after he is exposed as a drug criminal and his relationship with his family has been destroyed.

 

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Chekhov made the famous remark about a smoking gun that is quoted on training courses for dramatists.  He claimed that if a gun appeared in the first act then before the end of the play it had to be used, otherwise the audience would wonder what was the point of the gun.  Vince Gilligan and his writers follow this maxim slavishly.  Chekhov was either disillusioned with the theory when he wrote The Cherry Orchard or Russian humour is a lot more subtle than is realised.  In that play a servant puts a gun in his mouth and contemplates suicide.  The servant has second thoughts.  The gun does not reappear in the play.   The Cherry Orchard was the last play written by Chekhov.  He had problems with his health that led to an early death.  The abandoned unused gun might have been a final sly wink to the audience.

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Manufacturing crystal meth is an essential activity for Walt.  It helps him to ‘feel alive’ and acquire what he regards as deserved status.  For landowner Madame Lyubov Andrievna Ranevskaya the cherry orchard has similar importance.  It is in the orchard where she felt alive and had not yet experienced the abuse of disappointing husbands.  Both Walt and Madame Ranevskaya are unable to be pragmatic and they continue towards conclusions that could have been avoided. They feel entitled to be defiant against obvious fates.  Because of his superior education, Walt has contempt for policemen and gangsters.  Madame Ranevskaya underestimates the accomplishments of liberated serfs and the impact of a changing Russia.

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Almost every key character in Breaking Bad is a provocateur and they shape the melodrama.  These are the people who produce the perverse coincidences and surprises.  The provocateurs in the plays of Chekhov have more modest ambitions and are not as many in number.  They expose the circumstances of the people around them and their nature but not much more than that.  Three sisters become restless when a handsome soldier arrives, the visit of a scientist and his beautiful wife make Uncle Vanya realise that he has wasted his life, an immoral writer exposes the pretensions of a talentless actress, and a political idealist nags at the illusions of a bankrupt aristocratic family.  The comic touch of Chekhov is apparent because the plays finish with people in the main settling down to what they did before.  This does not happen at the end of Breaking Bad.  Walt and Hank are both dead.  Skyler and Marie will have to live without their husbands.   Jesse, though, does have an ending that would have suited Chekhov.  He may drive free into the horizon at the end of Breaking Bad but he is unchanged from the person the audience met in season one.  He has no plans, remains under-qualified and has limited appeal for employers.  The wealth that he once had is no longer at his disposal, which in a way is a happy ending.  Jesse was a drug maker whose activities wrecked lives.  He also killed a few people.  But if he had not survived, we would have forgotten the elements that insisted that Breaking Bad was as much a comedy as a thriller.

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.