Bryan Cranston

BITTEN: BREAKING BAD

 

1 LAUREL AND HARDY

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In the USA the expression ‘breaking bad’ is a southern slang alternative to ‘raising hell’.  Both phrases communicate a sense of entitlement and compare to the ambition of villainous cowboys who pledge to go ‘straight to hell’, men who will not be denied.  Vince Gilligan is the creator of Breaking Bad.  He was born and raised in Richmond Virginia but has spent too long in Southern California to be considered a Southern ‘good ol’ boy’.   Something of his Virginian background, though, remains.  He has a sense of entitlement, and this is confirmed by the audacious and demanding plot absurdities of Breaking Bad.  If audiences want to share the wild world of Walter White they are also obliged to accept the barely credible events of Breaking Bad.  Without looking the other way most viewers have settled for the deal.  Speak to a devotee of Breaking Bad and they will mention how they find it addictive.  The hit TV show has been described as both a black comedy and a dark drama.  Those elements are present in various episodes but the TV series indulges rather than challenges an audience.  There is nothing wrong with a writer having a desire to please but if his interest is in dark drama, he will need to add comedic elements.  Vince Gilligan and his writers understand their responsibilities.

Movie slapstick comedians have a greater sense of entitlement than most.  The witless idiots created by Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton wreck everything around them but somehow survive and claim their right to disappear down the street and into the next comic short.  Nothing demonstrates this naive self-belief better than the stunt where the gable end of a house falls on top of Keaton.  He survives because he is standing where the open doorway lands.  Harold Lloyd was possessed of so much self-belief and entitlement that he thought nothing of hanging on to the fingers of a clock attached to a skyscraper.  Stunts were not faked.  Keaton was calculating, Chaplin was sly and nimble, and Lloyd was a bespectacled daredevil.

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The Laurel and Hardy movie Way Out West was once a seasonal feature on British TV.  Now it has disappeared from the schedules although British cinemas have recently shown the film Stan & Ollie.  This gentle and sympathetic elegy was inspired by the stage tour the comic duo undertook in the UK.  By then the comics were old and suffering from deteriorating health.  Fame and the pressure to perform meant they were also battling with themselves.  Walter White and Jesse Pinkman are the two heroes of Breaking Bad.  Walter and Jesse are ill at ease amongst the violence of tough guys, the people who pressure them to make drugs or perform.   Like Stan and Ollie, they struggle.   For Stan, Ollie, Walt and Jess exceptional success has a sting in the tale.  While they age they will be measured against what they used to promise.  The film Stan & Ollie appears to be a labour of love.  The nostalgic producers of the movie will and should settle for a niche audience.  Laurel and Hardy had a famous catchphrase, ‘Well here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into’.  Invariably it is uttered by the pompous Ollie to the bewildered Stan.  Ollie is usually the man with the plan, and the confusion of Stan adds chaos although the misplaced ambition of Ollie is also important.  The plans of Ollie are not only never realised they produce results beyond the imagination of two ill matched partners.

‘Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into’ could be used to describe what happens to Walt and Jesse.  The two heroes stumble into the unpredictable.  Vince Gilligan has been  willing to share his ambitions for Breaking Bad.   He is proud of the neat use of the number 737.  Near the beginning of Season Two the objective of Walt is made clear.  At a point when Jesse has doubts about the future of their working relationship Walt tells Jesse that he needs to make $737,000.  This will pay for his medical bills and leave his family secure when he dies from his cancer.  By the end of Season Two the Ollie equivalent or Walt has become accomplished or at least demonstrated his value to his business partners.  His success, though, has repercussions.  The crash of a Boeing 737 and the deaths of 167 passengers is more than another nice mess.  It is, as Gilligan makes clear in an interview, an unintended consequence.  An almost charitable fund of $737,000 is the aim, and a wrecked Boeing 737 is the result.   Hardy and Walt always imagine they are doing the right thing.  It is other people who get them into the nice mess.  In the case of the Boeing air crash it is the air traffic controller who is grieving over the daughter that Walt decided to not rescue from dying.   Walt had his reasons.  The fear of Gilligan of unintended consequences means that the creator behind Breaking Bad has conservative instincts.   The  chaos in Breaking Bad exists as a warning.  In Breaking Bad the daredevils are chastised, and in Laurel and Hardy films it is the stupid.

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Ollie and Laurel are opposites.  Ollie is overweight, and Laurel is slim.  Ollie acts as if he is the expert and the source of knowledge.  Laurel is timid and slow thinking.  The physical difference between Walt and Jesse is defined by their difference in age.   Walt is 50 years old.  Jesse used to be a pupil at the school where Walt teaches chemistry.   Walt is not big and round like Ollie but his body has a middle-aged slump.  The actor Bryan Cranston put on a stone for the part.  Jesse is short and slim.  He has the build of an adolescent.  Walt remembers Jesse as one of his dimmer pupils.   It is Walt who has the knowledge that will enable the production of superior crystal meth.   The expertise of Walt and the stupidity of Jesse lead to comic mishaps and misunderstandings.   When faced with difficulties Walt becomes curious and applies his academic intellect to not just analysis but the acquisition of authority.  Jesse, like Stan Laurel, meanwhile looks baffled and utters the occasional protest.

Most comedy duos consist of a figure of fun, the comic, and a straight man that attempts to explain and contribute sense.  Ollie and Hardy were different.  Neither Hardy nor Laurel is sensible and more important they were both comics.  They were a success in the movies because the camera could cut from one comic facial expression to the other.  Both men made a comic contribution.  This happens in Breaking Bad.  Both Walt and Jesse have their comic moments, often when they are astonished by naivety and ignorance in the other but sometimes when one of them overestimates his capability.  Hardy was good at registering disgust at the incompetence of Laurel.  Bryan Cranston is a capable actor and has the same ability.  He coughs, splutters and raises his eyebrows high enough to wrinkle an already crinkled forehead.   Amongst the main characters of Breaking Bad there is a straight man but this time it is a female.  Skyler White is the wife of Walt.  Like most straight men, Skyler is bewildered by others.  She plays the straight man role in scenes with her weird husband, her daft sister and even when she is surrounded by what constitutes her whole confused family, her husband, son, sister and brother-in-law.

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Neither Ollie nor Hardy has the figure for performance as an entertainer.  Ollie looks like his breath will be inadequate, and Stan is so slight he looks anonymous.  Before panchromatic film was developed the blue eyes of Laurel were that pale they looked white on the cinema screen.   They do not look like men who will create chaos and wreckage.  The appearance of Walt and Jesse also misleads.  Even with a hat that he wears as a stage prop Walt does not look like a man capable of murder.  His manner is too anxious to suggest someone that will outwit criminal gang leaders and hard headed policeman.  Jesse is prone to simper and he looks like someone who could be pushed over by the index finger of one of the chest beating villains.

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Laurel and Hardy were masters of what is known as the tit for tat fight.  This consists of an accident between two people and subsequent retaliation that escalates to apocalyptic destruction.  The surprise and bewilderment at each escalation mustered by Hardy and Laurel cranks up the comedy.  There is tit for tat between Walt and Jesse although much of it is verbal.  The comedic effect is achieved by the difference in the arguments of Walt and Jesse.  They do not communicate as equals and most of the time they will exaggerate the slight or offence.

It takes five seasons or 62 episodes for the partnership between Walt and Jesse to develop to its fullest extent but, unlike the relationship between Stan and Ollie, it changes.  In both instances, though, two men bewilder each other until the very end.  In the films of Laurel and Hardy and the episodes of Breaking Bad we meet two couples that for the benefit of everyone including themselves should never have met.   More people in Breaking Bad would have stayed alive without the partnership of Walt and Jesse, and in the films of Laurel and Hardy there would have been fewer nice messes.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

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THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

OZARK AND AMERICAN MIDDLE CLASS BLUES

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Marty Byrde talks and thinks about money all the time. Even when he is preoccupied with his family Marty is more concerned about their potential prosperity. At the beginning of Ozark we hear him over the soundtrack share his thoughts. ‘Money is what separates the haves from the have-nots. Patience, frugality, sacrifice, deciding to invest in your family’s future and taking responsibility for your actions. Money is the measure of a man’s choices.’ As an opening to a TV series, the words are not that impressive, not the dramatic hook that audiences expect. But later we understand the words are a sales pitch that Marty would have made to potential customers when he was a financial advisor or salesman. The problem for Marty is that his marketing waffle has become a philosophy. It is how he evaluates himself, his society and existence. Marty is the pure product of the ambitions of his society. He is a monetised human being.   Type ‘American middle class physical health’ into Google, and the search engine will reproduce nothing but links to websites about the cost of health care. Americans worry more about financing their health treatment than whether they are actually healthy.   Value for money rather than well-being transcends anything and everything.

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Ozark has been compared to Breaking Bad, and at this point people are hedging their bets about how the TV series will develop. It depends on your point of view.  Ozark explores similar themes to Breaking Bad or is an opportunistic rip off.  Marty Byrde is the main character in Ozark. Byrde is educated and affluent and should be settled in middle-class comfort. Instead he was tempted by a well-paid offer to manage the accounts of a drug cartel. Now he is involved in money laundering schemes and obliged to keep both gangsters and the police at bay. Despite the potential for mishap, violence and chaos Ozark will not match Breaking Bad for narrative invention. This is a safe prediction because nothing ever will. Darlene Snell is the wife of a local hillbilly drug runner.   She is impulsive, violent and carries a loaded shotgun. Already in the first season she has become a dependable plot device to ensure surprises and twists.   But any TV series that has a ten year old define gross domestic product and explain how it does not measure the production of anything has to be given some respect. The show is less effective at making clear the process of money laundering but it makes a more serious attempt than most.

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Jason Bateman is a key player in the production. He plays the main character and has directed several episodes. Bateman lacks the dark potential of Bryan Cranston, who played Walter White in Breaking Bad, but his wife is played by the great Laura Linney and together they make a fine and interesting couple. Marty Byrde is a hustler but he is also a peacemaker. He wants his family to be happy rather than a monument or a legacy.   It is tempting to regard Byrde as an innocent.   One character, though, describes him as the Devil.  Byrde broods about the accusation.  People die around him. No one can predict if Ozark will generate the dead body count of Breaking Bad or whether Byrde will eventually take the violent options that tempted White but there should be plenty of fun in working out who is slain next.

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The plot of Breaking Bad was shaped by the struggle of Walter White to pay the medical bills for the treatment of his cancer. He did not have enough money to deal with a crisis. Byrde is different. He made his decision to commit to performing mundane money laundering tasks in 2007. A whole episode is devoted to a flashback to that year. Financial security and perhaps a little adventure are what tempted Marty.  Wendy his wife agrees to the diversion.  They are either being greedy or romantic or maybe both. The significance of 2007 is obvious.  Although it is not mentioned in Ozark, 2007 is the year of the financial crash. This is the year when American middle class lives became even less secure, vulnerable rather than successful. The episode is an audacious innovation and it establishes an important metaphor for life in a modern money shuffling economy. The episode deserves to be admired. We discover that Marty and his wife are a couple that lacked the imagination to understand the limits of economic aspiration. They assumed that economic good times could last forever. They had the same trust in gangsters that financiers have in debt. Neither are reliable, and now Marty is hustling around a lake in Missouri looking for businesses in which he can invest the drug money.

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Middle class hope is symbolised in the show by the trampoline. It exists in the memories of Marty and his wife.   The children in the family are troubled by the revelation that Dad is a money launderer.   Imagining their teenage daughter and son as young children bouncing in the air helps the parents to remember good, decent and innocent expectations of progress. When Marty feels he might just survive and there is prospect of settled family life, he reassembles the trampoline. In another episode it looks as if there is no scope for him to continue as a father or a man.   Marty retreats to the trampoline and he lies on its surface. He is alone and staring at a sky that is now a weight. Bouncing and optimism are no longer options.

Both Breaking Bad and Ozark reveal the crisis that is affecting the American middle class this century.   In the USA social class is defined exclusively by money or income. Right now the income for a middle class male in the USA ranges from $43000 to $71000. For women the range in income stretches from $26000 to $54000. People with income below that are identified as lower class, and those above that range are described as upper class. In UK terms the American middle class contains both people with working class jobs that have decent wages and those who in Britain would be described as lower middle class, folk whom we used to think of as ‘comfortable’.

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Mark Gongloff in The Huffington Post has described the last 36 years for the American middle class as a ‘sea of suck’. There was brief respite in the 90s when the technical boom and the Internet bubble lifted incomes. It did not last. Overall wages and household income have been stagnant for nearly forty years. Any growth in income since 1980 has gone to the upper class. Some of this extra money would have, before the neoliberal reforms, landed in middle class bank accounts. Creating that growth in upper class income has often been the burden of the middle class. And not everything in the work ethic garden is rosy.  Now Americans sleep 20% less than they did at the beginning of the last century.

Meanwhile the costs of being middle class have increased and the standard of living has fallen. Utilities, child care, education and health have become a financial drain on American middle class households. Neither are the well paid jobs so secure. A majority of middle class American families will at some point in their existence experience poverty or a financial crisis that will have them worry about what will happen next and feel desperate.  The jobs when they do appear are also more demanding. People are easier to exploit, and companies are competing against rivals that know how to control labour costs and maximise efficiency. Yet there is good news. Technology has controlled the prices of motor cars and electrical equipment. We have big TVs and smartphones. Thanks to feminism women are also safer in the home. Men are less violent to their spouses but, because everyone is working so hard, their is less time to throw punches.

 

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Physical safety is desirable and welcome but it does not constitute security or stability. Breaking Bad and Ozark are shows about people at their wits end. Walter White and Marty Byrde are both an inspiration and a warning to American fathers. The lucky get rich but the American dream of sharing a comfortable life with a contented family in a secure home is beyond people who have normal lives. Mortgage repayments are juggled, and so are insecure jobs, and what Mom and Dad do to earn the money that pays for the mortgage and everything else is best not talked about.   Money is both tainted and threatening. The best that can be said about Mom and Dad is that they are not as shabby as the powerful monsters that make Mom and Dad shiver. Domestic partners unable to share their despair, pessimism and self-hatred tell lies to one another.

It may have been always like this, of course. But the data showing what has happened to the American middle class and also to a lot of British workers is stark. Thatcher and Reagan arrived, and the upward curves showing income growth on the graphs disappeared. Americans work harder but after nearly forty years of extra effort they earn no more than their predecessors. Their children face even worse prospects. Relaxation is possible. We have big cheap TVs and watch middle class heroes struggle and resist. They grit their teeth when they understand the odds against them. Walter White and his teeth survived for as long as six seasons but he was doomed. If Marty Byrde lasts that long, he will be doing well.

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Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.