The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

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.

 

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BREAK OUT: BREAKING BAD

11 JEKYLL AND HEISENBERG

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Using the name Heisenberg for Walter White in Breaking Bad made sense but not in the way assumed by some TV critics.  The Heisenberg principle does not refer to alternative identities.  Defining any quantum physics theory in simple language is dangerous but here goes.  The physicist Heisenberg asserted and demonstrated that there is a fundamental limit to the precision with which a pair of properties of a particle can be known.  The more precise the position of a particle is known the less precise is the measurement of the momentum of the article.  Despite the subsequent fuss about the discovery and how smart Mr Heisenberg must have been the philosophical implications of this idea are limited.  The calculations arriving at the conclusion, though, filled up several very large blackboards.

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But apply the Heisenberg theory to Walt and his behaviour and we realise that the more we see him move or act the less we know about his contradictory personality.  This mystery is something we share with Walt because he is as confused about his nature, intentions and purpose as the rest of us.  Yet before the final episode the character of Walt feels overextended.  Instead of merely being a man whose criminal activity has desensitised him and added a brutal edge to his character Walt has now become evil.  Vince Gilligan and his crew are too talented and creative for the final episodes not to have their moments.  The final season of Breaking Bad is entertaining and remains impressive but it is flawed.   Walter White becomes an unequivocal monster.  His facial expressions and smirks may add gothic amusement for fans but they are more appropriate to a B horror movie.  To those of us who had become used to the previous complex and subtle characterisations by Gilligan and his writers this new Walter was a disappointment.

Before season five the notion of evil as an entity was resisted by the Breaking Bad writers.  In the climax of season four Gilligan and his team skilfully enabled Walt to kill master gangster Gus.   In season five the notion of evil and the Edward Hyde transformation were too easily embraced.   Prior to that we had seen a man of flaws and strengths who responded to various circumstances and events in different ways.  The moral decline of Walt was obvious and believable but, like the moral progress made by Jesse, it was also complicated and uneven.   Jekyll understood he was ‘not the chief of sinners nor the chief of sufferers’.  And neither was Walt before season five appeared although some people would have preferred it to be that way.

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Robert Louis Stevenson based The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde on a dream.  The book is different from the famous movie adaptations.  The drama of Dr Jekyll happens unseen behind a closed door, something like the one in the painting by Georgia O’Keefe that Jane shows to Jesse.  The members of the White and Schrader families all take turns to hide from the others.  For Skyler it is a sulk, and for Walt it is finding somewhere to be other than his suburban home.   All this hiding involves closing both metaphysical and real doors.   Apart from a cruel incident involving a small boy the cruelty of Hyde occurs unseen, restricted to the hidden dark streets of London.

The revelations in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde appear courtesy of the third party Dr Lanyon and in the final letter from Dr Jekyll.  For most writers this complicated structure would have destroyed the book but Stevenson, as he proved in Treasure Island, is a master of exposition.  The book has a great concept but it needed the technical skill of Stevenson to become a classic.

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The responsibility of others to self-destructive friends and relatives is a key element within both Breaking Bad and the Stevenson novella.  Utterson is the solicitor who realises that Jekyll, his client and friend, is in ‘deep waters’.   The austere Utterson condemns himself.  ‘I let my brother go to the devil in his own way.’  Between Walt and Jesse there is conflict and at times hatred.   They criticise and insult each other but when either is threatened by adversaries the other is prepared to defend his business partner.  Even when Walt has been transformed into a monster in the final season he ensures his inevitable death will keep Jesse alive.  The two men have complicated feelings towards each other and neither prevent ‘their brother going to the devil’.  Jekyll understands that drinking his chemical concoction will release Hyde but probably destroy them both.   Nevertheless, Jekyll is unable to say farewell to Hyde.  The most inspired section in the book occurs when Jekyll describes the mother and son relationship that has developed between him and Hyde.  Like a pregnant woman responds to the cries of the entity within her, Jekyll feels maternal towards his creation.  Hyde is like sons everywhere who, when they become adults, are obliged to rebel against this bond and dependency.   Walt and Jesse have a father and son relationship and similar feelings of rebellion and responsibility.

Compared to Dr Jekyll, the dependent Hyde is the extreme example that represents distilled or ‘pure evil’.  The bad behaviour of Hyde is something more than a weak resistance to temptation or flawed judgement.  He carries an evil that is pure because it has its own existence.  Jekyll is a human being and anything but pure.  He is not the consequence of a chemical experiment.  Stevenson describes Jekyll as a compound, and like the rest of us he has a range of appetites.  In the letter he writes before his death Jekyll admits to a ‘certain impatient gaiety of disposition.’  Or as Ibsen might say, he liked to carouse.  The final despair of Jekyll is that he ‘chose the better part but was found wanting in the strength to keep it’.

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Utterson describes it differently.  Jekyll defied ‘the bands that God decreed to bind.’   Whether decreed by God or not most of us know and respect ‘the bands that bind’.  Walt tears at those ‘bands’ but he needs help to break free.  To make the drugs he needs to pay for his medical bills Walter asks someone he remembers as a schoolboy.   Jekyll creates a drug that when taken helps him, ‘like a schoolboy to strip off these bindings and spring headlong into the sea of liberty’.   If there is justification for the emergence of Walt as a monster as opposed to someone whose ego is out of control then we have to accept that his destructive will was suppressed far more and longer than we imagined.  ‘My devil had long been caged and he came out raving.’  Walt, though, had broken free from his cage long before he decided to kill Gus, the act that transformed Walt into a monster.

Like Walt, Jekyll also understood self-censorship.  ‘I led a life of such severity as I had never before attained to, and enjoyed the compensations of an approving conscience,’ wrote Jekyll in his final letter to his solicitor Utterson.  Jekyll was referring to his two months abstinence from taking the concoction that released Hyde.  The compensations of conscience were not enough, as they were not for Walt, and Jekyll returned to what had become his drug.  In season three of Breaking Bad, Walt steps back into his cage and becomes an employee of Gus and works a regular week in a controlled environment.   His acquiescence or conformity is indicated by the neat and modest lunch that he takes to work.   Walt worries about being murdered by Gus but like Jekyll there is also a point in the daily but well rewarded routine when again Walt has to break the bands that bind.

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Two years before he died Werner Heisenberg wrote about the need for guiding ideals.  ‘Without them,’ said Heisenberg, ‘the scale of values disappears and with it the meaning of our deeds and sufferings, and at the end can lie only negation and despair.’   Hyde was always without a scale of values, and Jekyll forgot his at the important moments in his life.  Walter White had his scale of values and talked about the importance of his family.  He also had moments in his life and criminal career that were as important as those when Jekyll was unable to resist the temptation to swallow the serum he had created.  Walt neither understood the values he preached nor recognised those important moments when we want to but must not tear at the bands that bind.   Heisenberg believed religion protected us from desolation and despair. Walt was not religious and neither is anyone else in Breaking Bad.   Maybe there is a parallel universe where Walt somehow survived the Aryan Brotherhood gangsters, read the autobiography of Heisenberg and became a born again Christian.  But if he had done that, Walt really would have been a monster.

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.