Treasure Island

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.

 

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REAL MEAN CRITTERS

THE STRANGE CASE OF DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE

USA 2017

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Movie genres have cult appeal, and cults have loyalists who cherish what they consider to be rare icons. The diehards amongst Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley fans pursue bootleg CDs and listen to recordings that have bathroom acoustics. Horror fans take pride in being persuaded by the crude and the obscure. They like to delve amongst the trash. Somehow they respond to phoney blood and lousy actors. The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, which is now available on Netflix, has picked up awards at minor film festivals, the kind that the big movie producers ignore. At the end of the film the credits reveal that the number of producers, or the people who chipped in a few dollars, outnumber the actors and technicians.  The film deserves to be seen but the lack of available money is evident. There are rough edges.

Apart from a very brief cameo by Mickey Rooney the actors sidestep any authentic emotion. The film is not lit by an expert, and the dialogue is sometimes distorted by a weird muffle on the soundtrack. In an odd way, though, all this works. The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde is a film that has low budget merit. It is loyal to the original novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, and the creaky acting suggests something similar to the early theatrical adaptions that would have been performed for 19th Century audiences ready to suspend disbelief and be easily titillated. The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde invites us to approach the familiar tale with a Victorian imagination. The undernourished lighting denies glamour, and the Victorian rooms acquire an oppressive and mysterious claustrophobia. The film can be a disturbing experience when viewed in a gloomy cinema or a darkened room.

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Robert Louis Stevenson was a great writer. The opening sections in Treasure Island contain some of the finest exposition in English literature. His novella about Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde deserves to be famous but is less of an achievement. His fantastic tale had a memorable and original concept but not a lot of narrative grip. Much of the story is told through the discovery of letters.   The story provides explanation rather than realism or suspense.   Despite that the novella had tremendous impact. It shocked, was revelatory and predicted doom. The word tragedy is not strong enough to describe the story of Dr Jekyll.

The themes and the concepts within the book are important. The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, unlike its predecessors, makes them available to a cinema audience. For once the character of Gabriel John Utterson is given the attention by a movie that he deserves. His character and problems are not misunderstood. Moviemakers and some readers have assumed that Utterson is a disinterested spectator, a decent man who exists only to collect narrative information from the other characters. In The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde the audience is at last made aware of the dilemma that haunts the curious and sympathetic Utterson. He is a gentleman trying to rescue another gentleman from himself. ‘There are no certainties only the promises that we keep,’ says Utterson. The film like the original novella is about loyalty.

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Graham Greene was famous as a Catholic writer but he was also interested in the tension between personal loyalty and the wider responsibility to society and strangers. The finest moments for Greene on film were contained within his screenplay for The Third Man. Holly Martins agonises about whether he should betray racketeer Harry Lime. Martins and Lime are friends from their schooldays. The cinema audience is obliged to witness the children ruined by the black market deals of Lime but, at the end of the film, Greene does not pardon Martins for cooperating with the authorities.   Stevenson wrestled with the same issue in Treasure Island and Kidnapped. These books were written for boys. The novels provide escapist entertainment but also a warning about the choices young men will have to make, fun with villains or decency and self-respect. Greene insists that these decisions will have to be made throughout life.

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In The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde Utterson is as tortured as Jekyll. Both men struggle with the burden of responsibility and consequence. Jekyll is tempted by a drug that allows him to become another person, Hyde, who will commit crimes and enjoy sin. The drug allows him to be excused from the crimes that Hyde commits but Jekyll understands that he should resist the drug. Jekyll has to fight addiction but he also has loyalty to Mr Hyde, the friend whom he is reluctant to destroy through abstinence. The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde does not shirk from revealing that Hyde is a monster but it also presents him as an alternative conscience for Jekyll. Hyde is a friend who makes demands of Jekyll. The lawyer Utterson can only expose the monster Hyde by destroying the well-behaved gentleman Dr Jekyll. Utterson is reluctant but at one point he says, ‘To do what everyone expects of me, to do what is right.’ The reasoning of the lawyer is correct because what everyone expects of us is right. The word everyone is important. Other people may be flawed but what they expect of us is not what they expect of themselves. They want everyone else to be honest and decent.  Friends, though, need personal loyalty and they can make other demands. ‘There are no certainties, only the promises we keep,’ says Utterson. ‘I wish I had the knowledge of what is certain.’ Without it we have to think of other people and what they will want.

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Robert Louis Stevenson became ill in his twenties and roamed the world looking for places where his body might find comfort. He was dependent on medicine. Never that far away from a dosage he must have had doubts about which was the authentic Stevenson, the man who could barely breathe or the person who functioned with the aid of drugs. Illnesses split the personality because sometimes we are well and others not. In The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde the drug that Jekyll takes is described as ‘the solution to a many great things.’  Experience as an invalid enabled Stevenson to understand the appeal of drugs and why people are willing to risk addiction and self-destruction. The drug in the novella by Stevenson offers escape, fresh possibilities, revolt against the tyranny of existence, transcendence, and an alternative identity unrestricted by guilt and responsibility. No wonder Keith Richards always has a smile on his face. The guitarist is an interesting example. People sympathise with Richards because, when they look at his wrinkles and observe his wiped out eyes, they recognise dedication to a cause and realise a kind of monster has been revealed. Stevenson made the bold move of relating drug addiction to scientific persistence. Jekyll is curious about himself and the world, including those elements that Victorian society wanted hidden. No surprise, of course, that it cannot be hidden from Mr Hyde. The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde uses much of the dialogue in the original novella, and the line about the ‘greed of curiosity’ applies to both the scientific and the decadent. Both self-sacrifice and indulgence will, when practised by extremists, challenge taboos.

The film also makes clear that Jekyll was flawed before the arrival of Hyde. He visited the fleshpots and had bouts of temper. The drug tilts him towards evil but it does not transform his character.  Jekyll worries about being responsible but Hyde demands that Jekyll does not deny the appetites that they share. Hyde is a hedonistic centre that exists at the root of a wider complicated conscience. The acting in The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde is limited but the powerful message enables us to sympathise with the weariness of Jekyll as he approaches his extinction.

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Mickey Rooney died in 2014. The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll And Mr Hyde is listed as being made in 2017. Perhaps his contribution was filmed early to facilitate finance. By the time he had filmed his scene Rooney had lived 93 years, divorced eight wives, swallowed a skip of various pills and drank a few swimming pools of alcohol.  He does not look at his best in the film.  Rooney delivers a couple of lines but, although he is suffering, it is obvious that he possesses thespian vitality and ability.   He is asked why he had visits from Mr Hyde. ‘I provided him with debauchery,’ says Rooney.   He speaks like a man who is confused as to why his behaviour has made others curious and why he is being accused. Bewilderment affects all the characters in the film. The story is related by several confused narrators. Utterson attracts attention from an audience because he will act rather than merely observe. He is a man who needs to understand what is happening but also his obligations.   At the end of the film he relaxes with a glass of wine. There is no reward for Utterson for doing what he had to but the wine will soften his conscience and help him endure and, if he is lucky, resist the monster within.

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Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism. His latest novel Choke Bay is available here. 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.