film criticism

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.

 

 

 

 

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BITTEN: BREAKING BAD

4  FLY FISHING

 

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Moby Dick is the American equivalent of The Brothers Karamazov.  The two novels are important but flawed.  Both Dostoevsky and Herman Melville had finer moments.  Crime And Punishment by Dostoevsky is both readable and profound.  The best efforts of Melville are found in the great and complex Billy Budd and his fabulous and still provocative short story Bartleby.  Like The Brothers Karamazov, the lumpen Moby Dick has a predictable plot, symbolic mouthpieces as characters and turgid prose.  More than me, though, have read Moby Dick, cursed the damned thing and felt obliged to read it again.  Moby Dick is an essential book that is examined rather than enjoyed.  The sometimes stodgy text remains relevant.  Somewhere a wag spun the alternative title Ish And The Fish.  The irreverent option offers some relief to students.

In Breaking Bad, and after being told he has cancer, Walter White rejects the available and pragmatic solution that will enable him to pay for the cost of his health care.  Walter has too much pride to accept the gift from his old associates Gretchen and Elliott.  Walter has something to prove.  The mild mannered schoolteacher becomes a vengeful drug dealer and, like Gretchen and Elliott, super rich.

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Captain Ahab lost his leg attempting to catch Moby Dick, the white leviathan whale that defined the Universe.  Kill Moby Dick, and Captain Ahab can establish that ‘the Milky White Way’ or Universe is nothing more than a white morass of particles.  Ahab has contempt for what the scientist regards as knowledge.  ‘He paints pretty pictures of the Universe but it is all space, all whiteness like the whale.’  Ahab can be difficult, testy and all too willing to sacrifice the lives of the men on his ship but he has a point when he insists that we see too much of ourselves in the world.  Walter White is the clever chemist who can make and fix things but what he sees is distorted by the delusions he has about himself.

On board the Pequod there is debate between Captain Ahab and Starbuck, the second in command.  They discuss the merits of the the decisions taken by Ahab.  Starbuck and Ahab may be more polite to each other but, like Walter and Jesse, the two seamen argue.  Jesse regards making crystal meth as a way of making money.  Walter wants to stop ‘being scared’.  When Starbuck realises that Ahab has ambitions other than collecting the sperm oil which will make the voyage profitable, he argues that ‘We hunt to live.  We do not live to hunt.’  Walt is like Ahab.  He lives to hunt.  He wants power and vengeance against a wasted life. Both Ahab and Walter are wild men.  Elsewhere, Mike is the able but sanctimonious hit man that assists major meth dealer Gustavo Fring.  Mike realises that Walter is as capable as Captain Ahab of wrecking the ship.  Neither Mike nor Starbuck prevails.  Wild men believe in destiny.  The responsible understand the power of fate.  If Mike had read his Bible, he would have realised that Ahab and Walt are willing to be compared to wilful Abraham, to be like the prophet and have every man against them.

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In Breaking Bad the name Walter White is a reference to Walt Whitman the American existential poet.  Walter has a collection of the poems of Whitman in his toilet.  The book is a gift from Gale, a drippy libertarian who, prior to being killed, was a fellow crystal meth maker.  Raw existentialism, rather than mere alienation, has a poor record in American literature.  The books have been fine but the philosophy of authors like Norman Mailer suffered from chest beating and an excess sense of male entitlement to personal freedom.  The tone of Whitman also suggests too much ego but at least Walt understood that individual freedom could not be at the expense of others.  ‘I celebrate myself and sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.’  Whitman was searching for an authentic existence, a life that could be lived in good faith and according to personal values rather than those imposed by society.  This search, he urged, must be embraced by everyone or at least all those capable and willing.  ‘But you a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known, Arouse! For you must justify me.’

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Walter White changes after he knows he has cancer.  ‘I am awake,’ he says.  Walter realises that his life has been what has happened to him rather than something he shaped.  Neither himself nor others ‘justify’ poor Walter.  At the end of the series, and in conversation with his wife Skyler, he insists that because of his drug dealing adventure he is justified.  ‘I did it for me.  And I was good at it.  I felt alive.’  Walter, despite the teasing references to Whitman, is not an existential hero.  Walter, like Ahab, is a bad guy.  His fate is that virtue and honour are beyond him.  As a young man, Walter walked away from Gretchen and forfeited a once in a lifetime business opportunity.  Because his potential will now be unrealised, Walter is obliged for the rest of his life to be either submissive or destructive.  This is his fate.  Walter is clever and has scientific knowledge but he has no understanding of these existential limitations.  Ahab did not spend all that time staring across oceans for nothing.   He understood.  Walter the chemist or scientist only sees himself in the world that was around him.

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Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan uses the episode The Fly to emphasise the metaphor.  The use of a common insect as a substitute for the whale is both audacious and brilliant.  Ahab wants to look the Universe in the eye and be its equal.  Moby Dick is the white monument to ‘space’.  Walter wants his crystal meth laboratory to be a pristine universe, something pure and completely free of ‘contamination’.  At one point Walter recognises the impossibility of catching the fly, of creating an uncontaminated universe where the chemistry is controlled by the mastery of the talented chemist.  In frustration Walter suggests abandoning the chase of the fly.  The pristine universe is beyond him.  ‘It is all contamination,’ says Walter.  It is the hapless Jesse, the sidekick with the makeshift harpoon that kills the fly.

A more fanciful comparison between Breaking Bad and Moby Dick exists in the presence of Walt Junior.  The son of Walter White has cerebral palsy and walks with the aid of crutches.  R J Mitte the actor who plays Walt Junior also has cerebral palsy but he does not need the aid of crutches to walk.  Despite them being used for dramatic effect momentarily in a couple of instances there is no obvious need to have the actor walk around on crutches.  The son of Walter perhaps represents the wooden leg, the legacy from Moby Dick that Captain Ahab curses.

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Both Walter and Ahab have skills and knowledge that make them valuable, a utility for others.  ‘Do something scientific,’ pleads drug partner Jesse.  Almost without realising, both Ahab and Walter cease to be a utility.  Their knowledge feeds obsession and becomes a destructive power that leads to the premature death of others.  Ahab destroys his ship the Pequod, and the interventions of Walter help explode a Boeing 737.

Walter controls his drug business in the same way Ahab is dictatorial on board his ship.  The two men believe in an order based on merit, last in and first out, winners and losers, survivors and the deceased.  The author Melville insists upon the opposite, we are all equal, Indians, Africans and the white man.  According to Melville, the ruler is made infirm by his power and is not fit to have authority over anyone.  Often the ruler is compelled to pursue valediction for this inappropriate enhanced status.  The altar of a ruler is not a place where he seeks comfort but inspiration.  His enemies are the altar.  They inspire the powerful man to seek conflict and to triumph.

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If Moby Dick is a tale about men then 150 years later Breaking Bad imagined a contribution by women.  For a brief period Skyler helps Walter to launder his drug money.  Ishmael became a confidante of Captain Ahab.  For most of the voyages of Ahab and Walter, though, Ishmael and Skyler are obliged to be observers.  Skyler sets out on a marriage with someone who perhaps she hopes may complement her own middle class ambitions.  Instead she is led out of surburbia, and across the ocean that is Albuquerque, by a remote man with a private obsession, someone who ‘hunts to live’.   In the final conversation between Skyler and Walter there is the revelation that Walter ‘felt alive’ as a drug dealer.  Walter has made mistakes, done a lot of damage but has also had his Whitmanesque moments.   At least Skyler at the end of Breaking Bad has her two children.  Like Ishmael, she has returned to dry land.  While Walter says goodbye and attempts to explain, Skyler remains silent.  What she learnt from the voyage will remain a secret but, like Ishmael, she will remember the journey and now be alert to the mystery that is her fellow men and women.  Walter leaves Skyler and returns to the ocean where he will soon destroy his enemies.  He will then swallow what remains of the ocean and drown.

Howard Jackson has had nine 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.