USA culture

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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BREAKING OUT: BREAKING BAD

10  1999-2013

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The period from 1999 to 2013 was a golden age for American television.  Without the shift in American TV programming that occurred in 1999 there would have been no Breaking Bad.  Walter White would still be a schoolteacher.  Well, who knows what happens to characters outside the heads of their creators.   

One night in 1981 I was heading towards downtown Atlanta.  On the way Wolfman Jack played early rock ‘n’ roll hits on the car radio.   The United States had fabulous music memories back then and needed them.  The television was awful.  Prior to the drive downtown I had sat on a motel bed and waited for someone who took longer to dress than me.   While I waited I checked the schedule for the TV on a Saturday night in hip Atlanta.  Fantasy Island began at 8pm.  Charley’s Angels followed at nine, and The Love Boat occupied what was left of the American mind.  Some viewers must have gone crazy watching what was pure and uninterrupted pap.  Elvis Presley found an alternative.  During his final days Elvis played Monty Python tapes and popped pills.  Unlike Elvis, not everyone had DVD players or corrupt doctors supplying an unlimited number of amphetamines.  That came later for the American working class.

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The revolution in American television was made possible by various factors but was always inevitable.  The programmes had to improve.  American TV was not all bad.  Sports programmes had viewer appeal, and the comedy sitcoms employed writers that could deliver slick one-liners.  There were some moments in its drama output but nothing that could be described as quality.  The Rockford Files had charm but was also simple escapism.  The pilot of The Night Stalker was a fine horror tale but the TV series soon became tired.  The rest of American TV was dire.  Dependent for their revenue on advertisers who wanted programmes that offended no one the main networks were conservative and risk averse.

HBO arrived in 1972 and carrying a different business model.  The cable channel collected subscriptions from viewers and delivered exclusive sporting events and a bigger selection of movies.  Almost a quarter of a century after it was launched someone at HBO realised that the subscriptions guaranteed revenue whether an individual programme attracted an audience or not.  The movies and sporting events also ensured some advertising income.   Besides being able to take chances HBO had other advantages.  Censorship on network American TV was restrictive.  As a pay-per-view network, HBO could insist on the rules that applied to the Hollywood movies its subscribers had paid to see.  HBO viewers saw naked women, heard the kind of expletives favoured by American Presidents and witnessed lots of violence.   Before 1997 the fashion had been for TV series with seasons of 22 episodes.  Reducing the number to thirteen required a smaller financial investment.   The technical teams had also become more adept.  Versatile cameras meant a more polished product could be achieved in the statutory eight days allowed for filming a series episode.   Neither did camera film have to be overexposed.  The lighting crews would never equal the best of Hollywood cinema but they understood shade and ambience, something that had been avoided in the previous decades.   Audiences wanted their TV programmes to look like movies, especially if they were paying for them.

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After deciding to broadcast original material HBO was obliged to raise standards.  Without any recent precedent in American television for quality drama the network gave freedom to its writers.  Previously scriptwriters had been referred to as ‘schmucks with Underwoods’.   Vince Gilligan was the executive producer or showrunner of Breaking Bad.  Like other showrunners, Gilligan is a writer.  He had to operate within a budget decided by the AMC network but Gilligan could also ensure that the writing succeeded and what finished on the screen captured the cinematic potential of that writing.   Only a talented writer with experience of collaborative working can do that.

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Although the non-subscription channels relied exclusively on advertising revenue they learned how to imitate HBO.  The Shield was a gritty crime drama from the FX network, a cop show that deterred most of the advertising agencies.  But the folks at FX were clever and realised that they only needed to appeal to a small percentage of advertising agencies.   The advertisements that interrupted The Shield belonged to a niche market and promoted products aimed at young and middle-aged men.

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It all meant that male American heroes could now lose their temper.    There had to be a reason for those expletives.  If the heroes were more complex, they were mainly male.  Damages and Homeland arrived in the following century.  Both failed to maintain the standards of The Sopranos and The Wire but at least the main protagonists were women.

The Sopranos and The Wire have been described as modern equivalents of Balzac and Proust.   In Breaking Bad The Official Book the editor David Thomson refers to Chekhov.  The creative revolution did unleash talent but these are pointless comparisons between apples and oranges.  It is doubtful that Vince Gilligan is capable of anything as note perfect as The Seagull but even Chekhov would have flagged if he had needed to deliver 62 episodes of Breaking Bad.  All that can be said is that American TV showrunners create shows that take a long time to watch and the books of Balzac and Proust require heavy lifting

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Rather than settle for harmless fantasy the best writers in the golden age of American TV were intent on revealing a troubled way of life.  The best of the programmes from the golden age introduced Americans that were violent, sexually complicated, addicted to drugs and materialism, and living in loveless or oppressive families. The potential of these anxious Americans was also distorted by an unrecognised class system.    Excess, amorality and irresponsibility defined this decadent American empire.  But the weaknesses of modern America were explored mainly through character.  Walter White in Breaking Bad becomes a criminal in order to pay for his medical bills.  Nowhere in Breaking Bad is it suggested that perhaps America should have an alternative health system.  The Wire had a political agenda but it operated within the crime genre which meant that the message was lost on most of the audience.  Conservative MPs in Britain assumed that The Wire condemned the poor for their behaviour and supported Tory arguments for more extreme neoliberal policies.  Actor and old Etonian Dominic West was interviewed about working on The Wire.  West had no idea that the TV show was intended as left wing polemic.

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The American TV programmes that appeared after 1999 deserve praise but what had happened previously in British television cannot be ignored.  It has not helped that the Thatcher neoliberal hegemony contributed to the decline of the BBC as a creative force.  American TV from the golden age is accomplished but when compared to the best of British television it still feels timid.  Over 40 years ago The Naked Civil Servant had an unapologetic gay hero that protested against traditional gender identities.  In the 1960s, Cathy Come Home and the other films of Ken Loach exposed the uneven economic rewards of a lopsided British class system.  Boys From The Blackstuff had a thick eared sensibility but it remains a principled primal scream against Thatcherism and the nightmare that followed.   Armchair Theatre in the 1960s not only utilised great British theatrical talent that included Billie Whitelaw and Harold Pinter but also heralded the defiance of ordinary people, a resistance which would be echoed and amplified by the arrival of The Beatles.  The low budget Z Cars may appear modest today but as a paid up member of the new zeitgeist it rattled the British establishment and was condemned by the British Press.

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Madmen was not the only American series to present real and complex adult characters.  British television at its best, though, matched polemic with entertainment in a way that is still beyond American television.  History and the moment are important.  British TV was at its best when there was left wing hope.  Leeds United was the story of a strike, and its black and white photography paid homage to Eisenstein.  Written by Colin Welland the programme was unequivocal agitprop but also hilarious.  Of course Leeds United benefited from a faith in the worth and humour of the Northern working class, a faith that has since been lost.  But even without left wing polemic British TV has had programmes that are incomparable.   Nothing on American TV is equal to the adaptation of the Charles Dickens short story The Signalman, not even the best episodes of The Twilight Zone.  And for those who want serious ambition there is Talking To Strangers written by John Hopkins, a six hour forensic and epic investigation into a family whose restrained discourse and polite British manners do nothing to prevent its four members becoming emotional cripples.

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Recent American TV has exposed how people behave in a decadent empire but the people making the programmes are also shaped by that decadence.  Witnessing the work of not to be missed talent has been intoxicating but the same creators have been too ready to approve of villainy and to relish rather than criticise excess squalor and opulence.  Modern American TV programmes have indulged licence and avoided digging beneath and beyond familiar genres to analyse the society that is making their admittedly interesting characters so miserable.   This may sound harsh but what was once an explosion of creativity soon became routine programming.  If no one should be surprised, we do have essential series like Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire and Madmen. 

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.