The final eight episodes of Breaking Bad have come and gone. If you didn’t follow the series, you missed what many media critics called the best show on television and one of the best of all time. Perhaps so. For many, it has been a five year guilty pleasure. The writing is quite good, and characters like Saul Goodman are so interesting that they could very well have a show of their own. It’s not for children, with its language, drug economy, and extreme violence. However, it does seem that violence has become the tenor and vehicle of American television drama, and many of its best series—especially those available only on cable—are indeed violent. The Writer’s Guild of America recently issued its list of the 101 best-written television shows, and it is probably no surprise to anyone that The Sopranos is on the top of that list. Breaking Bad is number 13, and The Wire, another cable drama featuring drugs and violence, is number 9.
What is the appeal of a high school chemistry teacher who decides to cook methamphetamine when he discovers that he has Stage Four lung cancer? The characters are vivid, well-drawn, and memorable, but that’s not why so many people can’t get enough of the show. The setting is New Mexico—with its beauty on the one hand, and, because of its shared border with Mexico, its proximity to the drug trade on the other—but that’s not why viewers tune in either. Neither is it its relentless series of violent cliffhangers—watching an episode replicates the exhilaration and exhaustion of a roller coaster. As Justin Jackson, a colleague at Hillsdale College, put it, the tragic plot of Walter White is what makes the show so interesting. It is probably the closest we will get to experiencing tragedy as the Greeks did in Athens. We know the characters. We know the conclusion. We know the plotline’s inevitability. We are simultaneously drawn to Walter and repelled by him, just as the Greeks were with Oedipus, just as the Elizabethans were with Macbeth. We pity Walter White as much as we fear him.
This is not to say that Breaking Bad should be inserted into our current curricula. But if the culture is going to be renewed, those who produce it need to be in constant dialogue with the literary font of the permanent things: epic, lyric, tragedy, and comedy. Audiences might not recognize themselves in Oedipus or Macbeth, but they understand a Walter White because his story has appeared many times before in America. In literature—as distinguished from propaganda—markets are not capable of being normative. The many cautionary tales about American economics arise not from socialists, but from artists who worry that love, art, and beauty will disappear in the wake of fiscal obsessions. This tension between love and money has given us some of our best business novels. One of the greatest is William Dean Howells’ underrated The Rise of Silas Lapham (a man gains the whole world through building a paint fortune, then loses everything as he recovers his own soul). However such comic endings are rare, as most business plots explore the tragic consequences of striving beyond one’s means. Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country follows this more common plot. Undine Spragg marries, divorces, cajoles, and blackmails her way up the social and fiscal ladder, only to end up dissatisfied with a count in France.
A darker version—and the tradition within which Breaking Bad finds itself—is the story of the man who uses the market in order to regain something from the past that may or may not be lost forever. The Great Gatsby is a prime example. Gatsby, having lost Daisy, determines to make enough money to win her back. Unfortunately, time, being what it is, erodes the present and forces us to be “borne back ceaselessly into the past.” One novel as dark as Breaking Bad is William Faulkner’s meditation on history, Absolam, Absolam! Thomas Sutpen, having been rejected by a rich Virginian’s servant as a young man, establishes a “design” to ensure that no boy ever has to suffer such humiliation again. Later, as the diminutive Rosa Caufield puts it, when he arrived in Yoknapatawpha County, he “tore violently a plantation…without gentleness begot” and imposed that design. He purchases the land, and with it, his hopes to purchase respectability. In his failure, he destroys the lives of innocents around him, and he does so without ever understanding what went wrong. His confusion is terrifying.
The Jazz Age and the Old South might now be as foreign to us as Athens or Elizabethan England, which is how tragedy can lose its effectiveness. However, Breaking Bad requires much less of an imaginative leap from audiences because we can easily imagine someone like Walter; his hovering between two lives—mild-mannered father of two, and ruthless drug dealer—establishes a recognizable ambivalence. The power of literature (or in this case, film) is in what Aristotle calls its “imitation of an action,” or mimesis; we experience what the characters experience. Neuroscientists tell us (Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with Others) that when we watch someone eat an apple, the same neurons fire that would have fired had we eaten the apple ourselves. So it would seem that Breaking Bad’s appeal comes from its synthesis of many strains of American experience. Healthcare, financial security, family, and stability have been national preoccupations since 2008. Walter has a chance to game the system of the American Dream, and audiences don’t know if they are supportive or horrified. That the series has been able to straddle this line for so long is a testament to its strong writing.
AMC has been promoting the show’s return all week with Walter’s chilling reading of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandius.” More people have heard that poem in 2013 than Shelley’s audience in 1818, and it’s yet one more example of putting the present into dialogue with the past. “Ozymandius” is another the name for Rameses II, alluding to a previous episode when Walter says that he is not in the money-making business, but in the empire business. He’s just destroyed a drug operation that grosses $384 million dollars a year and he plans to be its new CEO. If his DEA agent brother-in-law is anything like Moses, Walter’s empire looks to be as successful as Pharoah’s. Walter is a narcissist who is in over his head.
Vince Gilligan, the writer of the show, has said that he wanted to create a narrative trajectory the stretches from Goodbye, Mr. Chips to Scarface. The main problem with this reading is that we’ve seen Walt not as Mr. Chips, but as Mr. Chip on his Shoulder. Grey Matter, the company he founded, successfully grew after he sold his share for five thousand dollars. He’s spent the rest of his life attempting to compensate for that mistake, and he feels slighted by everyone who doesn’t respect him. He’s exasperated with the bored students in his high school chemistry class, and he berates his partner Jesse Pinkman over and over: “Did you learn nothing from my chemistry class?” His ruthlessness is born of bitterness: whether it’s killing Tuco, allowing Jesse’s girlfriend to die, being the indirect cause of a mid-air collision, poisoning one child and sanctioning the death of another, or thoughtlessly killing Mike, Walter is shown to be selfish and unthinking. He may well have changed the world with Grey Matter, but it is too late to go back. Walt’s mid-life crisis has already ended the lives of at least 247 people, and now, those he cares about most are threatened. At some point over the past five seasons, the desire to provide for his family transformed into a desire to affirm himself in a world that has taken advantage of him.
In the end, tragedies are domestic affairs, affecting a family at close range with devastating results, and there is no other way for Walter White’s story to end. He is going to share the same fate as Jay Gatsby, Thomas Sutpen, and Tony Soprano: all were killed. We know (or at least strongly suspect) that members of Walter’s family are going to die. We know he is going to suffer before he himself dies. This series is the only true tragedy on television, and it’s one of the very few in American letters. Pity Walter White, and fear him. He was the great Ozymandius, and he wants you to remember his name.
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