I’m partway through watching Breaking Bad (just started Season Four, so no spoilers!) and LOVE IT. Does it have anything to do with the protagonist being a hapless, disappointed midlife white male who’s losing his hair? Or that he then turns his life around and becomes a master of his own destiny and a thorough bad-ass? No! Why would I identify with that? Sheesh. It is because of its satirical take on extreme capitalism and the death of the American Dream, of course. Actually, it probably has to do with what I think the show is really about: what it means to be a MAN.
For those of you who’ve been living in a gimp-chest, Breaking Bad is about Walter White, an emasculated high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with terminal cancer. This causes a series of reactions – the primary being a boiling over of rage at his wasted life and the compromises that have brought him to the point where he is going to die, leaving his family unprovided for. He makes the fateful decision to “cook” crystal meth as a way of making vast amounts of money in a short time and, critically, he does it by harnessing his untapped brilliance and skills at chemistry. It is a perfect match – he is doing something only he can do and, by doing it, he is providing for his family. The dilemma is that it must be a secret activity since it is illegal and he doesn’t want his family to know and lose respect for him. This is what Walt craves more than anything – respect, both external and internal. And these sources of respect are at constant war.
Walt alternates between self-hatred at what he has become and pride in his accomplishments. He also de facto gains another son in Jesse Pinkman, a failed former high school student of his, who becomes his partner in crime. The difference in his behaviour to Jesse and to his real son is striking – not just because he is so verbally abusive to Jesse but because in a weird way he is a different, real, unmediated self with Jesse. There’s no filter. He bullies an berates Jesse as he aims to instruct him in the way of being a “man”, something he rarely displays with his real son (who suffers from cerebral palsy) and whom he clearly loves but is forced to treat gently.( It’s also amazing how throughout the whole process Jesse always refers to Walt as “Mr. White”, a reflection of his past as Jesse’s teacher and currently another kind of teacher and father-figure. Damn, this show is good).
I wonder if other dads also struggle with being their “best” self with their sons and telling them all the “right” things to do and say while part of them wants to just be themselves and tell them the ugly “truth” about the way the world is and how to survive and thrive in it. Or is that just me and Walt? For the record, I do not cook meth; I have chosen the much better paid profession of freelance writing.
It drives Walt crazy that his son (Walter White Jr.) idolizes his DEA agent uncle and disregards Walt’s ‘coolness’. Junior loves his dad’s gentle, honest and caring ways but is clearly infatuated with the life of danger and excitement and rawness his uncle seems to have. Every father wants to be a hero to his son. Walt struggles with wanting his son to know what he has done for him with fears that his son would not understand, it would not be appropriate to tell him and that he would in fact revile Walt. Can one be a hero to your son if he knows your secret worst self or must you be someone else to your son in order for them to respect you? And if you’re not your real self what are you teaching them?
These thoughts – that Breaking Bad is essentially a meditation through a fun house mirror on what it means to be a man in a world which no longer values typical male attributes – were justified in one late season 3 conversation Walt has with his boss, Gustavo Fring, who is trying to talk Walter into continuing with his drug career. Gus hones in on this tension within Walter – his need for respect and his need to do something he is good at competing with his need to provide for his family. Gus scoffs at Walter’s need for his son to know what he has done for the family and for his respect. Gus tells Walt that his job AS A MAN is to do what he must do for his family even though he will get no respect or thanks or recognition. That in fact is part of what is a truly manly man – one who does his duty without hope of recognition or praise because it is right. Damn, old school.
Mind you, in Walt’s case it is a truly twisted application of this creed but there is something satisfying in Walt’s pursuit of his own way of being a man. He does many things that are wrong and have unhappy consequences for those he loves. He lies, kills, and creates a drug which destroys lives (but only the finest purest product, Walt always respects the chemistry) – how is it we (or at least I) still like this guy? He begs and bargains for his life and that of his family throughout the series but, while there is clearly some self-preservation going on, he is convinced it always has to do with saving his family (which includes Jesse Pinkman). It is a clever move of Gus, as well, because, like most people, Walt’s motivations are not pure – there is still a great deal of pride in what motivates him. I can see that this pride and the increasingly dangerous game he is playing will put these two fathers within Walt into increasing conflict.
So no easy summation here – this is partly what makes BB such a great show. I am fascinated to see how Walt, like so many of us, negotiates the various pulls on him in his quest to be, if not a good man, then a good father. And what is that anyway? Man, I could write about this show forever. Futher thoughts on this follow at some later date.