Monday, September 30, 2013
Countless pixels have been spilled about Breaking Bad as it ends its five season run. Great show or greatest show ever sort of stuff.
The popularity of a show about a meth dealing megalomaniac has always been a little mystifying. Vince Gilligan, the show's creator, is appalled at how many people still like Walt after all the evil things he's done.
But it strikes me that one reason Breaking Bad has resonated so much with people - and how Walt in particular struck a chord - is that the show really offers as good a snapshot of the current state of American capitalism as exists today in most people's lives. If Rescue Me was a commentary on 9/11 and The Wire about the decline of American institutions, then Walter White's story is about the capitalism, red in tooth and claw, that we soak in everyday.
As Charlotte Shane over at Salon notes the most powerful drug on the show was not meth - which was sort of incidental to the story when it comes right down to it - but money. In my favorite moment of the finale, Walt admits that he became Heisenberg because it made him feel good, feel alive. In the penultimate episode, Walt has his delusions about family stripped away, and in particular, his son rejects his money, in effect rejecting Walt. Everything he does, he did for money. His family, he realizes in the end, was simply the rationalization for his cupidity.
What makes Walter White who he is begins with Gray Matter. We never know exactly why Walt leaves Gray Matter - there is a reference to his pride again - but Grey Matter is really the current American Dream. It's not making a good living, owning a home and providing for your family, Walt has that. It's living in a hermetically sealed, post-modern dream home, like Gretchen and Elliot, in the hills near Santa Fe.
Walt missed his shot at riches, and America is about riches. It's not about comfort or ease, it's about "more". My students were learning about countries that have the highest "happiness" rating. This is done simply by asking people how happy they are. Americans are fairly happy, but they aren't Danes or Costa Ricans or even Mexicans. We are happier than Germans but less happy than Venezuelans. And "happiness" correlates strongly with how we feel we are doing compared to others. It's about the gap between our expectations and our reality. And in America, our expectations are astronomical.
As a result, Walt doesn't compare himself to other teachers, he compares himself to Gretchen and Elliot. He compares himself to what he might have been. And that is the drive that makes him Heisenberg.
Heisenberg (and to a degree Lydia) represents the omnivorous, insatiable modern businessman. It is not enough to make money, Walt is in "the empire business". Does his product destroy people's lives? Whatever. Is it healthy? Of course not. Does he care about what's right or what allows him to win? You know the answer.
Walter White should have gone to Wall Street. His ethics are the ethics of the London Whale, of AIG, of Countrywide Mortgages. It's more stark because it's drugs, but aren't drugs a pure, unfettered market? No regulation, no oversight.
I'm formulating a school meeting about how I think as a society we are driving ourselves crazy. We work too hard, reflect too little, play not at all. On the wall of my office is a cartoon of two co-workers and one says, "Everybody's getting together after work to do more work. You in?" Walt's entrepreneurial drive, his work ethic is phenomenal. He earns more money than he can spend. But in America today, that's precisely the ideal result.
I think people responded to Walt, because many of us feel like we could have been the Schwartzes if things had worked out differently. But really we're Walter White from episode one, in our underwear, desperate and grasping.
Any conversation about the best TV show of all time comes down - for me - to Breaking Bad and The Wire. The Wire is about big institutions and how they are failing. The politicians and bureaucratic cops screw with "the numbers", while drugs run rampant. The working class jobs disappear. The schools struggle to reach kids in impossible circumstances. The media chases awards and ignores the truth. The triumph of The Wire was to take these huge themes and make them human in scale.
Breaking Bad worked in the opposite direction. In many ways the story was very small and confined. It was about "Mr. Chips becoming Scarface" (the most repeated quote about the show). The show was about Walter White and the people immediately around him. Breaking Bad was not commentating on "drugs" or "crime". It was about the sin of pride. It was about what happens when a smart man "breaks bad".
But if culture means anything, it is a reflection of the society that creates it. And the story of Walter White is the story of pride and greed and immorality and selfishness.
It is the story of American capitalism in the 21st century.