Monday, September 30, 2013

Breaking Bad's Secret: We're Always Angry

If you're not locked in a cave you probably know that the show "Breaking Bad" concluded last night. (And if you have been locked in a cave, I'm flattered you're reading this, but seriously, go get cleaned up. We'll be here when you get back.) You probably also know that it's considered one of the great TV dramas of our time, on par with "The Wire" for its depth of character and storytelling.   

In case you haven't seen the finale -- or any of the show, really -- I'm not going to spoil it for you.  Go to Netflix, check the show out.  (And trust me, you won't be alone in doing it -- for the last two weeks, the most popular stream on Netflix has been new viewers catching the pilot.)

I just got asked to write a couple paragraphs for a reporter on what I thought the show was all about in the end. And for those who do like the show, I thought I might as well share them with you!

So here goes... (and there's a little language, too. Buyer beware.)

I'm always reluctant to assign much in the way of religious themes to a mainstream TV show, because it tends to reduce 'art' to doctrine. Which is basically the writer's equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard. Hatewatch us all you want, tell us we've become a parody of ourselves, but please, don't tell us this, too, is a show about Jesus.

Breaking Bad could certainly be construed as a show about sin -- its seductiveness, the way it spreads to affect not just an individual but so many others; but somehow that word "sin" seems ill suited to this show, like taking a Pollock painting or great jazz and reducing it to "grace" or "mystery". Vince Gilligan is not doing his best Jimmy Swaggart, and Walter White is so, so much more than an object lesson.
Personally, I think down deep -- and the reason it has been so incredibly compelling for people -- Breaking Bad is a show about human nature. Inside each of us there is a Heisenberg, waiting for his or her moment to show the world that we are not the put-upon banana slugs (or snails) the world sees and takes such pleasure in stepping on, but gods in our own right, capable of lighting the whole world on fire for our pleasure, and fuck all who get in our way.

For me maybe watching Breaking Bad has been a way of living that possibility out, with all its euphoria and tragedy, without having to actually 'break bad'. (Or spend literally weeks of my life locked in a tiny claustrophobic trailer cooking meth with a dope who insists on ending every sentence with the word "bitch". #Jesus)
Maybe it's a sort of exorcism, too, a way of bringing the darkest parts of us out into the light, where they are weaker and their lies revealed.
I don't know. I think all of that is part of it. But fundamentally I just think it's like Bruce Banner says towards the end of The Avengers: "My secret, Cap? I'm always angry." And oh, how fascinating and destructive that anger can be.
I had one further thought, about Jesse. And this part is filled with spoilers, so look away if you don't know the show.
One of the things that fascinates me about the show is the way Jesse Pinkman grew from a total loser to the one I most cared about, the one I absolutely NEEDED to survive. (If Vince Gilligan wanted to rip my heart out once and for all, all he needed to do was kill Jesse. I can't tell you how glad I am that he didn't.)
For as brutalized as Jesse was in Breaking Bad -- and if you look back, I bet Jesse got beat up nearly 30 times in the show's 62 episodes, in addition to everything else he went through -- somehow he remained just a little bit innocent, still capable of a childlike sense of satisfaction, compassion and wonder. Jesse did eventually kill some people (and I have to say, in the case of Todd, I physically felt every moment of that struggle and thought only good riddance), yet he never lost his soul quite like Walter did. He was still on some level always the guy who finds the child living in the meth addicts' shithouse and tries to take care of him (in episode 206, "Peekaboo", one of my favorite episodes of this or any television show).
Maybe someday we'll call his arc a bit naive, I don't know. I must say, I'm so grateful for the show's quiet insistence that even in the darkness -- and oh, did we see dark -- there's still the possibility of a sliver, even just a thread of hope, of dawn.


KenAnselment said...

Much like binge-watching, I am binge-reading, grabbing everything I can in an attempt to prevent the end from actually having passed, even though it did less than 24 hours ago. Seamus, you nailed it in this one, and I'm so with you on the beauty of sparing Jesse, poor beaten-down, chained-up, carpenter Jesse. I think in the midst of all that anger, Walt was telling us--along with the Schwartzes--
"Cheer up, beautiful people."

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