I knew each line before it came. I am the one who knocks; Nothing stops this train; I’m in the empire business. Each quote a meme, each meme an assertion of the show’s cultural power. Back-slapping bros quoted the lines at Buffalo Wild Wings, dandruffy professors of poetry in ill-fitting trousers recited them as couplets to their classes, and message board posters bathed in the bright internet sun of upvotes for the apt and timely application of a Walter White gif. National publications had dedicated slideshows that ranked the quotes according to their bad-assery. The show was known, and the show was admired. I watched it have its cultural moment obliquely, but I hadn’t watched an episode until the whole series had passed.
Honestly, when flipping channels I would occasionally linger, and in this way I saw Gustavo Fring emerge from a smoking room with half his face blown away. Another time I saw the head of a notable character actor fixed somehow to the back of a crawling turtle. Oh, but there was humor too. In one episode, Walter White throws a pizza in the air, and it lands on the roof! On the roof!
I was skeptical of the show. In fact, I was skeptical of the entire anti-hero aesthetic, as if lurching from degradation to degradation is all that is required to invent a complex character. “It gets better,” I was assured by various friends and neighbors, which, in today’s landscape of prestige television, meant that it gets worse; that it gets “darker.” It meant that Walter White would continue breaking bad until he was so bad, so venal, so bereft of any quality we associate with human compassion and decency that he would simply fart Emmys. But maybe I was wrong. So I began watching, and very soon thereafter hate- watching, “Breaking Bad.”
Much depends upon how compelling one finds the sight of a middle-aged man wearing naught but his tighty-whities and a gas mask while driving an RV. If one answers, “Quite compelling indeed,” then this is the show for you. But if that’s the case you’ve probably already watched the entire series and are now busy writing a scathing rebuttal to my argument, hopefully well-punctuated with Walter White memes and gifs. However, if you view such an opening scene as something designed by men in lab coats to be compelling; as something, say, cooked up in a lab, as an alluring blue rock of crystalized hokum, the series begins to look much different. It begins to look like a sequence of stunts and gags, set pieces and treasured one-liners, all echoing with writers’ room chuckles and congratulatory backslaps. It begins to look like a quick fix; a synthetic rush, muddled and disconnected. It looks like crystal meth.
One scene that demonstrates the show’s urgency to get to its set pieces, regardless of the cost to its narrative integrity, is one that is treasured for its tension and awkwardness and other unpleasant sensations that, I guess, are supposed to be the consequences of great TV writing. Walter White (that’s really his name) and his estranged wife Skyler (that is her name) are not getting along well. In fact, they fight quite often. Yet they find themselves together one evening when Jesse Pinkman (easily the best part of the show despite the name) drops by to discuss some drug business. For some reason — the show’s defenders will likely attribute it to Walter’s need to demonstrate his power — Walter invites Jesse to have dinner with them even though he is aware that Skyler holds Jesse in low regard. Skyler, for some reason, does not object; does not send Jesse away; does not go away herself; but decides to join them both for a dinner of awkward silences and meaningful glances.
After Jesse makes an unimaginatively unimaginative stab at small talk, telling Skyler how much Walter has told him about her, Skyler responds directly to Walter. “Did you also tell him about my affair?” Silence, awkward, of course. “May I please be excused?” And now we know why she stayed. She had to deliver the line, which, frankly speaking, is not really that great; not great enough to build an entire scene around, not great enough to force three people to sit down at a table who would never sit down together at a table. But the show-runners wanted it in, so Skyler says her line, and now the actor can go.
All this would be ok, or at least less objectionable, if not for the show’s inability to escape cliché. In one early episode Jesse and Walt are out in some desolate stretch of desert to make a drug deal and Jesse comments, wryly of course, that the setting is a non-drug dealer’s idea of where a drug-buy should happen. This meta-ish mockery was trite by the time “Scream” was doing it in the previous century, but to make matters worse, aside from the very next deal which takes place at a fast food restaurant, every drug deal for the rest of the series happens in exactly this type of setting. It’s as if the show, having mocked the cliché once, has now liberated itself to wallow in it.
Still, people loved it. People Googled Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. The sale of pork pie hats soared through the pizza on the roof. (Maybe. I didn’t bother looking up sales figures.) Walter White — and imagine how different the show would be seen if it were Walter Black or Walter Brown —homicidal drug dealer, was a hero, or an anti-hero, which for our fallen age is as heroic as it apparently gets. He was a bad man, but these are bad times, and sometimes we all just have to start dealing drugs and killing people because, you know, family and cancer and stuff, and because it just looks like so much awesome fun!
So what does the show’s popularity tell us about ourselves? What are we to make of a character so vile yet so beloved that people have his likeness tattooed on their bodies?
I was at a barbecue talking about TV, and I recommended “The Americans.” A young father in his early 30s, a patriot with his polo shirt tucked into his belted cargo shorts, dabbed the ketchup from his hairless chin and explained that he couldn’t watch a show where the hero was a KGB spy. He preferred characters who were “relatable,” like Tony Soprano or, you guessed it, Walter White.
Walter White — there’s that last name again — is “relatable.” Now, I will grant that Phillip Jennings’ life as KGB sleeper agent/super spy/assassin is not necessarily relatable to the experiences of most modern Americans, but are the roles of Drug Kingpin and Mob Boss really more relatable? Perhaps what is relatable — scare quotes should be implicit whenever this word is applied — is what all these characters share, the fact that their dramas are all to be understood within the context of family, of domesticity. What is interesting, and what ultimately separates these shows, is how they orbit this domestic sphere.
In both “The Americans” and “The Sopranos,” the gravity of family humanizes the characters. It pulls them away from the rarefied atmosphere of their peculiar professions and plants them in the messy earth of obligations and consequences. In short, family demythologizes the spy and the mob boss. Gone is the gleaming austerity of a Michael Corleone who closes the door on Kay, and in its place there are killers who actually talk with their unhappy wives and have mayonnaise on their chins. We have a capo whose robe won’t cover his bulging gut, and whose labored breathing becomes the soundtrack for the series. One could look at the entire arc of the series as bringing us closer and closer to the vulgarity of this violence until, as an audience, we become implicated in it. We feel Adriana’s dread and terror as she looks into the leafless autumn woods. She cries, she pleads for her life; she clings to the steering wheel as Silvio calls her a cunt and drags her out the door. She crawls through the dirt and the moldering leaves out of the frame, away from the audience, as Silvio raises his gun. We do not see the kill shot, but merely hear its retort. After Adrianna is killed, we can no longer yuck it up at the comic buffoonery of Silvio and the gang. These buffoons are also killers. The violence has been demythologized. Its sheen has been stripped away and we are left with simple brutality and the sorrow that should always accompany it.
“The Sopranos” sucked us in with the banality of its monsters, but watching these men ultimately forced us to recoil at the glee with which we embrace televised violence. “Breaking Bad” takes the opposite approach and invites us to delight in it, to giggle at the wacky antics of Jesse as he dissolves the bathtub and flooring along with a corpse, to high-five our neighbors at the bold virtuosity of the director as a severed head is attached to a crawling turtle, or a man with half his face blasted off comes stumbling out of a room trying to straighten his tie. The violence is cartoonish spectacle, and the sought-after response is to nod in appreciation at its awesomeness, to post a gif, a meme, to mythologize. And the myth is instructive.
Walter White is the new myth of the downtrodden, the myth of the put-upon white American male, the ineffectual schlub who could run an empire if given the proper catalyst, the unappreciated family man whose rocket of will could blast him clear of the tedium of domesticity, if only he liberated his inner bad ass — and oh, how bad his ass would be! Whereas “The Sopranos” and “The Americans” take outsized figures and invite us to discover their humanity, “Breaking Bad” takes a school teacher, someone supposedly ordinary — and it is my deep hope for America that he really is not ordinary at all — and invites us to imagine ourselves as he becomes, a Nietzschean superman unbeholden to an oppressive morality, ready to fight back against a world that’s been kicking his ass, ready, as Walter White puts it, “to get up, get out in the real world, and kick that bastard as hard as you can right in the teeth.” Fist bump, high five!
Yes indeed Walter, please give that damn annoying real world a good kick for me while you’re at it.
Edwin Rozic teaches English to people who already speak English. His work has been published in McSweeney’s and Glimmer Train. He lives in Chicago with his wife and son and a menagerie of furry and scaled beasts.