Saturday, April 29, 2017

Walter White’s Special Love for his Baby Blue

Here are two incongruous statements from the Wikipedia article on the television show Breaking Bad:Breaking Bad is widely regarded as one of the greatest television series of all time. By the time the series finale aired, the series was among the most-watched cable shows on American television.” Typically, when anything is extremely high in quality, it’s consumed or even known about only by a small minority. Quality and quantity thus have a zero-sum relationship, at least in a “free” society: the greater the quality of some consumer good, the lower the quantity of consumers who might enjoy it, and the larger the mass of consumers who circle around something, the lower that thing’s expected quality. This is because the less a society is regulated, the greater is its economic inequality and so the finer things in life happen only for the upper class. For example, while sex may occur even in slums, the finest bodies and minds will flock to each other within walled-off mansions. Even in the case of television, which used to be a low-brow medium but which has been elevated in its current golden age, thanks to HBO, AMC, and other premium outlets, most viewers don’t watch the premium channels, just as most movie viewers don’t watch the Oscar contenders. But Breaking Bad was an exception—at least in part, since the viewership was relatively low for most of the show’s episodes. This is still especially surprising because the show’s message is subversive.

What, then, is the meaning of the award-winning and thus strangely popular television show Breaking Bad? (Spoilers follow.)

The show is about a character named Walter White who begins as a beta male high-school chemistry teacher, but who decides to “break bad” or go rogue when he contracts lung cancer. He uses his expertise to cook and sell the illicit drug methamphetamine, to make a fortune and to leave something of value behind for his family in the short time he has left before his presumed imminent death. His cancer, however, goes into remission, which allows him to pursue his ambition, but the tragedy is that the further he ventures into the dark side, as it were, the more his character must transform to suit the criminal underworld. He comes to prefer his alter ego, whom he calls Heisenberg, the criminal mastermind and supervillain who even has a costume (the black brimmed hat and sunglasses).

The final episode includes the revelation that while Walter repeatedly told himself and his wife and child, Skyler and Flynn, that the end justified his criminal means, because he meant to steal and murder altruistically, to sacrifice himself for his family’s benefit, he learned to face the truth that he did it all for himself, because he preferred the dark side. He tells his wife, just prior to his last hurrah, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really—I was alive.” Walter then performs his final “sacrificial” acts, by massacring the neo-Nazi gang that stole most of the money he made as the drug kingpin and that posed a threat to his family, and by saving his wayward partner Jesse Pinkman, whom the gang kept as their slave to cook high-quality crystal meth for them. In the process Walter is hit by shrapnel in his side, and just before he dies (or perhaps is arrested, treated, and imprisoned) he visits the gang’s meth lab, smiling as he admires the labequipment, the police arriving in the background. Walter collapses, leaving a symbolic blood stain on the apparatus, and the song “Baby Blue” plays, sending him off. That song by Badfinger is actually about a young woman named Dixie, but the first two stanzas take on exquisite double meanings, because Walter’s brand of crystal meth features a blue colour that’s a byproduct of his ingenious method of producing it. The lyrics of the song the show ends with read:

Guess I got what I deserved
Kept you waiting there too long, my love
All that time without a word
Didn't know you'd think that I'd forget or I'd regret
The special love I had for you, my baby blue 

All the days became so long
Did you really think, I'd do you wrong?
Dixie, when I let you go
Thought you'd realize that I would know
I would show the special love I have for you, my baby blue

These words are what Walter seems to be telling himself in the end, serving as his epitaph and reinforcing what he revealed to his wife: his true love wasn’t her or his children or anything so conventional, but the crystal meth itself, the thrill of capitalizing on his skills, of violating the law, thwarting the police that included his brother-in-law and DEA agent, and using the threat of looming death to ironically live a fuller, more authentic life. (This interpretation is also confirmed by Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator, who says at about five minutes into this interview that at the end of the finale, Walter is with his “precious” in Lord of the Rings terms; he’d found peace because he was able to achieve his objectives, including leaving money to his son.) Psychologically, his real child is his baby blue, the blue meth, the product of Heisenberg, because Walter White became Heisenberg over the course of the series. Indeed, Breaking Bad raises the unsettling possibility that Heisenberg is Walter’s authentic identity.

Walter’s obsession is the basis of his special bond with Jesse, a millennial who used to be one of Walter’s students but who becomes his surrogate son. Jesse double-crosses him, causing Walter’s business enterprise and conventional life to unravel, but Walter returns to save him once again from the consequences of his stupidity. He rescues Jesse from the gang in the final episode, even taking bullet shrapnel for him while lying on top of him as his machine gun mows down the neo-Nazis, and the two of them nod silently afterward, square as they go their separate ways despite having harmed each other throughout their partnership. What matters most for Walter is that Jesse was there from the beginning of his transformation; the pair cooked meth together, and so Walter’s love of his baby blue, of what it represents, extends to Jesse.

At about 9:30 into an interview, Bryan Cranston, who played Walter White in the series, takes the opposite view that Walter’s transformation into Heisenberg, beginning in the very first episode when he discovers he has cancer, represents the loss of his soul, not the finding of it. Walter’s tragedy, Cranston says, is that he “tries to be someone he’s not,” which is a “slippery slope” that allows Walter to “drift away” and “get into trouble.” One problem with this view is that Walter was “in trouble” before he got cancer. He had to work two jobs because he had little money. As a high school chemistry teacher, his students didn’t admire him and some even disrespectfully chatted during his lectures. As a cashier at a car wash, he was dominated and routinely humiliated by his boss. His wife gave him veggie bacon on his fiftieth birthday, symbolizing again that Walter unfortunately didn’t have what he truly wanted. In that first episode, Walter was a forgettable beta male, living in quiet desperation. Perhaps, though, it can be misleading to speak of real or superficial selves, as though the self were an underlying substance, since we create ourselves by our decisions as we adapt to different environments. But the question remains whether in hindsight Walter White would prefer to be the humdrum and ineffectual chemistry teacher and cashier or the doomed but unchained, adventurous, and legendary Heisenberg. Both would die at a young age, although the rich Heisenberg can afford the best treatment without sacrificing his pride, which causes the cancer to go into remission. That hypothetical choice would indicate Walter’s more authentic self and it seems likely he’d choose to be Heisenberg, which would mean his happiness at the end of the last episode is genuine rather than ironic. 

In that case, Walter finds his passion and his love in life—and they are outlawed. Thus, Walter loses his place in polite society, becoming a monster that both his sister-in-law and his son Flynn want dead, according to what they eventually tell him. Walter wanted all along to leave his millions to his children, but Flynn rejects him when he learns about his father’s double life. Walter nevertheless uses his criminal genius to find a way to leave Flynn some money, but the blood money represents a temptation and thus a potential tainting of his son’s innocence. In any case, money proves to be incidental for Walter, as becomes clear when the last surviving gang member in the final episode attempts to negotiate with him, promising to tell Walter where the gang stashed the bulk of his fortune. Walter shoots him dead without even letting him finish his sentence—and not because Walter already knows where they hid the money, but because he no longer cares about it or his conventional family. Walter’s dying from the gunshot wound and the cancer, and he has time left only for his true love, for his art, for the baby blue the purity of which confirms his genius and his legend.

The paradigm for Walter White’s transformation is thus established by historical figures such as the painter Paul Gauguin, who left behind his wife and children, along with European civilization, to paint full-time in Tahiti among other tropical locales. Gauguin wrote, “My wife, my family, everyone in fact is on my back about this confounded painting of mine. But one man’s faculties can’t cope with two things at once, and I, for one, can do one thing only: paint. Everything else leaves me stupefied.” Like Walter White, Gauguin abandoned and endangered his conventional family to pursue his passion, and found an unconventional substitute family in the young Polynesian mistresses he took on his painting trips. And like Walter, Gauguin is reviled by defenders of civilized mediocrity, such as feminist critics who abhor the shabby way he treated his European wife and children. However, Gauguin evidently found his happiness not as a European gentleman, but as an artist who went native and explored a new form of painting, called primitivism.

Another example is Bernard Moitessier, the vagabond and yogic sailor who in 1968 participated in the first yacht race to circumnavigate the globe. Moitessier nearly won but decided to resign from the race so that he could continue sailing without the perceived disgrace of commercialization. He abandoned the race by launching a message by slingshot onto a passing ship, which read (translated into English), “I am continuing nonstop because I am happy at sea, and perhaps because I want to save my soul.” Although he lost the race, he eventually circumnavigated the world once and two thirds of a second time.

These, then, are for me the deepest questions raised by Breaking Bad. If there is a conflict between your authentic self and conventional society, to which do you owe the greater obligation? Should you surrender your passion to serve your social function and your species role? Or should you abandon society and violate its laws even if doing so condemns you to being a monstrous outcast? Moreover, is it possible to be your true self in Western civilization or do its rules and traditions bury your passion beneath an avalanche of duties that reduce you to living as a zombified drone? Indeed, as posited by the novel and movie Fight Club, the feminized and increasingly-automated monoculture of late twentieth-century Western society might even contribute to the rise of Walter White-type antiheroes, such as the blue-collar anti-globalist populists who support Donald Trump and other authoritarian movements in Europe. Does this society, then, mass-produce inauthentic men so that the pent-up rage is destined to be released in an apocalyptic backlash?

Both the rise of women and of machines has thrown masculinity and thus the psychological identity of men into question. Of course, given the prevalence of patriarchy over a period of millennia, which has been devastating to generations of women all around the world, the moral response to this postindustrial plight of men might be to interpret their loss of identity as a karmic punishment. But karma and morality are entirely fictitious, so the question is really about the best story to tell to make sense of events, according to aesthetic criteria. Breaking Bad is a marvelous, powerful tale, especially, I should think, for male viewers. The alternative story, about women or robots conquering the planet and instituting a fairer global order might appeal more if there were precedents to fire the imagination, to allow even men to root for women and machines to show men how to rule. Women often succeed in politics and business not by excelling in femininity, but by aping male masculinity, the reason being that “masculinity” is largely a euphemism for the same corruption of character that’s caused by the temptation to exercise great power, regardless of the gender. And machines are either inhuman or they’ll be programmed by emotionally-stunted programmers, akin to the Dungeons and Dragon nerds who designed the internet’s architecture and doomed us all to working within its shortcomings, as explained by Jaron Lanier in his recent two books beginning with You are not a Gadget.

As I’ve written elsewhere, I do think that civilization is a con that was necessitated ages ago by the agricultural revolutions. As Yuval Harari explains in Sapiens, the con of empires requires fictions to ensure large-scale cooperation and to prevent an outbreak of chaos and a relapse into the state of nature in which we all lose our humanity. Our con in the Age of Reason rests on economic and political fictions that domesticate the majority, even while the upper class retains its psychopathic glory and freedom not just from the law but from the imperative of competing in a cutthroat capitalistic marketplace. The secret logic of capitalism is that the goal is to become too big to fail, not to insist on the virtue of competitive struggle under all circumstances. Once a firm has grown large enough to hold society hostage, the oligarchs in charge no longer need to compete since they can form oligopolies and capture or neuter the regulators. Meanwhile, the middle class is fattened, domesticated, and trained to worship the consumption of material goods. The multimillionaires and billionaires are naturally corrupted by their outsized power so that they can think only of the short-term gain of entrenching their position in the dominance hierarchy, instead of divesting themselves of their wealth that no one can possibly earn. Thus, the middle class dupes are eventually spent, having indebted themselves to credit card companies in the absence of any increase in their wages over a period of several decades. At which point the transnational oligarchs look to foreign herds of potential consumers to exploit, such as in India or China, and the cancerous process will repeat itself.

Walter White begins as one of those dupes and ends as an oligarch. At the start of the story, he’s decent but timid, and instead of being rewarded for following the rules, the real world cuts him down with lung cancer even though he’s a nonsmoker. This is another theme of Breaking Bad, which should remind the viewer of films such as Blood Simple: nature has no intelligent design, but runs on accidents which add up to the illusion of law-bound order. One insidious accident is the remission of Walter’s cancer itself, since this provides him the time to continue his descent into megalomania. Moreover, there is no reason for Walter’s cancer, in the first place, just as there’s no greater purpose in Walter and Jesse stranding themselves in the New Mexican desert in their RV. Likewise, there’s no plan in Skyler’s entangling herself in Ted’s financial troubles which leads her to give him much of Walter’s drug money at the very moment when Walter needs it to attempt to save his family from being killed by Gus, Walter’s sociopathic boss. That latter irony causes Walter to laugh maniacally from the crawlspace where he hid his money, until he stares up through the hole in the floor in a shot that foreshadows the final shot of Walter’s demise in the neo-Nazis’ meth lab. As he stares, he seems to realize that his true enemy isn’t any hit man but the force of natural evolution which leaves us all behind, choking on the accidents that mock the meaning of our struggle to overcome obstacles; Walter stops laughing and in any case his laughter would be drowned out by the droning noise that builds, seeming to issue from nature in general as it prepares to swallow him whole.

But Walter does overcome his obstacles, displaying not quite the genius of Odysseus, since Walter sets himself at odds with civilization instead of finding the balance so prized by the ancient Greeks, as Luc Ferry explains in The Wisdom of the Myths. Walter’s genius is that of a mad robber baron: he ruthlessly exploits his knowledge of natural mechanisms, not just to conjure his baby blue to fill an insatiable demand for drugs in the expanding American lower class, but to evade the police, defeat his enemies, and claw his way to the top of the distribution chain, ultimately killing Gus Fring and Mike Ehrmantraut, Gus’s hit man and former cop. A centrist defender of civilized norms would say that Walter is corrupted by his violations of the law. He commits monstrous acts and so he becomes a monster. Likewise, Jesse is forced to murder, but as a result he grows more distraught and depressed than Walter. Highly emotional rather than cerebral, his mind sabotaged by drug use and overwhelmed by the events of his journey beyond the borders of civilization, Jesse would have been undone had not Walter repeatedly saved him or manipulated him into carrying on as his business partner.

Perhaps Breaking Bad is so well received by critics as well as being wildly popular because we suspect that the social contract we implicitly sign to follow the law and receive protection by the government isn’t necessarily for the best, after all. Not that we’d welcome a return of anarchy or jungle law, but we suspect we’re being played by monsters in the upper echelons that have in fact carried on the grisly traditions of jungle law at our expense. We suspect that civility is an illusion or a farce, that the way is clear for an antihero to awe us by his courage and by his willingness to live outside the system, having received an inner calling if not a higher one.

This is more or less why millions of Americans voted for Donald Trump to be president. Trump is obviously no Walter White, the most important difference being that Trump has no ennobling passion or artistic greatness, unless you count his showmanship. Whereas you marvel at Walter’s criminal genius, you merely tire of Trump’s incompetence and substandard vocabulary. Still, Trump and Walter White are antiheroes in that they threaten to destroy the establishment, which thrills us with the prospect of having to face the fearful question of whether we’re currently being true to our deepest self or whether we’re just settling for a compromise that itself serves a dual role in a game that’s rigged against most of us. Both Trump and Walter become psychopathic oligarchs, and Trump may easily be brought down by scandal, just as Walter is in the end. Whereas Trump, though, would likely be humiliated by his fall from power, Walter is ennobled by his demise, because he fought almost singlehandedly against enormous odds to realize his dream of creating a drug empire, and succeeded in distinguishing himself from the crowd of beta nobodies. Walter’s love for his blue meth is “special,” as the song says, because it’s forbidden but heartfelt. While Trump’s narcissism is merely grotesque, his buildings, reality TV show, and now the circus of his presidency do resemble Walter’s prohibited art in that they’re horrific from a civilized perspective. But that’s how they must appear, because they raise existential questions that cast doubt on the propriety of our social order.  

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