Badly Broken: We Are Walter White

BreakingBad_logophotoI’ll bet tonight’s blog traffic will drop sharply, and explode on Twitter — and at 9:00 p.m. EDT exactly. That’s when the last episode of AMC’s Breaking Bad will air, following a 61-hour marathon of all preceding episodes from the last five years.

A friend expressed concern and astonishment at the public’s investment in this cable TV program, versus the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report published Friday, expressing heightened confidence in anthropogenic climate change:

“The report increases the degree of certainty that human activities are driving the warming the world has experienced, from “very likely” or 90% confidence in 2007, to “extremely likely” or 95% confidence now.” [source]

He’s right; we’ll be utterly absorbed by the conclusion of former high school chemistry teacher and cancer patient Walter White’s tale. We’ll have spent a fraction of intellectual energy on our own existential threat, in comparison to the mental wattage we’ll expend on a fictional character’s programming mortality.

But perhaps Breaking Bad’s very nature offers clues to our state of mind. Viewers are addicted to a program that upends perspectives and forces greater examination.

— The entire story of Walter White, a middle class white guy with a good education whose cancer threatens his life and his family’s long-term financial well-being, would not be viable were it not for the dismal state of health care in America. There are no Walter Whites in Canada, for example; the U.S. has become little better than a third world narco-state, our health and shelter dependent on ugly choices like crime because our system of governance cannot respond appropriately under pressure for corporate profitability.

We cling to White, though he has become the very thing we pay our law enforcement to battle, because he is us — morally conflicted, trying to safeguard our lives and our families in a deeply corrupt system. At the end of each Breaking Bad episode the distortion of our values is evident in viewers’ failure to reject a criminal character depicting a drug lord manufacturing and selling a controlled substance, while guilty of conspiracy, murder, and racketeering in the process.

In the background as we watch this program, we permit corporate-owned congresspersons to shut down our government in a fit of pique over the illusion of better health care for all.

— Like White, the existential threats we face are ignored once we reach a degree of stasis. White gets treatment for cancer, which goes into remission. But he has become hooked on the money, the power, the rush that comes with this new dark world he has entered. No day is the same, unlike that of the meek, mild-mannered chemistry teacher’s world he once inhabited. With this addiction comes new existential threats that in turn increase the likelihood the original cancer will return. The meth White began to cook to resolve his cancer has become a new cancer in itself.

We are in similar straits: though we’ve been informed for decades that our consumption and incumbent pollution is problematic, we have become addicted to newer, better, faster anything, adopting a culture of disposability, if we can just have our next new fix whether it’s a car, a computer, a cellphone, pick it, it’s all ultimately petroleum and rare minerals assembled using the sweat and blood of the poor. We’ll keep consuming in spite of the fact that our consumption is threatening our way of life.

We are become Death, the destroyer of worlds.

Well, this one in particular. We toy with the notion of expanding our empire to the moon and Mars.

— White does this for his family, he says all along. So do we; we stay in our narrow grooves, consuming as we travel forward, telling ourselves we are making jobs, increasing productivity, improving standards of living for ourselves and our loved ones. Yet the truth is quite the opposite. What we are doing within our well-worn track in the rat race is as destructive as it is clueless. We are not happier; we are sicker; we are less well-off.

Because family, we say. And better living through chemistry.

Ultimately, as we peer into our own black monolithic mirrors tonight, watching Walter White or tweeting about him, we see our addicted selves, our troubled families, our malignant government, our sickened world. Art imitates life — it’s a very ugly piece of work reflected in Breaking Bad, were we to see past the superficial bread and circuses to the truth within.

[Pssst…Netflix prepared a Spoiler Foiler tool to filter Breaking Bad spoilers out your Twitter timeline.]

16 replies
  1. Rayne says:

    For folks who want to comment on Breaking Bad, please refrain from remarks on the last episode. Not everyone has seen the last episode, let alone this season, don’t want to spoil it for them.

    Marcy hasn’t seen any of Breaking Bad at all. What do you think, is it worth her time when football season is over?

  2. pdaly says:

    Nice writeup, Rayne. True about the environment Mr. White finds himself in Season 1 that allows this new “cancer” (drug making/selling) to take root and grow.

    I watched the first 4 seasons. Very entertaining and well written. I just never got into Season 5, however, after watching the first 1.5 episodes. I think the end of Season 4 was a reasonable end to the entire series. If Marcy is toying with the idea of watching from the beginning, then I’ll avoid any details to back up my point.

  3. Rayne says:

    @pdaly: Thanks! I hadn’t watched any orbit until my teen son got me hooked. I was worried about what he was watching, ended up binge watching first 4 seasons with him. What a lot of stuff this series gave us to talk about! Better than a stuffy ethics class.

    Season five is crazy-rich with symbols, worth watching to decipher writers’ intent.

    My concern for Marcy is about chemo-related scenes; @xeni has some enlightening commentary about them.

  4. masaccio says:

    Good points, bmaz. The reality we confront every day isn’t as dirty as Walter White’s world, but we still have to blind ourselves to it to keep going.

  5. Rayne says:

    @JohnT: Doesn’t mean anything; we have a glut of entertainment. One of my timelines is following a half dozen different shows while some folks in the same timeline are either having book chats or group-reading in an online book club concurrent with Breaking Bad. It’s rather telling, though, IMO that both BB and Homeland are on at the same time, competing for eyeballs.

  6. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    Rayne, I’ve never seen Breaking Bad but your description parallels some of Chris Hedges’ thoughts in his piece, “Vigilante Nation” including his comparison to Canadians.

    I found it a bit frightening and he certainly doesn’t hold back.

    He writes, “in the generality, as social and moral and political and sexual entities, white Americans are probably the sickest and certainly the most dangerous people, of any color, to be found in the world today”

    Sounds a bit like your description of Walter White.

  7. pdaly says:

    Children are like that. I got my parents hooked on the show (also via DVD binge watching).
    Now they have stuck with Season 5 and keep me in the dark. I’ll take your advice and watch it when it comes out on DVD. I have basic cable and currently am without even basic channels, because Comcast just scrambled local channels last week. I guess they won. I had been holding out for years. Now I guess I need to rent that damn cable box–so much for “cable ready” high def TVs…

    On EDIT: I also got a message from Comcast last week that my current modem will be obsolete on November 1. I need to upgrade to a new one or lose internet access on that date. Comcast lists the models they will accept but also “helpfully” states that I can rent theirs.

  8. Rayne says:

    Damn. Two scenes gutted me, hit my own buttons. And I can’t talk about them yet because spoilers!

    @Greg Bean (@GregLBean): Yeah, rings of familiarity, huh? The next question is ‘who benefits?’ Who profits besides the obvious from our suffering? There are more layers to this onion.

    @pdaly: Well somebody has to create the social network map from Americans’ metadata. :-/

  9. pdaly says:

    ;-) True. And when I think about it, the Comcast warning message that I would need a new modem popped up as I was researching digital antennas for over-the-air broadcasts. Hmmm.

    Anyone have thoughts about the “Mohu Leaf” antenna? It is made in the USA.

  10. Rayne says:

    @JohnT: I couldn’t get into Madmen, creeped me out. Felt like glorification of a toxic past — as if reenactment of its best parts by hyper-attractive people in pretty retro clothing will make the creeping cancer of post-WWII corporatism all better.

    I didn’t want to like Breaking Bad, but it is so brutally honest in its depiction of our culture’s grim toxicity that I can’t help myself. At the same time I didn’t like Sopranos; perhaps it was a lack of abstraction, an inability to see our culture reflected in characters who by virtue of their mob identity are already segregated from us.

    @prostratedragon: It’s a nice piece, but I think it’s flawed in that Flynn can come to terms with life-long disability, where Walter can only learn to accept his impending death. Much easier to be a hero when one knows they’ll survive; there’s far less reason to be conflicted, especially when one is as young and idealistic as Flynn, not mature and jaded like Walter. (Another reflection of our culture: so many youth as energetic activists, and so many compromised adults in government.)

    @pdaly: Wish I could help w/the antenna stuff, I need to get one myself. I think the entire “switch to digital signal” process is utter bullshit; it’s a means to assure that every TV pays for access, no matter how long that TV is actually online. It’s also a means to track consumption at each TV. I’d suggest checking Amazon for the cheapest possible broadcast digital TV antenna, or checking the local big box hardware/electronics store for the cheapest they carry. Should be 10 bucks or less. Watch all local TV on broadcast antenna, then cut out cable TV, get cable internet only, switch to services like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video for streaming video.

    I bought a Chromecast device recently; I can now stream content from my tablet or netbook to my television, am now watching YouTube-based movies on my TV. Just needs internet. I have a Roku box as well, much easier for my family to manage streaming from Netflix/Amazon/Hulu/YouTube, no need for tablet/netbook.

  11. geoschmidt says:

    I watched BB over the weekend, AMC had a marathon. Recorded it all and zipped through enough episodes to get the drift. Hadn’t heard of it before, just like I was late to the Soprano’s another favorite!

    I just think it was a master stroke that Walter White would be cast as a “high school teacher” though. Some of my least favorite of all people, were too. Walt is just like an “everyman” in his moral… depravity, it is only that the character is cartoonish, and is accentuated. The actor said about his role, that he saw a lot of comedy in it, which is good, I was laughing at a lot, as usual in all the wrong places, but Walt sure demonstrated some poor judgement at times.

    Walt and the other characters resonated with ourselves, it really is only a matter of degree, that is why it is entertaining, i think.

  12. geoschmidt says:

    duh… not too much traffic here… crickets… well, hi there Rayne! I like what you do in regards to telling folks some of what they can learn from. I mean: that when you were up and running at the FDL site, I mean you and me tangled and, but not no big deal!

    I liked what a smart person with intelligence, and all that… I mean I would be your friend, more than not!

    So, I am stoked that you took on this issue: (that being BB… )

    Sonavabitch! what a series… ! What a great little, weird little, type of insight into the psyche of our … poor little “boomer mentality” .

    After all: Mr White is among other designations… a “Boomer”!!

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