We would rather be ruined than changed;
We would rather die in our dread
Then climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.
In the week preceding Father's Day my spouse received a package in the mail from the U.S. The elder Frenchling gifted her father with Breaking Bad: The Complete Series. The tranquility of the Flophouse has been shattered ever since.
I wasn't planning on watching it but our living room is so small, and my reading chair so close to the television, that it was almost impossible to ignore. My only other option was to go read in the bedroom but that would have deprived me of the company of my spouse in the evening. So I surrendered and started watching it with him.
To catch up on the parts I missed I went on-line and tried to find a site that could give me the story line. To my astonishment, I discovered that this series (which I had never heard of) was something of a phenomenon in the U.S. It first aired in 2008 (just about the time the U.S. started to implode) and according to the Wikipedia article it "has received widespread critical acclaim and has been praised by many critics as one of the greatest television dramas of all time."
I chose not to read any of the reviews (and there were many). Instead I decided to watch it more attentively with a Rip van Winkle eye. Think of me as someone who wandered off years ago and now I've come back and someone hands me a CD and says, "Take a look at this. Everyone is watching it."
Breaking Bad is the story of Walter White, a rather mild nondescript fellow who has had more than his share of bad luck. He has a good education - a STEM degree (chemistry) - but he's struggling financially and works two jobs: a chemistry teacher at a local high school and as a worker in a car wash. His son was born disabled and his wife is about to have another baby. He is not in a good place and there is a certain ambiguity about his life's trajectory up to this point because it is a mix of bad choices he made and events that he simply had no control over. In an argument over internal versus external locus of control, both sides could find elements in the back story to bolster their arguments.
What did it say to me? This is a world where intelligence and an advanced science degree are not guarantees of anything. He can't even support his family with what was (and clearly is no longer) a very respectable, even honorable profession, teaching high school chemistry. The family is barely clinging to middle-class status and disaster is just one small step away. And sure enough, it strikes when Walter is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer.
Everything that happens up to his diagnosis is like a confirmation of every cautionary tale and negative impression I've ever heard about the United States outside of the United States. It's the Wild West over there with good people losing the cosmic crapshoot of life through no fault of their own and having to struggle just to survive. At the beginning of the series Walter looks like a modern Job: "blameless and upright," a gifted teacher, a good husband and father who is coping as best he can with his bad luck. After the Great Recession hit and the world watched America implode I heard comments from people in my host country about how Americans seemed to be doing so well in the face of so much personal catastrophe: losing their homes and retirement incomes, going bankrupt and so on. Such optimism, they said, and what a commendable lack of whining. (Not to mention no riots in the streets.)
In the face of his cancer diagnosis and the news that he has less than two years to live, Walter, having played by the rules all his life, decides that there is no longer any percentage in trying to be good guy and he sets out to become very bad indeed. Using his chemistry skills he launches a new career as a metamphetamine "cook" and with the help of a sidekick, learns the business rules of the American drug trade. I found that things got rather boring and predictable at this point as each episode simply revealed new depths of depravity and cruelty.
I have to ask: where is that much touted informal social network of family, friends and faith-based organizations that is supposed to replace (and some say are superior to) the government-run networks in other countries? It's strangely absent here. Walter is going at it pretty much alone - he does not seem to have health insurance or to be part of some sort of private institution that might help him financially or even give him some moral support. Though, there are offers from well-off friends to pay for his treatment. Offers that he declines since he doesn't want to be beholden to people he holds partially responsible for his current problems.
How to express just how unimaginable his situation is to any citizen of a country with a decent social safety network? This is the United States as dystopia - a horrible place where man suffers alone and being a "good" person gets you nowhere. The U.S. government (federal) is represented by his brother-in-law, an agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), who is a strange mixture of blustering bravado and a kind of creepy cheeriness. He smiles and uses a slightly stiff but deceptively pleasant tone as he uses his authority to verbally beat up a street person.
This is the other side of the much vaunted American "niceness." When I was working in the city and the Americans would come over from HQ to poke around the subsidiary and check things out, I noticed my staff basking in the warm attention, and melting under the smiling visage, of the big boss. And I took them aside and said something I never imagined I would say: "Beware of the smiling American," I said. It doesn't mean he's a nice person and it sure doesn't mean that he likes you or that he will help us when it matters. (Something, by the way, that turned out to be 100% true.)
That "niceness" infects all the interactions among the characters in the series. They are all so civil, so apparently well-intentioned, and so incredibly infuriatingly passive. They question nothing about the world they find themselves in. 5000 USD in cash to get in the door to see a doctor and they wince and then pay it. When they get angry, they blame each other for not being open and honest or (strangely enough) for being too honest and not observing the "nice" code. When Walter starts telling people what he really thinks of them, he has clearly crossed a line and is destined for hell if he continues to speak his mind and defy the norm of outward civility to all (and with never a hint of the quiet desperation within).
Unknown to his family he is already there and he discovers the he kind of likes it. At least he finally finds a domain in which he can be a wild success (drug lord). The supposed acceptance of his uninspiring not-so-wonderful life at the beginning of the series turns out to be a deception. Under the outward resignation and "nice fellow" facade was bitterness and resentment.
Watching his journey toward evil, I have to wonder just how prevalent his feelings are in 21st century America. Something about his situation and how he reacted to it struck a chord with Americans and made this series a huge success. Is this a revenge fantasy for every American who lost his retirement after a lifetime of hard work, who watched the banks get bailed out while people were thrown out of their homes, who lives on the edge just one illness away from bankruptcy and who, in spite of the promises that if he/she obeyed the rules and did all the right things, that success was within the reach of anyone willing to work hard enough for it, still got screwed anyway?
You tell me.