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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Breaking Bad

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.

W.H. Auden

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.


Ellen Lebelle said...

I had heard of it. It's kind of a cult series. I think two of my daughters have watched it (I won't divulge their download techniques) but I was never interested. I don't think I am, now, either. But thanks for the synopsis.

Tim said...

I have to say perhaps I am living a little bit of Walter White's life myself. If my own personal situation was different would I be so hell bent on hurting IRS/Treasury and trying to flush their thousand of man hours working on FATCA down the toilet. I don't know. I don't think I have in anyway a "bad" life but perhaps some things not within my control could have turned out better for me. If they had would I be so hell bent on hurting IRS/Treasury? I don't know

I had a pretty big smile on my face when I was checking into my hotel in Toronto and saw Prof. Kirsch(of defending CBT) ahead of me in line. I was thinking to myself I definitely know who he is but he has no idea who I am and more importantly no idea in terms of damage I have been trying to inflict on his former colleagues at IRS/Treasury both public and private and in ways he would surely consider underhanded. I had a pretty big smile on my face the rest of the evening knowing in some way I was living my revenge fantasy.

Anonymous said...

Very fitting quote!

Welcome to the new normal in the USA. Somehow the land where people were once in charge has turned into a Wizard of Oz-ish, gamified, dystopian bureaucracy where its citizens have fallen off the game board.

Mr. Smith went to Gitmo and left Mr Wizard to cook meth.

As I post this comment I am asked, "Please prove you are not a robot"

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Tim, sortes meae in manu Dei sunt. The search for serenity above all other things. I refuse to let the government (the city of man) interfere with the city of God. Today by the way is my AA anniversary. :-)

Ellen, there is something about this series that leaves a terrible taste in my mouth. I don't find any of the characters to be partiuclarly sympathetic. I don't expect a simple morality tale but I don't care for porn either. Two thumbs down.

Anonymous, Is this really the new normal? To resonate (and to be that popular) the story must have things that are familiar to the audience. Perhaps homelanders see something quite different when they watch it. I'm really curious as to how much of it is an accurate depiction of America's middle or lower middle class today.

Catherine said...

I follow one blog where the lady struggles with taking care of herself, her husband, and her mother - they've lost nearly everything after having lost jobs, and trying to find a way to reclaim security hits challenge after challenge. It's grim, to say the least. So I can see why this show resonates with so many folks. It’s truly sad, to be honest.

Tim said...


On a more serious level I am familiar with the plot and premise of many police/crime shows such as Breaking Bad, CSI Miami etc. however, I have absolutely no personal connection or understanding with the genre told from either side. Some of this has to do with the fact I grew up in fairly low crime part of the United States.

I have to say am a bit surprised your elder Frenchling liked the series given the fact she grew-up in France. On the subject of "cult" favorites has your elder Frenchling seen the movie "Taken" with Liam Neeson. I personally think the movie is a totally outlandish Homelander American portrayal of Paris however, "Taken" is considered an even bigger cult favorite than Breaking Bad. I won't even bother asking Ellen to watch it as she will consider it unwatchable and perhaps you and your spouse will too. If your elder Frenchling liked Breaking Bad enough to give it as a gift then she might like "Taken" even though I don't.
"Taken is a 2008 English-language French action thriller film directed by Pierre Morel, written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, and starring Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Leland Orser, Jon Gries, David Warshofsky, Holly Valance, Katie Cassidy, Xander Berkeley, Olivier Rabourdin, Gérard Watkins, and Famke Janssen. It is the first film in the Taken film series.

Neeson plays a former CIA operative named Bryan Mills who sets about tracking down his daughter after she is kidnapped by human traffickers for sexual slavery while traveling in France. Numerous media outlets have cited the film as a turning point in Neeson's career that redefined and transformed him to an action film star"

One of the projects on my personal wish list after defeating FATCA is to do a "French" version of Taken with a "reversed" premise taking place in San Francisco instead of Paris.

Tim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Why didn't you want to see it in the first place?

Anonymous said...

"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.."

Good blog Victoria.

The US- and UK-led bankster-mobs have much to answer for. Here in Europe the wind now blows hard in the sails of the Right thanks in part to the economic destruction and particularly the eurozone havoc, the criminal financial class provoked.

The impact on people's lives especially the young, has sparked a backlash propitious to the rise of the hard Right, the only group not yet captured by global financial crooks.

We need to impose really punitive jail sentences on the banker felons behind the ongoing scamming if we are to bring some sense of justice back into society and some restitution for millions whose lives have been destroyed by the sociopaths.

Christopher Mark Perez said...

... which raises a question for me: If you can't be "good" in America, why is the only other option to be "bad"?

Are there no other emotions, no thoughts that inform action? Are there no other dimensions to life?

My wife and I have been watching the US from the outside for going on three years now. We are constantly stuck by how "binary" Americans are. "Good" vs "bad." "Right" vs "wrong." "Education" vs "willful ignorance." "Us" vs "ourselves."

Corporate leaders enjoy the benefits of greed unchecked while eliminating jobs that used to enable the company leader's wealth. Bankers greed goes unchecked while the rest of us get the honor of paying fees for nearly every transaction with _no_ interest ever paid on our savings. Government leaders kowtow to corporate and banking interests at the continued expense of We the People.

It seems as if the phrase "personal responsibility" has taken root deep in the American heart. So deep, in fact, that everyone has to be an expert on everything. They can't rely on anything to help them. There are no real "job creators" nor statesmen in politics nor extended family systems nor healthy food systems of any kind to be found anywhere on American soil.

All there is, it seems, is predation by those who _have_ on those who _don't_.

This, they seem to be saying, is freedom.

Anonymous said...

Victoria, Coming from a lifetime career in addiction recovery services, the media enchantment with high risk drug production and distribution mystifies and alarms me. "Weeds" and "Breaking Bad" , as a small example, have a disarming amorality, which to me enforces a public deafness/blindness to what happens downriver. Film and TV and youtube have a much bigger presence and influence on youth whose families are less engaged: with them, with church, with jobs that offer reasonable security, and the like.
I share your questions about these messages and social influences.
Meanwhile, profound congratulations on your anniversary! Well done!
I'll update you a bit in a note soon. Hugs, Mame

Northerndar said...

Excellent critique, Victoria. I agree with you.A couple months ago I spent 3 days watching all episodes back to back. It truly was addictive. There were no heroes. It did show what is happening to some in America, which those "happy" US TV shows are really likebthe facades of Disney world and Las Vegas. Perhaps Breaking Bad was so popular was because people could relate.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Anonymous, Why didn't I want to see it? Good question and I will try to answer that today.

@Anonymous, Like 911 the Great Recession will (I think) leave its mark on the developped world. A lot of simmering resentment. Such a loss of credibility on the part of the developed world (including the US). Here was that world telling the emerging countries how to manage their economies and run their banking systems...

@Christopher, Yes! Nothing nuanced here, no acknowldgement that the world is a rather messy place and there is a world of gray between one extreme and the other. Progressive versus conservative, Republican versus Democrat, good versus bad and so on. Why are things distilled into flavor 1 and flavor 2?

@Mame, Good to see you! And thank you. So good to be sober. And that is another way to look at this series. It's a glorification of the drug trade - a very coy "see how terrible it is" (but also see how much power and money can be had by making it a career).

@Northerdar, Absolutely. I think that's the key - people could relate to the situation Walter found himself in. And what does that say about the US?