I started watching Breaking Bad recently in part because 100% of the reactions to my not having seen the series were of overwhelming incredulity. This is how I know a show has become a touchstone in our culture. (I recently had the same reaction when my roommate told me he hadn’t seen The Jerk, although that fact is more excusable considering the movie is over 35 years old.) I am only about seven or eight episodes into the series, but I thought I’d share some of my observations so far.
- Each member of Walter White’s family has a particular social sensitivity. Skyler is pregnant, Walter Jr. has cerebral palsy, and Walt is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Each of the sensitivities becomes somewhat archetypal (by which I do not mean cliché) and, in that way, can come to represent social sensitivities in our lives. Perhaps it is a child with autism, a mother glued to her phone, a brother living in the haze of prescription pill addiction. The real social problems of American life that we find hard to talk to each other about is at the heart of the characters in Walt’s family. It’s what makes them real and familiar. The scenes with Walt’s family are like a ballet on ice. We watch each member skate by with what they are hiding or willing to show. Skyler is willing to use it to her advantage, Walt is ashamed, Walter Jr. ignores the problem as much as is possible in his situation.
- Speaking of archetypes, most of the characters outside of Walter’s immediate family take their cues from other TV families we know. There is the funny scene with Jesse’s family at the dinner table talking to Jesse’s younger brother about playing the piccolo and oboe at school. The family speaks rigidly, as if their lines are being fed to them from under the table. They speak perhaps the way we wish we could speak. (Or maybe not necessarily. But there is certainly some idealism to the setting that Jesse crashes. And the cracks split the frame deeper when Jesse’s brother tells him he is the one they speak about most.) There is also Walt’s hardliner brother-in-law Hank of the DEA, who you are wishing would become enlightened on the war on drugs. And Skyler’s haughty sister Marie, who is quite possibly sexually gratified by theft in the Freudian sense: we love the things we profess not to love.
- Jesse Pinkman is the foolish hero and our moral guide. If Jesse were a good criminal we wouldn’t feel as sympathetic towards him. But it is because of Jesse’s many failing capers and his reservations that we tag along with him. He puts on a front like any of us, hoping to look tough only to be turned into the world’s punching bag.
- The show proposes that, in essence, human nature is dual. Most of the characters are suburban Manicheans. This is obvious for characters like Marie, troubling for Hank (who finds gratification in death and violence at work), innocent in Walter Jr. For Walt, Breaking Bad is a balancing act. His evil nature seems to tip the scales with more and more frequency. It is like the story of western gunslingers that have had enough of injustice but must use violence to dispose of it. We are watching Walt at that crucial moment when the scales may dip too far away from pacifism and intellect for redemption.