'Breaking Bad'-A A +A
Wrapped in Grey
Tuesday, October 8, 2013
I HAVE been on a Breaking Bad binge ever since a bug sidelined me to cough and chills over the weekend. It's a strange cocktail going over the five seasons while battling illness because the struggle appears on two fronts -- in my tortured mind as Walter White, the chemistry teacher-turned meth lab maestro, faces one existential dilemma after another, and in my painful joints as the finale season achieves a visceral punch when the momentary victories of Walter and his wife Skyler are unraveled as pyhrric victories and not much else.
The verdict is still out regarding how the cult series will resolve the morality play of the past five seasons because I have not seen the final few episodes. But the dilemma has been well played out throughout the series. I am reminded of a question that a character raises in the novel Brothers Karamazov, "If god is dead, is everything then permitted?"
Seen through the prism of Dostoyevsky's existential question, the death of god in Walter White's life is his soul-crushing relegation to a backwater community college despite his excellent academic credentials. The diagnosis of his terminal illness spurs him to take matters into his own hands by cooking the purest and most potent form of meth with a former student junkie Jesse Pinkman. What follows are their misadventures as they tried to work their way around the unfamiliar rules of the drug trade.
And this is where one of the attractions of the series lie, I believe. Here are two ethical individuals who just want to get their slice of life that the dominant neoliberal context excludes them from. So they decide to find entry in the margins by way of meth production. Here they find the respect and accolade, and wealth they deserved.
These victories are not one-time happily-ever-after occasions but momentary overcoming whether it be stealthily stealing methylamine from a moving train or decommissioning an incriminating laptop in the police evidence room by way of a massive magnet. It’s a geek fest alright but one that subtly argues that the bright ones are not all hired in Silicon Valley but others fall in the wayside of society's mainstream culture.
But in the free-for-all rules of the drug world, these two protagonists were hard-pressed to adjust to the challenges of a frontier industry. There is the Mexican cartel which is de riguer and our characters had to deal with them but the development of one of television's memorable characters in Gustavo Fring as the main villain who was more of a sinister antiseptic ambience than your regular bad guy is definitely one of the successes of the series.
The allusion of Fring's connection to narco-capitalism thru the multinational company Madrigal Enterprises is also worth looking into closely. The ties signify the blurring distinction between formal capitalist enterprises and frontier industries such as the drug trade. The common denominator between both is the accumulation of super-profits.
But ultimately, another attraction of the series is in the tortured personalities that harrowingly mimic real people or if not, characters in a Russian novel. There is of course Walter White, who despite his cancer, actually represents the driving force or the life of the series. It is his will to power in overcoming and dealing with his condition that sets the events for all the other characters in motion. But what is torturous is that every victory is punctuated by a moral defeat.
The unlikely heart of the series is the drug user Jesse Pinkman. Even as Walter White's moral compass is muddled by his will to power, Pinkman remains consistent to his aversion toward senseless death especially of the innocent. The awkward yet blistering dynamics between wife Skyler and husband Walter is also one for the books. Equally riveting is that between the DEA agent and brother-in-law Hank Schraeder and wife Marie with all their hang-ups and insecurities.
No one here is a looker by Hollywood's standards and the iconic visual of Walter White in his white briefs connotes other things but not sex appeal. No one here has an extra special quality, Walter White is just as any good obsessive-compulsive persona from the academe. Like real people, you will not like them at first but they will grow on you.
In a world where government presence is only felt through the IRS and the DEA, healthcare is absent, and families are left to fend for themselves in the desolate and vast American suburbia, and nothing is in the future but a soul-crushing existence, Walter White's breaking bad actually provide us a roadmap to neoliberalism's future-present.
What sets the series apart I think is that the characters are drawn as regular people brought by the chaos of neoliberalism to respond to moral and existential dilemmas, trying their best as they could to keep what little humanity they have left.
This I believe is the series' searing critique of American life.
(Arnold P. Alamon is an Assistant Professor IV at the Sociology Department of Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology)
Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on October 08, 2013.