Thursday, January 20, 2011

Compliment Case 10: Breaking Bad

Originally, I’d conceived of two Complimentary Cases for Weeds, to reflect its difficulty in balancing its moods—anything-goes hilarity, and cutting satire. My choices were It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia for the former, and The Riches for the latter. But that was before a show rocketed out of the sky like a meteor riding a lightning bolt and struck me dead between the eyes, despite having only watched the first, truncated season and the beginning of the second. It may be obvious, but the reply to Nancy Botwin is Walter White, and the compliment to Weeds can only be Breaking Bad.

Breaking Bad and Weeds may play with similar toys, but they couldn’t feel more different in execution or ambition. Both feature suburban dregs forced by desperation into the drug trade, but while Weeds takes its cues from, well, just how simply zany its set-up is, Breaking Bad mines a deeper vein, leading back to classic Existential literature—The Plague, “The Wall”, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. Weeds is a comedy with some dark edges about, as I noted, how a rich cunt remained such. Breaking Bad is a pitch-black comedy about a man’s confrontation with his mortality, and the extremes he is driven to.
            Walter White, meek and mild-mannered, diagnosed with lung cancer (despite, in one of many insults the universe sends him, having never smoked), decides to turn his genius with chemistry toward cooking meth, in the hopes he can make enough money to ensure his family is cared for during his treatment and after his death. Meth is a much harder, more destructive drug than pot, and Breaking Bad does not shy away from its ugliness, from the toxic green clouds that herald its birth, to the twitchy, bedraggled, snaggletoothed junkies who kill themselves with it. The show is never intent on clearing him of blame or culpability, but is far more interested in his metamorphosis as he faces his death sentence. Hank’s true precariousness, both as he delves further into the drug world and as his health fades, keep him sympathetic and understandable, even as he undeniably perpetuates what we see as evil. Like a true Existentialist, though, Walt is beyond evil. He wrangles his chemo-ravaged scalp into a mighty new persona, turns the tables on violent men, and returns to his car to scream and cry, holding more money than he has touched in his entire life. Nietzsche did always say our most dangerous enemy would be ourselves.
            Also like a proper Existential work, Breaking Bad finds absurd humor in the struggle, and dark wit and cleverness it deploys with abandon. Walt adopts the name Heisenberg, just when we can say with some certainty his direction and velocity (down, and fast). Of a suspected rat, he says “That is a disappointment.” He and his partner Jesse perform a brilliant break-in, blasting through six inches of steel, but don’t think to grab a handcart to move the 50 gallon barrel containing their prize. When Jesse fails to sling up to Walt’s needs, Walt dresses him down with a classic high-school teacher lecture (“This is a lack of initiative!”). The Talking Pillow.
            Beyond Walt and his struggles is an intensely focused pocket of humanity. His wife, Skylar bravely clings to threads of hope even as she quietly resigns her husband to death, while his son angrily grapples with his impending loss and his Cerebral Palsy (his response to Walt electing to not be treated: “Then why don’t you just fucking die already?”). DEA Agent and brother-in-law Hank is a boisterous meathead who goes to surprising lengths for Walt, not yet realizing what is truly going on. Marie, Skylar’s hyper-dramatic bitchy sister sides with Walt in surprising ways. Jesse seems to continually pose a question: is he a scum bag, or is he simply living up to the perception that he is.
            Weeds, in the end, didn’t speak in such strong universalities. It didn’t try, of course, that was never its intent. But it remains a hurdle. Breaking Bad, however, is keenly aware of what inevitably awaits at the end of the human journey. We all will find ourselves clad in our Jockeys in the desert, pointing a gun at the sirens in the distance, just not all of us realize it.

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