With the new season of Breaking Bad coming up, I dug up and read what I had written about it before. As usual, my first reaction was pure awe – awe, at how fricking great this blog is. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I would totally be reading this thing every day if it weren’t mine.
Anyways, rewatching the previous two seasons (currently being rerun, I guess as a lead-up to the new one) I noticed a strong angle I had left out before. Indeed Breaking Bad is about a guy who is like us, but becomes a criminal. I should have added that he’s not quite like all of us, however.
Walter White is a smart guy, a talented guy. He’s also a guy for whom success has passed him by. He has missed opportunities. He has sat on sidelines. He has seen more well-connected, more brazen, more bold, more ruthless, more hip/cool, more yuppie, more privileged, more lazy, more lucky people pass him by. And he is f**king pissed off about it. Walter White is an angry white male. He’s a Joe the Plumber. He’s a ‘Tea Partier’, if only metaphorically.
I hadn’t actually seen most of the first season before so I had missed how strong this angle is set up. But the contrast is there near the beginning with the characters of the Schwarzes, two fabulously wealthy fabulous people whom Walter knew from grad school and who bootstrapped off his ideas to form a megamillions tech company. The Schwarzes have it all, a giant house, and they are oh so suave, and hip, and nice, and PBS, and down to earth, and rich, and privileged, and cultured, and cushy. White is none of these things (or very few). He doesn’t work in a university or a high tech lab, he’s just a gritty high school teacher who knows how to make homemade batteries. He doesn’t wear flowing, beige casual expensive designer clothes, he wears cheapo plaid button-downs and dockers. He doesn’t appear on the cover of magazines, he’s not part of the biotech age, he’s not into new-age stuff, he doesn’t have a million famous friends.
He’s just a guy who knows his s**t, works hard, and tries to feed his family. He has a modest house, a kid with cerebral palsy, a second job at a fricking car wash, and bills up the wazoo. And then he gets cancer.
His reaction is one of rage. The brilliance of the show is that the rage is 99% pent-up and only let out once in a blue moon. So the actor’s performance is that of a walking bottle of rage, stuffed to the brim, close to bursting, but rarely doing so. He just wakes up and lives every day, seething with rage inside that he must hide. But the viewer can see it. His is a great, great performance.
I’m not sure this is the intent but the show is a big ‘f**k you’ (as Walter tells Gretchen Schwartz, in an amazing scene) to the pretty people, the lucky people, the rich people, the privileged people. They don’t deserve their comfort, they didn’t get where they are honestly, and they probably just don’t know their s**t the way Walter White does. Or so believes Walter White, quite apparently. And if you watch Breaking Bad, you’ll probably come to agree with him.
Breaking Bad is an indulgent fantasy based on the recognition that meritocracy is a lie, that in-group tribalism (or as I call it, high school politics) is the norm, that everyone uses the system to their advantage, and that the fiction of meritocracy means society’s winners are all that much more insufferable to society’s losers. This may seem a stretch for a show that’s ostensibly about a dude who decides to cook meth.
But let’s be more precise then: it’s about why he decides to cook meth.