There are, believe it or not, still people in this world who do not own a television and like to communicate this fact with pride, as if it underscores their intellectual bona fides. Now, I don’t much care if you own or watch TV, or what you watch, but I have always believed that condemning an entire media as substandard is just intellectual vanity. It’s proving a negative: You don’t own a TV because you are too smart to fall for that dreck.
Whatever. I’ve been watching Breaking Bad from AMC recently. As with most things, I am several years behind the curve. I am not, as the kids said in 1985, hip. Whenever I start to hear about a good TV show I play coy, refusing to check it out until 5 years later. Part of this is because I myself have intellectual vanity and I like to think that if I haven’t discovered it independently it can’t be good. So if I wait long enough after you tell me about it, I can pretend I found it all by myself, because I am a genius.
Blogging ain’t pretty.
Anyways, after years of reading that Breaking Bad is a great show, I started watching it a few weeks ago. It is, in fact, a great show. I’m in the middle of Season 3 right now, so I haven’t finished the run, so much of what I’m about to discuss may be incorrect if you’ve watched it all the way through, who knows. Still, 66% of the way through, I’m damn impressed, because Walter White may be one of the greatest depictions of a character in history. Not necessarily the best character, but the best depiction of a character. Because this show takes that old writing class saw “show don’t tell” and makes it into a work of genius.
Spoilers, for those who care, follow.
You probably know the basic premise of the show: Walter White, milquetoasty High School Chemistry teacher with a pregnant wife, a teenaged son with MS, an overbearing brother in-law and very, very poor fashion sense, is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. Stage IIIa, which means his prognosis is dim. He realizes how much money a meth dealer can make, and hooks up with an old student of his to start cooking meth, with an idea towards leaving a lump of money for his family after he’s gone. he ‘breaks bad’, in Southern parlance.
Where I am with the show, halfway through Season 3, there’s still no clear narrative about how Walter ended up where he did pre-cancer: We know, through storylines and dialog, that he is “an extremely overqualified high school chemistry teacher” who helped found a successful company that has made his former partners from college very rich. He’s usually regarded as a brilliant chemist, and his brilliance is one reason he becomes a force in the illegal drug trade, because he can cook meth of a quality unmatched by all the yahoos in their kitchen labs, blowing themselves up.
So, he’s brilliant, went to school with brilliant folks, and helped found a company. Yet, at age 50 he’s a High School teacher making a meager salary, moping about in passive-aggressive splendor. So far, we’ve not been told the details. And yet, I can give you a pretty good idea of what happened, because I know Walt. I’ve seen him in a variety of situations, and Walt as a character has been outlined very clearly to me, without any of it being said. No character describes Walt to me, as happens in lesser works. Walt himself only shows brief flashes of self-awareness, and never just declares his own faults. They don’t make it dumb and easy. They simply show you Walt reacting to things and you draw your own conclusions.
So what do I know about Walt from watching him? I know Walt has an ego the size of a cruise ship. Walt thinks he’s smarter than everyone around him. But Walt is timid, and doesn’t like to assert himself, so he avoids anyone who threatens that sense of brilliance. He’s resentful and holds grudges. He has a temper that he can’t always control. He thinks very highly of himself and his motives, but he constantly self-sabotages because he must have inferior people around him so he can feel strong and smart. When faced with anyone who is smarter, or even as smart, as he thinks himself to be, he quickly drives them off using any passive-aggressive (or, failing that, purely aggressive) method at his disposal.
Consider the fate of his shiny new lab assistant when he takes Gus Fring’s job offer. At first Walt is all smiles – he has the lab he’s always wanted, and instead of Jesse Pinkman’s slightly brain-damaged help, he has a trained chemist who can make conversation about chemistry and who is, it quickly becomes apparent, more cultured and possibly smarter, in some ways, than Walt. He quotes Walt Whitman effortlessly, and Walt is forced to quietly admit he isn’t familiar with the poem. Behind that flat line reading is a larger truth, I think: Walt is not familiar with any poetry, or any of the finer things, because he’s spent the last 20 years grading High School tests.
The next day, Walt engineers a mistake he can lay at his assistant’s feet and demands that he be replaced … with Jesse Pinkman. This is so self-destructive it’s funny, but it allows Walt to once again have an assistant he knows will never exceed him. Jesse Pinkman not only can’t recite any Walt Whitman, he most likely doesn’t know who Walt Whitman is. Thus is balance restored to Walt’s life, with him on top. Nothing is explained to us, but Walt’s motivations are pretty clear.
So, while the details, the exact events that took Walt from brilliant, promising chemist to run-down, bitter High School teacher remain somewhat mysterious, I know pretty much what happened. Walt got jealous. His partner(s) were too smart, and Walt began to resent them, resent everything they did. He got passive aggressive and found excuses to be angry with them, excuses to belittle their contributions, to paint them as bad people who were treating him badly. He did this until his partners and friends couldn’t take it any more and they cut him loose. Which just justified, in his mind, his opinion of them. As smart as he is, Walt can’t resist crowing: Any time Walt feels he’s in a position of power, he abuses it, raining down suffering on everyone. Then, the second his advantage shifts, he regrets it and cowers from consequences.
And Walt’s been doing this his entire life. Ruining any chance he’s ever been given, because if Walt isn’t the smartest man in the room, if Walt isn’t given all the credit, he starts fucking everything up because if he can’t have it, no one should. his home life has been, if not perfect, at least calm prior to his diagnosis because he felt in charge there: His wife didn’t work, so he was the provider, she generally ceded intellectual superiority to him, and his son idolized him to a certain degree as a smart man. So the home life was happy enough.
On the other side, Walt’s a charmer. He is completely, totally self-centered in a way that is breathtaking and yet pretty common, and he’s capable of swallowing his anger and his resentment for short periods and laying on the mild-mannered charm when he needs something from you. So far Walt has managed to sweet-talk his way through a lot of crises, then create brand-new crises on a regular basis because every time he feels triumphant, he shits on someone he deems below him.
I know all this without having any of it spelled out. Without a single line of dialog to explain it to me. The writers on this show just showed me Walter White, and that’s all I need. It’s very good writing. I resent and hate the writers for this, and have vowed to destroy them. I figure my future career strategy will be to destroy all superior writers until I am the only writer left. If I can’t manage to be a bestseller under those conditions, I might have to give up.