Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston), a middle-aged chemistry teacher with a handicapped son (RJ Mitte) and another child in the oven, learns he has cancer and will soon die. He is panic-struck, not by the fear of death, but concern for what will become of his young family. His nubile wife (Anna Gunn) has quit her job. Plus, his own medical bills are going to be astronomical. (For some reason, no one’s insurance ever seems to kick in, even though everyone is a government employee.) “It just happens” about this time that Walt’s brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) is a DEA agent who twists his arm to do a ride-along on a drug bust. When Walt sees both the amount of money that is made in that traffic, and the incompetence of the practitioners, he hatches the idea of using his chemistry expertise to “cook” some meth himself to score a large hoard for his family before dying. He links up with Jesse (Aaron Paul), a former student that is mixed up in that world, to do the marketing.
Even from my brief plot summary, one sees clearly that it is a modernization of Godfather II in the sense of being a story about how a good man goes bad for good reasons. Of course, both Godfather and Breaking Bad are fictional. In discussing the differences, the point is to analyze the truth and beauty of the story regarded as idealized thematization of human life. Before getting there, however, let me list three reasons for the shows attractiveness, with comment.
1. The slapstick, the physical comedy, the burlesque. The action and dialogue is often quite funny, if one forgets what it is about. Betsy Brandt, who plays Marie, the wife of the DEA officer, realized this already at the auditions, but she may have been the only one to. Indeed, the opening scene of a 50-year-old man in underpants waving a gun in the middle of the highway is so audacious (though the reason for every detail is well explained) that it was probably the hook for many. One is reminded of Pulp Fiction.
Closely related to this were the audaciously conceived plot angles. The great train-theft, the exploding turtle, the fly-hunting obsession, the lurking mute cousin-assassins. Even the obsessive cutting off the crust of the PB&J sandwiches. These and many others are images that will not go away quickly.
But at the end of the day the technique of the ceaseless over-the-top is, I think, a cheap contrivance. We were mesmerized by Pulp Fiction because gangsters quoted Bible verses (even if fake) and got distracted by picayune small-talk moments before murdering a target, people said nigger all the time, Uma Thurman was hot, the gimp was kept in a crate, and… wait, the gimp was what? It was only much later that we realized that Tarantino was simply using sardonic shock to inure us to a wretched and nihilistic world, while deconstructing everything valuable. Wisdom comes later, with deeper reflection; but at the time, I split a gut laughing at the depiction of my own destruction. Tarantino, and now Gilligan, appear to negate the semitically correct conventions, but this is only an appearance. “We are exploring the ambiguity!” itself becomes part of the deconstruction, a kind of boy-Hegelianism, whereby the thesis to be destroyed is first played with, using an insincerely-intended faux antithesis.
Once you “get” the trick, I think it would be quite easy to make movies like these. It is a steady artillery barrage against modesty and decency. It must be relatively easy, since stand-ups inevitably go there when they run out of material.
Seinfeld was another example, with more laughs less violence equal corruption.
2. The second draw (speaking of Uma Thurman) is surely the babes. Jesse’s bimbette was pretty enough, but the two main women were heart-stopping. They tried to make up Betsy Brandt to look a little bit angular, but the experienced eye can see beyond that. If Anna Gunn is a 9, Brandt is an 8.
But all that is fake, too. Would the show have captivated us if they had used ugly women in place of Gunn and Brandt? Not to nearly the same extent, if at all. Note a huge difference to Godfather, where the women are average. This is further proof of Godfather’s epic truth. (Even the strong magnetism of Apollonia was as much from her innocence, naivety, and inner fire as natural endowment.)
3. Walt as the Man. He grows from a competent but timid teacher, liked by everyone, into the man of action, of unbreakable resolve, of courage; able to kill or be killed; who works by his own rules and succeeds; even his strong-willed woman has to submit eventually; and all to provide for his family. This is electric, primal stuff, it is the stuff of Godfather as well, and it is undoubtedly the reason for the fan base rooting for Walt. I think both men and women would be attracted to this aspect, though of course from different angles.
Those are the strengths; now let’s do a little deconstructing of the deconstructionists.
Of course, Walt as The Man does some terrible things to people. It is necessary, therefore, to couple this point of attraction with another thought, heard in both youtube videos and coffee shop talk, that what is deeply moving is the theme that anyone is capable of any evil. It is necessary to couple this theme with the previous, because Walt’s metamorphosis into The Man is inseparable from his falling into the evil that allegedly “anyone” could do. But we need to try to unscramble several eggs here.
Is it the case that anyone could fall into any evil? The hypothesis has superficial attraction. He that breaks one commandment has broken them all. The smallest sin makes one worthy of hell, so there cannot be much comparative difference between the smallest and greatest. By grace we are saved — so without grace, anything would have been possible. Ideas like these swim around in a Christian’s mind and make the hypothesis seem not just possible, but profoundly true.
In fact, it is a sophistry. There exists a selfless, gracious grandmother somewhere that could not become the madame of a brothel. It is, then, impious for one of her grandchildren to entertain the opposite thought. If everyone were capable of falling into every sin, history would be meaningless. Part of the way history is meaningful is that past choices delimit what is currently possible; likewise, the future has continuity with the present. When you couple the work of grace into this picture, the hypothesis becomes downright diabolical.
Is Walt’s metamorphosis conceivable? For such a godless man (more on this anon) to be tempted to “cook something up,” even after a lifetime of duty, is conceivable. The vast plunge depicted that goes beyond this is dubious.
Is there not a dialectic going on, in which the assertion of radical depravity flips over into the opposite assertion, “now I’m actually pretty good, aren’t I?”
Which flips again into, “but if I did do something outrageously evil, that would be quite understandable also!”
Such is the subtle connivance of the human heart, that it can embrace a doctrine such as Total Depravity in just such a way as to puff the heart up with its own relative righteousness, or on the other hand, provide a handy excuse.
It is an easy rationalization for watched garbage, to cloak the attraction as an “exposé” of “human evil to which we are all prone.”
But the Tarantino/Gilligan Shystermachen tricks even this vice into something more deeply sinister, and dishonest. No doubt, people found themselves rooting for Walt. This is well documented. I know I did. So it is not clear that we are honest when we speak of a potential “fall into any evil imaginable.” We were not really convinced it was evil at all. After all, he was sick, his son is crippled, a baby is on the way, the insurance won’t pay, blah, blah, blah… There is a dialectic even of the dialectic.
How is Godfather different? To give a few examples, where Vito Corleone never strayed from reason and justice, Walter White does do so. People that have done him no harm other than by chance being in the way become naught but livestock that can be eliminated. Vito was bonded to his entire Italian people, but Walt is bonded only to his immediate family, plus the (childless) in-laws. But when justice terminates at the family and does not extend out, mutatis mutandis, to clan, tribe, and beyond, it is in fact not justice at all, but simply maternal instinct. As to the wrecked lives of the consumers of their product, the Godfather’s Commission showed far more concern than Walt ever does. “I don’t want it near schools, I don’t want it sold to children. That’s an infamnia. In my city, we would keep the traffic in the dark people, the coloreds. They’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls,” says the Detroit chieftain. Okay, not exactly enlightened by today’s expectation, but it showed there was some agonizing and reflection. Walt does not reflect at all.
To explain this fully would require its own essay. Suffice it to say here, that Godfather is a creation myth for the origin of law and just government, given an evil world. The nominal “government” that Godfather learns to manipulate is in fact part of that evil. But in Breaking Bad, there is no establishment of justice. The nominal government, represented by DEA, remains as perhaps the only symbol of goodness. Justice is completely feminized, defined now as “that which is good for me and mine.”
Note, therefore, how easily state-worship mixes with the thematic fabric, even when the protagonists are trying to duck the system. It imitates our own statist life, where Tim Geitner is made secretary of the Treasury, though a known tax-cheater. The people are sinners, until perforce redeemed by joining the government, a kind of counterfeit church. I won’t mention that for some it is even more trite — trendy clichés like “we need to pay our teachers more” and “the government needs to fix the insurance mess” were dancing through Cranston’s head according to one interview. (Actors have never been the brightest bulbs in the garden. It is actually painful to watch them speak on politics or philosophy, without their scripted persona.)
The ultimate problem
Every single person is completely irreligious. God is not in all their thoughts, as the psalmist says of the wicked. There are no pastors to give counsel (or even absolution). No one thinks to go to church. The sole church that appears is for a 12-step program, and several of the participants are using even that as a venue to hook up or bag new drug customers. So it is utterly cynical and nihilistic. The world of Vince Gilligan and Jew Sapan is entirely godless, a spiritual wasteland.
In view of this, it is both surprising and unsurprising that the holy name of our Savior is on the lips of every single protagonist more frequently than Billy Graham ever could do in an evening of rallying. Even the sixteen-year-old boy, who has never heard a Bible story explained in his whole life, finds himself, willy-nilly, calling out idly to someone named Jesus, he knows not why.
It is certainly odd, ironic, that even after the complete jewish takeover of American culture, they cannot simply forget about it. No, our Savior is on the tips of their tongues at all times. Imagine if, mirabile dictu, the roles were reversed: some goyim went to Israel and somehow completely took over their media. Then, in addition to churning out pulp to turn a shekel, these goyim insisted that every movie, every TV show, must have something to rub it in: “Albert f&cking Einstein!” people blurt out. “Moses f&cking Miriam!” and so forth. Jewish f&cking kikes! do you think this would be tolerated for long? I think not.
The casual blasphemy in shows like Breaking Bad is far worse, since it not only demoralizes the people, but degrades, not just some jewish fetish, but the holy name of the living and true God. This blasphemy is certainly the most serious matter of the show. All the blasphemers need to be killed. It is a matter not only of the honor of God’s name — though that is the most important thing — but eventually, the very survival of our people.