Between two Onions: Breaking Bad edition

by chuckofthesea

In our post-ideological times, there are few insults greater than the suggestion that a work of art has a political agenda (nobody wants to be associated with hacks like Beethoven, Picasso, Brecht, Eisenstein, Kahlo, Chaplin, Breton, Rivera, B. Traven, Robeson, Trumbo, Atwood, Milton Acorn, Soyinka, Loach…). That fact may go some way towards explaining the conclusion of this (for the most part, really good) AV Club assessment of Breaking Bad as an essentially religious work. To my mind, though, the analysis put forward falls apart right about here, in the final paragraph:

Look back at those early episodes, and Walt’s life doesn’t seem so bad. (The show even underlined this in the flashback teaser that opened “Ozymandias.”) He has a pretty wife and nice house. He has a loving son and a baby on the way. Above all, he has friends and people who care about him, a community of loved ones, just waiting to help him out if need be. It’s not heaven on Earth, but it’s at least a glimpse of what that might look like. And yet it’s not enough. He gives in to his selfishness and pride, his rage and resentment. He becomes the devil, and he is punished accordingly. He lived in something like heaven, and he chose to create something far more like hell. Breaking Bad argues that that is a choice too many of us make, every day of our lives.

A quick refresher: when we met Walter White, he was working in a (for him) deeply unsatisfying job as a teacher, for which he was so grossly underpaid that he needed to take a second job, washing cars for an abusive boss who commanded almost total control of his personal schedule. The treatment required to beat his likely-fatal lung cancer diagnosis was beyond his financial means, set to bankrupt his soon-to-be widow, their disabled son, and yet-to-be-born daughter; hence the popularity of this viral comic. Yup; sounds like Heaven. 

There’s a profound conservatism here, masquerading as stoicism, conflating the greed and ambition of the already wealthy and powerful with the striving for dignity and material comfort on the part of the have-nots. In this moral world, we should all be happy with what we’ve got, because really, isn’t it pretty good, and the difference between being the billionaire owner of Gray Matter or a Spanish-speaking industrial laundromat worker all comes down to the vagaries of fate.

But of course there’s a difference between striving from the bottom (especially in a social capacity, based on solidarity, such as the labour movement or Occupy) and expanding out from the top, and this was one of the neatest tricks carried off by the series: initially, we were drawn to Walt as a sad-sack underdog trying to get his, even if he was going it alone. But by the time he lectured his accomplice, Jesse, about his past with Gray Matter and the company’s value in the billions, and explaining that he was in neither the “meth business” nor “the money business” but rather “the empire business,” we came to realize that quasi-proletarian Walt was actually a failed, thwarted overdog with a strong revanchist streak. In this respect, he shares a great deal with Corey Robin’s prototypical conservative. There’s no solidarity in Walter White’s world because he’s not trying to make things better for anybody else; he’s trying to get back what he lost. The small degree of redemption he finds in the series finale, as outlined in the AV Club piece, comes through “some sort of connection” — acts of empathy. Solidarity.

To me, the other side of the Onion/AV Club operation came closer to nailing the political heart of the show, albeit in sarcastic relief, with ‘Story of Small Businessman Struggling Under Obama Administration Draws to a Close.’ If Breaking Bad obviously wasn’t a celebration of the self-made free-marketeer, there is a pretty strong case that it was the opposite. A while ago, over in the London Review of Books, James Meek did a fairly convincing assessment of where the show’s sympathies lie in the private/public sector divide:

The most striking opposition, however, isn’t between the two deserts, but between two human realms, the public and the private, the statist and the capitalist. Two groups – the police, represented by the DEA; and the educators, represented by Walter’s colleagues and the pre-criminal Walter – are portrayed as diligent, virtuous, underpaid, motivated by duty (among the criminals it is a Cormac McCarthyesque ex-cop, Mike Ehrmantraut, who comes to seem the voice of sanity). A third group, the medics, are represented as equally diligent and virtuous but as having been captured by a system that forces them to gouge money from the sick and the dying.

On the other side is the sphere of capital and competitive consumerism, in which business and crime are seen as proximate, intertwined or even synonymous. When Skyler, an accountant by profession, gets her old job back, she discovers that her boss has been staving off bankruptcy by cooking the books. Hank’s wife has an irresistible urge to steal things she likes from shops. Seemingly legitimate businesses – nail parlours, laser tag game parks, scrapyards, the car-wash where Walter used to work – become the means for money-laundering and hiding criminal tracks. When Jesse’s attempts to win over his parents, who have disowned him, by going straight and getting a job in sales are thwarted, he goes into sales anyway, holding a sort of Tupperware party for street drug dealer friends where he introduces them to Walter’s meth brand over drinks and snacks in his living room.

The doomed Gale Boetticher made a point of sharing his “libertarian” sympathies with Walt as a justification for his employment, cooking meth for Gus Fring; in the final season we were treated to a seemingly-superfluous bathroom tirade against the “nanny state” by Walt’s neo-Nazi accomplices-cum-nemeses. When Jesse is at Hank’s house, about to make his video confession, he fiddles with a Reagan biography on the bookshelf, recalling the man who broke the air traffic controllers union — this on a show that featured a massive, tragic plot turn centered around a bereaved and overstressed air traffic controller who, after losing his daughter (Jesse’s girlfriend) to Walter White’s inaction, had gone back to work too early.

But perhaps the most convincing damnation of bootstrap self-and-empire-making came in the penultimate episode, Granite State — the episode that was, in my opinion, the show’s philosophical conclusion (before the admittedly thrilling exigencies of plot took over for the finale). As Walt puts his self-made, blood-soaked millions to work on an ad hoc chemotherapy set in his mountain refuge, he pathetically offers ten thousand dollars to his contractor to stay and keep him company for a while. Now that is the beauty of two rational, self-interested actors, coming together in the free market.

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