It’s the moral thing to do

James Meek

  • Breaking Bad: Complete Seasons 1-4 produced by Vince Gilligan
    Sony Pictures, £32.75, October 2012

There’s a scene in Breaking Bad, a third of the way through the 54 episodes shot and screened on US TV so far, that marks a significant moment in the gradual passage of its central character, Walter White, from hero to villain. Walter, a middle-aged high school chemistry teacher who’s become a manufacturer of illegal drugs, is walking down the aisle of a DIY superstore in his home town of Albuquerque, New Mexico, buying paint for his basement, when another customer’s laden trolley catches his eye. Walter realises the stranger is buying precursor chemicals to synthesise methamphetamine, ‘meth’, the same addictive, feel-good narcotic Walter and his partner secretly cook up in the back of a jumbo camper van in the desert.

At this point in the story Walter’s hours in the meth lab and violent encounters with drugs trade players are interspersed with sessions in the classroom, where he grades papers and, with evident pleasure, talks teenagers through the intricacies of valency and oxidation. It’s from this side of his personality – the patient teacher, pedantic, pernickety, but eager to help a future colleague – that his immediate reaction to the stranger’s shopping list comes. He tells him he’s buying the wrong matches.

‘What?’ asks the stranger, a shambling, dead-eyed wreck of a man. With gentle muzak warbling in the background, Walter clues him in:

Those matches, they’re the wrong kind. Red phosphorus is found in the striker strips, not the matches themselves. You need to get the big 200-count case of individual matchbooks. More striker strips, you understand? Those only have the one.

Walter the educator can’t stop. He has an irresistible urge to share the drugs lab lessons he has so painfully learned.

And don’t buy everything in one place. Do it piecemeal. Different items, different stores, attracts less attention. Are you following me here?

The stranger panics and rushes away. At first Walter laughs and makes for the checkout. But as he waits in line we see his face harden and the new Walter assert himself: the criminal businessman with a market to protect from rivals. He marches into the parking lot and faces down the stranger’s meat-mountain boss. ‘Stay out of my territory,’ Walter says, with utter conviction in his own menace; without a word, his nascent competitors flee the scene.

In the smile that creeps over Walter’s lips after his act of intimidation we see an early glimpse of the real allure that drives him on, although he doesn’t yet realise it. As Peter Robb writes in Midnight in Sicily:

The colossal wealth brought by the drug trade brought no improvement to the lives of those who risked their necks for it. The furtive enjoyment of a fast car or a gold Rolex or expensive clothes was cold comfort in a life of hiding, sexual misery, mistrust, the constant fear of betrayal and death. The old mafia reward hadn’t been wealth but power. ‘Giving orders is better than fucking,’ was an often-heard mafia saying.

Walter is played by Bryan Cranston, previously best known for comedy roles – the father in Malcolm in the Middle and the dentist Tim Whatley in Seinfeld. Walter White is, for Cranston, a great mid-life unfolding of talent meeting opportunity: the challenge of a part within a part, an actor playing a man who is constantly forced to be an actor in order to preserve what he has, up to and including his life. White has to lie to his pregnant wife, Skyler, and his disabled son, Walter Jr, about his mysterious absences and who’s paying for his cancer treatment, but also to his brother-in-law Hank, a senior agent in the Drug Enforcement Agency. He has to lie to his partner in crime, young Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), and the various dealers, users and killers he works with and against. At first, the lie is to make him seem more dangerous and ruthless than he is. As the story goes on, the lie shifts and we see Walter claiming the root personality of a decent, civilised man, forced by circumstances into temporary lawbreaking, even as the evidence mounts that his first lie wasn’t a lie at all; that he is the most dangerous and ruthless of them all.

In the opening episodes of the first season, we’re cued to sympathise with Walter’s plight. Humiliated by attractive, spoiled young students who have inherited more money than he’ll ever have, forced to work part-time in a car-wash to meet his family’s bills, he learns, just as he turns fifty, that he has inoperable lung cancer. When he dies he will leave his family nothing but debts. At one point, asked by a hospital psychiatrist why he went missing for 24 hours, he explains:

My wife is seven months pregnant with a baby we didn’t intend. My 15-year-old son has cerebral palsy. I am an extremely overqualified high school chemistry teacher. When I can work I make $43,700 per year. I have watched all of my colleagues and friends surpass me in every way imaginable and within 18 months I will be dead. And you ask why I ran?

His moving speech is true in its facts, and persuades the shrink, who promises to keep his story secret, to release him from hospital. But the speech is still a lie: the actual reason Walter went missing is that he was being held prisoner in a shack in the desert by the homicidal, snakeskin-shirt-wearing meth-snorting drug dealer who was distributing his product, while the dealer’s paralysed uncle, who can only communicate by using a bell to express ‘yes’ and ‘no’, signals frantically to the dealer that Walter tried to poison him.

Cranston’s talent is to portray Walter’s ability to lie to himself, to show the gleam of feral spirits beneath the mask of noble eloquence adopted by the Enlightenment man who feels misunderstood. Walter’s mental refuge is that he is, of all people, the most rational. Early on, when he’s promised Jesse, his partner, that he’ll kill a drug dealer they’ve imprisoned in the basement, he sits down in the kitchen and makes two lists. Under the heading ‘Let Him Live’, he writes

– It’s the moral thing to do
– Judeo/Christian principles
– You are not a murderer
– Sanctity of life
– He may listen to reason
– Post-traumatic stress
– Won’t be able to live with yourself
– Murder is wrong!

Under the heading ‘Kill Him’ there is only one entry:

– He’ll kill your entire family if you let him go.

It isn’t immediately obvious that the final reference point for Walter’s rationality is his own self-interest and self-regard. As his evasions become intolerable to Skyler, played by Anna Gunn, he insists he’s ready to open up to her. But it turns out his idea of confession is Skyler telling him what she suspects him of so that he can work out how to deny it.

It’s when Saul Goodman, a criminal lawyer in both senses, makes his entrance in the second season that the complexity of Walter’s motivation becomes apparent. Goodman, played with hyperbolic élan by Bob Odenkirk, becomes Walter and Jesse’s guide to the world of money-laundering and the enabler of their leap from small local drugs operation to national meth supplier. ‘My real name’s McGill,’ Saul says. ‘The Jew thing I just do for the homeboys. They all want a pipe-hitting member of the tribe, so to speak.’

Walter urgently needs a way to explain to his family where he’s getting two hundred thousand dollars for an operation to give him a long-term reprieve from cancer. We already know his pride made him reject an offer to cover the costs made by old friends who’ve become rich as legal chemistry entrepreneurs. Now it turns out that his amour propre is deeper and more perverse; for Walter, it’s not enough to refuse charity. He wants the impossible, to conceal from his family that he’s cooking meth, but at the same time to get them to understand that he made the money by his own sweat and wits. When Saul suggests he invent an unexpected bequest from a fabricated uncle, Walter snaps: ‘It cannot be blind luck or some imaginary relative who saves us. No, I earned that money. Me!’

As the lies spread and thicken to involve his family, the props that support Walter’s inner lie weaken and fall. His incremental journey to evil, intermittently comic, often horrific and often wonderfully strange, becomes, for him, a journey to a terrible truth. As the great personal justifications for his ever more bloody criminality – his cancer and the welfare of his family – become less meaningful, his essential wickedness, in the form of selfishness and malice, become clear even to him; he becomes an exemplar of the Nietzschean superfluous man, who believed himself to be good because his claws were blunt.

It’s been true since the turn of the century that the best original English-language television dramas for adults are made-for-cable American series, produced and first shown by channels like HBO (The Wire, The Sopranos) and AMC (Breaking Bad, Mad Men) before being sold abroad and released into a potentially infinite life as downloads and DVD box sets. The genre has reached a point of artistic credibility where an editor from a noted US literary imprint complained to me recently of under-contract novelists putting unfinished books to one side in favour of script work on what they hope will be the next Mad Men. Like HBO with The Wire, AMC has been willing to accept relatively small audiences for Breaking Bad in exchange for a shower of Emmys and critical love. While The Sopranos was pulling in an average of nearly ten million viewers an episode in its fifth, penultimate season, Breaking Bad hasn’t yet breached the three million barrier. Because the first broadcasters of these shows are subscription-only cable channels, their makers are able to avoid the prudishness of the US free-to-air networks. Showing violence and gore isn’t much of a problem for the traditional channels – I can imagine NBC or CBS bringing themselves to show even Breaking Bad’s more gothic moments, such as the one in which the severed, booby-trapped head of a Mexican informer is fastened by his cartel killers to the shell of a giant tortoise lumbering through the desert – but the makers of cable shows are free to use all the sex and profanity they like. More subversively there is scope for richer, novelistic forms of narrative: lacunae, digression and the deliberate confinement of time and space to the dimensions of the characters’ neuroses. One episode of Breaking Bad takes place almost entirely between Walter and Jesse in the spiffy underground meth lab they’ve upgraded to, where Walter has focused all his shame and fear of death into an obsessive hunt for a single fly that threatens to contaminate the product.

The 21st-century American cable dramas combine the production values and ambitions (sceptics might say pretensions) of an Oscar-hopeful film with the characteristics of the soap opera – a continuous, unbroken storyline over multiple seasons and cliffhanger episode endings. Compare that to a European TV drama like Denmark’s The Killing (later remade in English to not much acclaim by AMC). Following a terrific first season, it partly reset the narrative at the beginning of each new season, to its detriment – abandoning earlier characters, terminating storylines and surrounding its heroine, the detective Sarah Lund, with a miasma of reputational amnesia that seemingly denies her colleagues awareness of the crimes she has solved in the past. The man credited as the creator of The Killing, its chief writer, Søren Sveistrup, has only three other writers working with him, and doesn’t direct episodes. The creator of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan, has nine co-writers and directs regularly. He’s what has come to be known in the US as a ‘showrunner’, combining the role of executive producer, director and writer with responsibility for the overarching narrative of what will finally be one story lasting 46 and a half hours. Perhaps that’s another reason novelists have been seduced by the dream of cable work: it offers them not merely a new creative outlet but a route to something writers have seldom enjoyed in moving pictures – power.

Gilligan, who cut his teeth on The X-Files, has earned that power by mastering the complexity of the cable series genre, with its nested arcs: there must be something self-contained about each individual episode and each separate season, yet they must all connect with each other. There’s a fractal quality about Breaking Bad. Extremes and ironies are juxtaposed in each episode: a street dealer selling Walter and Jesse’s meth is shot dead by a kid on a bike, after which we cut to Walter and his wife meeting the surgeon who might save him from cancer, after which we cut to Walter, alone in the classroom, getting the news of the killing from Jesse over the phone:

JESSE: Combo’s dead. Shot.
WALTER: (Pause, absent-minded frown) Which one is he?

This is echoed by a greater juxtaposition over the series as a whole, with Walter’s journey from simpático to odioso paced by a change in mood from black comedy to darkness. There’s a lot of clowning and poignant surrealism in the first episode; Walter, having been almost killed on an early meth cook, stands legs astride in the desert wearing an enormous pair of white underpants as he faces down what he thinks is a police arrest. When he gets the news about his lung cancer, he can only respond by pointing out that the consultant has a yellow spot of mustard on his lab coat. As Walter and Jesse are preparing their first cook, Walter recalls that Jesse was once his student.

WALTER: You wouldn’t apply heat to a volumetric flask. That’s what a boiling flask is for. Did you learn nothing from my chemistry class?
JESSE: No. You flunked me. Remember? Prick.

By season five, despite Breaking Bad’s addictive qualities, the comedy’s thinning out, and the ending of one particular episode is so shocking and distressing that it was weeks before I could bring myself to watch the next one.

Although there’s always been a crime drama subgenre of loveable, capering crooks as central characters, pitted against brutal/bungling cops, the hierarchy of the mainstream crime drama, in terms of who knows what, has historically been quite strict. At the top of the knowledge tree there’s the writer, who knows everything. Next come the criminals, who are one step ahead of the police. Next comes the hero-detective, lonely at the front of the pursuit. Trailing in last place are the rest of the police and us, the viewers: everyone else always knows more about what’s going on than we do. The Wire upended that hierarchy. By giving equal time and a great deal of sympathy to the drug dealers, alongside the police, we knew not only what the two groups were doing, but what they knew and didn’t know about what the other side was doing. One season started with our being shown a drug gang stashing bodies behind stapled hardboard in derelict houses; no detective found out about it till 12 episodes later. We, the viewers, are promoted up the hierarchy of knowledge to a place just below the writer – a position identical to that of the audience in classical tragedy and comedy. We’re not watching to find out whodunnit or why. We’re watching to find out how they’re going to deal with it when they discover what we already know.

Breaking Bad takes this a step further, putting Walter in the same family as Hank (Dean Norris), a DEA agent married to Skyler’s sister, Marie (Betsy Brandt). It’s Hank, a beer and football jock, a borderline bully, an overbearing, macho, swaggering oaf given to ethnic wisecracks, who inadvertently introduces Walter to his new business (and Jesse) by taking him along on a meth lab bust; and it’s Hank, we feel instinctively, who is doomed to be his nemesis.

The interplay of knowing and not-knowing between us, Walter, Skyler and Hank is agonisingly teased out over the length of the show so far. At one point, after Walter has saved his own life at the expense of his agape soulmate, the gentle, Walt Whitman-quoting meth cook Gale, Hank, who is investigating the murder, shows him the dead man’s notebook and at a family dinner proclaims Gale a drug genius – intolerable to Walter’s scientific pride, since the recipe Gale was making notes on is his own. ‘From what I saw of those papers – genius? Not so much,’ Walter says. ‘There was no reasoning, no deduction on those pages. So to my eye all this brilliance looks like nothing more than just rote copying, probably of someone else’s work … This genius of yours, maybe he’s still out there.’ Given all the terrible things Walter does it is extraordinary that he is able to hold our sympathies for so long. The switch will come for different viewers at different points but eventually, as Walter’s selfishness smothers what virtue he might once have had, as Hank endures near-fatal trials of his own and his decency, nobility and sense of duty emerge, we begin to long for the DEA man to step in and put an end to the chemistry teacher’s megalomania.

I’m not sure why Breaking Bad comes across as such a political drama: whether it’s because Gilligan and his collaborators intended it that way, or because the creative space afforded by the medium encouraged a deliberate, unblinkered look at American society that was bound to result in social comment, or because I’m projecting my own preoccupations onto its rich storyscape. But it does. And the glaring drawback of America’s war on drugs – that the war has become a bigger problem than the drugs – is the least of it. Albuquerque is presented in bleak terms: the faded, badly-lit, over-upholstered clutter of ugly furniture in middle-class homes, Walter’s mean little swimming pool in which no one ever swims but which will over time receive all kinds of substances (money, vomit, a false eyeball from an exploding plane), the cold carpet-tiled fluorescent barns of office space, the strip malls. Saul the criminal lawyer has an office on one of these, with an inflatable Statue of Liberty wagging on the roof. He sits at his desk inside against a backdrop of fibreglass classical columns and a wall-print of the US constitution, dealing out counsel on how to lie, kill and cheat without being caught. In a flagrant violation of traditional American aesthetics, including the aesthetics of crime, Walter and Jesse end up driving two of the ugliest cars ever seen on the American screen. The only haven against the man-made desert of Gilligan’s Albuquerque is the beauty of the actual desert, criss-crossed as it is by drug dealers, drug makers, killers and illegal migrants.

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.

Gus Fring, an entrepreneur who owns a chain of fast-food chicken restaurants across the South-West and is a valued donor to DEA charities, uses the business as cover for a vast meth manufacturing and distribution operation. It turns out that this is only part of an even larger multinational corporation, with tendrils reaching out to Germany. In a priceless scene, entirely in subtitled German, we see a business executive who knows he is about to be arrested munching his way through a bowl of processed chicken bites while seven pink food scientists in white coats explain the new dips they have concocted to seduce sugar and fat-loving Americans, replacing honey with high-fructrose corn syrup in their Honey Mustard, alleviating the potential for gastric distress in their Cajun Kick-Ass, and generally making the product sound less appetising and healthy than Walter’s 99.9 per cent pure crystal meth.

Walter and his extended family are exact representatives of the squeezed middle class portrayed by Hedrick Smith in his book Who Stole the American Dream?: ‘the dream of a steady job with decent pay and health benefits, rising living standards, a home of your own, a secure retirement, and the hope that your children would enjoy a better future’. The great blow for Walter, triggering his move into crime (rather than into political activism, where, Smith suggests, earlier generations went more readily) is his medical bill. Here the effect of the capitalist-consumerist system is insidious: Walter has health insurance that would cover his treatment, but Skyler’s conviction that he must have better treatment than the insurance offers radically inflates the cost. The scenario is repeated later, when Hank experiences a crippling medical trauma. Although he was injured in the line of duty the DEA’s medical insurance won’t cover what Marie considers ‘the best treatment’, so hundreds of thousands of dollars are required – which Hank and Marie end up receiving, unwittingly, from the proceeds of Walter’s drugs manufacture.

Hank and Marie have no children, but future college costs for Walter Jr and the baby to come are the other early stimuli for Walter’s illegal activities. Breaking things down for Jesse just after they’ve seen their distributor beat one of his henchmen to death, Walter lays out the crude needs of the struggling American middle class more precisely than a politician could:

a good state college, adjusting for inflation, say $45,000 a year, say two kids, four years of college, $360,000. The remaining mortgage on the home, $107,000, home equity line $30,000, that’s $137,000. Cost of living, food, clothing, utilities, say two grand a month – I mean, that should put a dent in it, anyway. 24K a year, provide for, say, ten years, that’s $240,000, plus 360 plus 137 – 737. Seven hundred and thirty thousand dollars, that’s what I need. You and I both clear about seventy grand a week. That’s only ten and a half more weeks. Call it 11. Eleven more drug deals and always in a public place from now on. It’s doable. Definitely doable.

And, reassured, he goes home to where Skyler is rubbing gel on her pregnant belly, unconcerned that his children might one day become addicts of what he produces: meth, money.