Tuesday, October 1, 2013

"Breaking Bad:" Petting the Shark

Courtesy of desperation.com.
Sunday morning, the morning before the much-anticipated finale of "Breaking bad" was to air, my subconscious woke me up early. It often does that, if there is some pressing thing I have to do or some problem I need to address in the coming day. but this time it was a little different. My subconscious gave me a simple message: "In a few hours, 'Breaking Bad' will be over-- and we can finally get it out of your head."

I needed to get Walter White out of my head.

"Breaking Bad" was a monumental work of storytelling, 48-hour-long saga of an average man's slide into a universe of violence and destruction. And that is the power of it's gimmick in a nutshell: the "Mr. Chips turns into Scarface" story that Vince Gilligan imagined.

I have written before about how most of the big-hit cable shows are built around a white man who makes life hell for everyone around him. the difference between the other shows and "Breaking Bad" is Walter White is not initially a powerful man. He begins the show as a helpless victim, a very average person with a simple flaws, a bad temper foremost. His greatest asset is his intelligence and scientific know-how.

And slowly, over the course of five seasons, he applies these assets to become a monster.

If movies are dreams, and television is a mirror, then "Breaking Bad" was a unique sort of funhouse mirror, a reflection with a message: This could be you. Walter White is what any average person would become if life dealt him a few bad hands.

Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) from "Sons of Anarchy,"
a biker-gang retelling of "Hamlet." One of the reasons I find it
compelling is how much of it is set in Stockton, California, my
familial hometown. Take my word for it: The show gets
the details down a little too authentically.

This is a very different state of affairs than most cable crime dramas. Tony Soprano was introduced as a mob boss from a mob family; Dexter was a psychopath from day one; Jax Teller is the son of a biker club crime lord. We pick up their stories when they are at the height of their powers. Heisenberg, on the the other hand, was constructed right in front of our eyes. And because most of "Breaking Bad's" five seasons covered a span of fictional time less than a year long, we got to witness his transformation in slow motion.

Walter White was not a person I wanted in my head, week after week. His rise and downfall was too understandable, too accessible. It didn't help that he was about my age and we both subscribe to Scientific American. He was a weekly reminder of how fragile civil society is at any time.

Never was there such a plain example of comparative morality as seen in every episode of "Breaking Bad." In it's core, the overarching narrative was about how desperate adversity could potentially drive the best of us to abandon common values and embrace a Medieval, family-and-self-first morality. And it underlined the fact that in the special circumstances Walter White found himself in after he decided to cook meth-- Dealing with violent dealers, killing those who would harm him, etc.-- the primitive moral values he had to adapt to, one that renders the lives of those outside the circle of family as expendable, was not only logical but necessary. Chilling.

Remember the old term "Jumping the shark?" Time to coin a new term: "Petting the Shark." We're offered shows with murderous, psychopathic main characters, and asked to dip a hand in the dark waters week after week. Feel the smooth skin and powerful muscles as it glides by, see the white serrated teeth and dead black eyes. Week after week after week.

"Breaking Bad" was a beautifully written, elegantly shot series, and I loved every episode. Nonetheless, by the time the magnificent finale was over the catharsis was profound. I needed to get Walter White out of my head.

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