Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
(Thoughts on the second season of BREAKING BAD, written by somebody who doesn’t have cable and by the time he had Netflix he didn’t have time which is why he’s years behind the rest of you.)
The first season was a portrait of desperation, in the sense of times and their appropriate measures, in the sense of a man drowning under the weight of himself making one last gasp for air before the darkness set in. The first season seduced with the thrills of a noble caper, of a story about a decent individual trying to do right for the people he cared for, using his wits to stay ahead of both his adversaries and his own lies.
The second season scrapes past the surface of that desperation into the damaged hearts of the two protagonists, and what it finds there is a lethal combination of frustration and fear, masquerading as bravado and love.
It would be an easy dramatic analysis to say that Walter White has bargained with the devil to become the meth king of New Mexico, but the fact of the matter is that there is no devil in the room save for Walter White — a man so brilliant at science but so clumsy at humanity that the many moments of imprecision and unpredictability that come with being human vex and irritate him. (It’s a strange irony that he spontaneously chose the alias of Heisenberg, a scientist whose most famous principle is an understanding of uncertainty.) Walter White has not bargained with a devil, he has instead taken the necessary steps to become one, proving perhaps that while the road to Hell may be paved with good intentions, the roads of Hell are paved with the justification for those intentions.
Over the course of Breaking Bad‘s second season, one watches as Walter’s logic grows increasingly pretzeled, twisting his soul along with it like a saturated dishrag, the toxic fluids within him being wrung out even as the chemotherapy places different ones within him. The mild manner gradually revealing itself as the mask it always was; the pulsing bitterness and bile seeping out through the cracks. It becomes clear that every time he admonishes his partner or his students to “Apply yourself,” that he is saving at least half of that admonishment for himself. The viciousness of his verbal assault on Gretchen is as much about driving her away from his fragile deception as it is about the sense of what his brilliance should entitle him to; the constant references to Jesse and his associates as degenerates, junkies, and imbeciles less a means to degrade them as it is to convince himself that he is better than the criminals he has chosen to work with.
This is, of course, the largest of his lies, the one he’s telling himself. Walter is drawn to Gustavo and Saul in part because he’s felt very much alone working with partners half his age. Walter doesn’t want partners. He wants peers, which is something he had when he was working with Elliott and Gretchen. He wants credit for his brilliance, which will only come from people who can comprehend it, and the frustration of not having peers now, of having his plans go so well without having recognition for it, is killing him in ways that not even the cancer can do. He feels a sickening envy at the PayPal alarm on his son’s website, knowing that most of the donations are from his own illicit work, laundered through Saul…but he simultaneously takes perverse pride in showing his newborn daughter the stacks of blood money he’s made because he knows he can trust her, more than anybody, not to talk about it.
He needs things to go exactly the way he plans them. He needs the compounds to mix as he has measured them. It’s why he beats the hell out of the paper towel dispenser in the bathroom after the doctors tell him his tumor has gone into remission — because now his own body is betraying him by refusing to die as expected, taunting him with the possibility that all of the crimes, all of the lies, and all of the murder were for nothing at all.
And the murder does, exponentially, add up far beyond any means of control or justification. Up until the last arc of the season, Walter is able to fall back on the notion that the men he’s killed or caused to be killed were wastes of space; Emilio, Krazy-8, Tuco, Spooge, Combo. The axis of this comfortable fantasy begins to tilt beyond his ability to accept it when he willingly allows Jane to die in front of him, and — although he has no knowledge of it at this moment — the door back slams shut when that crime of opportunity leads to the destruction of the airliners above Albuquerque. The teddy bear in his swimming pool becomes the fuzzy, one-eyed herald of his damnation.
Current Music: John Coltrane, “I’m a Dreamer, Aren’t We All”
I’m amused by your little explanation on why you’re just now getting to the series. I recently started watching West Wing on Netflix because I was 14 when the series started and obviously not nerdy enough to care.