Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
(Thoughts on the third season of Breaking Bad, written by somebody who doesn’t have cable and by the time he had Netflix he was too busy with other projects, which is why he’s years behind the rest of you.)
The first circle of Walter White’s hell is desperation, the second is frustration, and the third is delusion. But this is unique inferno here devised, in which these aren’t realms where the transgressors are sent but realms in which the behavior blossoms and infects, in which it is no longer merely the hell of one man but that of every person that man has touched.
In the aftermath of the Wayfarer 515 disaster, Walt attempts to fall back on logic in order to acquit himself of responsibility, ignores the flaws in reasoning that render that logic unsound, and then vocalizes his false conclusions in order to make them real … in other words, the same pattern of action that led him to embark on meth production in the first place. Donald Margolis should never have been allowed back into his chair. The machinery they use is ancient and unreliable. At least nobody on the ground was killed. When you look at history this wasn’t even the worst such disaster ever, and frankly it’s your fault for not realizing or remembering that, because if you did you’d be able to go back to sleep at night.
Walt’s delusion, vocalized to Saul during his brief dalliance with calling it quits, is that “I can’t be the bad guy,” but it rings untrue because he won’t acknowledge at that time that he already is one. He’s never once believed he was. He produced a substance that ruins the lives of all he’s addicted and many people caught up in its sale and distribution, but he ignores that consequence because he’s provided for his family and because the drug itself is a chemically perfect testament to his brilliance.
On the opposite side of that mirror, however, is Jesse, whose delusion is that he is the bad guy, an identification he holds onto in order to make some sense of losing Jane. He spends the majority of the season’s narrative tilting towards making the affirmation true, tossing away any instinct for caution and survival, boasting of being a criminal and an outlaw to mask the pained and troubled heart digging its way out of his chest. It is only when he finally begins to witness the full extent of what corruption means — the street dealers using and then executing 11 year-old Tomas; Walt’s murder of those same dealers and calculated determination to have Gale done away with as well; the yawning black abyss of Gustavo’s eyes — that he begins to crack under the definition of it. It’s notable that one of the few times after the airline disaster that he refers to Walt as “Mr. White” again — after weeks of “bitch” and other disrespect — is when he’s begging him not to go through with killing Gale.
Meanwhile, the other orbiting bodies of Walt’s life continue to engage in their own conscious or unconscious fictions, from Skyler’s bravura performance selling Marie the story of Walter White, champion card shark, to Hank’s unwillingness to accept that he has refused El Paso out of both terror and the threat to his ego. Saul is shaken out of his fantasy of being anything more than a mid-sized fish in his polluted pond. Gale discovers that his chosen profession is nowhere near as carefree and romantic as the music he listens to while watering his plants. Only Gustavo and crooked PI Mike seem to see things as they are, but even they end up making plans for Walt based on their underestimations of him.
Walt and Skyler both manifest moments of either pretending that nothing has changed between them or of pretending that the changes can be navigated with the same vessel in which they spent the first decade-plus chapter of their marriage. Skyler works to problem-solve the money laundering concerns through research on Wikipedia, in a way that she may have researched other domestic issues such as clearing a clogged drain. Walt has a telling moment in the hospital after hanging up the courtesy phone when he asks her “Do you know who that was?” — a reflexive maneuver of alibi-crafting for a deception that’s long dead, and Skyler, with a look made half of pity and half of amusement, lets him know how absurd he now sounds.
It’s Skyler’s need to maintain her own most important illusion of having a normal, functioning family that finally leads her to accept and participate in the situation that Walt has built. But there’s an illusion on top of that, as well: Skyler needs to believe that she’s fighting for the image of the normal family, and to maintain her son’s image of his father, because she won’t admit that what she’s really fighting for is to have the adrenaline rush of risk back in her life. Her affair with Ted runs out of steam fairly quickly for something she went after with such gusto, and it’s likely because after she’d slapped Walt in the face with it and witnessed him out of control due to that sting, the fog of her anger lifted enough to consider his reasons for becoming a meth manufacturer, for lying to her about that life. As soon as things became practical again, as soon as Ted became a comforting presence, she gravitated back towards Walt. She claims he’s left her no choice, and argues well that claim, but the truth is that she — the short story writer — relishes this new plot she’s living, and looks forward to making revisions that fit her own sense of arc. She’s extremely proud of herself for thinking of the car wash, not necessarily because it’s a better place to launder money but because it fits her understanding of Walt as a character. And she chooses to become his accomplice for somewhat the same reason, because of how she believes she should behave in this scenario despite his protests that she simply accept the money and keep out of it.
The series takes the opportunity of the third season to revisit and re-examine its own title with not just Walt and Skyler, but with many of its major characters. While Hank, Jesse, and Skyler find their own new ways to break bad, and Gustavo engineers a masterstroke to break even worse, Walt struggles with trying to break good, and somehow ends up a more amoral human being than we’ve ever seen him before now. We get small glimpses of people who have broken before we met them, of the lessons learned by the Salamanca twins about life, death, and family; we learn of the moment that Mike decided to abandon law and order, in the chilling tale of his last “half measure.”
Breaking Bad has always exhibited a facility for setting as well as character, with its depictions of New Mexico and Albuquerque in particular ranging from the loneliness of vast, open desert to the claustrophobia of run-down houses, sick with misery and shadows. The third season seems to, at times, show us more of the skies, as if to remind us both of the carnage that took place there and to parallel the new dangers that come with exposure to light. Although the show avoids most religious subtext and interpretation — indeed, the most we’ve seen of any god amidst the desolation is the idol of Santa Muerte — showing us the characters from distance and from low angles, choosing to show them as tiny lives in a tremendous world, is a choice and a comment. The series as a whole explores the consequences of risking the only things that matter to you. But those consequences are only evident the closer you look, such as the lingering, tense minutes on Walt’s face as he fights with the sedatives in his system to not confess to Jesse his role in Jane’s death.
In traditional mythos, hell is a vast, eternal place, unknowable in its totality. Breaking Bad conceptualizes that hell is instead cramped and finite, contained in a corner of you, and the torment it inflicts is that you know every single inch of it because you’re the one who built it in the first place.
Current Music: Neko Case, “Calling Cards”