Try to make things better for someone, sometimes, you just end up making it a thousand times worse.
— Bob Dylan
There have certainly been a lot of extraordinary cable TV series in recent years — series with arresting concepts, high production values, good writing and good acting . . . like The Sopranos, Mad Men and Justified Many of my friends are enthusiastic about these series and urge me to check them out. Invariably I will rent a season or two of episodes, start watching them and lose interest. The novelty of the concepts wears off, as does the surprise of how well the shows are made. “This is really great for a TV series,” I’ll think, and then remember that I don’t need to watch TV series when there are so many movies I haven’t seen, or want to revisit, which are better.
Breaking Bad has been the one exception. It’s not just really great for TV, it’s really great for any medium, a genuine work of art.
As usual, Breaking Bad has an arresting premise — a basically decent but existentially bewildered man is driven by an avalanche of bad breaks into a life of unspeakable jeopardy and horror. In this respect it resembles a classic film noir. The production values of the series are first-rate, as are the acting and writing. But these are not the things you marvel at.
What you marvel at is the momentum of dread that builds and builds relentlessly — often in improbable or unlikely ways but with the inescapable logic of a bad dream. It’s something different from the carefully doled-out surprises and frissons of an engaging soap opera or crime thriller. It’s soul-wracking.
Cancer, a disabled child, insufficient health care coverage, a marriage straining at the seams, old age, a society infected with sickening violence, drug addiction, the onslaught of merciless judgement, the failure of love in every guise, disappointed dreams and ambitions, good intentions gone horribly awry, professional failures that lead to unspeakable tragedies for others, criminal bankers and lawyers and businessmen who walk the streets freely, hopeless Latino and black kids who spend their lives in jail or end up in a morgue.
This life of perpetual hell is not like the life most of us lead, but it’s the life we habitually fear, because we know that we could stumble into it by chance, by a succession of bad breaks, and that each of us will have passages through that kind of hell sooner or later, despite all our efforts and all our virtue and all our careful planning.
In the hell of Walter White, Breaking Bad‘s protagonist, everything that can go wrong does go wrong — every dreaded phone call comes at precisely the wrong moment, every lucky break turns out to have hellacious consequences, every innocuous misstep carries within it the seeds of colossal disaster . The series of events is not, as I say, plausible, strictly speaking, anymore than being chased by lions in a dream is plausible, but it feels plausible the way being chased by lions in a dream feels plausible. The events embody unconscious terrors, the ones we don’t want to think about in waking life.
Perhaps this is just a way of saying that Breaking Bad is about grace, though grace is almost totally absent from its world. It appears in brief manifestations, unexpected acts of kindness, unexpected moments of reprieve from an overpowering and malevolent fate. It appears, too, in the series writers’ love for their characters — in the fact that basically good people turn out to be twisted by dark secrets and toxic regrets . . . that basically bad people have their reasons, their heartbreaking, all too human reasons.
Grace can be known through this series precisely by its absence — like the piece of a jigsaw puzzle that’s missing from the dead center of the puzzle, its shape clearly defined by a void.
I watched most of the series in a set of marathon viewings over the course of a week or so. I was disturbed that I was starting to sympathize with its protagonist Walt — this made me feel a little loopy, a little paranoid. But then I had an even more disturbing revelation — I am Walt, and so are all of us. We are all capable of his mistakes, his sins, his moral bewilderment, his weakness, his humiliation, his rage. We all need a pardon for unpardonable things, and it’s a pardon we’re not likely to find in this world.
You think you wouldn’t kill innocent kids to protect your home and family? You already have, through Barack Obama, your elected representative, using weapons you paid for by the sweat of your brow. And if you want to understand how a basically decent but weak man like Obama can turn into a moral monster, Breaking Bad has some profound insights into how that process works.
So then . . . back to grace. Always back to grace. Maybe the grace we need doesn’t exist — maybe that missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle was never included in the box, maybe it was never even manufactured. Still, the empty outline of it is right there in front of us, haunting and maddening — the key to something.
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