Why are you sleeping?
With thanks to Mary Zahl.
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Imagine Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables without the religious, and essentially Christian, elements of Hugo’s world view — without the forgiveness and charity of the Bishop Of Digne, which sets in motion Jean Valjean’s redemption, motivates his own life of sacrifice and charity. It would be a novel of overwhelming meanness and darkness, confined to Javert’s world of implacable, inescapable judgment . . . in short, the world of Breaking Bad.
As I recall, there are only a handful of explicit references to religion in Breaking Bad. At one point Walt argues to Jesse that, if there is a Hell, the two of them are already headed there, doomed by the monstrous sins they have previously committed.
A more interesting reference comes in a flashback (above) to a moment in their youth when Walt and his former lover Gretchen are discussing the composition of the human body, whose chemical constituents don’t quite add up. Gretchen suggests that perhaps the missing element is the soul. Walt says, “The soul? There’s nothing going on here but chemistry.”
Walt says this suggestively as he leans down towards Gretchen, apparently about to kiss her. This seems to depict the start of their physical relationship. It also seems to be the statement of a thematic element that is never articulated in the dialogue but is somehow implied in the tale. Has Walt lost his soul? Did he ever have one to begin with? Does anyone? Is life nothing but chemistry, change, inevitable transactions between impersonal forces?
Gretchen Schwartz (i. e. Gretchen Black) speaks for the existence of the soul, just about the only character in the show who ever does. Walter White dismisses the idea. The show doesn’t want to reduce things to such black and white alternatives — and yet in a way it does so, in this flashback.
We learned early on in the show that Walt walked out on Gretchen, ending their relationship without an explanation. I suspect that in the final episode we will be given that explanation, and that it will offer a deeper insight into Walt’s . . . well . . . soul — for want of a better term.
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The title of the last episode of Breaking Bad is “Felina”. Lots of speculation about what it means, but to me it can only mean one thing. Felina is the name of the cantina dancer in the Marty Robbins song “El Paso” that the cowboy singing the song dies over, making one last attempt to see again. I say it’s Gretchen. In any case, listen to the song and I think you’ll get a beat by beat outline of the last episode, whoever Walt’s Felina turns out to be.
Back in El Paso my life would be worthless.
Everything’s gone in life; nothing is left.
It’s been so long since I’ve seen the young maiden —
My love is stronger than my fear of death.
I saddled up and away I did go,
Riding alone in the dark.
A bullet may find me.
Tonight nothing’s worse than this
Pain in my heart.
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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In a nominal but insecure democracy, under certain circumstances, a fanatical, nihilistic, obstructionist minority can bring down the state and seize power. It happened in 1917 in Russia, when the Bolshevik (sic) Party took control, and in 1933 when the Nazi Party took control of Germany.
It is now happening in America. A fanatical, nihilistic, obstructionist minority has managed to seize control of the Republican Party and push it towards the edge of political and financial catastrophe. This minority has no hope of gaining power through the ballot box — it hopes to gain ascendency through social apocalypse, or the threat of social apocalypse, much as the Bolsheviks and Nazis did.
There doesn’t seem to be any force in American politics willing to oppose this minority now, on the terms it has chosen — all or nothing.
Obama claims he will stand up to it, but I’m not sure he’s got the guts, or the will — constitutional democracy is clearly not something he has much respect for, either. We shall see. My sense is that the sane but supine majority of America is doomed.
“You are infinitely precious to me. You can’t do anything wrong. There is nothing to fear”