Monday, 8 August 2011

Look Down At The Floor With Remorse: Breaking Bad review


BREAKING BAD: 'Bullet Points'
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
- Walt Whitman, 'When I Heard The Learn'd Astronomer'

There are two kinds of stars. The stars that reside in the romantic's soul, and the entity that can be measured and observed in the notebooks of scientists and astronomers. You can see things as you would like them to be, or as unfeeling fact. Neither is perfect. The scientist has forgotten the importance of beauty to the world, which is now seen only in numbers. The romantic is so entranced by idealism that truth becomes blinkered. Do the two necessarily have to cancel each other out? Is there a middle ground between heaven and earth? Will Walter White find it before it is too late?
One of the cleverest tricks this episode of Breaking Bad pulled was in showing us how we can believe that a character is standing on one side of the chasm between the scientists and the romantics, when in fact they are, unknown to even themselves, taking quite the opposite position. Walter White, the master chemist and numbers man, is in fact a romantic. He can see the equations and diagrams, yet the conclusions he draws are the ones required to satisfy his own needs. "Why am I the only one acting like a professional?" he rants to Saul, neglecting to realise that of the people he is talking about (Mike, Gus), he is the only one definitely not acting professionally. He is taking everything that has and is happening to him as a personal attack, as though the world is out to get him because that's just the way things are. 

In reality, Gus and Mike - whom Walt would like to paint as the romantics, driven by their emotions and whims - are in fact acting in line with the way their long experience in the meth business tells them is the most rationally appropriate way to behave. When they see a threat, they act to counter it. Gus and his box-cutter reminded Walt of his place, and the moment Jesse is recognised as a liability, countermeasures are put in place to ensure he cannot work against them. In the cold open, when one of Gus' vans is gunned by cartel thugs, they are acting on impulse (Gus acted against the cartel, ergo there must be retribution of some kind) whereas Mike waits it out and emerges victorious for his ability to assess the exact nature of the situation. When a piece of his ear is shot off - somehow under his cap, which seemed odd to me - he doesn't take it personally: it's an outcome of his business. Similarly, when he first realises how careless Jesse has become, he doesn't act immediately, but first consults with Gus in a sit-down meeting.

Walt's romantic pride has been his downfall over and over again. His inability to put his emotions to one side has led him to convince himself time and time again that there will be some point in his involvement with the world of drug dealing when everyone behaves as 'civilised human beings' willing to accept his side of the story (and no other) for a change, despite all the evidence - right back to that conversation with Krazy 8 in Jesse's basement - being to the contrary. He cannot see why no-one could possibly take his point of view, because it is one so skewed to fitting his increasingly desperate 'rationalisations' of why he is the good, logical scientist.

More and more, we are seeing how despite planning everything out to the final degree, Skylar is as much of a romantic as her husband. The attention she lavishes on the story she and Walt sell Hank is based on a number of lies, the first being that everyone will accept her story because there is no way to her mind that they couldn't - already revealed as a fallacy by Bodgan's reaction to her first attempt at buying the car wash. The second is her idea of the rules by which her husband's job are run, which even Walt can see is ridiculous - even if, ultimately, it's a fallacy he is still hoping will come true in the same way that he believes he is the only one acting professionally. The primary romantic illusion that she and Walt are participating in is the belief that they are the scientists. Thus, the logic which Skylar's plans revolve around requires everyone else to react to her plans in the unquestioning way that she would like to imagine people react to a scientist laying down their evidence. To her, evidence equals undeniable truth. 

Yet the cosmic joke befalling both she and Walt is that the reason their plans fail is because they are dealing not with numbers but people, whose natural inclination is to ask questions. They also fail to recognise that they are people themselves, meaning that the evidence they present is tainted by their own prejudices and interpretations. Skylar sees her little coup de théâtre for Marie and Hank as a flawless ploy because she sees herself as assembling everything in the correct order to draw certain reactions, as though those things are as simple as basic arithmetic. Yet even Walt recognises the absurdity of her script and that she is writing generically, like everyone is the same, rather than thinking of what Walt, as an individual, would say. 

Their failure as scientists is down to their inability to understand the 'romantic' element in others - to call back to an otherwise awful scene in the first season, that indefinable missing percentage of a human being that cannot be rationalised through science alone - which means that they are working from a starting position of self-imposed delusion, making them in fact romantics themselves. Which may also be what I'm doing now, since all this makes perfect sense to me but might be utterly incomprehensible to everyone else. After all, it's my interpretation of an episode which might mean something completely different to everyone else.

Here's where it gets even more fun, because despite being romantics, Walt and Skylar's attempts to emulate the scientists mean that their mistakes are based on the same error which could lead to Mike and Gus' eventual downfall. What makes those two genuine scientists is that their starting point is based on genuine logic, rather Walt and Skylar's illusory ideals. Their actions are not driven to satiate pride or fulfil the expectations of an unrealistic dream, but calculated mathematically. Gus did not kill Vincent as a token measure of revenge and spite - as much as Walt would like to believe it - but because violence forms the numbers of the drug dealing equation. He recognised Walt becoming a threat and assessed that a demonstration of his power would be enough to neutralise that threat for the time being. 

It's chemistry to him - an action produces a reaction, and he acts in the way that he anticipates will produce the best outcome for himself and his business. What he fails to take into account is, again, that people are more than just numbers. He may have suppressed Walt's rebellious instincts for the time being, but did not plan for how Mike would react to his power play. Taking things further back, at the end of last season he failed to anticipate how his thugs would react to being told not to use children as middle men in their street deals anymore, a move made to satiate Jesse's anger, resulting in a chain of events that caused the stalemate at which he and Walt now find themselves.

Despite traditionally being the series' punching bag, I'm sticking with my theory that Jesse could be the one to gain the most from the game being played by the major characters this season, provided he is able to open his eyes and see past his killing of Gale. Jesse is in limbo right now, his sky dark and shorn of any stars at all, yet consistently he has shown the rare ability to see from both the romantic point of view - through the set of principles which were violated when Gus' thugs were using children to carry out hits - and the scientists' logic, as proven when he immediately saw through Mike's initial warning in this episode. Of course, we've already seen that he's no leader, but his stint in rehab has given him an understanding both of his own romantic nature along with the experience to know how things work in the scientific world. Perhaps he won't be taking over from Gus or Walt anytime soon, but he may prove to be the deciding factor in the direction their game takes. He has been at the centre of much of the thinking for quite some time, now he just needs to realise it and make the most of it. At worst, he could occupy a similar position to Saul, who has a similarly open view of both sides and has found the safest and most profitable place for himself on a very dangerous board.

The final question comes down to the meaning of one of Breaking Bad's most potent symbols since the series began: does the shaved head mean the acquisition of power, or the descent into darkness? Saul is now the only significant male figure in the series with hair and for the reasons previously mentioned, is perhaps the most stable. One would argue that Jesse previously had hair and has taken an almighty beating since Walt came into his life, yet he has also been blessed with people willing to protect him and a certain amount of good luck (Hank wailing on him may have resulted in a long stay at the hospital, but kept him out of gaol) as well as a moral perspective of sorts that has eluded everyone else in the series, which may torture him now but could also be his salvation.

Does the loss of his hair mean he has surrendered that possibility, or is it the choice of a self-aware character to accept his punishment for Gale's murder in order to rise again later? If he can take advantage of his position as both romantic and scientist in the future, will his gains be ill-begotten and driven by self-preservation, or as the old Jesse, acting as the only glimmer of light in a very dark sky? We'll have to wait and see. Whether you take the romantic or scientific perspective, the only thing we can know for sure is that everything in Breaking Bad is connected and meaningful in one way or another.


Audrey said...

This is an absolutely brilliant analysis of what I consider to be the best episode so far this season, if not all seasons to date.

Xander Markham said...

Thanks Audrey! Delighted you enjoyed the analysis.

Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis. One thing I find interesting about Walter is his ability to use science/logic/rationality as a means to justify his out of control romanticism. The most stark example of this is when he's speaking at his school after the airplane crash. Here's a tragedy that he's responsible for, either indirectly or not, and his mind cannot accept even an iota of the blame.

The way he uses previous airplane crashes and statistics to minimize the horrific event was particularly disturbing, but speaks volumes about his character. In fact the whole premise of the show (cooking meth to provide for his family) rests on this notion of Walter justifying his romanticism with rationality.