Monday, 27 August 2012

Television - Breaking Bad 'Say My Name' review

The way society perceives success is very odd. If someone is classified as successful, the term traditionally implies the person in question has plenty of money, significant status, an attractive husband/wife, many high-value properties, all the gold they can eat, and so forth. If someone lacks those things, but is fulfilled, with a stable family life and good understanding of their place in the universe, people may call that person many complimentary things, but rarely successful. Perhaps this is because material success has a quantifiable value, allowing it to be directly measured against other things and people, whereas 'spiritual' success (for lack of a less wishy-washy term) is subjective. Someone can say they're happy when they aren't, and there's not much anyone can do to disprove it, whereas no-one can claim to be wealthy when they're living on a pittance.

This materialist bias is necessary for society to function and grow: humans are tribal by nature, and if all anyone did was aim to make themselves content with their lot, nobody would strive for anything beyond the needs of them and their families. If people weren't competitive, eager to establish hierarchies and physical proof of superiority as a society or individually, the human race would either still be living in caves, or have been picked off by some bigger, deadlier animal with greater survival instincts. That desire to prove oneself and establish dominion has made humanity the planet's dominant species. Unfortunately, it also tends to create monsters like Walter White.
Survival instinct and a materialist view of life are tightly intertwined, as theorised above. When Walt was a lowly chemistry teacher, weak to the eyes of all those around him and apparently powerless to do anything but toil through a life of hardship, he valued 'spiritual' goods like family, stability, and moral decency. Materially successful people can understand the worth of these things too, of course, but it takes great mental strength to still respect those things which cannot be measured in legal tender when able to indulge your every material desire.
One of Vince Gilligan's greatest achievements has been making it clear from the outset that Walter White has never had the mental fortitude to handling material success. As a poor man, he valued family and morals because he had nothing else, not because he saw them as real successes. He was angry about what he didn't have, rather than thankful for what he did, and when money started rolling in, his proclamations of being a good family man were quickly revealed as empty. Breaking Bad's central character arc can be summed up as a warning on the corruptive powers of success, and the dangers of lusting after the wrong things in life. Walt is akin to a male version of a siren from Greek mythology, promising riches to those who heed his call and destroying them as they come closer. Sirens would use their beauty and song to lure sailors into unwittingly wrecking their ships, destroying the thing which was keeping them alive in the first place. Walt's talent as a meth cook has a similar effect on those who try to exploit it, creating a lure for the egos of men already living on the outskirts of the law, then destroying them as they approach. 

Virtually everyone Walt has come into contact with over the course of the series has either died or suffered severe physical or mental trauma. The Salamanca clan has been wiped out, along with Gus Fring. Hank has been physically crippled, Skylar and Jesse emotionally. Even those whom Walt has only encountered briefly, like Ted or Jane and her father, have been dragged onto the rocks merely by their proximity to someone else surrendering to Heisenberg's siren call. The problem for Walt is that he has begun to listen to his own song, and idealise himself in the same way others have succumbed to the prosperous promises of the blue meth cook. He is revelling in his own notoriety, the success he he is forever on the verge of achieving. The siren's song robs those who hear it of the capacity to appreciate what they have, replacing it with an obsessional longing for the material things they desire. Walt can see his friends and family breaking away from him, but is too in love with his own legend to comprehend why it is happening.

The irony of Walt's downfall is that he can now only tell the truth through lies. Last week, in a bid to hold onto Jesse's loyalty, he claimed to be empire-building because it was all he had left. In one sense, he was telling the truth, because his children have moved out of the house and Skylar is little more than a hostage. Yet his reasons for telling Jesse this are fraudulent: it doesn't matter to him that his family no longer want anything to do with him, because the empire is what he wants as a first prize, rather than the wooden spoon he presents it as. It's an act of manipulation, not empathy, praying upon Jesse's blossoming faith in 'spiritual' success.

I maintain my belief that Jesse will ultimately be the one to send Heisenberg to his end, because where Walt's arc has seen him abandon all the goodness in his soul, Jesse was a petty criminal whose losses and suffering at the hand of his sociopathic mentor have reminded him of the value of the things he once ignored. Jesse was once happy to screw over his parents, but now mourns the death of a child and feels responsible for Andrea and Brock, in the same way they felt for their wayward son. In witnessing a greater evil, Jesse has been steadily working towards 'breaking good': the downfall of Walter White by his hand would represent the final stage of his path to personal salvation.

Mike's love for his granddaughter suggests a similar realisation, but without the willpower to give up from a life of poisonous temptation. From what we know of his limited backstory, he was a cop who switched sides, most likely seduced by Gus Fring's promises of wealth and power. Mike knows his own weaknesses, but has enough decency left to try and leave a positive legacy behind in the form of his granddaughter's inheritance if he cannot save himself. He wants to protect Jesse because he sees in him a young man with the strengths he never had, and the ability to escape the clutches of a corruptor dragging those around him down to hell. This is why he refuses to accept Jesse's offer of help when he has to get his emergency bag (containing cash, a false passport, and a gun) and flee. He knows the dangers of putting his trust in Walt, but would rather risk his own safety than have Jesse get taken in by the police.

In the end, Mike ends up with a bullet in his gut, a consequence of confronting Walt and his ego with some difficult truths. He's another notch on Heisenberg's long list of victims, but died with the quiet consolation of having traded his own sullied soul to protect those whose hearts remain pure. The moment when Mike realised he was trapped and stopped himself calling out to say goodbye to his granddaughter was heartbreaking - a fittingly devastating farewell for the great Jonathan Banks - as were his last words on the shore of a glistening river, waiting for the final seconds of his life to be swept away with its flowing current. Breaking Bad's story is driven by the actions and words of its characters, but given depth in the moments by its appreciation of the meaning of nature in transience.

So where does that leave Walter? With more blood on his hands; an inexperienced and unpredictable new partner in Todd; a wife looking for any possible escape route; nine men in police custody whose only reason for protecting him has just been cut off. He cannot see why Jesse or anyone else would reject the lure of money and power. One wonders if Fring's men would remain silent even if he finds a way of paying them off, now that their most trusted associate is gone. All their money is going to their families, after all, and if handing over Walt means a shorter gaol sentence, perhaps they will be next to forego material temptation in favour of personal fulfillment. Walt may once have been a siren, but is now so corrupted that he is the only one who still believes in his own beauty. Eventually, no matter how valuable the rewards promised at the end of the journey, no-one but the most willfully blind captain would go down with a sinking ship.


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