Saturday, July 14, 2012

This Man Must Die

You’d all better get out of the way and take to your couches Sunday night (or the next day if you DVR) because here comes Walter White. You don’t want to be in his way.

And if you happen to be in Albuquerque, New Mexico, you might want to leave. Now.

Make no mistake—Walter White, Breaking Bad’s hero-schmo cum arch villain, geeky wallflower turned vicious criminal—has only 16 episodes to live. He is doomed. (“Doomed DOOMED to die!” as I sometimes boom, my finger pointing at whatever pathetic lug is about to take the Big Dirt Nap).

Two large questions remain in this rightfully classic series. Who will take him down and who will he take down with him?

Partner Jesse, wife Skylar, son Walter Jr., brother-in-law Hank, Cleaner Doug, uproariously sleazy Saul, even Hank’s wife, Marie?

It could be any of his many victims and enemies who have crossed his orbit. He’s become a tornado now, plowing a blackly violent path across the gorgeously bleak New Mexican landscape, sucking the guilty and the innocent into his funnel.

“I’ve won,” he whispered, his voice a sand-choked, triumphant whisper after Gus Fring straightened his tie for the last time. Such a beast does not retire from the field he’s conquered. Doom and death are coming down on him.

Walter White, of course, is the one ultimately responsible. Walter is the one finally taking Walter down.

Not since Tony Soprano and Al Swearengen have serious TV viewers been presented with such a riveting character, both a distinct individual and a picture of larger forces of decadence in our society. Once a normal guy, now an evil madman, with only a thin patina of pathos left, Walter White is a creature I no longer worry for. I tore up the paper on him when he let Jesse’s girlfriend choke to death on her own vomit in Season 2. The final nail came when we learned the secret behind the floating eye in Walter’s swimming pool. What started out as an understandable act of desperation had made a hard irrevocable turn. Walter White was no longer an Everyman—he had turned into a deadly alien Other.

This man has to die.

If I didn’t take such pleasure in how Breaking Bad is made, how precisely, elegantly and ingeniously it is plotted and written, acted and directed, photographed and edited to deliver maximum power, I might have hit the off button much earlier. Without some precise, well-located and portrayed sense of decency to pose against Walter—Jesse, Walter Jr., even annoyingly goofy Hank,  Walter could have become a monotonous presence and Breaking Bad an exercise of faux nihilistic droning ‘tude, another arch, ersatz Tarantino imitation. Whatever it takes from the great genre movies of the past, those steals are not its reason for being. Breaking Bad is a series truly interested in the world, not just its own gestures.

The Walter Whites of this world, whatever their IQs, are empty vessels. A big brain, no matter how capacious, can’t save the souls. His last name suggests a newly painted bleached wall, a lack of depth: someone you don’t see and when you look, it may be neatly done, but there’s not much there. The “legacy” he so violently claims he wants to leave his family is purely materialistic, constructed of transient things, not gifts of character and soul. He protests his virtue far past the bounds of virtue. He has fallen beyond the reach of grace.

While compelling in the gory havoc they wreak and the way they wreak it, sociopaths become hollow and boring if the world around them, the people, the characters aren’t there to stand in opposition somehow (this includes hapless Jesse, who, more than anyone seems, set to become the show’s oddball moral center).

I even feel pity for Saul Goodman. But Walter . . . he has to go.

Like many of my favorite genre works, in both literature and film, Breaking Bad is about unintended consequences. It presents a colorfully conservative outlook (in the old best sense), where duty and loyalty to ideas larger than ourselves exist to counteract our greedy selfish selves. Vince Gilligan, its creator, is said to have attended a Catholic seminary and while he may not be of the cloth anymore, the kind of questions that get asked there resonate here: in gaining the world, Walter White has lost his small soul.

To me, materialism, and its accompanying greed, are Breaking Bad’s true villains and Walter White is their avatar. Even Tony Soprano and Al Swearengen would shudder. Even after confronting the worst of what he’s done, Walter paints another layer of whitewash on the wall of his self. Like a psychopath, he’s a genius in the moment only, improvising one crime on top of another.

Breaking Bad prides itself on its unpredictability (though it sometimes plays its cards a little obviously (Sorry, I saw Gus’s end coming a little earlier than maybe some of you, once Walter visited Hector Salamanca at the rest home. The term “rig explosions” leapt to mind). Still, it plays narrative cards so deftly, with such grace and unbuttoned imagination that knowing Walter will fall in no way compromises the fundamental pleasures of Breaking Bad.

There are many paths to death. When we fans sit down Sunday night, we’ll know there’s so much more to happen on Breaking Bad.


Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.


Anonymous said...

Fun post. I'm convinced he will make a very moving gesture that is beautifully redemptive before he dies. The whole show's writing points to that, me thinks.

Thomas Burchfield said...

Thanks for that, Anon! One possibility--one out of many, it must be emphasized--is a "Treasure of Sierra Madre" ending, where Walter does loose all his ill-gotten wealth, either by throwing it away, or via some metaphoric wind. He is a bit like Fred C. Dobbs in that tale, the more I think about it.