Chemistry Is What We Are
Breaking Bad shows exactly how entertainment can become art, and why the distinction matters
OCTOBER 16, 2013 by MICHAEL NOLAN
[Warning: The column is called "Spoiler Alert" for a reason.]
It’s been awhile since Breaking Bad ended, but I’m still not sure where to begin thinking about it, let alone writing about it. That's largely because of how well it was capped off: It now feels like a singular, unified work of art unto itself, made up of 62 individual works of art. It’s a lot to digest. Given how many of my off hours I gave over to the pre-finale marathon on AMC, it’s akin to one godalmighty wonderful Thanksgiving feast, complete with some family drama to offset the tryptophan.
And it has given way, similarly, to one profoundly gaseous aftermath. Which isn’t to say that everyone’s full of hot air, but is to say that a lot of what it can make a person write really stinks.
That’s really a testament to the show, though, particularly the orneriness that makes it so much fun—even without happy endings or good guys.
Consider how the show uses the New Mexico landscape: In some shots, the borderlands utterly overwhelm with emptiness whatever tiny specks of humanity happen to be passing through. The mountains can’t even manage to loom. The conversation in one little part somewhere in the middle distance, between one man on his feet and another on his knees, seems insignificant, its outcome a matter of cosmic indifference. When the camera follows these creatures back to their habitats, it shows us grim neighborhoods, crack houses, junkyards—the bedraggled edges of a city out at the end of the world. It seems richly symbolic: humans are a blight or a cancer, but of an especially benign and impotent sort.
But then there are occasional time-lapse shots of the same desert, devoid of any people whatsoever. The clouds race away—or hurry off to join some maelstrom—while the blasted scrubland quivers in place. Lurid colors, high definition. So when two other humans, twins born seemingly of pure malevolence, emerge from this landscape and commit atrocities without so much as a change of facial expression, the violence and horror seem native to this place.
I’d like to imagine that this is what Cormac McCarthy sees after a bottle of Wild Turkey and a John Ford marathon.
Or maybe it’s just that this is Walter White’s world in the sense that he creates it: It is beautiful and terrible, grand and sinister, and ultimately as immune to simple description as a human life itself.
Or maybe it’s just that there’s a lot of meth made, used, and trafficked in this region—and where else would an underworld develop but in the areas where nobody wants to look?
Very Specific Gravity
Which is a roundabout way of saying that the creators only ever served their elevator pitch: A high-school chemistry teacher gets lung cancer, so he goes into the methamphetamine business to make money. Walt’s marriage? Interesting only as a precursor, then catalyst; it's ultimately consumed by the process. The slapstick of that pathetic fight between the chemotherapy patient and his partner, the former junkie? Just part of the way the chemical transformation proceeds. The monster Walt becomes? Just the unavoidable result of harrowing circumstances met with one fateful, naive decision—then jolted with a big gag on the part of fate.
It actually reminds me of Thomas Hardy, and I mean that as high praise: It tells you flat out, from the get-go, what kind of guy you’re dealing with. Walter doesn’t leave a job half done. And he doesn’t accept that he can’t outthink and outwork impossible circumstances. Oh, and he also has his first chance in 30 years to act in some way as master of his fate rather than victim of it. We see that he was swindled out of his share of a biotech startup. But we never see him fighting very hard in the wake of it. What we see is his passion—his sheer joy in chemistry—wasted on bored high schoolers before he packs up to go wash cars, whatever about him that could have been special washing down the drain along with the bugs and dust.
So it’s not going to end well for Walter once his diagnosis seems to doom him to leaving nothing behind but a bankrupt family.
Some critics have complained about this rigorous commitment to process. Makes it too hard to relate to the characters, they say. Or it ends too well for Walter, given that he sort of makes amends: He makes a fair bid to get a nice chunk of his money to his family, sets Jesse free, kills a bunch of neo-Nazis, cops to the fact that he enjoyed the empire business, then dies, since he cannot live free. He does a lot of terrible things, and causes others to happen. If there is not a hell, one would have to be invented to make sure Walter gets punished—at least according to this strain of analysis.
This suggestion is curious to me, because Walter is certainly punished. He’s punished by the very forces to which he subjects himself by his decision. He dips a toe into this world. Then he tours it like a Tijuana weekender. Then he saunters in like Josey Wales. And it all keeps going to hell.
And much of the plot turns on slapstick. Consider what happens after Walt spends a few seasons in the abyss: He’s all but gotten away with everything, and has his in-laws over for a barbecue. But the guy who thinks of everything leaves a crucial piece of evidence on the back of his toilet; we are left to wonder whether it was a mistake or a boast. Hank, the DEA agent and brother-in-law, happens to spot it and has an epiphany right there on the can. Cue the kazoo music and slide whistle.
It’s almost as funny as what I think is the show’s central gag: Remission is actually the death sentence for Good Walt.
So the people who’ve noted that the show’s commitment to process and story evokes a chemical reaction are onto something, just not the idea that this is a shortcoming. It’s as if the show is a chemical reaction that, if it contains suspense and surprise, does so only for the students who don’t yet understand the subject. For the instructor? It is inherently and deeply beautiful because he does. Watching the show, we are transformed from one to the other.
Jack London by Way of Georgia O’Keefe?
This is not to say that anything about the show is mechanistic. It’s not presenting a world in which all forces are known and humans are mewling little nothings without free will.
It traffics in the unknown and how people react to it, given what they think they know and what they know they desire. Walt’s initial decision to cook meth always seemed to me understandable. Ill-advised, sure, but that was never up for debate. Understandable, though? The only part of his situation that Walt seems at all capable of addressing is the financial aspect. His talent and passion should have made him a lot of money before. Why can’t they do so now?
But then Walt doesn’t know what he doesn’t know; that includes parts of himself he cannot or will not see. He’s living out an experiment, and he’s the primary catalyst. But he does not know its chemical makeup, for all his rigor in maintaining sterile conditions and purity of process in the lab.
I think of Walt making only one actual decision, even though this isn’t technically true. But again, this is the overarching story of the series: Once he’s decided to test a hypothesis—“Applying myself to meth will at least offset the financial catastrophe of my cancer”—it’s basically a matter of refining his process until he can get a decisive answer. Except, of course, that he doesn’t simply get to tweak the process and run it again; each action has unintended consequences, so each cook is more complicated than the last. You can't step into the same lab twice.
Consider Skyler, Walt’s wife. At one point she winds up being seen as a crime boss in her own right. Realizing the advantage this confers (it reminded me of Peter Leeson’s discussion of the purpose of the pirate flag in The Invisible Hook), she accepts it. But she doesn't understand how she wound up at this point.
She had other choices. All of the characters have other choices and several chances to get out.
So this ain’t Jack London out on a vision quest. But there are transformations going on, shaped and bounded by the amount of unknown information rather than ground forward by inexorable—and known—natural law. It changes Walt’s nom de guerre—Heisenberg—from a well-chosen running gag into a bit of gallows humor.
Or, put another way, it means there aren’t really spoilers here: You know, in general, where this story is going. But that doesn’t help you figure out where it is at any particular point. That’s why I found myself holding my breath throughout the final episodes, even though we’d been given glimpses of Walt’s final hours as far back as the beginning of season 5.
The morality of this or that character at this or that point seemed, to me, a kind of byproduct without much use. Maybe another trick played by the writers, dangling out this temptation to moralize. But then I reconsidered: The show itself seems to be fairly neutral. This happens, so this happens, which eventually leads to this. Our reactions are another story.
Which brings up the more important point: We know this show is entertainment, but it becomes art when it reveals something about oneself to anyone willing to think about which characters he winds up rooting for.
Consider Skyler again: She’s more than willing to accept martyrdom via financial ruin as a consolation prize, if Walt can’t survive. She never forgives Walt for refusing to comply. The particulars of his plan (Gasp! He broke the law!) are just icing. And of course she later seizes control of the money-laundering operation, and costs them a chance to flee the cartel and the entire business while trying to protect it. But she believes until the end that Walt and only Walt is responsible.
Or consider Hank, the cardboard cowboy. For all his talent as an investigator, we find out his tough-guy bluster is all smokescreen. He can’t hack it when he gets promoted to the big leagues, where he deals with guys who aren’t intimidated. He’s a bully and a bigot—not to mention a direct cause, as a DEA agent, of the violence of the drug war. He believes that he is on the good guys' side, and therefore immune to blame. He's a hero in his own eyes first, last, and always.
But then again, that doesn’t excuse the cartels, dealers, or hit men of their acts—nor does it earn him that bullet in the head.
Marie, Hank’s wife, has the kind of eyes you’d expect to find on a bald eagle with schizophrenia and a bad coke habit. Maybe even the same grasp on reality. But she does not deserve to be widowed.
It's not as if the show is purely amoral, or that I’m arguing that art must be amoral. It is to say that Gilligan, the actors, the writers (maybe even the caterers, for all I know) focus on telling the story, and they populate it with characters who are recognizable humans put into extreme circumstances. They don’t say much about what anyone should do. They show what these people actually did.
So sorting out good guys and bad guys is entirely beside the point: There are no true innocents here. The only purity in this story comes from Walt’s meth, and even that’s only ninety-odd percent (and it fluctuates). Walt’s children are of course guilty of nothing, but really they're just not guilty yet.
Of course, ultimately Walt does become monstrous, and makes everyone else his victim. This transformation can obscure the questionable actions and motives of the other characters. Some probably deserve something like what they get; most definitely don’t—or at least, I can’t imagine believing they do. But the story doesn’t end until everyone’s gone but Walt. And really, Walt’s not even there. All that’s left is the ambition that consumed him and the smoldering remains of everything that ever made it worth pursuing.
So it’s fair to point out that this show isn’t about the real world. It’s about a world that Walt either invites in or creates (with a lot of help). In the real world, it would have been much better if Walt had sought fulfillment, agency, fortune, and renown elsewhere but in the underworld. Or if he’d maybe found a way to reverse his fleecing by outcompeting Gray Matter. This is how, surely, it would have been better to respond to the crisis in which he found himself. But as good as that would have been in real life, it would have been terrible TV. There’s a difference: One of them can be ordered, examined, packed full of meaning and instruction, and the other is what we have to live through. At least now we have Walt’s blessedly fictional blue meth to ease our passage.