BREAKING BAD BINGE WATCH: SESSION NINE
Binge Watch Period: January 3–8, 2015
Episodes Watched: Season 4, Episodes 5–9 ("Shotgun," "Cornered," "Problem Dog," "Hermanos," and "Bug" )
Overall Binge-Watch Mood: I've got my second wind, and I'm ready to push on through to the end. (If only I didn't have to stop and write these damn posts.)
Let me begin this week with a question: what the hell is wrong with Walter White?
I'm not being a wise guy, and I'm not asking out of confusion, astonishment, or revulsion. Rather, I pose the question because I truly believe it is the most important question to ask about Breaking Bad. I think it's the question Vince Gilligan is exploring in the series, and he's doing it in a very interesting way.
For one thing, he's doing it without ever really asking the question. At times I've found that frustrating, and I can't promise I won't find it frustrating again before the series is over, but it's also kind of remarkable. Four and a half seasons into a show about drug dealing, embezzlement, lying, and murder—with an actual body count running into the hundreds, and an extrapolated body count running into the thousands—and no one has discussed morality or ethics of Walt's spiraling mid-life crisis in any serious way. People have experienced moments of horror and judgement—at themselves, and at other people—but the show has largely refrained from any ethical debates or philosophizing. (The closest we've come is Jesse's struggling with his actions in group therapy, and he gets another one of those scenes here, in "Problem Dog." But even there he struggles to articulate—or even understand—his own emotions and reservations.)
For another thing, Gilligan offers us no simple explanations or psychological justifications. When I first began watching Breaking Bad, I assumed that, at some point, we would explore how these characters—particularly, but not exclusively, Walter—turned out to be the people they have become. I expected that we would get flashbacks to Walt's childhood, or at least hear stories about his horrible mother, or his horrible father, or the horrible experiences he had growing up that formed subtle but irreparable cracks in his soul. I thought we would delve deep into the psychological traumas that shaped Jesse, and/or the societal forces that alienated and dispossessed him. I mean, that approach to storytelling and character development is almost always ridiculously reductive—Here's the key to unlocking the mystery of this man's life!—but it's also so irresistible to most creators that I just assumed it was coming.
But no. Four and a half seasons in, and we know virtually nothing about Walt's childhood, or family, or formative years. We know nothing more about Skyler's past. We know a little more about Jesse's, but what we know is that his parents seem to be perfectly nice people who don't begin to explain the criminal their son has become.
This approach is sometimes, as I've said, frustrating. But it's also probably what impresses me most about Breaking Bad. Gilligan is asking tough questions, and he's largely doing it without even articulating the questions. A lesser show would hammer us over the head with those questions, to make sure we knew that's what the show was about. We'd get a lot of pontificating about morality, we'd see characters navel-gazing and self-flaggelating and openly discussing their sins and redemption. That doesn't happen here, and that's one of the reasons Breaking Bad feels both more realistic and more psychologically tense than a lot of shows: these people are living in the present, and they are making decisions without knowing or asking why, and they are—like most of us do—living reactive, largely unexamined lives.
There's a danger to this approach, of course, because without a heavy guiding hand the audience is free to ignore the moral ramifications of Walter White's actions. (I have no doubt that there are people out there—though not many of them, hopefully—who watched Breaking Bad and saw Walt as a hero and role model.) But what Gilligan's approach does is force us to ask the questions, without providing us any pat solutions. And by denying us specific, personal justifications for Walt's actions—Oh, his father beat him! That's why he's the way he is!—we are subtly steered to seek our answers in more universal ground. To some extent Walt becomes not one man, but every man, and his actions reflect not on one particular psychological profile but on society as a whole. The questions we ask about the forces that shaped him are not about the biographical facts of his life; they are larger questions about pride, and masculinity, and the dark side of the American dream. To ask What's wrong with Walter White? is, to some extent, to ask What's wrong with us?
I'm thinking about all of this now, in part, because I was struck by an odd scene in this batch of episodes: the flashback to the early days of Gus Fring in "Hermanos." Back in 1989, young Gus and his partner Max (James Martinez) had been cooking meth in the very first Los Pollos Hermanos in Mexico, and had gotten themselves on the radar of cartel figure Don Eladio (Steven Bauer). Gus proposed a partnership with the cartel—insisting that his product was intended only as a sample of their work—but Don Eladio interpreted their initiative as lack of respect. While Gus tried to convince the Don of his own usefulness, Eladio's right-hand man Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis) shot Max through the head.
In a show that refuses to dwell on the pasts of its characters, this scene stands out: it's the closest thing to an "origin story" that Breaking Bad provides for any of its key players. Obviously, it's the source of Gus's grudge with the cartel, and the reason for his hatred (and continued tormenting) of Hector Salamanca. But it's also more than that: the way the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne was the key moment in the birth of Batman, the death of Max was clearly the catalyzing event in the formation of the creature we know as Gus Fring. Earlier in the episode, Gus explains to the cops that he knew the late Gale Boetticher because Gale was the recipient of a chemistry scholarship named after Maxamino Arciniega, a "dear friend" who died too young.
(This cover story puts Gus's relationship with Gale, and with Walt, in an interesting light: Max was the first chemist he partnered with, and who knows how many more there were between him and Gale. Apart from the business necessities, has Gus subconsciously been seeking the perfect partner all along, trying to recapture what he lost when he lost with Max? On some level were his overtures of camaraderie to Walt, and later to Jesse, genuine? Is his anger at Walt now based on a sense of emotional betrayal as much as professionalism? Is it just possible that some long-denied part of Gus wants a friend?)
But of course, Gus can't really have friends, because Max was—almost certainly—the last person he ever really allowed himself to care for. Caring for other people is a weakness, is feminine, is unprofessional: that's what we suspect he learned from this event, and so he has sacrificed everything that once made him human. It is striking in these scenes how different Gus was back then: nervous, uncertain, and clearly in over his head. The polite, harmless businessman he now pretends to be is who he actually once was, and the parallels to polite, harmless chemistry teacher Walter White—at the beginning of Breaking Bad—are hard to miss.
These parallels become impossible to miss once Max's blood hits the water of the swimming pool: in this gruesome Rorschach blot, it is hard for us not to make out the vague shape of a child's pink teddy bear.
There's another, fleeting moment in this scene that puts all of this even more starkly in terms of masculinity: when Hector first arrives for the meeting with Gus and Max, he whips out his penis and urinates into the pool. "They like what they see," he says of Gus and Max, and he blows them a mocking kiss, clearly implying that they are gay. Certainly, Gus may be gay—Vince Gilligan has said it was left intentionally ambiguous—but ultimately it doesn't really matter if Gus and Max were lovers. Whatever their relationship and orientations, they obviously care for each other, and Gus's crushing grief at Max's death is obvious. What matters is that they are seen as feminine, which—in that macho, violent, male-dominated criminal culture—means that they are seen as weak, as other, as less than men. And what matters is that Gus ends up losing this person he loved—and his own humanity—to become part of that culture.
When I wrote about the second half of Season Two, I discussed how the pink teddy bear symbolized the sacrifice of Walt's gentler, nurturing side—his feminine side, if you will—on the altar of his pursuit of power. Only female kangaroos have pouches, as Jane told Jesse, and the capacity for love is incompatible with the masculine path to empowerment Walt had chosen. The teddy bear represents the moment Walt truly became a monster: he effectively gave up his own capacity for love, and—in killing Jane—he sacrificed Jesse's chance at being a loving man as well. (I don't think it's belaboring the point too much to point out that, for both Gus and Walt, the moments when they truly lose their humanity are visualized through the horrific corruption of water, that eternal symbol of the feminine.)
So, returning to my original question, it has been obvious almost from the beginning of Breaking Bad that the questions Vince Gilligan is asking are primarily about the toxic forms of masculinity that are incompatible with love. Throughout these episodes—and indeed throughout the series—the question of what it means "to be a man" has been at the center of Walt's path to damnation. Walt's sense of power has been tied to his sense of manhood right from the pilot—which ended with him celebrating his new life of crime by taking his wife in an uncharacteristically potent and "manly" fashion. "Maybe Walt wants to die like a man," Hank said way back in Season One. Throughout the series, we've seen Walt's actions framed in these terms: he's doing what he has to do as a man.
And all through this latest batch of episodes, that theme is hit hard. I've lost track of the number of times characters—Jesse and Walt, Walt and Mike, Walt and Hank, Jesse and Gus—agree to talk "like men," the phrase a code for some supposedly elevated and more honest level of discourse. Last week I mentioned how Bogdan (Marius Stan) had impugned Walt's manhood, and how Skyler used this insult to manipulate Walt into buying the car wash. This week, Bogdan does it again, in "Cornered." "Can you be tough, Walter?" he asks. "If not, you can always call your wife." (This inspires Walt to enact a petty revenge on his former boss.) Everywhere, masculinity is equated with strength, and power, and control, while stereotypically "feminine" qualities—love, compassion, emotion—are viewed as weakness. (Meeting a fellow cancer patient in the hospital, Walt ridicules and scorns the young man's understandable fear. "That is such bullshit," Walt says, without an ounce of sympathy. "Who's in charge? Me. That's how I live my life.")
Again, though one could mistake Breaking Bad for an ode to this ridiculous, Hemingwayesque notion of manhood, in fact it's now obvious that Vince Gilligan's main objective is to critique our attraction to that ideal as the source of most of our problems. "What does a man do, Walt? A man provides for his family," Gus said in Season Three. "He simply bears up, and he does it…because he's a man." But Gus was manipulating Walt, playing to his delusions in order to lure him into service: Walt's masculine pride is his weakness, which Gus can exploit.
And Gus exploits the same thing in Jesse: though "Shotgun" opens with a little misdirection—in which we are supposed to fear, as Walt does, that Mike has taken Jesse out to kill him—in reality Gus is simply playing a variation of the same headgame he used on Walt: appealing to his need to be a man. He has him ride "shotgun" with Mike as he drives around to pick up money drops. "You are not the guy," Mike berates him at first. "You are not capable of being the guy." But this all leads to the staging of an elaborate charade in which Jesse gets to be the guy, and save Mike's life. "Just like you wanted, the kid's a hero," Mike reports to Gus, after the farce has played out. Later, recounting the story to Walt, Jesse uses it as value of his own worth as a human being. "I saved Mike from getting robbed, even killed, maybe," he says. "So maybe I'm not such a loser after all." (Interestingly, Walt—who realizes exactly what Gus is doing—tries to manipulate Jesse into killing Gus in more or less the same way: by impugning his strength, his competence, his manhood. "All I'm saying is, is it possible that he would think that you're that weak-willed?" he asks.)
I've said all along that I have hope for Jesse's salvation—his soul is still up for grabs—but that hope lies in his ability to break out of this male-empowerment fantasy in which his sense of identity is tied into power and violence. And we see him struggling with it: he is not too far gone. "Problem Dog" opens with Jesse in a parody of that fantasy: blowing anonymous enemies away in his ultra-violent video game. That's exactly how he and Walt have too often treated their lives—like a violent game with no real consequences—and playing to that fantasy is how Gus has been able to control them.
But Jesse can't sustain the illusion anymore. He is haunted, as he has been all season, by his murder of Gale, and he finally expresses that guilt—if not exactly the crime itself—in his rehab group. "A couple weeks back, I killed a dog," he says. "I put him down, I watched him go. I was looking at him straight in the eye…He didn't know what was happening, he didn't know why, he was just scared, and then he was gone." The episode begins with his trying to take refuge in the delusion of heartless power, but it ends with his expressing genuine feelings: guilt, and sympathy, and responsibility.
Though the end of that session sees him retreating from his emotions in notably sexist terms—"I made you my bitch," he tells the group leader—we see that the confession has put him back in touch with his more compassionate side. "Maybe I could have done something different," he says in the group, of killing Gale, and throughout these episodes we see him trying to do something different. He tells Walt he'll slip Gus the poison, but he can't bring himself to do it. When he learns from Walt that Hank is onto Gus, and therefore in danger, he feigns indifference. ("So?" he asks. "You add a plus douchebag to a minus douchebag, you get, like, zero douchebags.") But even for Hank—a man who once beat him senseless—he has not lost the capacity for sympathy and caring; later in that episode we see him trying to talk Mike into letting Hank live.
In "Bug," Jesse demonstrates that he has seen clearly through Gus's appeals to his pride. "Is this your plan: be my buddy and make me feel important, then get me to keep cooking for you after you kill Mr. White?" And, more importantly, his stand is absolute, and phrased in a concept of manhood that includes the capacity for genuine loyalty to another human being: "You want to talk like men? Let's talk like men. You kill Mr. White, you're gonna have to kill me too."
So there is hope for Jesse—perhaps more than ever, as "Bug" ends with his rejection of Walter White and everything he stands for. Jesse goes to him for help with a real problem—because Gus wants Jesse to teach the cartel how to cook—but Walt is furious: he's planted a bug on Jesse's car, and knows that Jesse has lied about not seeing Gus. Walt is completely caught up in his own spy-drama bullshit, of tracking devices and secret murder plots involving poison cigarettes. But Jesse—especially after standing up for Walt—has had enough: of the two of them, Jesse is the grown-up now, and he's sick of the juvenile crap. They fight, brutally, and when Jesse stands victorious he has just enough compassion to ask if Walt can walk before telling him to walk the fuck out of life forever.
So there is hope for Jesse. There is no such hope for Walt, whose adolescent fantasy of masculine empowerment is so all-consuming it has become more important than morality, than his family, than even his own sense of self-preservation.
Perhaps the most important thing Gilligan deconstructs through this series is how that destructive notion of manhood is rationalized as an expression of love: the delusion (that Gus exploited) that this is what being a good man—a good husband, a good father—looks like. From the beginning, Walt has clung to the defense that everything he does is for his family, but that dubious rationalization has worn paper-thin by now.
Throughout Breaking Bad we've seen Walt have one opportunity after another to actually achieve what he says he wants: security for himself and his family. And, time after time, we've seen him throw those opportunities away out of adolescent pride and a longing for excitement. He could have accepted Eliot's offer to pay for his treatment way back in Season One. He could have walked away in Season Two, after he had made plenty of money and before the events that led to the deaths of Jane and 167 airline passengers. He could have turned down Gus's offer to cook meth full-time in Season Three, after he said he had made more money than he could ever need. He refuses yet another opportunity in "Bug," when Skyler suggests that the car wash is doing well enough that he can afford to quit his "second job." In each case, he is driven not by practical concerns—let alone concern for his family—but by the need to be the guy, to preserve his adolescent sense of manhood and power.
In this week's batch of episodes, Walt comes dangerously close to getting what he has said he wanted. He and Skyler reconcile in "Shotgun," and she asks him to move back in: he is being offered the chance to return to the bosom of the family that he has claimed is so important to him. But what's really important to him? At dinner at Hank and Marie's, Walt's pride drives him to recklessly convince Hank that Gale Boetticher was not "Heisenberg," that Gale could not possibly be Heisenberg: Hank had given up his obsessive pursuit of the mythical meth dealer, but he's back on the case now and creating danger for everyone concerned, all because Walt couldn't stand to let a man like Gale—a feminized man with a feminine name, incidentally—get credit for his works. The illusion of Heisenberg is more important to him than anything real.
The line between he and Gale—and the need to be "the guy" in masculine terms—is so essential to him that he boasts about the monster he has become. As "Cornered" opens, Skyler—who actually does care about the family, and about Walt—is scared that what happened to Gale could happen to him, and assumes that Walt is scared too. She is willing to give everything up to keep them safe, even if that means turning themselves in to the police. But Walt is infuriated that she could imagine for a moment that he is anything like Gale, and offended that after all this time she still sees him as an impotent schoolteacher who is in over his head.
"Who are you talking to right now? Who is it you think you see? Do you know how much I make a year? I mean, even if I told you, you wouldn't believe it. Do you know what would happen if I suddenly decided to stop going in to work? A business big enough to be listed on the NASDAQ goes belly-up, disappears, ceases to exist without me. No, you clearly don't know who you're talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? I am the one who knocks."
Skyler, understandably, flees. And if we need a reminder that this is another "pink teddy bear" moment for Walt—a moment in which he is sacrificing his potential as a good and loving man—we note the outfit on his infant daughter as Skyler drives away.
Walt will throw everything away to preserve his self-image, out of this desperate need to see himself as strong, and powerful, and in control. Walt Jr. is on his side in this conflict with Skyler, but Walt can't even accept his son's support because the story Junior believes is an insult to Walt's manhood. "She's not even allowed to be mad at you," Junior says. "Gambling addiction is a sickness." Walt can't let this stand, because it makes him a victim, because it makes him weak. "What is going on with me is not about some disease," he tells his son. "It is about choices, choices I have made, choices I stand by."
(Interestingly, this parallels something Jesse says in his rehab group. "It ain't no rock made me do it," he says, of killing "the dog." He is scornful of the rehab group's attitude that everything is forgivable because it all stems from their addiction, from their disease. Jesse won't place the blame for his actions on his addiction or disease, while Walt won't let his addiction or disease get credit for his accomplishments. They are both insisting on their personal responsibility, on their autonomy, on their control, but they are doing it from entirely different motives. They both want to accept total responsibility for being monsters, but it manifests as guilt for Jesse, and pride for Walt. Walt is retreating further into the fantasy of male empowerment, while Jesse is recognizing it for what it is.)
Walt's delusions of manhood are so clichéd, that here—after the conversation with Junior—he expresses them in the most stereotypical, middle-aged man, mid-life crisis way possible: he buys a cool car. That he buys it for his teen-age son and not for himself doesn't make it any less pathetic; in fact, it's a perfect metaphor for the way his "a man provides for his family" bullshit is really just a smokescreen for some very adolescent urges. "I'm his father, and I should be able to get what he wants," he says to Skyler, attempting to rationalize the purchase. Once again he reiterates his most important lie: "Everything I do, everything, I do to protect this family." (Note that here Walt is dressed in pink—under the guise of "family man"—as he was at the end of "ABQ" when the bear hit the water.)
But Skyler knows better: really protecting the family means being careful. It means not buying exorbitant gifts that will draw attention to your criminal lifestyle. It means not putting your DEA-agent brother-in-law on your trail, and in danger, just to bolster your sad self-image. It means putting the people you are supposed to love ahead of your adolescent pride.
I have major issues with the decisions Skyler has made throughout the series, but her selfless feminine strength is clearly contrasted with Walt's flawed masculine version. When she tells Walt he has to take the car back to the dealer, he tries to manipulate her by saying that Junior will hold it against her. "Oh, he will," Skyler says. "Once again, he'll blame his bitch mother for taking away what his loving father has given him. So, thanks for that. But you know what, Walt? Someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family." She's willing to take the hit: she's willing to not be the one who is loved and admired. (And if there's still any doubt that Skyler is the grown-up, while Walt is emotionally just a teen-age boy, he responds to her reasonable concerns about the car by taking it for a joy ride, doing donuts in a parking lot, and setting the car on fire. Like everything else in Walt's life, it's a petulant, childish demonstration of power that manifests itself as senseless destruction.)
In fact, sensible, caring women taking care of childish, selfish men is a theme that runs throughout this season. There's a nice parallel to Skyler's relationship to Walt in her subplot with Ted, who is now in trouble with the IRS. He comes to her like a little boy wanting her to make it all better—wanting her somehow to "uncook" the books—and because the investigation into his finances could threaten her own family, she finds a way to help him. And she does it, interestingly, in a way no man on the show would deal with the problem: with a show of weakness, not strength. She plays up her stereotypically feminine qualities—turning herself into a crude parody of a silly dumb blonde—and presents herself as ridiculous and incompetent. Again, pride doesn't factor into it for her: she's willing to compromise her image to achieve security for her family in a way that Walt would never, ever do.
And then there's Marie and Hank. Hank has always provided Breaking Bad with a secondary image of masculinity, a more obviously macho figure to compare and contrast with Walt. In his very first scene, back in the pilot, we see Hank's gun before we see his face, as he's bragging about his work (and mockingly impugning Walt's manhood) to the guests at Walt's birthday party. Right from the start, Hank is equated with masculinity, and masculinity is equated with strength, and violence, and even cruelty. ("It's heavy," Walt says of the gun, which is almost certainly the first he's ever held. "That's why they hire men," Hank responds, to general laughter and Walt's embarrassment.) Hank is almost a parody of the childish American fantasy of manhood—a big, tough, jokey, emotionally repressed boy playing a real life game of cops and robbers. (As one of my regular commenters pointed out last week, there's no evidence that Hank became a cop out of any real desire to do good: he is capable of mouthing the sentiments about justice, but he's clearly in it for the testosterone-fueled thrills.)
Which has made him the perfect counterpoint to Walt throughout Breaking Bad. Walt is also in it for the thrills—for this falsely empowering fantasy of manhood—and it's been interesting to watch him constructing this fantasy around himself even as Hank has had his own fantasy deconstructed. Hank has repeatedly been confronted with his own weaknesses and the real stakes of the game he's playing, and each time it has shaken him: the shoot-out with Tuco in "Grilled," the exploding turtle in "Negro y Azul," and even his own suspension for brutality in "One Minute." And finally, of course, his being shot by the Salamanca Brothers (also in "One Minute") left him paralyzed.
Hank is a physical, macho, violent man of action by nature, so what does he become if all that is stripped away? For the first half of Season Four we saw him reduced to a broken man. Physically, he's broken, of course, but we've also seen that he simply doesn't have the emotional tools to deal with what has happened to him. He's completely dependent on his wife, and—disgusted by his own weakness—he resents the hell out of it, and her. Like Walt does with Skyler, Hank lashes out at Marie. She is nothing but patient and supportive with him, and it makes him furious, challenging as it does his own sense of his masculine power. (It's notable that the only moment this season where he exhibits any kindness to her is when she gets in trouble, after her petty thefts in "Open House." He is comfortable being the one who takes care of her, but he is infuriated when it's the other way around.)
And of course, what gives Hank his mojo back is Heisenberg. "Heisenberg," as I've suggested, is not simply Walt's nom de guerre: it's also a symbol of the entire male empowerment fantasy. In giving "Heisenberg" back to Hank, Walt allows him to start rebuilding the fantasy around himself. Hank perks up almost immediately, and in these episodes we see him absolutely loving his return to the field—exactly like a gleeful little boy. Enlisting Walt to be his playmate, they sneak around, and go on stake-out, and plant bugs on cars. It's the real-life, macho game of cops and robbers that is the only way he knows how to relate to the world. "Relax, buddy, this ain't no spy movie," he says to Walt—but of course, that's pretty close to how both of them approach the world and their roles in it. "It's more like Rocky," he says, launching into Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger."
Like Jesse's video game, this bit of self-awareness is another clue to the entire project of Breaking Bad. As I said when I began, Vince Gilligan is asking questions without every really asking them, and presenting a work that both fits into the genre of male empowerment stories—on the surface—and is itself a brutal critique of those same fantasies. Hank doesn't know the words to "Eye of the Tiger," but he—like Walt—is infused with the pop-culture concept of masculinity its cheesy '80s lyrics encapsulate. Risin' up, straight to the top/Had the guts, got the glory/Went the distance, now I'm not gonna stop/Just a man and his will to survive!
That's pretty much exactly how Walt thinks of himself now, after a lifetime of feeling inadequate, impotent, and unmanly. His—and our—cultural love affair with testosterone-fueled fantasies of manliness is exactly what Breaking Bad is critiquing. "Heisenberg" is that romantic myth made flesh, and Walt's denial of everything human and decent and loving in himself, in pursuit of that myth, is what has turned him into a monster.
To return to the question with which I began—and knowing full well we'll return to this theme many times before we're done—I'd say that's what's wrong with Walter White.