Never underestimate American soft power.
What if the US government actually shut down to mourn the passing of Breaking Bad, arguably the most astonishing show in the history of television? It would be nothing short of poetic justice – as Breaking Bad is infinitely more pertinent for the American psyche than predictable cheap shots at Capitol Hill.
Walter White, aka Heisenberg, may have become the ultimate, larger than life hero of the Google/YouTube/Facebook era. In an arc of tragedy spanning five seasons, Breaking Bad essentially chronicled what it takes for a man to accept who he really is, while in the process ending up paying the unbearable price of losing everything he holds dear and what is assumed to be his ultimate treasure; the love of his wife and son.
Along the way, Breaking Bad was also an entomologist study on American turbo-capitalism – with the 1% haves depicted as either cheats or gangsters and the almost-haves or have-nots barely surviving, as in public school teachers degraded to second-class citizen status.
Walter White was dying of cancer at the beginning of Breaking Bad, in 2008. Progressively, he gets rid of Mr Hyde – a placid chemistry teacher – for the benefit of Dr Jekyll – undisputed crystal meth kingpin Heinsenberg. It’s not a Faustian pact. It’s a descent into the dark night of his own soul. And in the end he even “wins”, under his own terms, burning out with a beatific smile.
His secret is that it was never only about the transgressive high of producing the purest crystal meth. It was about the ultimate Outsider act, as in a Dostoevsky or Camus novel; a man confronting his fears, crossing the threshold, taking full control of his life, and finally facing the consequences, with no turning back.
And then, as in all things Breaking Bad, the music told a crucial part of the story. In this case, no less than the closing with Badfinger’s My Baby Blue, the bleakest of love songs:
Guess I got what I deserve
Kept you waiting there, too long my love
All that time, without a word
Didn’t know you’d think, that I’d forget, or I’d regret
The special love I have for you/
My baby blue
So – as Walter White finally admits, fittingly, in the last episode – he did it all, Sinatra’s My Way, not for the sake of his family, but for him. And here we have the purest crystal meth as a reflection of this purest revelation in this purest of TV shows, blessed with unmatched writing (you can almost palpably feel the exhilaration in the writers’ room), direction, sterling cast, outstanding cinematography quoting everything from Scarface to Taxi Driver via The Godfather, meticulous character development and gobsmacking plot twists.
But then again, that spectral song My Baby Blue is not only about crystal meth – just like Tommy James and the Shondell’s Crystal Blue Persuasion, used in a spectacular montage in season four.
It’s about Jesse Pinkman, Walter White’s repeatedly used and abused young business associate. It’s as if it was written by Walt as a tribute to Jesse; Jesse is the “baby” always evoking Walt’s “special love” in the form of usually spectacularly misfiring paternal feelings.
I’m in the Empire business
Walt/Heisenberg is a scientist. His scientific genius was appropriated by unscrupulous partners in the past, who enriched themselves in a tech company. As Heisenberg, finally the scientific/mechanical genius comes to full fruition – from a wheelchair bomb to a raid based on magnets and even a remix of the 1963 Great Train Robbery in the UK, not to mention the perfectly cooked meth.
Here’s one the writers’ take on cooking Breaking Bad. Yet that does not explain why Walter White touched such a nerve and became a larger-than-life global pop phenomenon from Albuquerque to Abu Dhabi.
A classic underdog narrative explains only part of the story. In the slow burn of five seasons, what was crystallized was Walter White as Everyman fighting The Establishment – which included everyone from demented criminals (a Mexico drug cartel, brain-dead neo-nazis) to vulture lawyers (“Better Call Saul”), cheating former associates and, last but not least, the US government (via the Drug Enforcement Agency).
Nihilism – of a sub-Nietzschean variety – also explains only part of the story. One can feel the joy of the Breaking Bad writers tomahawking the Judeo-Christian concept of guilt. But this has nothing to do with a world without a moral code.
One glance at James Frazer’s The Golden Bough is enough to perceive how Walter White, in his mind, does hark back to family-based tribal society. So is he essentially rejecting the Enlightenment?
We’re getting closer when we see Breaking Bad as a meditation on the myth of the American Dream – and its extrapolation as American exceptionalism. As Walter White admits to Jesse, he’s deep into “the Empire business“. In real life, Walter White might have been a mastermind of the Orwellian-Panopticon complex.
So with My Baby Blue ringin’ in my head, I ended up finding my answer in a book I always take with me while on the road in America: D H Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature. Not by accident Lawrence was a deep lover of New Mexico – where Breaking Bad‘s geopolitics is played out. And Walter White is indeed there, as Lawrence dissects James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer. (Here’s a digital version of the essay.)
Walter White, once again, embodies “the myth of the essential white America. All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”
When Walter White turns into Heisenberg he morphs into Deerslayer:
A man who turns his back on white society. A man who keeps his moral integrity hard and intact. An isolate, almost selfless, stoic, enduring man, who lives by death, by killing, but who is pure white.
This is the very intrinsic – most American. He is at the core of all the other flux and fluff. And when this man breaks from his static isolation, and makes a new move, then look out, something will be happening.
The genius of the Breaking Bad writers’ room – with creator Vince Gilligan at the core – was to depict Walter White’s descent into the maelstrom as primeval, intrinsically “most American”. No wonder Gilligan defined Breaking Bad essentially as “a western”. Clint Eastwood was fond of saying that the western and jazz were the only true American art forms (well, he forgot film noir and blues, rock’n roll, soul and funk, but we get the drift).
So call this warped western a masterful depiction of American exceptionalism. And mirror it with the soft pull of a dying, lone superpower which is still capable of turning the whole planet into junkies, addicted to the cinematically sumptuous spectacle of its own demise.