Repairing Breaking Bad Good

Rilla and I started watching Breaking Bad quite a long while ago only to have me be unable to put up with it. I get a bit overly crotchety with TV shows, truth be told. I grumble a lot. I find myself angered by perceived inconsistencies or particularly a lack of ethical clarity (though of course the clarity involved can be the clear treatment of the ambiguity of ethics and associated situations). Anyway, the key problem for me was the sheer ridiculousness of the main character, Walt, a school teacher and generally mild-mannered guy, deciding rather at random that it would be cool to start cooking and selling meth, a pretty harmful drug. The idea that the show gives (at least in the first season) is that he’s worried about money, has cancer, etc. etc. But c’mon, please. Fortunately, I have discovered a way to watch Breaking Bad without feeling angered by all this… it is connected with Luis Buñuel.

So we watched El Ángel Exterminador the other day and greatly enjoyed it for the large part. It was our first Buñuel movie and, while we’re not in a hurry to watch another, it was pretty impressive stuff. Centrally, the notion in the film that a group of people simply cannot leave a room for no apparent reason, is pretty great and well handled. For one thing, the people are aware that it’s bizarre that they would be behaving this way – but still they cannot break the “spell”. In my mind at least, a key element of their inability to leave the room was that the film itself demanded it. In a sense, “it’s in the script”, and so there you are, unable to leave a room. (I’m sure there are other, more sophisticated explanations, thoughts on this, of course.)

This works out pretty well for me in trying to think about how Breaking Bad works. In this version it’s not so much that Walt has made a horrible, unrealistic decision (to sell meth), it’s the show is called Breaking Bad and this requires him to, well, break bad. It’s not within his control to make another decision, and in a way you can see him as being kind of perplexed by the whole thing – his rages and mood swings, his alternation between being utterly comfortable with his new persona and being creeped out, and so on. I picture this as the character coming to terms with a decision made by the larger fiction, rather than by himself.

It’s entirely possible (even likely?) that the bizarreness of the first season’s immediate plunge into meth madness will be explained in some other, internally consistent way. Maybe he’s always been a sociopath, for instance. But until then, this surrealist/”pomo” approach to reconciling with the show is doing just fine for me.

4 June 2012
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