Saturday, October 5, 2013

Farewell Breaking Bad

Remember the chorus to the Malcolm in the Middle theme, "You're not the boss of me now!" Prophetic.   As a postmodern family sitcom, Malcolm brought the irreverence and goofiness of The Simpsons to the live action format.  Bryan Cranston played the father Hal as an overgrown child. When the show ended after six seasons, it seemed Cranston's take on the sitcom father would pass into the TV ether as a Trivial Pursuit question. Far from it.

Few saw Walter White coming.*  Over the course of five seasons, Bryan Cranston played a mild mannered chemistry teacher who transformed into a ruthless drug lord of the American Southwest (or from Mr. Chips to Scarface in the words of the show's creator, Vince Gilligan).  A grim cancer diagnosis drove Mr. White to cook crystal meth to provide for his family before he succumbed to the Big C. Along the way, he partnered with a former student Jesse Pinkman to produce the wonder drug.  Walt also contended with Hank, his macho brother-in-law who also happened to be a DEA agent.  At the beginning, his wife Skyler remained clueless about her husband resorting to criminal activity, but eventually found out and faced some tough decisions of her own.  With each season, Walt matched wits with new antagonists who threatened his burgeoning meth empire.

Protagonists of TV shows rarely evolve like characters in a novel.**  J.R. Ewing remained a greedy oil man throughout the entire run of Dallas and Archie Bunker stayed frozen in time as the lovable bigot.  The gang from Cheers rarely ventured outside the friendly confines of their bar. The characters on Seinfeld never transcended their stone cold narcissism.  Even a more complex character like Tony Soprano pretty much remained the same man throughout the Sopranos (an amoral gangster modern psychiatry failed).  As a viewer, it can be comforting to usually know how characters will react in situations.  But in the past decade TV has embraced embraced complex story lines with some real character development.  While Breaking Bad will be grouped among these shows, I think it's importance will persist for other reasons.

Breaking Bad premiered on January 2008, as the Bush era came to a grim conclusion.  By the end of 2008 America faced economic collapse.  In a coincidence, the government shut down the day after the finale aired.  During those years, rhetoric crisscrossed social networks about the 99 percent getting screwed by the one percent. Class proved pivotal during the 2012 election between the venture capitalist and the community organizer.  In such an unforgiving political climate: What happens when one takes business into their own hands and refuses to play by the rules?  

Walt's new occupation brought him a pride and prestige he never attained as a teacher.  Like Michael Corleone, Walt wanted to save his family and build his power, but lost both in the process. Nevertheless, he did gain a self-reliance; a sense of controlling his own fate.  Although we celebrate Walt's triumphs over some repugnant people including psychopathic cartel leaders and viscous modern day Nazis, he made his own moral compromises along the way. Audiences can emphasize with Walt's dilemma in the political maelstrom of 21st century America.

Mr. White now stands as television's great anti-hero.  Anti-heroes were celebrated in 1970s cinema used eccentricity, rage, and intelligence against a system up to its neck in hypocrisy.  Jack Nicholson set the tone with his performances in Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  Nicholson's anti-heroes were loners who dropped out of the American mainstream.  Now we've entered new territory where the everyman feels the whole world aligned against him.  Breaking Bad spoke to that anxiety.

All the credit goes to the entire cast of Breaking Bad for creating a modern day fable steeped in the tradition of the West. Every character had depth.  The third to last episode, "Ozymandias" stands one of the most intense hours ever aired on television.  The final two episodes had a biblical sense of justice as Walt searched for redemption in the existential void he created for himself and the others in his life.  Rock on, Heisenberg.  

*Cranston starred in the X-Files episode "Drive" written by Vince Gilligan where he played a man pushed to the edge due to secret government experiments conducted on his family.  The part win him the role of Walter White.

** A generalization with many exceptions.