Of our elaborate plans, the end: saying goodbye to Breaking Bad

“I’m in the Empire business.”
-Palpatine, Galactic Emperor


“You may say to yourself — my God! What have I done?”
-Talking Heads


Yesterday I posted Anna Gunn’s splendid column, from The New York Times, to Facebook. She plays Skyler White on Breaking Bad, and in remarkably few words, she painted a picture of legions of viewers who hate her fucking guts. Not just her character’s guts — her guts, I guess because she is making the character possible, you know, simply by being alive. Breaking Bad has done a very good job conveying to its audience that Skyler White is a bitch, who doesn’t want her husband to succeed, and won’t let him just deal a little high-quality blue meth. (Which, by the way, is like a million times better than the non-blue meth that’s out there. Not that she would even understand something like that. Not that she would understand the importance of quality, of having a brand.)

It was a great column, and Gunn gets her critique of Walter White just right. The problem is that she’s too easy on Skyler. You can’t really blame Gunn for this; if she was a better critic of Skyler, perhaps she’d have trouble portraying her so brilliantly. Most actors have no critical purchase on their films at all. But Skyler is not simply a strong woman being wronged. She’s dependent on Walter, and it emerges that this is mostly by choice. That’s a really bad choice, because Walter doesn’t have the resources to be the only breadwinner. In the comments to my Facebook post, lots of other problems with Skyler started showing up. She’s an “artist,” but only in the sense of “a well-educated person who doesn’t do anything.” Skyler never creates anything; as CMG pointed out, she’s labeled an artist just so that the plight of the family can look even sadder. RS observed that Skyler is lacking, at least at first, in any sins we might vicariously enjoy. She’s a saint, albeit a very drab one. Walter, her mirror image, ends as a very drab villain. The chess game against the other drug lords goes on, but whoever wins, we lose.

I could claim that Breaking Bad is a parable about what happens when teachers make low wages — that it’s about a nation that refuses to give its citizens basic medical coverage and responds to epidemic drug abuse in amazingly dumb ways. But that would be a rationalization for who Walter really is. He’s a man who feels emasculated, and needs the love of a good job to save him. His marriage to Skyler would be quietly awful even if he could come home at night, instead of working at the carwash. It’s the same with so many of these “last-resort” themed shows. We don’t want to see catastrophe strike Walter and Skyler, but that’s not the same as really loving them. And, after a couple years, the “last resort” reveals itself to be a choice like any other — motivated, unforced.

Slavoj Zizek once wrote that the Titanic has to sink (in the film Titanic), because if it didn’t, Jack and Rose would reach America together, and realize they were a terrible match. Cancer is clearly the greatest thing that’s ever happened to Mr. Walter White. Without it, he’d still be dying, just more slowly. He wouldn’t be alive, not really. Folks, we’ve tried everything to keep Mr. and Mrs. Average American from suffocating. We’ve tried zombies. We’ve tried killing Rose Larsen. We’ve tried letting Rose Larsen live, and only killing serial killers, because of Dad’s code. We’ve tried Madison Avenue. We’ve tried making them all live in the Middle Ages, with dragons and stuff. At the end of the day, as I was saying to this zombie on the bus yesterday, it’s just escapism. Moral ambiguity is not a solution to the death of the heart.

Moral ambiguity can’t produce “golden age” TV forever, either, because TV as a medium has an inherent need for simple moral schemas. The reason why shows like Law and Order can go on and on, forever, is that the show is about good guys who try to catch bad guys. But back to Walter and Skyler, and all the Walters and Skylers, all over the place, who never do cook meth: what is to be done? We tried running. For a while, it was awesome. Now, at the end of TV’s golden age, we have to ask ourselves: where does that highway lead to?