Breaking Bad and the end of the American Dream

I’ve finally got to the last episode of Breaking Bad, and I feel not so much bereft as relieved that it’s over.   Not because it wasn’t good.  On the contrary, it’s actually a stunning achievement.   The performances are astonishing throughout.   The writing is sharp and skilful, with an endless succession of memorable characters and enough dizzying plot twists that make it utterly compelling even when you can hardly stand to watch it.

It’s dark, macabre, cynical, tragic and bleakly funny – a real Faustian descent into madness, corruption and murder set against the sun-drenched majesty of the New Mexico desert,  which is beautifully rendered in some of  the most striking and haunting cinematography that you’re ever likely to come across in a television series.

For those of you that don’t know (there must be some of you out there),  this hugely successful American series tells the story of Walter White,  a humble chemistry teacher who starts cooking crystal meth with a view to supporting  his family after his death.

Together with his former high school student Jesse Pinkman, White embarks on a nightmarish odyssey through a criminal underworld inhabited by a succession of psychopathic hit men, Mexican narcos, dodgy lawyers and crazed meth-snorting dopeheads and assorted lowlifes.

So all this is makes for gripping viewing, for those of us that like that sort of thing.  But at the same time I frequently found himself wishing it would end long before it actually did.  This was partly because Breaking Bad is often very, very cruel, and punctuated with  frequently savage violence, which is often presented with flippant Tarantino-esque black humour.

It takes a lot for Oliver Stone, of all people, to cite Breaking Bad as an example of unrealistic fantasy violence, but he’s not wrong. It’s a tribute to the writing and the performances, that you find yourself sympathizing with characters that really aren’t very sympathetic at all. Even as White evolves into a ruthless monster and does the most terrible things, there is always an element of pathos and desperation about his character that makes you hope that he will.

Where the violence in The Wire has a kind of routine, mediocre ordinariness about it, the violence in Breaking Bad is much more aesthetically-pleasing and entertaining.   Murders are carried out by cool-looking glamorous hitmen,  or accompanied by cheery and deliberately inappropriate soundtracks, which simultaneously make it more disturbing  and which also trivialize what is actually happening.

A lot of the violence touches on or refers to the horrific slaughter that has been taking place as a result of the cartel wars on the other side of the US-Mexico border, and there is really nothing very cool or funny about that.

Unlike The Wire also, Breaking Bad does not have redemptive moments.  It could just as easily be entitled ‘Breaking Worse’, because even the most innocent and likeable characters – not many of them admittedly – tend to end up dead or have their lives shattered.  There is White’s sweet disabled son, or the grief-stricken air traffic controller whose junkie daughter is allowed to die by White, and inadvertently causes  a plane crash.   There is Pinkman’s one-time girlfriend, wasted by the psychopathic Todd, and so on and so forth.

It’s a tribute to the writing and the performances, that you find yourself sympathizing with characters that really aren’t very sympathetic at all.  Even as White evolves into a ruthless monster and does the most terrible things, there is always an element of pathos and desperation about his character that makes you hope that he will triumph over people who are even nastier  than he is.

This nastiness isn’t only found in White’s  paranoid and greedy business partner Lydia, the bonkers dealer Tuco Salamanca, or the icy Gustavo Fring, or Todd’s vile uncle Jack.    Two of the worst characters in the series are the millionaire entrepreneurs Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz, who have become rich through conning White out of the company he once founded, thereby forcing him to work two jobs even to keep his family afloat even before he discovers the dark pleasures of cooking crystal meth.

The moral distinction between the Schwartz couple and the likes of Gustavo Fring get up to, the series implies, is pretty non-existent.    Greed is a key motivation for many, if not the majority of the characters in the film.  Even the seemingly amiable but inept businessman Ted Beneke, who has an affair with Walt’s wife, can’t resist buying a new car when she bails him out from the IRS – a decision that naturally doesn’t work out well for him.

White’s attitude to money is different, at least at the beginning.  The only reason he starts cooking meth is to pay for his cancer treatment and ensure that his family are looked after when he dies.  This decision is partly forced upon him by the American healthcare system, or lack thereof, which means that his insurance policy doesn’t cover his treatment.   Nor does the health system cover his brother-in-law Hank, who gets shot and threatened with permanent disability – until White pays for his treatment without his knowledge.

Then there is the question of college tuition fees.  White loves his son Walter Junior so much that he is determined to pay for his university education, even after his son finds out about his activities and hates him.

So White is on one level an anti-hero and casualty of the American dream, who begins the series as an emblematic put-upon member of the squeezed middle classes, leading a life of quiet desperation and resentful at his lack of success and the wealth and status that his former colleagues have achieved.

Yet even when he has made more money than he and his family are ever likely to need, he feels compelled to make more, partly because his gangster colleagues expect of him and also because making money has become a metric of his own position in the world – regardless of how it has been earned.

Donald Trump, Dick Cheney and Bernie Madoff have done no less.    And in the country of the one percent,  millions of Americans will never reach those giddy heights, and are lucky if they can even even get a living wage or pay for their hospital bills.

In a way then, White is the perfect symbol of the American dream gone sour, with his shaven head and his constantly furrowed brow,  whose desperate search for financial security leads him to commit one crime after another, and transforms him into something monstrous.

So I’m glad I watched it, and was sufficiently mesmerized to stick it out to the somewhat over-the-top ending. But like I say, I’m also really glad it’s over, and that I don’t have to wonder what is going to happen any longer.