“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”
Warning: spoilers for all five seasons of Breaking Bad, and mild spoilers for The Sopranos and The Wire.
The other day I saw the following meme posted in Facebook:
What I love about this isn’t just the smug Canadian schadenfreude (though I do love that, make no mistake), but the way in which this meme symbolically encapsulates the quasi-canard about the difference between Canadians and Americans. (I say “quasi” because it’s not all fiction, but I’ll get to that below). As anyone who watches Breaking Bad knows, the crisis point that comes in the very first episode is that Walter White—ostensibly mild and meek teacher of high school chemistry—receives a dire prognosis of lung cancer and, knowing that his insurance will not cover his treatments, chooses to put his expertise as a chemist to use cooking methamphetamine. Five seasons later as the show enters its endgame, Walt has long ago discarded his initial intention to make just enough cash to leave his family comfortable when he dies, and has instead risen the pinnacle of the drug world as “Heisenberg.”
What the meme highlights is that, in a context with nationally-funded health care, Breaking Bad loses its most crucial plot point, the catalyst that sends Walt on his lucrative and self-destructive path. In the early days when we were all still naïve about Walt’s character and imagined him as a nice guy forced into dire straits by American health care policy (or the lack thereof), Breaking Bad was often characterized as a trenchant critique of same. Such a reading wasn’t hurt by the fact that season two aired from March-May 2009, when the initial debates about Obamacare were in the works, and season three was just getting under way when it was passed in March 2010. And it should be said that such a reading of the show isn’t wrong by any means—just that, as we head into the final stretch, the series has proved rather more nuanced and complex.
The corollary argument to the Breaking Bad Canada meme is that, whatever his ultimate faults and crimes, Walter White would never have rediscovered ambition, excellence, and accomplishment in the Canadian system—he would have received his treatment, gone on being meek and ineffectual, a shell of a man who had traded off his original chance for wealth and power in exchange (as he tells Jesse) for a few months’ rent. He would never have learned—or relearned—personal power. He would never have risen to the top of his chosen profession, and likely would have simply been consumed by his cancer and died without ever having achieved greatness.
I call this the Ayn Rand argument.
Increasingly as I have watched the series I have come to see Walt as an ambivalent critique of Randian, and by extension, libertarian philosophy. Ambivalent for several reasons: one, however appalling Walt’s actions and behaviours have been, there remains that kernel of sympathy for him (and for many, much more than a kernel—the fact that there are legions of fans who hate Skyler because they see her as a shrew and a killjoy is at once awful and unsurprising); two, because the facts of Walt’s original dire circumstances and his health-care straitjacket are unavoidable; three, because Breaking Bad is not simplistic or straightforward in its various critiques. Like The Wire, it is a show that (to use David Simon’s phrasing) “builds toward argument.” Unlike The Wire, it is far less rooted in systemic issues and far more in character; and four, in the end Walt is himself a deeply ambivalent figure who ultimately fails (he says, hoping this argument isn’t obviated by the final episodes) as a Randian protagonist. In the end, he cannot divest himself of those personal attachments—in his case, family—that Rand repeatedly argued were impediments to greatness. The only true morality, she argued, was selfishness—and that such qualities as charity, love, generosity, spirituality, and so forth, were emphatically immoral.
My overarching argument here, then, is that Breaking Bad is among other things a wonderfully complex and shrewd critique of a broader philosophy and mindset that has enthralled a significant American constituency since … well, I want to say Reagan, but in truth it has always been around. Ayn Rand is merely a good lightning-rod for this discussion, as her novels and other writings tend to distill the go-it-alone spirit to its most absurd extremes.
My discussion proceeds in two sections: first, considering Walter White in the context of the other anti-heroes of prestige television (especially Tony Soprano); and second, looking at the Randian elements and political implications of the series.
Bear with me, I’ve been working on this one for a while.
A Different Species of Anti-Hero
I wrote a blog post last summer about Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO drama The Newsroom in the context of the other key shows in what I suppose we now call “prestige television.” To sum up: I basically observed that most of these shows, such as The Sopranos, Oz, Deadwood, The Wire, Sons of Anarchy, and so forth, reversed a long tradition in television drama insofar as they were not aspirational. That is to say, they focused on working-class, uneducated but extremely intelligent characters whose lifestyles and livings were largely based in illegality. This is in marked contrast to the legions of hospital and medical procedurals, legal dramas, and other situations and contexts that valorized education and professions that required education. From the start, television has tended to eschew working-class characters and contexts, with the handful of shows like The Honeymooners, All in the Family or King of Queens functioning as the exceptions that proved the rule. Even police procedurals tended to follow suit: for every gritty street-smart drama like NYPD Blue or Hill Street Blues, there are many shows like C.S.I., as well as any number of cop shows featuring unusually expensively-dressed and expensively-wheeled detectives (Miami Vice, anyone?).
So this shift is notable, especially considering that these new prestige shows have as a significant portion of their audiences the intelligentsia: those highly-educated and affluent people who might well have been the focus of traditional television dramas have delighted to the shrewd but unlettered machinations of Tony Soprano. Precisely why there has been this shift is uncertain, but aspirational shows like The Newsroom or Mad Men are the exceptions (though it does beg the question about just how aspirational a figure Don Draper is).
At any rate, I don’t want to rehash my original discussion. I just raise it because it occurred to me recently that Breaking Bad, while superficially possessing many of the elements and qualities of other prestige shows about illegal endeavours, is actually doing something very different—something subtly and yet crucially different, which, I want to argue, is the root of its brilliance.
Vince Gilligan famously pitched Breaking Bad as “Mr. Chips becomes Scarface.” That description, which seems to get quoted any time anyone writes about Breaking Bad (guilty), is wonderfully compelling and woefully inadequate, as all good synopses of complex narratives are. It was a description that held up well for the first stretch of the series but has increasingly become less than satisfactory. We have come to realize that Walter White is not a good man forced by circumstances into a series of soul-destroying choices and actions, but rather a prideful, cruel, and arrogant man who has found circumstances in which these elements of his nature can emerge and indeed flourish. He always was Scarface; his “Mr. Chips” persona was something he only reluctantly adopted.
This reversal is at the heart of Breaking Bad’s particular genius, and it is part of what sets Walter White apart from the other anti-heroes of prestige television. Had Walter come to the meth trade as a good man, honestly and genuinely exploiting his talents as a chemist (or, well, as honestly as one can in the production of illegal narcotics), we might have expected to see him become somewhat more like Tony Soprano. But he is utterly unlike Tony: he is austere where Tony is sensual and hedonistic, focused and rigid where Tony is opportunistic and improvisational, uncompromising where Tony is pragmatic. As I suggested in my previously-mentioned blog post, much of the television shows in the vein of The Sopranos are very much about the negotiation of power—they are, as Tony might say, about business, and in business, it’s all in the game (to quote another show).
Power is obviously a crucial trope in Breaking Bad, but in a significantly different manner. When, halfway through season five, Jesse Pinkman tries to convince Walt to agree to sell their hijacked methylamine, he quotes back the numbers Walt had crunched in the first season—the amount he needed to earn to provide for his family when he died of the cancer ravaging his system. At the beginning, it was three quarters of a million dollars … but as the series went on, the actual dollar value of Walt’s meth cooking became less and less significant to him. What became more important was being the best—which was why his lab assistant Gale was a threat.
(Can we have a parenthetical celebration of the actor who played Gale, David Constabile? I have seen this guy now in countless shows, and he is never anything but amazing in a quiet and competent way. Wire-heads will know him as the unctuous managing editor of the Baltimore Sun, Thomas Klebanow. Klebanow tracks well enough with the nebbish Gale, but Constabile proved he could play menacing and dangerous in the first two seasons of Damages, in which he played a corrupt cop moonlighting as a fixer and hitman).
Gale was a threat because he was a chemist almost as good as Walt, and in practical terms that meant he could potentially figure out how to replicate Walt’s formula and make Walt redundant. But as Kira Bolonik points out in an excellent article about Breaking Bad’s use of poetry generally (and Walt Whitman specifically), where Gale quotes Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” to disparage the pedantry of the lecture hall and celebrate the creativity and “magic” of the laboratory, “Walt loves being a teacher—his ego is ravenous for the applause—so he winds up swapping out Gale for the less competent Jesse, his old student and partner.” Indeed, Bolonik’s observation raises a crucial point about Walt, whose fraught relationship with Jesse Pinkman comprises one of the show’s key thematic arcs. They begin as the irascible teacher and slacker student; Walt is constantly resentful of his reliance on Jesse, and the resentment makes itself known in a steady stream of condescension, high-handedness, and outright bullying. But as the show progresses, Jesse goes from being a hapless meth head and clown to becoming the show’s moral compass. For Walt, Jesse’s presence becomes ever more important as he develops a fatherly affection—but as Bolonik points out, Jesse is more critical to Walt as audience to his brilliance. The early resentment at his reliance on Jesse becomes a different kind of resentment—a resentment born of jealousy—when Mike takes Jesse under his wing and attempts to wean him away from what he sees (rightly) as Walt’s pernicious influence.
To return to my early comparison between Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, the laconic and surly Mike Ehrmantraut could well be read as the representative figure from Tony’s world—and indeed, he would fit in well among Tony’s crew (or in the Baltimore police department). So, for that matter, would Gus Fring: both of them are businessmen in the mold of Tony Soprano, Al Swearingen, or Stringer Bell, and both of them have an instinctive distrust of Walter White … a fact that baffles Walt to no end, and deepens his resentment when Jesse starts to admire Mike. Walt’s attempts to connect with Mike are pathetic and would be comic if they weren’t played with such deliberate humourlessness. Mike’s rant at Walt early in season five, castigating him for screwing up the good thing they had going with Gus, epitomizes this conflict: as Mike points out, Walt couldn’t be satisfied with keeping his head down and working, and in the process earning far more than the initial sum he had entered the meth business to make. Somewhere along the line it became about pride, probably exacerbated by the fact that he received no thanks or praise from his new employers for his genius—just the goad of being given a lab “assistant” whose job was to make him obsolete.
It is this prideful need for praise and greatness that make both Gus and Mike leery of Walt, for they know too well it makes him erratic and unpredictable. Over its six seasons, The Sopranos was littered with the corpses of those who let personal pride and ambition interfere with Tony’s earnings—and indeed, most of Tony’s biggest crises arose when he let his own pride and petty hatreds interfere with his business. But perhaps the best analog that comes to mind is this wonderful three minutes from The Wire:
In his own, much more understated way, Avon Barksdale has a bit of Walt to him—as does his successor Marlo Stanfield—insofar as he becomes less concerned about making money than he does with having his “name ring out.” And later in the series when Marlo is warned that “prisons and graveyards, full of boys who wore the crown,” he retorts, “But they wore it.” Wearing the crown, and being seen wearing it, is the driving force for Marlo and Avon … as it becomes for Walt. Marlo’s later angry declaration that “My name is my name” finds an echo in the now notorious scene from season five of Breaking Bad:
As Shakespeare himself was fond of pointing out however, crowns are ephemeral—hence the preoccupation with the name, which is supposed to become the legacy. One of the trailers for the final stretch of Breaking Bad, however, offers a poetic dismissal of this sentiment: it features a montage of familiar New Mexico landscapes while Walter White recites Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias.”
The poem, a classic commentary on the hubris of power and empire, is eminently appropriate to Breaking Bad, especially after Walt’s speech to Jesse in the penultimate episode of season five’s first half:
The second half of season five has thus far changed this particular game: the apogee of Walt’s empire-building comes with the “say my name” scene (and the subsequent montage of him earning obscene amounts of money, with his meth spreading out far beyond New Mexico). But he has apparently relinquished his desire for empire, and given it up; the drama of the home stretch looks like it will be about the battle of wills between Walt and Hank.
That being said, that battle of wills is a direct result of Walt’s previous ambitions. Indeed, the shift in tone in the second half of season five is perhaps the most contrived plot turn Breaking Bad has offered—Walt’s sudden change of heart, his willingness to give up his empire and return to his family, all of these elements are believable but sudden after his bravura display of arrogance.
The Failed Randian Hero
Of a piece with this last clip is the bit where Walt rebukes Jesse for willingly walking away from his chance for greatness: “Jesse, this—what we do? Being the best at something? It’s a very rare thing. You don’t just toss something like that away. You want to squander that potential? Your potential? Why? To do what?” On one hand his anger at Jesse is yet another lie he tells himself, believing that he is helping Jesse realize his potential, rather than needing him around as audience to his brilliance and justification for his choices. On another hand, this self-image as being “the best” has long since displaced his need and desire for money. Walt’s obsession with product purity becomes a powerful metaphor for ideological purity. His disparagement of Jesse for giving up the opportunity to be the absolute best at something (or, more accurately, be in the best’s august presence), for instead wallowing in the morass of his conscience, resonates with Ayn Rand’s two most famous heroes, John Galt and Howard Roark—though more, perhaps with the latter, for The Fountainhead is less concerned with economic power (as Atlas Shrugged is) than with the purity and excellence of one’s craft. For Roark it is architecture; for Walt, chemistry. But in both novels, as in Breaking Bad, the protagonists seek to practice their art without the interference of lesser, weaker minds whose resentment in the face of greatness leads them to want to tear it down and domesticate it. Rand’s novels are fables of individual brilliance besieged by collective mediocrity, and both possess a certain petulant nihilism: Howard Roark blows up his masterpiece rather than allow it to be compromised, and Atlas Shrugs is basically the story of the uber-wealthy leaving the world to rack and ruin in retaliation for “socialist” policies.
In a host of ways, Walter White is nine-tenths of the perfect Ayn Rand protagonist. His initial story arc, or what we are able to glean, starts out with the ruin of a man: a high school teacher whose students contemptuously ignore him, and whose teaching salary is so paltry he is reduced to working a second job at a local car wash. To make matters worse, his brother-in-law Hank is initially presented as a bellicose, ultra-masculine man with an ultra-masculine job in the DEA. Despite the fact that Hank also works a public sector job, his salary is apparently enough to afford him and his wife a far larger and more attractive house than the one Walt shares with his wife and son. Hank clearly pities Walt, and just as clearly sees him (and treats him) as something less than a man.
Walt, it seems clear, is someone who has long been victimized because he plays by society’s written and unwritten rules and has allowed himself to be trod upon. Early on, we learn that he had been in on the ground floor of a new company while still in college, one that has since become worth billions, and which he sold his stake in because he was newly married and had a baby on the way (though the reasons why he sold become murkier as the series goes on)—again, ostensibly doing the responsible thing and playing by the rules.
It is his emergence from this cowed and put-upon bubble that forms the show’s Randian subtext. His transformation from meek Walter to drug kingpin Heisenberg sees him embracing the attitudes and behaviour that Rand’s “objectivism” celebrate: he is arrogant and uncompromising, driven by a singular pursuit of excellence and perfection, and perfectly willing to flout laws both governmental and social. When he first meets Gale and asks him how he got into the meth business, Gale replies that he is by temperament a libertarian, and he doesn’t think the government has any right to tell people what they can and cannot put in their bodies. “Consenting adults want what they want,” he says. “At least with me they’re getting exactly what they pay for.”
But Gale’s political sensibility is more anti-establishment than it is Randian (more Rand Paul than Ayn Rand, if you like), far more interested in personal exploration than personal accomplishment, something made evident in his vaguely artistic journal and his personality more generally. To again quote Bolonik, he is “a sensual, sentient, self-admitted nerd, a vegan with a passion for Italian music and horticulture, and who prides himself on his elaborate vacuum reflux/distillation system that brews the perfect cup of coffee.” Gale is self-effacing to a fault, and has no apparent desire to do more than futz about in a lab and play with chemical equations, which, so long as he makes his quotas, makes him a far more amenable master chef for Gus Fring than Walt’s demanding arrogance.
(Fring himself is a fascinating paradox of a character, the massively powerful kingpin who manages to be veritably invisible. He is the consummate businessman, and would probably make Stringer Bell rabidly jealous of the scope and reach of his empire. As already mentioned, someone like Walt is anathema to the way he does business. It is against his better judgment that he makes Walt his head meth cook, and he pays for it with suddenly increased visibility, as Walt’s blue meth makes the appearance and circulation of the product much easier for law enforcement to track. Also, Walt ends up killing him … so, y’know, doubly a poor choice).
Walt remains however a flawed Randian character because he clings to those initial reasons for getting into the meth business to begin with—namely, his wife and son. The Randian purist argues that family, friendships, romantic relationships, and love itself more broadly are impediments to success. Whereas Walt’s refusal to let Skyler and Walt Jr. (sorry, Flynn) go has provided one of the show’s most troubling conflicts. As stated above, there is a not-insignificant portion of Breaking Bad’s viewership that delights in Walt’s escalating badassery and has come to hate Skyler for spoiling the fun. This constituency of viewers has founded a handful of websites and Facebook pages, as well as numerous discussion threads in fan forums. They have been vocal enough and virulent enough that the hatred has spilled over from vilifying Skyler to attacking Anna Gunn, the actress portraying her. It has gotten bad enough that Gunn recently authored a bewildered op-ed in The New York Times asking “Could it be that they can’t stand a woman who won’t suffer silently or ‘stand by her man’? That they despise her because she won’t back down or give up? Or because she is, in fact, Walter’s equal?” Vince Gilligan himself dismissed the Skyler-haters with contempt: “People are griping about Skyler White being too much of a killjoy to her meth-cooking, murdering husband? She’s telling him not to be a murderer and a guy who cooks drugs for kids. How could you have a problem with that?”
How indeed? This is still just an embryonic thought for me, but it strikes me that this fan reaction gets to the heart of Breaking Bad’s broader critique. Are the haters really angry with Skyler, or are they more frustrated with Walt for not cutting her loose? She certainly gives him ample opportunities to do so from the moment she discovers his criminal activities. Also, it is possible the irritation comes from the fact that Walt effectively flouts the expectation of genre. I would suggest this is especially the case if we consider Scarface: Tony Montana ends up alone but magnificently unrepentant in his mansion as his enemies close in on him. At this point it remains to be seen how Breaking Bad will end, though a similar catastrophic climax is presumably not out of the question. Certainly, I would have to assume that such a finale would please the fans of Badass Heisenberg.
Skyler is to my mind however the show’s most pivotal character. Even more than Jesse Pinkman, she represents something like a badly magnetized moral compass. Jesse is there to say “But … but …” at whatever the most egregious transgression has been, and to wear his guilty conscience on his sleeve while Walt buries his own (if he has one: I think there’s a decent case to be made for Walt’s sociopathic tendencies). Skyler, conversely, presents a much more complex, much more fraught study. She is both victim and accomplice, hostage and negotiator, and by the most recent episodes has had little choice but to embrace her complicity. But of course she does so at huge personal cost. Walt essentially put her in a no-win situation, in which her only options were turning him in, which at the start would have left her destitute and would have devastated her son; after a certain amount of time, she was culpable. She could have fled, but would have had to leave her son behind. What she ended up doing was at once the best and worst compromise. Unlike Walt, she and Jesse suffer genuine emotional trauma from the whole sordid mess; unlike Jesse, Skyler was one of Walt’s principal reasons for doing everything he did to start with. Jesse always had the option of telling Walt to fuck off; that option was never available to Skyler, or at least not to the same extent as it was for Jesse. As a result, Walt’s transformation into Heisenberg was unavoidably, irredeemably toxic. The cancer with which he was diagnosed in episode one became an elaborate metaphor for the disease that metastasized in the family unit he set out to save.
I’ve cited Shelley and Whitman—how about Wilde?
And all men kill the thing they love,
By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
To reiterate my point, Walt’s flaw from a Randian perspective is his refusal to divest himself of emotional ties, and instead of Scarface’s meteoric rise and spectacular fall, he agrees in the end to abandon meth and return to his family. The second half of season five (so far) has seen the apogee of Heisenberg and a tentative reconciliation with Skyler—though the latter is a fragile thing, and has entailed Skyler’s final, irrevocable complicity with Walt. I think it is safe to say that Breaking Bad will not end well for anyone involved, and therein lies the rub. The easy divestment of familial and social ties in the name of personal accomplishment is a myth, and in the end I suspect Walt will indeed have killed the things he loves.