The Autumning Empire

Culture, Politics, Etc.

Breaking Bad’s Big Lesson For 2013

imagesThis was supposed to be a list. You know, one of those pop culture end-of-year lists. I had planned on calling it, “Five Most Important Things That Breaking Bad taught us in 2013.” It seemed apt. 2013’s end may signify any number of cultural milestones, but it’s an understatement to say the that final season of AMC’s Breaking Bad is one of the most important.

But I didn’t get far with my list. Well, that’s not exactly true. I got really far with just one item. Don’t get me wrong; Breaking Bad will continue to teach us many things beyond the year 2013. But as I tried to piece together what is unique about this program’s remarkable five-year run, the most important item on my list became the only thing. Here then is the top one thing that Breaking Bad taught us in 2013.

1. Sentimentality Corrupts Great Art

Breaking Bad excelled in many areas. But it also avoided lots of unnecessary mistakes. Narrative fiction has a host of pernicious traps that lie in wait for all who dare the journey. And the most pervasive of these traps, the one that snares the most wily and intrepid of storytellers, is the ancient snare of sentimentality.

I don’t want to go too far here. Art and sentimentality are not mutually exclusive. There’s nothing wrong with the two of them getting in bed for an occasional drunken fling. But the minute they start shacking up, or god forbid getting engaged or even married, it’s a sure fire sign of disaster. Yeah, I know. Dickens and Capra were masters of sentimentality. But these were not men; they were sorcerers tampering with a dark, seductive magic that most of us just can’t handle.

vince-gilliganVince Gilligan instinctively understands this truth. With Breaking Bad, he and his team created a world where viewers became deeply and emotionally involved without ever having to feel…well, dirty. Breaking Bad never cheats. Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, Skyler, and Hank  all come off as real people, people we feel that we know. And we care about them, in spite – or perhaps because – of their deep and tragic failures.

Those of us who enjoyed and endured the last appearance of Matt Smith on Doctor Who know how important it is for an actor’s departure or series’ end to come with a sense of closure. But what does this mean, and how is that sense of completion achieved? Usually by indulging in our culture’s favorite pastime: looking backward. Unfortunately, the past’s seductive landscape is mired in the sweet and enveloping quicksand of sentimentality. Remember when? Remember how?  Wasn’t that funny? Wasn’t that great? Wasn’t that – oh, damn it all to hell, I promised myself that I just wouldn’t cry!

The fact that Breaking Bad avoided this quicksand tells us everything we need to know. After lying to, exploiting, and all but destroying his family for an Empire of Meth, a broken Walter White speaks with his wife Skyler one last time. Like the swan songing protagonists before him, Walt attempts to answer the question: what did this journey mean? But he’s cut off by his wife, whose interjection triggers this painful, quiet exchange:

Skyler:  If I have to hear…one more time…that you did this for the family-

Walt:  I did it for me. I liked it.  I was good at it. And I was really…I was alive.

In fifty-nine seconds and twenty-eight words, Walter White gives his wife and viewers what we’ve been dying to hear for five whole seasons: the whole truth and nothing but.

What does Walter White receive in exchange for his frankness? The hope that his wife might not go to prison. A few precious seconds visiting his daughter’s crib side. And one last, secret look from afar at his bitterly estranged son. Throughout the series’ run, I found just about every scene between Walts senior and junior all but unbearable to watch. Perhaps it’s because I’m a dad myself, but I found something deeply unsettling and tragic in this father’s betrayal of his son. Even Walt’s relationship with Jesse, his all but adopted son, played out with greater fairness and equity. At some point every boy must watch his greatest idol fall, and we saw it happen at its most poignant and wrenching.

breakingbad514Walter White’s final farewell to his family leaves the viewers with a host of unanswered questions. Does Skyler forgive him? Do we forgive him? Can we forgive him? Do we want to forgive him? Are we even in a position to forgive, since time and again we freely handed over our sympathies this manipulator, liar, and murderer? Once upon a time, this game was played with the sly and cunning mastery of Alfred Hitchcock; Breaking Bad took it one step further by mapping out the suspense over a five year period.

The Walt and Skyler farewell is but one of countless similar exchanges seen over the series’ run. Virtually every deeply emotional, heartfelt moment is punctuated with at least one asterisk. As a result, our own emotional responses to the scene may or may not mirror those of the on-screen characters. We are therefore required to make our own decisions about how to respond. This makes for volatile, painful viewing. If the creators of the show aren’t telling me how to feel, then I’m sort of on my own, then, aren’t I? By demanding that we examine our loyalties and feelings, Breaking Bad held the mirror up to nature, and in so doing, avoided the dark arts and sweet seductions of sentimentality’s lure.

Art, at its best, provokes doubt. Sentimentality, at its worst, demands belief. This demand is firm and unconditional; you must believe, you will believe, and believe it right now. Believe that fairies are real. Believe that true love conquers all. Believe that if you just try your best, you can make it here in America. And if you don’t believe? If you decide to get all cocky and bow out? Go ahead. Do it. Protest the manipulation. But you’ll come off like an awful spoilsport, won’t you? No one gets thanked at a rained out picnic. And if it’s hard for you to believe? Hey, don’t worry. There’s an arsenal of weapons just waiting to bludgeon you into willing and passive submission. The swelling orchestra. The tearful close up. The supremely accomplished actor like Tom Hanks, who is so well practiced at giving your heartstrings that firm and encouraging tug. Come on! It’s just a movie. Or a TV show. Or a song. Why over intellectualize it? Why intellectualize it at all? Can’t you just sit back, relax, and enjoy it?

Breaking Bad’s steadfast, disciplined refusal to go this route made it one of the most emotionally complicated narratives I’ve experienced in a very breaking_bad_walter_white-540x303long time. The show was not cold. Indeed, it’s hard for me to think of any story that surpasses Breaking Bad in its invitation to gut wrenching empathy and an all but impossible compassion.  The program was never lazy, and led its viewers by example. More importantly, it respected us by refusing to dictate what we should believe or feel. That’s more than you can say for most TV shows and movies. Strange. We’d never let a parent or partner tell us what to feel , yet we’re perfectly comfortable putting that responsibility in the hands of complete strangers, and paying them handsomely for the privilege.

Look, I cried at the end of E.T. right along with the rest of you, so I’m sorry if this tirade makes me sound like a heartless bastard. But history tends to be pretty tough on cultures that are addicted to sentiment. And if the first thirteen years predicts anything about the next eighty-seven, then 21st century America is in for a brutal beating at the angry hands of history. We can only hope that Breaking Bad will be counted in the great and final tally. Then, historians of the future can look backwards and say, “For one five year moment, the Autumning Empire held up the mirror, took a hard look, and just once had the courage to say: ‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.’”

David Berkson

December 30, 2013

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