Of Meth and Men

June 26, 2014

Multiple Pages
Of Meth and Men

A few columns ago I mentioned in passing that the Mrs. and I had been watching Breaking Bad. This brought some inquiries about whether we got to the end of it, and what I thought. Here are the answers.

Yes, we got to the end, after four months or so of Saturday-night marathons via Netflix. For once I concur with the general opinion on a pop-cult phenomenon: It was very well done. If this is what good multi-season TV dramas are like nowadays—I wouldn’t know: this is the only one I’ve watched—the narrative arts have a healthy future.

Casting was excellent, with a lot of human types we can all recognize. The crooked lawyer was superb, and probably appealed to the mass of viewers as an archetype of what they suspect—unfairly, no doubt—about the legal profession in general. Equally good was the lawyer’s factotum Mike, the bored working stiff whose nine-to-five consists of surveillance, intimidation, corpse disposal, and the occasional homicide.

Mrs. D.’s favorite was Jesse, who I think was written to appeal to female instincts. (Am I allowed to say “female instincts” on TakiMag? I am? Thanks.) I don’t myself see the charm, but I did like the symmetry of Jesse, the show’s all-time loser, being the only one of the criminal side to get away at last.

“Still, inside most men—and no doubt some number of women, too—there is the understanding that to be alive, at some higher level, is to be staying on your feet in a swirl of amoral mayhem until at last, mortally wounded, you fall, laughing, among the corpses of your enemies.”

Jesse looked right, too—not very bright, and just slightly crazy. The faces were altogether memorable: Walter’s wife, with that high-testosterone man-jaw and weirdly large mouth, taking charge at key moments; and her ditzy sister, whose intellectual horizons are bounded by People magazine and local TV news.

Then there was Hank, the law enforcement guy we all know: a type that nobody much likes but that we all understand at some level is essential to the maintenance of civilized life.

Whether Hank’s obnoxious skill set is usefully employed in service of the DEA is open to question. The whole show plays cleverly into our ambivalence about the War on Drugs. Is it really worth all this cruelty and corruption just to prevent the underclass from staggering around stoned? What use is the underclass, anyway, in an age of self-checkout stores, robot factories, and (soon) self-driving vehicles? Perhaps it would be kinder to let them stay narcotized, legally.

The underclass types in Breaking Bad are all white or pale-Hispanic, giving us a welcome vacation from having to think about black people and their everlasting damn problems. The only significant black character is Gus the crime boss, and he’s so buttoned-up, over-controlled, and smart, he might as well be white. Hey, just like … Never mind.

The landscape deserves an honorable mention as almost a character in itself: that endless desert in whose sunburned nakedness a multitude of sins can be hidden.

Best of all, the show mostly gets humanity right, in all our self-deception, guilt-restrained egocentricity, and unsteady dutifulness. There is a great moment of truth—of truth about human nature, I mean—halfway through the final episode, when Walter is with his wife Skyler for the last time.

Up to this point we—and Skyler—have been given to understand that Walter has been doing what he’s been doing so that his family will be provided for after he’s dead. (The criminal factotum Mike is likewise motivated by the hope of providing for his granddaughter. There’s a whole sub-theme on family loyalty running through the show—a legacy from The Godfather, perhaps. Given the results, you come away thinking the Absolute Nuclear Family is probably optimal.)

So there’s Walter, saying his farewell to Skyler.

Walter: All the things that I did, you have to understand …

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

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

There speaks the Old Adam. Sure, the bourgeois life of home comforts and civilized achievement is pretty nice. I am personally a big fan. Just this afternoon, of a perfect midsummer day, I was out in my backyard, doing some small painting chores on my garage; I’d sit for minutes on end admiring the work I’d done and planning next steps, looking forward to my wife coming home, anticipating the familiar wifely way she’d season her appreciation of my efforts with small sarcastic quips about jobs not yet done, then looking further forward to the extra glass of wine I’d allow myself with dinner … Life is good, and you won’t hear me complaining.

Still, inside most men—and no doubt some number of women, too—there is the understanding that to be alive, at some higher level, is to be staying on your feet in a swirl of amoral mayhem until at last, mortally wounded, you fall, laughing, among the corpses of your enemies.

Which is exactly what Walter does. Any number of characters from Greek epic poetry and Norse sagas would understand.

The great British statesman and scholar Enoch Powell gave a radio interview in April 1986 when he was 73 years old. “How would you like to be remembered?” asked the interviewer. Replied Powell: “I should like to have been killed in the war.”

Powell’s biographer adds the following.

After broadcasting that remark, he “received dozens of letters from people saying I’m glad you said that because I felt the same and I’ve never known it before. There’s a secret guilt about those who served and were not killed that they too … were not killed.”

The Old Adam: We have successfully pushed him out to the fringes of our pleasant suburban societies, the fringes where dwell Special Forces and inner-city desperadoes. A good thing too, for women, children, and us geezers. In our imaginations, though, the Old Adam still runs wild, and we love him for it.

Secret guilt is by no means only for combat survivors and schoolteachers turned meth cooks. 


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