I’ve had a bad flu for the past six days, and spent much of that time getting bedrest and trying to manage various forms of sinus and throat irritation. Due to the grogginess and the medication, this hasn't been a very productive time. Instead of trying to work or read, I've watched TV. In the past six days I have watched the entirety of AMC's hit series Breaking Bad.
I resisted watching Breaking Bad when it came out, mainly because the premise was distasteful to me (an ordinary man descends into total depravity). I don't like the Southwest as a landscape—it calls up images of dust and rust and arid clay. Drug-related crime drama isn't a genre that immediately appeals to me. But what really set me against the show during its heyday was the fervor of its following: the way everyone kept insisting that it was somehow profound or morally interesting. I didn't buy it, and I didn't want to have to fight people over it, so I remained aloof.
Before last weekend, the only episode I had seen was the pilot. So I started with Episode 2 and went from there. The show was entertaining. Not always brilliantly written. The characters were sometimes thin and tended in too many cases toward caricature. Several multi-episode plot arcs are repeated during the course of the series with little substantial difference. There are good comedic moments. There's some really good camerawork, and some very subtle storytelling. But as the series approached its conclusion, I found myself disliking almost all the characters. I wanted to be able to root for Walter White in his descent to kingpin status, even if I couldn't approve of his actions. I wanted him to be a heroic villain, or at least spectacularly evil. The writers did not indulge me, though. They provided a Walter White in the end not too dissimilar from the man washing cars after school in the pilot—small, bitter, arrogant, and humiliated. As much as the show is billed as showing a man's decline, Walter isn't that much more pathetic at the end of his journey than he was at the start of it. The main difference is that the patina of victimhood concealing his character at the start has been washed away.
One of the most striking features of Walter's character throughout the series is the way he treats his partner in crime, Jesse Pinkman. Walter seems at times to care about Jesse's well-being. He takes him to rehab, for instance, and gives him money, and checks in on him. But during their regular interactions, Walter spends most of his days with Jesse berating him for his stupidity and incompetence. The writers seem to have created a world in which Walter is respected as a teacher. Perhaps he is a good classroom teacher—it's hard to say. Perhaps his behavior toward Pinkman is merely a manifestation of years of pent-up frustration and anger at his students, finally expressed in his secret second life. I find it odd that this was what ends up grabbing me emotionally about the show, but the murders and machinations and drug dealing bother me much less than the manifest cruelty with which Walter approaches his assistants and proteges. Real cruelty, callous and disdainful. In one of their final confrontations, Walter finally embraces Jesse. I think this is the first time in the entire five seasons of the show, and by this point the gesture is so late in coming that it cannot but be meaningless. Pinkman weeps helplessly while Walter looks indifferently into the distance over his shoulder.
Does the show have moral depth? It does.
[Note: I wrote the above several weeks ago, but for whatever reason didn't publish it at the time.]