Monday, January 07, 2013

Breaking Bad - Exploratio​n of Modern Masculinit​y

There are no dragons to slay. There are no golden fleeces to retrieve. There are no maiden princesses to save. Whether part of the bildungsroman genre or traditional epic poems, buried within those stories is how a boy becomes a man and what it means to be a man. The hero reflects the men, the times, and the challenges of the audience. It can also reflect the challenges of the men who set up that culture. The boys old enough to comprehend the story and men project themselves into the lead protagonist. Television shows and movies are our current versions of epic poems and short tales. Critics can look at these shows, but oftentimes just analyze them with their blue pill mindset. Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Det. McNulty and Walter White become touchstones for discussing modern men, but the discussions are always dunked in feminist sauce with girly man sprinkles on top (looking at you Sepinwall). Breaking Bad deals with a lot of current issues like social decay, the drug trade, and marriage. Under it all, it is about men, their status, the assigned roles, and the relationships they handle in our current world.
Walter White is the protagonist for Breaking Bad. I will focus on Walt even though Jesse is a nice reflection of modern young men. Walt is the one 'breaking bad'. It's his show. It is very clear that the creator is focused on Walt's choice to go from being part of the light, sweet world for the dark world of the drug trade. Many critics point out the tragic hero story arc and his repeated choices to be bad. What few focus on is the fact that Walt goes from being a passive participant in his life to taking charge and directing his life. He's choosing between being good or bad, but he's also choosing between being a man and just drifting along. He's also making the choices himself. Walt is a standard, American married guy with a wife that bosses him around, one sweet gal that got away, a blah job, no spontaneous action or excitment in his life, and a son who views him as a pussy. Compared to the caricature of a macho cop, Hank, his brother in law, Walt is a nervous and timid guy. In the premiere episode and then the first season, Walt decides to make changes and begins the transformation into the man he wants to be. What is sad is that the only reason he transforms and rejects his surrounding world is the diagnosis of stage three lung cancer. Only when he has nothing to lose in life, does he finally decide to act the way he wants to act and make decisions for himself.
It doesn't seem like Walt intends to totally transform. Initially, it's like he wants to compartmentalize, and just do a few deals to set his family up. He needs to act a certain way to get what he wants in the drug world. He starts out with a secret self (meth cooker Walt), but that secret self creeps more and more into his regular persona. Walt has the assertive capabilities inside of him, but he never gets to use them per the 'rules' of modern society. Walt approaches Jesse about selling drugs. Walt then knocks down and challenges a guy mocking his handicap son at a store. Walt throws up from chemo, but walks into a drug dealer's fortress with crystals that cause an explosion. He's balls to the wall as Walt the cook, but all he is doing is using his smarts and his skills as a chemist. Walt completes a Mr. Toad's style ride through the desert avoiding drug dealers. He then comes home and doesn't timidly answer his wife's questioning, but instead silently makes moves on her bangs her out. Walt the timid teacher would have begged for foregiveness out of fear of a no fault divorce. His wife of 15 years actually says when he is inside of her, "Is that you Walt?". The erection is the dipstick of a man's health and virility.
Walt's marriage, while on a weird tip, because of his absences due to cooking and the strain of cancer, seems to move in a new direction. On multiple occasions, Walt acts aloof, doesn't answer Skyler, answers her with weird and vague excuses, and makes moves on her in public or at spontaneous times. It never causes Skyler to leave. Skyler acquiesces to his moves and to assertive Walt, which timid Walt would never have tried. Skyler definitely runs that house. I don't see Skyler working, so Walt's a nice stream of income attached to a body for Skyler to use. Sadly, this is many modern marriages in a nutshell. She has a financial hostage, not a husband. Walt gave up research at the White Sands lab for this? How many guys are like this out there? A critical scene, which I haven't seen a reviewer look at in this manner, is the quasi-intervention in season one. This meeting is to force Walt into treatment, which is what Skyler wants. It has rules, which come right out of the psychiatric or elementary school days, "one talker at a time and hold the pillow to talk" BS (mom rules). Why does Skyler want Walt to poison himself for maybe an extra year of life? Listen carefully. As the intervention progresses, she wants time with him... but she wants to be able to use that burden on everyone else. See the sacrifice she is making for her sick husband. See the poor, pregnant woman caring for her husband who is dying. If Walt doesn't get chemo, his cancer will just kill him naturally. With chemo, Skyler can play the role of martyr even if Walt is the one who truly dies. She doesn't want the chemo for him since he has a death sentence. She wants it for her. All of her reasoning is because of the end game of being alone as well as Walt's denial of that martyr sainthood that she would earn for all to respect if she was the doting wife to her chemo ravaged husband. Walt rejects this as everything spins out of Skyler's control as the in-laws support Walt's choice.

Walt's message is clear: he feels he's never had a choice, and now he is making one for once in his life. This is the entrie series. He's played by the rules and reacted to circumstances. No more. Now he's making decisions. Not really with the chemo, but with cooking for money and thrills. Even though he does decide to get treatment, it is after the intervention, which he rejects. It is his choice to get chemo. He makes the decision in private to Skyler. He gets to run his life. He gets to be the Walt he wants to be. The blue pill idiots at Salon just swallow the superficial idea that Walt is a Willy Loman style loser who hates himself and has all of this animosity towards life over what people did to him years ago. Walt's ecstatic expression after walking into Tuco's den and coming away with 50K shows how false that is. He wants to feel alive. He wants to be the man. He wants to feel, not just exist. He's been bound in a crappy suburban marriage and home life not of his choosing, even if every step of the way he did the right thing. In the past, he was forced into decisons, but now the choices are of his making.
Walt's not just a husband to a wife that doesn't value him, but he's the dad to a son who doesn't respect him. One of the most important realizations that some children fail to grasp is that parents go from people you live with to people you visit. They also change from mother and father to three dimensional people who can disappoint you just as you disappoint them (the guy from Into the Wild didn't get it). Much is made of the damage that parents inflict if they reject a child in any way, but a child's rejection of a parent is just as painful. Walt Jr. intelligently catches on that Walt is acting more macho and different early in season one, which no one else notices. At the intervention, Walt Jr. makes the remark that Walt is being a pussy about chemo. He mentions his fight against CP with his crutches. Walt Jr. is part of our victim culture which will see him going through the motions of life as a big victory. Walt Jr. doesn't notice how CP really does make him different. His parents help him do basic needs. Walt Jr. doesn't see that his dad, valiantly facing death as inevitable and not putting his family through chemo + radiation, is sacrificing his life to not screw his family over financially. Walt Jr. only sees a useless struggle for a crappy existence as worth time because that is his life. He's handicapped, but he's a narcissist. I have disabled relatives, and I grew up thinking everyone had multiple relatives in wheelchairs (not old folks). I know this pathology. They can pretend until a moment, and there is always one, where the "I'm no different" story goes by the wayside due to physical reality. Walt's love for his son makes him hold back from saying, "Fight? I fucking dress you. I wipe your ass. I'm dying, and this is my choice. I'm your father, fuck off", but Walt Jr. can't even see it. No one wants to name it, but Walt Sr. views Walt Jr. as a poor legacy. His name Walt Jr. even implies it. This is your legacy Walter White? Walt Jr.: a kid with Cp who dislikes, disrespects and considers you a pansy. People talk about being disappointed in their child or parent all of the time, but no one ever admits that when they have a disabled child or parent, there is a twinge of "it's not quite right". Families with disabled kids dance around it all of the time. I've even seen it come up when end of life decisions for elders are being made. What Walt Jr. is completely oblivious to is that Walt sees him as an inadequate heir.
Walt Sr. seeks out Jesse for dealing drugs. There is something deeper at work. Jesse symbolically lives in an empty home. No parental guidance; no father figure present. He didn't apply himself in school, which Walt told him when Jesse was in school in giant red letters. Walt doesn't have an heir. Walt Jr. views Walt as a pussy, he calls his uncle up to bail him out instead of his dad, and lacks basic respect for the roof, physical assistance and love his dad provides. Walt Jr. doesn't value Walt. Combining snippets I have read in the past, a shrink once said that all men have one unresolved issue with their father (good or bad), and in Houellebecq's "The Elementary Particles", Bruno laments that he has nothing to pass down to his son, no skill, no wisdom, nothing as a modern man. Walt's relationship with Jesse is about that. "Here I have wealth of knowledge of chemistry and my son is fine but useless, you do not have a dad present, learn from me, apply yourself, work with me". Walt can create a legacy, albeit a messed up legacy, with Jesse. Creating their special meth is a trade. It is a skill. It is superb in the region. Funny to think the only thing a Boomer can pass down is the drug trade. Once Walt works with Jesse, Jesse gets the hunger to actually cook great meth like Walt did. He is proud of the meth. He goes from amateur to a perfectionist. Walt's near nude cooking of fine crystal inspires Jesse to match him. He be worthy of his partnership. Walt and Jesse argue, diagree and snipe at each other (Jesse explaining to Walt how he would kill Tuco was hilarious). They also help one another and learn from one another. They get from each other what they can't get in their respective father-son relationships. If only for scores, they care for one another and value one another.
It is rather over the top at times, but Walt's interactions with his DEA agent brother in law are funny. Hank is a cartoonish representation of the modern macho guy. He's got the kick ass job, he's got the lingo down (crappy sports analogies), and he gets to use guns on bad guys. Walt is a high school teacher. For all of his machismo, Walt's brother is still beholden to his wife's orders and can barely handle his wife's kleptomania. He's a law enfrocement agent who can't pressure his wife to stop breaking the law. Hank does the manly things like carry a loaded gun around at a party, stand like Captain America non-stop, make sex jokes whenever possible, but he still follows his wife's lead. He goes to the intervention because his wife goes along with Skyler's plan. He makes stupid, confusing remarks about Walt's decision to pass on chemo right after Skyler, but then switches his position after his wife thinks Walt should do what he wants to do. He's a bit of a phony as well as he makes a bet on the sting that Walt rides along with him on by gambling that the meth cook they are busting is Hispanic, which Hank knows he will win since his criminal informant at the sting is Hispanic. Hank continually comments on Walt not being macho and doubts Walt would do anything rough. In reality, while timid and meek, Walt is a normal guy who provides for his family and is a loving father and husband. Hank seems to be the guy trying so hard to be a man as he imagined a man when he was a kid, while Walt has just given up on his life. Hank loves playing male role model to Walt Jr., but doesn't really understand the the daily role of being a dad because he has no kids of his own. Walt Jr. admires Hank because he is a teen with a teenagers sense of being a guy. Hank only sees being a man through a hypermasculine prism that has its basis in the pages of comic books. Hank doesn't see his weaknesses as long as he gets to cuff bad guys. He's like an overgrown kid. Hank's hypermasculine behavior is considered manly because that is what a subset of men and women think you have to do now to be respected Captain Macho. Welcome to 21st century America: nice guys finish last and don't get ass.
Is Hank really more of a man than Walt? Is Walt not a man when he's quiet, teacher Walt? Is he more of a man when being meth cooker Walt? Timid Walt is a man. We need men like normal Walt. He's teaching tomorrow's chemists and scientists about basic chemistry. He has a wife and son. He is a part of the community. His problem is that it is not his choosing. He's a man who let life shape him instead of shaping his life. Walt played by the rules. Considering the timeline of his marriage and Walt Jr.'s age, he might have 'done the right thing' and married Skyler when she got pregnant. Walt's been providing for his family for their entire run, which is great considering the number of cads out there. One of the best descriptions of what is an alpha male was by English Teacher X who tweeted "would you be proud of this guy if he were your dad". Walt may not have been an alpha male, but he was still a man. Walt was very passive, but being a family man always there still has value. Diminishing Walt's value before his turn is a reflection not just on his wife, son or extended family but on how society has turned on the value of dads after 1968.

With all of his awkward relationships and his timid behavior in his own home, his castle, Walt is still a reflection of the men who sit on their couches and tune in on Sundays. It might be the actions of a dying man or just a midlife crisis, but how many middle aged men sitting at home in America look and see Walt's depressing home around them and the pile of unfulfilled dreams? Plenty of Gen Y guys without dads or from broken homes can see the motivation of Jesse and Walt not just seeking each other out for one score, but building a relationship. It's a poor substitute, but it exists and is more real than what either of them have with the true thing. It's like the coach who dies young, and you cry over it a little too much. Whenever someone implored me to watch "Breaking Bad", it was a guy. My Faceborg feed is full of guys who mention BB, few, if any, women. The show's success is not just storytelling, good acting and great production values. It's the image of ourselves, our bros, our dads, our sons, our wives, and the modern jumbling of what defines a man that sucks us in, watching for more.

***I'm only through the first two seasons.***

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Stumbled upon your site today and your take on BB is well written.

Walt is like any man today who is tired of merely being a passenger in life. I think that is why a lot of men relate, as you mentioned. So much of being a man, in the traditional sense, is having the courage to stake a claim in life, to be audacious. A lot of mainstream thought nowadays shames men for thinking like that and taking action. Schooling conditions you to be a passenger and not disturb the status quo. If we're all special, what incentive is there to stand out? This is probably why boys are falling so far behind relative to girls.