AMC’s characters challenge viewers with conflicting emotions
Published: Friday, August 30, 2013
Updated: Friday, August 30, 2013 00:08
As the first episode of the last half of the final season of AMC’s “Breaking Bad” entered living rooms around the country and we collectively saw a disheveled Walter White creep into the ruined wreck of his once comfortable family home in New Mexico, one of the show’s biggest and most enduring themes was seared into our memories. As Walt enters the ruined shell of his broken facade of domestic tranquility, he sees on the ruined wall a mocking reminder of the thing he has become: “HEISENBERG” in capital letters.
It is hard to understate the efficacy of this scene in defining a new sort of character. Identity is a tricky thing on “Breaking Bad,” and yet as the show draws to a close, it says a lot more about us - that we have watched along as this former chemistry teacher has bent, subverted, appropriated, and finally imploded his own identity in service of remaking himself. And it makes sense.
But to understand, it might help to take a step back. In the fifties, slightly before the time-frame of AMC’s other master-work “Mad Men” - more on that later - and as the world reeled from the grinding misery of WWII and faced the threat of true and total nuclear annihilation, several new schools of philosophy developed. These “existential” and “absurdist” schools took their cue from human experience, and the occasional dyspeptic lurch of thought one suffers when contemplating the meaninglessness of human existence in the face of mortality. The ultimate aim of the existentialist becomes to provide meaning to a meaningless life.
Enter Walt. When he discovers the cancer eating away at him and was at once and for the first time confronted with his mortality, we see him at the same time affected by a profound unease - his frustration at only being able to provide a lower-middle-class income, soon to be wiped out by his own death, as well as the sheer indignity of his nausea-inducing cancer treatments and his corresponding inability to afford them. We see, thanks especially to the virtuosic genius of Bryan Cranston’s portrayal, the breakdown of Walt’s hope, and his acceptance of a state of, really, philosophical despair. It’s this despair that drives him to cook meth with his former student Jesse, that by providing this money with his skills to his family he might drag some measure of meaning from it.
But while we admire Walt for his stubborn insistence on dignity - what the French-Algerian author and philosopher Camus would call the “revolt” - audiences of late have found it difficult to accept the extremes to which Walter goes to achieve it. Walt threatens or murders anyone that gets in his way, eventually putting in danger the very family he insists he is protecting, and though the tug of empathy pulls hard for Walt’s success, it comes increasingly qualified, and guiltily.
Whether you know it or not, this is an important cultural moment. And “Breaking Bad” is far from the only show creating it. Don Draper of “Mad Men” is as big, if not a bigger example of this neo-absurd revolt playing out not only on our screens, but also in our consciences. Our sympathies are manipulated in “Mad Men” far more subtlety, but far more decisively, around Don, who, like Walt, tries desperately to construct a meaningful life; unlike Walt, though, Don is never quite able to do it. “I have been watching my life,” he says in the second season episode “The Mountain King.” “It’s right there. I keep scratching at it, trying to get into it. I can’t.”
The introduction of amoral, wildly popular characters that command our empathy and respect forces us to confront the same feelings of alienation and discontent they feel within ourselves. And we can’t do this without, on some level, accepting their dismissal of socially constructed morality. While Don is abusive and cruel in the extreme at times, is there no redemption in his desire not to be? If there is evil, Walter’s actions might qualify for the title, but are we, ourselves, not then implicated in his actions by our involuntary empathy? Or maybe the writing on the wall is not so much for Walter as it is for us - that underneath it all and in extremis we all might be, or worse, we want to be, a Draper or a Heisenberg? So AMC reminds us in bold, bright spray-paint - the desire might always be with us.