This is a truly shocking confession. You will all think badly of me after this, but I am addicted in a small way, on wet days, to this series. The subject matter could not be darker, namely lung cancer and drug dealing.
Let me explain to my more innocent readers.
[ As an aside, a very close friend told me I was naive the other day. Naive? Less so after 39 episodes of BB. (Not to be confused with BB, Baby Bill who is no longer a baby, more like Toddler BIll, but TB doesn’t sound nice, does it? Just so long as he never becomes Burglar Bill…) But I am rambling.]
BB is a revelation. I have a very low tolerance level of violence and depictions of crime, anything more than Morse has me leaving the room to put the kettle on. Indeed I walked out of the cinema during The Elephant Man because of the mocking cruelty of the crowd. I’ve toughened up since then.
Breaking Bad is at one level a slice of life most of us never see and try not to read about. It’s a gruelling watch. However it is very well constructed and throws up a lot of questions.The characterisation is outstanding and the tension in each episode almost unbearable.
A bit of back ground.
Walter White (played by Malcolm in the MIddle’s dad) is fifty, a chemistry teacher in a high school in Alberqueque who has a wife, Skyler and a teenage son with cerebral palsy Walt Jr. At the outset he has second job in a car wash to supplement their income. The family are unexpectedly expecting another child, a girl. One day Walter collapses at the car wash and is taken, against his wishes, to hospital, his insurance is basic. He discovers he has terminal lung cancer and has maybe two years to live, with radio and chemotherapy. More expense.
Early on we discover he was a whizz at chemistry at college and contributed to research which won a Nobel award. His peers all have high flying jobs in elite labs, so why he chose to teach in high school I don’t know yet and don’t tell me, please. But he did and now he has a predicament. How will he provide for his family after his predicted early demise?
His brother in law, Hank, who’s a swaggering hunk, works for the DEA, Drug Enforcement Agency, and takes Walter on a drugs bust. Like you do. They discover a ‘lab’ making the highly addictive substance, crystal meth. Walter meets an ex student, Jesse Pinkman, involved in this enterprise and together they form an uneasy alliance making – ‘cooking’ – and distributing this drug. Seamy does not describe the world we now enter. Terrifying more like.
From being a decent, middle class, middle aged teacher Walter uses his talent for precise chemistry to generate secret income for his family and becomes a drug manufacturer of immense skill, earning the respect and attention of many inside and outside the law.
Layers of lies and subterfuge ensue and he becomes ( initially I wrote ‘ is forced to become’ but he doesn’t, he chooses) an altogether different person. The symbiotic relationship between Walter and Jesse is unsettling and the balance of power shifts continually. Despite graphic scenes of drug abuse and degradation I find myself hoping they succeed in eluding both the cops and the drug cartels, that his wife will not find out about his double life.
Subtly I have been inveigled into their world, when I thought I was straight and so superior. Decisions are so clear cut, aren’t they?
The cancer story line is clever too: we know malignant cells grow unnoticed until something makes us aware of them. This parallels the web of lies spun by Walter which eventually will out. Furthermore of course addiction starts with one drink, one smoke, one snort of cocaine. Users initially think they have their habit under control but after a while the substance controls them. It becomes stronger than they are and takes them to places they never imagined. They become people they never wanted to be. People don’t they recognise. The need for the addictive substance is so strong that everything else takes second place and decisions are made only with short term procurement of the drug in mind.
Tough stuff. This series has made me think. It keeps me awake at night, imagining those many lost souls who were once dearly beloved children. And were I in such a position, what would I do? What would I trade to see my family secure and safe?
Another poem, Wendell Berry this time.