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Breaking Bad

What’s Good About It

It’s one big compelling bit of television with the slow burn of tension and anxiety. It’s very well conceived and executed,right down to the nuance of angled shots and off-kilter compositions, oddball camera moves and exquisite attention to detail. most and best of all, it’s incredibly thought-provoking and is a quietly discursive meditation on all manners of things philosophical, sociological moral and ethical, and perhaps even to do with generational demographics.

It has great characters that keep you watching if nothing else but to see what they do next; and really you couldn’t ask for more than that from a TV series. The actors keep things very consistent through the series and never have an overstated moment. The dialogue is taut, the vision the series has of New Mexico is austere and yet meticulous, and possibly even loving. It’s an excellent production.

What’s Bad About It

Sometimes, because it’s a TV series it loses focus and chooses to meander into side-stories.  The fly episode in Season 3 was tedious and the episodes about Marie and her kleptomania are a little dull except it offers us an insight that DEA agent and brother-in-law Hank might look the other way for family.

Human relationships come and go with the ease of television plotting when in fact you suspect some of these entries and exits, like Ted Beneke and Jane might have the potential to be even stickier than they end up being. There’s a bit of repetition of the same emotional space that plagues some of the characters, for instance Jesse and the various traumas he is subjected to and witnesses, and Skyler’s insistent demands that are actually destructive to her own relationship, both get a little monotonous at times.

What’s Interesting About It

The main character Walter White essentially starts cooking meth to pay for his medical bills and then provide for his family after his death. This central action comes about because he discovers he has an inoperable lung cancer. So everything Walter does follows on from his prior acknowledgment of his own death. Right off the bat, Walter White is an existential hero, if a little uncertain as to where that leads him.

Yet it’s great viewing because everything he does in the first 3 seasons until his cancer situation stabilises, flows out from this prior acknowledgment of his own mortality. There’s something of ‘Fight Club’ in this prior acknowledgement that propels Walt into his journey. It’s also interesting from an Australian point of view because if Walt got diagnosed with cancer in Australia in the manner that he does, he could count on medicare to pay for treatment and that would be the end of that.  The fact that the drama spins out as far as it does is so fascinating from this side of the Pacific Ocean.

The Anatomy Of Meth

America is the land of the Western. The bifurcated myth of the law man and the outlaw, both heroic and unrelenting, standing tall in a reified landscape defines so much of America’s own cultural concerns. The Western myth has transmogrified into other genres and with it has gone the eternal chase. Some narratives lean on the law while others lean on the outlaw. And just as one law man catches up to one outlaw in on narrative, another area of crime opens up and a outlaw rises.

‘Breaking Bad’ of course moves right into the territory of methamphetamines with its manufacture, distribution, law enforcement and other assorted details. As it does so, it goes a very long way towards discrediting prohibition, even for a drug like methamphetamines. Together with ‘The Wire’ and ‘Boardwalk Empire’, ‘Breaking Bad’ presents a compelling narrative of how prohibition and the law enforcement that goes with it creates black markets which feed on the vulnerable.

Many people have stood up to have marijuana and THC made legal. But by presenting the meth ‘trade’ with such detail, ‘Breaking Bad’ offers us insight into why Prohibition in general is going to be a failed strategy for dealing with drug abuse. Other narcotics such as marijuana and heroin and cocaine are derived from plant materials. The fact that they can be grown makes them like commodities and with great market demand. In one sense, the third world only have to grow these to make the greatest returns on their investment, all thanks to the prohibition regime that seeks to limit the flow of he commodity. If that is the case with something that can be grown, then what about something that can be manufactured in a lab?

Should The Government Be Sitting On Your Pleasure Centre?

The series does a tremendous job of editing and thus juxtaposing the nexus of all manner of recreational drugs in our society. The show rightfully connects the act of lab manufacturing crystal meth with home brewing, and in doing so implicitly points to the meth lab cooks as moonshiners. The only difference being the drug of choice is methamphetamine and not alcohol. The show also draws an interesting line into our acceptance of over the counter pharmaceuticals which can be abused, as well as nicotine which is legal, marihuana which is beginning to cross over out of the shadow of illegality, and gambling which has its own addictive problems.

Steadily and surely, the show demonstrates that there is some fundamental problem with prohibitionist reasoning. If possible harm to our health is the issue, it begs the question why tobacco remains legal and other substances do not. If addiction, and the associated  addictive behaviour is the issue, then we could point to nicotine and tobacco as well as alcohol and caffeine. And caffeine drinks are perfectly legal while there are age restrictions on alcohol and smoking. Heroin is another substance that is heavily controlled by the state when in fact it could help greatly in the medical field as an anaesthetic. We as a society seem to have made this decision to nobble Anaesthetists in favour of removing the spectre of heroin addicts from our society.

The best guess I can say is that the government would not like us to have fun. The government would not like us to have fun because it might impact on our ability to work and be productive; and the state wants us all to be at maximal productivity because it funds taxes and government and the violence mechanisms. A military and police which, – in a very dark irony – we then use to prosecute and persecute the drug abusers and traffickers.

And all of this has created massive black markets for the banned substances worth somewhere in the order of 800billion dollars globally. Think about that figure. It’s enough to wipe out global third world debt several times over. Instead, its swimming through the coffers of drug cartels and tin pot dictators in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. The drug trade isn’t just killing the end user or the dealers who shoot one another in turf wars. It’s robbing the world of the possibility of enough money to keep ever more people in abject poverty.

It raises the fundamental question, why the hell is government sitting on people’s pleasure centres? Why is the government so keen to stop people enjoying themselves? The insanity that stems from the prohibitionist position is clearly untenable. There has to be a better solution than what’s going on. Unsurprisingly, in the five years that the show has been running, some states in America have now legalised Marijuana. Uruguay has decided to regulate marihuana as other governments regulate tobacco products.

From Desire To Will

Nietzsche famously observed that our ‘desire’ dessicates into ‘will’. It’s a seemingly casual throwaway observation except it points out something very peculiar about our endeavours. We start off doing something because we like it, and we want to do it, but at some point we find ourselves doing the same thing under a different kind of emotional engine, one which connects to our will power, more than our desire.

It’s fascinating how Walter and Jesse go from a carefree improvised meth lab on a recreational vehicle eventually moving to Gus’ industrially designed meth lab, slaving away to produce quantity. For Jesse, the act of cooking meth goes from a fund sideline into a seriously dolorous and tedious *job* robs the glamour of being the outlaw from him. Similarly, once there is an established factory, Walt finds that he has been reduced to being a factory drone churning out product.

The world of ‘Breaking Bad’ is seemingly full of this kind of joy-sapping transformation, especially for the men. The only character not touched by this ennui is Hank, who remains a DEA detective out of a genuine desire to keep playing cops and robbers into his adult life. For hank, desire does no dessicate, although he is mightily challenged  by a couple of incidents which send him back into a near-infantile state.

The Odyssey And Walter White

Walter and Jesse find themselves in all kinds of interesting trouble, but it occurred to me somewhere late in season 5 that in fact Walter was a man simply trying to get home, and that all these obstacles and threats were things that kept him from home. You can see that across 5 seasons, and going into the final season garbled re-tellings of the Odyssey are scattered in the series.

For instance, his wife Skyler’s affair with Ted Beneke echoes the suitors at the door for Penelope. The bombing by Tio that slays Gus leaves Gus temporarily one-eyed before he collapses and dies; thus Gus is shown to be the Cyclops. Jane and her drugs entraps Walter’s traveling companion Jesse, so this is the lotus eater episode. The need to slay nine of Mark’s trusted men is a metaphorical Scylla and Charybdis moment. The horrible poison massacre at the Cartel boss’s house has echoes of the Circe episode.

To date, Walt himself is yet to encounter Calypso so far, but his ever dutiful son is on a search to find the true nature of his father, much as Telemachus goes looking for Odysseus. It’s interesting that the echoes of the Odyssey can be found in this series.

Gangsters And Massacres

By the end of Season 5, Walt has made a full journey into the world of hoodlums and crooks. He is no longer in denial that what he is doing is flat out illegal and has very little excuse. Indeed, we’re led to an interesting point where we understand that although what prompted Walt into being the meth cook was the cancer, there was a greater, deeper resentment about the world that drives him hard towards this goal.

Just as Michael Corleone spends the better part of the first ‘Godfather’ movie in denial of his destiny, we come to realise Walt has been holding off this part of himself for a very long time. The great lie that he tells himself through the first 3 seasons is that he no other choice. He actually has a lot of choice – for instance, taking the money from his old colleagues who have now become rich. Instead, he tells them to go fuck themselves, and opts to cook meth. On the balance of things, one cannot help but come to the conclusion that Walt wants the murders and mayhem and the attendant thrills that come with being a criminal, the same way Hank wants to keep being a cop.

The prison massacre of the 9 guys who worked for Mike, then is a distant echo of the ‘Saint Valentine Day Massacre‘ as well as the big massacre at the end of ‘the Godfather’.

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