In old article for Lingua Franca about the visceral pleasures of a good book, literature professor Frank Lentricchia wrote the following:
When it’s the real thing, literature enlarges us; strips the familiarity from the world; creates bonds of sympathy with all kinds, even with evil characters, who we learn are all in the family … I confess to never having been able to get enough of the real thing. I worry incessantly about using up my stash and spending the last years of my life in gloom, having long ago mainlined all the great, veil-piercing books. Great because veil-piercing. Book propelling me out the narrow life that I lead in my own little world, offering me revelations of strangers, who turn out not to be totally strange; a variety of real worlds, unveiled for me, for the first time.
By Lentricchia’s standards - by anyone’s standards - Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad is the Real Thing. This is the Classic Coke of television drama. Because is there anything more uncomfortable, more veil-piercing, than our lingering sympathies for Walter White? The entire series serves to explore what would happen if an ordinary guy, a sympathetic downtrodden man, makes a series of choices that turned him into a monster. And a monster he is, make no mistake. I am constantly shocked by the Breaking Bad fans who seem to view Walter as their conquering hero dragged down by a nagging wife, a duplicitous junkie partner and any other reprehensible person who gets in his way. God forbid Hank do his job, Marie feel betrayed, or Walt Jr. defend his mother. So when I say “sympathy for Walt,” I don’t mean the myopic, deluded fanboy kind.
When we ended last year’s finale “Gliding Over All,” I was prepared to write Walt off as entirely monstrous. He had Jane and Mike’s blood on hands, not to mention all those guys in prison and, well, just look at the chart. He’d alienated Jesse, bullied his wife, and lied every chance he could - all in the name of “family.” But throughout these past six episodes, ever since we saw the return of his cancer, Walter has been slowly worming his way back into my sympathies. It started in earnest in episode 10, “Buried,” when Skyler asks Walter if the cancer is back and Walter, looking so vulnerable, so sad and so small asks his wife, “Does it make you happy?”
This season keeps delivering gut-punching moments like that, aided by Bryan Cranston’s dazzling, faceted portrayal. But for every sympathetic moment, for every time Walter defends Hank or Jesse or plays the benign paterfamilias, there is a moment of monstrosity. The morally bankrupt Heisenberg’s tentacles keep unfurling, and so we’ve spent the last six episodes in this uncomfortable limbo, torn between the Walter we first met and the devil we know.
There are, to my mind, four essential ways to tell a story. The combinations are as follows: 1) relatable circumstances/relatable reactions; 2) relatable circumstances/unrelatable reactions; 3) unrelatable circumstances/relatable reactions; and 4) unrelatable circumstances/unrelatable reactions. Here’s a visual aid.
Quadrant 4? The Game of Thrones quadrant? That’s where we have the most fun. How do you react to the (unrelatable) circumstance of being imprisoned by a shape-shifting magi in a nightmare tower? Dragon fire, naturally. The emotions are relatable (Arya’s loss of her father, Robb’s ill-advised love affair), but the environment and the wealth of options are so foreign that we don’t ever need to worry about feeling too close to the story. So go ahead, root for the evil queen or her mangled brother/lover. Your sympathy for Cersei won’t trouble you. Quadrant 3, The Walking Dead quadrant, is pretty fun, too. I don’t know how exactly I would react to a zombie invasion, but jabbing sharp things into brains is something I could definitely see myself trying to learn.
Quadrant 2 is the trickiest one to pull off. How do you keep a story about everyday people reacting to everyday problems interesting? That’s the genius of Parenthood and Friday Night Lights creator Jason Katims. He keeps the stakes low but meaningful, and he somehow manages to make these ordinary heroes, these coaches and dads, quarterbacks and war veterans, extraordinarily compelling. In fact, it’s universally acknowledged that the only time Friday Night Lights went off the rails is when our nerd hero, Landry, accidentally murdered someone. Those were the wrong stakes for this world, and the whole plot rang false. But let’s take a look at the highest stakes in the last excellent season of Parenthood. When diagnosed with cancer, wife and mother of three Kristina Braverman reacted how most of us probably would. She wept, she railed, she vomited, she shaved her head and, most touching of all, she recorded this message for her children.
That brings us to Quadrant 1, the Breaking Bad quadrant. This is where the magic is made. Walter’s circumstances are similar to Kristina Braverman’s. He’s diagnosed with cancer. He’s also afflicted with other highly relatable problems: financial trouble and frustrated potential. But his reaction? That is what sets off the powder keg. If you or I were Walter White, we would have taken that pity Grey Matter money in episode 5 and run with it. End of series, end of conflict. But Walter isn’t us, and he isn’t a Braverman. Kristina is our unalloyed hero. Compare her legacy for her children (that video) with what Walter tries to build (or the videos he leaves behind). And this is where things get difficult for us. We relate to Walter more than we’d like. We understand the very human emotions behind his inhuman actions. Walt’s worldview is uncomfortable but at times sympathetic. As creator Vince Gilligan recently said: “It’s complicated. You should have ambivalent feelings about who to root for here.”
So as we gear up for the final two episodes of this phenomenal series, we’re faced with a dilemma. Do we still root for Walter White? Do we want him to succeed with that M60? Does it depend entirely on what he plans to do with it? There is no better distillation of this conflict than that final scene of “Ozymandias” when Bryan Cranston managed to be both Heisenberg and Walter at the same time. The way he growled, lashing out at Skyler with the Id words his fanboys have been spewing for years all the while dripping tears from his goatee? It was stunning. So me? I’m with Walter. I think he’s gearing up to face down Jack and Todd who, in my mind, aren’t just run-of-the-mill villains but represent Walt’s inner demons. That shot below of Todd as the Devil on Mr. White’s shoulder is one of my favorites of the series. So that’s where I think we’re headed. Walt’s gearing up to annihilate the worst parts of himself. What’s more relatable and veil-piercing than that?