Breaking Bad – Late to the Party

Emily Nussbaum has blogged in the New Yorker online about Breaking Bad and the comments she received from dedicated fans of the show were nearly as interesting as her posts. She described a phenomenon of “bad fans”, those who express such vehement opinions about the characters or plot elements that the show’s writers seemingly respond to them in subsequent episodes. I’d never heard of such a thing.

I admit to being a latecomer to this astonishingly great TV series, now approaching its final episode. And so I read with fanatical interest any and all commentary about the actors, the writer and director Vince Gilligan, the arc, etc., while I seek out others equally obsessed. I have a niece who has been with it from the beginning. I call her to chat about episodes I’ve recently watched on Netflix. Only now do I appreciate her prescience.

Nussbaum’s recent blog about “bad fans” opened my eyes to the fact that some who watch the show really hate Skylar, the wife of science teacher turned methamphetamine czar Walter White. Seriously? I didn’t believe it until I was at work yesterday and one of the women in the OR told me she couldn’t stand Skylar.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because she never supported Walt. And everything he did, he did for his family.”

While this was, indeed, part of the story line – that Walter White turned to cooking crystal meth in order to make money to leave to his family when he would surely die an early death following a diagnosis of lung cancer – the truth was that Walt also found his manhood as a drug kingpin; he found his inner strength, his steel, his voice. And he liked what he found in that moral morass. Though he continued to pay lip service to doing it all “for the family”, a lot of us viewers no longer bought it, especially as his family fractured and the risks grew coincident to his earnings. The local death toll simultaneously skyrocketed.

What I like about this show is that Walter White started out as an everyman. He was a pluripotent regular guy, underemployed and overeducated, what we see in so many middle-aged individuals today still reeling from the effects of a recession. But then Walter struck it big; it had to happen illegally. It wouldn’t have been as interesting had he won the Lottery. Less moral complexity ensues when the gains aren’t ill begotten.

So the question becomes this: how do we take the measure of a man? In this case, Walter had more than his share of bad luck but managed to creatively exploit his native intelligence and provide for his family. And by this question I do not mean “man” in a gender-specific way, but rather as any individual over the course of a lifetime. Do we measure a person by his accomplishments alone? Complex people may do great things for society and yet treat individuals poorly. We see that every day. Or do we measure him by his character, regardless of his contributions? How do we measure that character?

The Pope recently asked the question: Who am I to judge? Easy for him. The rest of us stay glued to our TV’s and laptops and show decidedly less restraint. We judge others freely and often; the less we know of them the better.

Taking someone’s measure is the quandary at the heart of Breaking Bad. And seeing how people change over time, how circumstances have the ability to change all of us. It’s why the country has been riveted, dealing with their opinions about Walt and Skylar. Seemingly clear ethical boundaries blur as we imagine ourselves in similar shoes; easy money, and lots of it, just yours for the taking, by doing what you love to do, while providing for the people who depend on you. Rationalizations run rampant. The show turns everything upside down, inside and out.

I, for one, will miss my fix of Walt and Skylar, Jesse and Hank. It isn’t often that life’s dilemmas are translated so beautifully, so elegantly, onto the small screen. I count myself among the many fans – both good and bad – who have been captivated.