Monday, October 7, 2013

Breaking Bad: The Death (and Hopefully Rebirth) of the American Dream

I recently binge-watched the entirety of the AMC television series "Breaking Bad." I have a confession: I went into it wanting to hate it. I did, can't deny it. This is a fact that will hardly surprise many of you, particularly those that know me well. I have an instinctive, knee-jerk revulsion to certain types of popularity and while I staunchly maintain that I am not a "hipster" of any kind, I am at least mature enough to acknowledge the childish defensiveness inherent in that response. I can't lie, when I was younger I was big into LotR (Lord of the Rings for you fantasy n00bs) and when Harry Potter came out I hated it. The Harry Potter series is brilliantly written, imaginative and in its own way very original but to my sixteen year old ego all it represented was a derivative work, something inferior to what I loved and yet was considered "nerdy" for liking while Harry Potter wasn't just popular, it was cool - the high school colloquial antithesis of nerdy. That was hardly the last time I've felt that way. Inception was a great movie but again, when it came out, a huge part of me was frustrated. People thought that it was a little weird that I minored in philosophy and kind of rolled their eyes at me when I wanted to engage in discussions about the nature of perception. Then the guy who directed the new Batman trilogy comes out with an action film - 'cuz let's face it, that's what it was - that's dark and fuckin' edgy and all of a sudden everyone with a movie stub is an armchair philosopher.

Look, I get it. Any time you're passionate about something to the point that you begin to engage the fringes of that particular interest, you're going to end up feeling like I have - it's a lot of the reason for the whole "hipster" concept. I'm sure millions of people have felt this way about whatever particular passion it is that gets them all hot and bothered. I can still recognize that it's great when something different (at the time) like a Harry Potter or an Inception becomes popular because it exposes the main stream to something new and hopefully thought provoking. In this way, despite my own bizarro insecurities and concurrent frustrations, popularity can be an incredibly positive tool because it gives you the attention of the populace. 

Take CrossFit for example. Something I've said any number of times is that hate it or love it, CrossFit has the attention of the fitness community right now and in a lot of ways the attention of the population at large. Despite the things that CF could improve on (because nothing's perfect) there is a huge amount to be said for the trickle-down effects of CF. Equipment is cheaper and more available There's now a huge and growing movement in the community to understand and focus on mechanics. CrossFit is making extreme fitness cool and even though it may not be for everyone it's popularity is causing a paradigm shift in the overall thinking about fitness. Personally, I gotta believe a culture making health popular is beneficial to everyone and therefore worthy of me canning my knee-jerk, popularity induced reaching for an economy sized jug of haterade. Having said that I hope you can begin to understand why the popularity of Breaking Bad, a show about a borderline-sociopathic meth-cooking murderer  represents a beast of an entirely different nature. 

I think that for you guys to understand where I'm coming from it might first be helpful to try to elucidate my feelings on the concept of story and storytelling. You see, stories are kind of my thing. They are as human an impulse as stargazing and tree climbing.  They are as important to our existence as breathing. The truth of the matter is that simply put existence, our reality, is story. 

We often take for granted that this thing that we all collectively refer to as "reality" is some sort of concrete, externally existing thing. We call it reality because we assign to it some sort of inherent "real"-ness. It is outside of us and therefore not subject to our internal psychological turmoil. Regardless of what we see, think, feel or believe, reality is immutable. The problem with this foundational assumption is pretty simple. Whatever this "reality" thing happens to be we only have an indirect relationship with it. It's entirely possible that it is, in fact, inherently  real and concrete but we aren't exactly equipped to ever know that. What I'm saying is that what we commonly refer to as "reality" is something quite different. I'm going to have to ask you to willingly suspend your disbelief for a moment and just come with me on this little thought experiment. It's a fundamental philosophical principle and, in my opinion, a pretty f*cking cool idea. 

Consider the fact that we interact with the world external to our own consciousness through our senses. Our experience of reality is a construct: we see, hear, feel, taste and smell things and our minds assemble all of that information together into this thing that we all call "reality." Seeing as everyone's senses function to different degrees and in different ways (and in the case of the deaf or blind, some do not function at all) I think we can all agree that everyones sensory experience or "reality" must therefore necessarily be different. Then, on top of the simple sensory aspects, consider the way our assumptions about how the world works color the way we perceive daily events. Think about how different your perception of two things could be simply if you were in a good or bad mood. A short text message from a loved one ("K." for example) might be perceived in two wildly different ways dependent not on their intention but your reception of the message. 

Our brains are incredibly good at offering us explanations for things when we want them. At it's best, this impulse is what gave rise to mythology, early religion and then scientific inquiry as different modes of understanding the world around us. At it's worst, it gave rise to a host of anxieties and misunderstandings, chief among them the concept of racism: the idea that through a series of "scientific" or "real" observations, the completely nonexistent inferiority of a people is conclusively demonstrated. Look, guys, we're all looking at the same stuff here. It is at the very least true that we're all on the same world. Even so, we're clearly all experiencing it in very different ways. So you tell me, which version is the real one? Even when you consider your own memories of your past, they don't represent exactly what occurred. They're a kind of mental imprint or reflection; they're the story of those events as your mind decided to record them.  

This "reality" thing that we all covet is nothing more than a story. Thing is, it's not just story; it's the story. It's what separates us from the animals, self awareness, the awareness of our own personal narrative. In a way we are all meta - aware that we are characters in a story: our story. It is every bit as important to recognize that often what we refer to as "reality" is just an aspect of our personal narrative as it is to recognize that despite the existence of seven billion different personal narratives, true reality is still a distinct thing. In other words, you can believe pigs fly in your head all you want and in your own internal personal narrative that may be true but no matter how hard you believe it, pigs will never simply begin to fly because they do so in your head. This does, then, bring into question the ideas of collective consciousness and the power of collective belief but that's something that I could go on about for far too long. 

So what the f*ck does this have to do with Breaking Bad? Good question, glad you asked.  Breaking Bad is one of the most brilliant and brilliantly told stories I'm personally familiar with. I might even go so far as to say it's the best show that has ever been on television (for...whatever that's worth). At its core Breaking Bad is so fundamentally American it f*cking hurts. No, seriously. Breaking Bad is such a quintessentially American story that it makes me f*cking hate all of us.

Let me explain.

First off I want to say that I'm aware that there is a gigantic subculture of Breaking Bad die-hards who've speculated, investigated and blogged the ever living f*ck out of every aspect of this show. I'm not one of those people. I apologize in advance if I'm missing something or if I get anything "wrong." This is just what I saw when I watched the show. 

To me Breaking Bad is ultimately a story about the american dream. Is starts out with a man who has a career, a home and a family. As in most cases, appearances are not everything and underneath the thin sheen of Walter White's fading dream are the ever present reminders that often things aren't as good as they sound. His career is an unfulfilling job as a high school chemistry teacher where he has long since given up any hope of making a difference and instead complacently drawls and scrawls away his classes. His wife is a character who vacillates between justified suspicion and anger to broken complicity to her husbands more sinister whims. She is, in fact, so nasty to Walt on such a regular basis that a humorous drinking game for the earlier seasons was to drink every time Skyler was a bitch. I'm personally of the opinion that she was fully within her rights to be so nasty to him but the point remains. Their relationship is far from ideal. His son has cerebral palsy and his daughter, at the beginning of the series, is unborn and as such they both represent an extreme financial drain, yet another issue weighing down Walt's mind. On top of all of this he discovers he has cancer and likely only a few months left to live.

Some American Dream. 

All I've really described is the set up for the show. The show itself of course, the story is about Walt's transformation from a spineless chemistry recitation drone into a somewhat successful drug kingpin although personally I would say both his success and his status as a kingpin at any time in the series are highly debatable. In the spirit of not ruining anything for people who haven't seen it I can't address the specifics of the show that much but I also don't really need to. The set up for the show gives us a somewhat fading version of an older american dream but the story of Breaking Bad gives us the real thing; the genuine article. Breaking Bad is a story about a man seizing his destiny. It's a story about a character who forces himself to change and adapt to overcome increasingly adverse situations. We witness an incredibly deftly handled and organic transformation of Walter White's life and it revolves entirely around something a lot of us consider to be intrinsically american: the idea that a man who works hard and never gives up can, through his own sheer force of will, accomplish whatever it is that he wants to accomplish. I mean... that's what happens. That's an entirely accurate description of the events contained within the main plot arc of the series. The problem is that another entirely accurate description of Breaking Bad is that it is the story of one man's descent into the pits of everything selfish and terrible about humanity...and that's it. One of the greatest parts of Breaking Bad is that it tries to be very, brutally real and as such never attempts to tie things off in nice neat little bows. This is a story about awful people doing awful things to each other and leading awful lives. There is very little good to be found anywhere and yet, as I said before, it's still an entirely accurate depiction of what a lot of people would consider the American Dream. That's kind of f*cked up, right?

I was raised on a steady diet of superheroes and knights in shining armor. Like I said, LotR was my jam. The stories that informed my childhood revolved around characters that did selfless things simply because they were right. I would love to say that I embody the moral sensibilities that I was so enveloped in during my developmental years but just like anyone else I'm only human. Stories are important to us in so many different ways and one of the most important is that they are instructive. We use stories to teach. Morals are one of the most difficult human concepts and something that I think we all struggle with. They are also an incredibly difficult thing to teach to children or really anyone because of their nebulous nature. Even so, we've been teaching morals or at least trying to through the use of stories for as long as we've been capable of putting words and images together in any form. Mythology, fables, religious texts, these things are all stories that our cultures use to impart values to their members. They become the assumptions at the foundations of our stories, the rules of our own internal narratives. Our own stories, whether consciously or not, begin to resemble the stories we choose to immerse ourselves in. You can probably see where I'm going with this. I'm not trying to say that we all need to read more comics and genre fiction. Unfortunately from a literary or artistic quality standpoint most of those stories I so loved as a child are as about as comparable to Breaking Bad as a wooden rocking horse is to a thoroughbred stallion. Breaking Bad is substantially more real or at the very least evokes much more real emotional responses. That's kind of my problem with it, I think. 

I've tried explaining this idea to a handful of people and frequently the response I get is a very emotionally charged, "dude, relax. It's just a TV show." Fair. I get really riled up about things so I'm sorry. Still, though, "it's just a TV show," isn't a good defense for something so morally reprehensible. I'm not saying Breaking Bad is going to turn us into a nation of meth cooks (although apparently the quality of meth has skyrocketed since the shows first airing) the same way that playing Grand Theft Auto won't turn us all into multiple felons. What I'm trying to draw attention to is the present cultural underpinnings that both enable Breaking Bad to be so popular and what makes it so painfully relevant. 

The Internet age has been a complex thing with complex influences. Some would say it has greatly increased our ability to share information and communicate. Others would acknowledge that it has certainly changed the way we exchange information, but that some of these changes may not necessarily be positive. Social media is a great example of this.

The story of FaceBook is, in some ways, similar to the story of Breaking Bad. On the surface we have what appears to be something revolutionary, an opportunity to communicate with thousands of people all over the world in the blink of an eye. Sounds great, the same way the american dream sounds great at the beginning of Breaking Bad when not put under too much of a microscope. Of course, in reality social media is at it's best useful but often really weird and at it's worst downright petty and often incredibly vain (For our current purposes we're going to ignore the humorously relevant fact that I'm using a social media-like platform to allow you to read my self important rant about the cultural significance of a sunday night television program. Shut up.) You see most of us don't really use FB to communicate in a genuine way, we use it to tell a story: the story of what we want everyone to think our life is. You get to highlight the aspects of your personal narrative you want others to care about and completely ignore any of the stuff you'd rather they didn't know. Again, I'm hardly saying that everyone who uses FaceBook is a narcissistic self serving-ass, simply pointing out that if everyone, myself included, were to go back and look at their FB timelines it would present a very specific version of who you are; one particular aspect of your story. Maybe what's important for you is how many obstacle races you've run or letting everyone know how much you know about fitness or philosophy or popular culture. Maybe you just want to post photos of your vacations or your wedding. Your social media presence tells a story about you and perhaps most interestingly, it gives you a kind of control over what story is told.

The problem with this is that while we are absolutely in control of how our story is told, it shifts the focus of where the control lies. You decide how your story is told by deciding how it is written. Once written, you do not then get to decide, control and manage exactly how your story is retold. Culturally there are a whole slew of things that gave rise to this kind of thinking. Maybe it was the entitlement generation crap or the fact that we were all told that we're special and that we should all believe that we can not only do whatever we want but that every single one of us deserves to have all of our hopes and dreams fulfilled. Honestly I think you can attribute a lot of it to the things American culture is based on: individualism and capitalism. I'm a big fan of both of those things. I might even say I'm a rabid libertarian. Once again, my point is not to say that these things are bad. My point is that these days, we're getting their stories all wrong.

Individualism recognizes that we are all humans and as such we are invested with certain inalienable rights. Capitalism recognizes and systematizes the simple concept that incentives drive economics. Okay, that's cool stuff. I'm down. I just don't think that's the story we're telling these days. These days it's more like Individualism means if I'm born luckier than you genetically or socially then go f*ck yourself because I'm better than you and capitalism means that if I'm rich and in power then I'm entitled to do everything in my ability to keep myself rich and in power. The idea that we are so important that we can alter reality through sheer force of will has become so culturally pervasive that we can sell ourselves some really heady bullshit. You guys remember that "we are the 1%" letter that douche bag on wall street sent out during the whole Occupy Wall Street debacle? That guy was able to convince himself that the disparity in wealth in our country is entirely due to the fact that people like him in his industry are just better and more hard working than everyone else. Sure buddy, the only reason you have millions of dollars and three houses on three different beaches is because it's the natural order of things and that makes it okay. That's a really interesting story you've managed to sell yourself and unfortunately there seems to be a lot of people who want to agree with you. 

One aspect of Breaking Bad's brilliance is its relevance to our times. As I say, Breaking Bad is the story of a man pursuing the American Dream and carpe-ing the f*ck out of his diem. In doing so he also ruins the lives of everyone and everything he's ever cared about. Breaking Bad is the story of a man in denial, a man who's own personal narrative is in direct conflict with his reality. Walt keeps telling himself over and over that he's doing what he does for his family. It's actually one of the show's most popular soundbites. "Everything I do, I do for my family." Sure, Walt. Whatever you have to tell yourself. I think we all on some level recognize that denial can be destructive but Breaking Bad can be seen as an incredibly poignant cautionary tale. Walt is in such intense denial that he enables himself to ruin pretty much everything. He is brilliant and hard working and innovative (much as the aforementioned 1%er claimed himself and his compatriots to be) but he is also painfully selfish and self serving. His refusal to give up his pursuit of the american dream no matter how detrimental to everyone he cares about is worthy of reproach, not praise of any kind. Heisenberg? Heisenberg isn't some badass. He's just a petty old man in a stupid hat who doesn't know when to call it quits.

Walt may have seen the error in his ways but to a large degree it was too little too late. The damage was done. There was no way to fix everything he'd broken, but he could try to do something. He realized the story he'd told himself was bullshit and decided he was going to write a different ending, one where he could use his resources to do what little help he could, regardless of how it would affect him.

Breaking Bad is a story about awful people doing awful things all the while telling themselves some kind of story that makes their petty, self serving actions not just acceptable but entirely justified. Breaking Bad is at its heart the story of us, the story of Americans, who have so thoroughly and entirely deluded ourselves into believing the darker side of the negative dream that we're able to sell ourselves on the lies that have brought us to where we are.

Torn economy. Broken healthcare. Corrupt Politicians. Government shutdown. Right now we're the United States of Walter White and we're careening headlong into a really bad place. I guess the question now is what do we do? Do we step back and slow our roll? Do we try to fix the things that are so obviously and hideously broken by reining in the darker aspects of ourselves? Or do we just keep letting our selfishness run wild all the while selling ourselves on the narrative that it's simply truth, justice and the American Way?

What story do you want to tell?

Good Luck and Good Lifting.


1 comment:

  1. Speaking of "American," ever watch The Wire?