At the start of this year we ran a series called ‘Bad Week‘, celebrating all things Breaking Bad. One of our favourite pieces during the week was this by Joe Nunweek, who found himself deeply embarrassed by Walter White fandom.
Our hero is bald, save for a goatee that would seem ridiculous were the stakes not so high. He dresses like he’s a would-be kingpin – you can see what he’s going for, but the effect is kinda ersatz, like he’s trying to will what he is into being from what he isn’t. He surveys his empire from a modest suburban living room – but there’s a mania in the pits of his eyes – to remind us this is someone around whom you tread lightly.
“Walter White goes from being this weak, timid man to being this bad-ass alpha,” Davis Aurini declaims in a plummy Canadian burr. In between sips of scotch, a tremor visibly runs through him every time he comes to the topic of Skyler. “She does not seek constructive solution, she seeks selfish, bitchy solutions… she’s a complete bitch.”
Aurini, a quasi-Internet celebrity whose YouTube and blogging endeavours are fed on a fetid brew of mens’ rights activism, Fight Club, and “race realism”, is a Breaking Bad fanboy. Somewhere in his 20-minute video, he eventually disavows Walt in a tenuous and bewildering assessment of generational themes and the legacy of the baby boomers, but the self-professed “post-post modernist” clearly loves the thrill of it all. The brooding anti-hero who exists outside a decadent culture’s norms. The man who stands tall. The dude in a burrito-stained “I Am The Danger” shirt.
Let’s be real: Breaking Bad is objectively exceptionally put-together (more like “freaking good”, yes, that will do). Marathon season viewings reveal it to be exquisitely paced; it ratchets up its tension as each excruciating threat gets traded out for another, and Bryan Cranston’s increasingly scenery-chewing turn as a doomed chemistry teacher-turned-drug lord gets balanced out by a cracking ensemble cast. I finished multiple episodes by yelling in disbelief and shock at the screen, surely the hallmark of entertaining TV.
So why does it instill such dread embarrassment in me? Could it be the legions of insufferable dorks that buy or make merch around it, that use goofy Heisenberg depictions as their Internet avatars? That might be churlish – if we all chose what we wanted to watch on the basis of whether or not someone had made a terrible video blog analysis in response, our viewing options would dwindle fast.
But with Breaking Bad, I feel like there’s two different shows – the one the critics saw, and the one the huge seething bulk of the internet saw. And I really, really hate the one the internet liked.
So maybe this is a good time for me to defer to an online forum that has little time for most modern television and gives short shrift to Hollywood entertainment as a matter of principle. If they enjoyed Breaking Bad, it must be doing something remarkable. Right?
I recently read a July 2014 Upshot article on Stormfront. It wasn’t very good, but it did note that the “white nationalist community” site was full of people “just like us” that liked to do nothing more than eagerly discuss Breaking Bad. But Stormfront’s Music and Entertainment sub-forum isn’t a thriving agora of people chatting about HBO’s Girls or American Idol. Breaking Bad and the snoozer survivalist fantasies of The Walking Dead are the only TV megathreads, fighting for column space with topics on NSBM releases and the Zionist conspiracy. Dismal “highlights” include:
“I do like Breaking Bad, but only because it shows a white man that turns into a mean son of bitch that will do anything to survive. Our whole race needs to take up that attitude minus the drugs.”
“The writing is clever and there is no white-bashing or glorification of non-whites”
“I thought it was funny that the white supremacist prison gang didn’t say a single racist thing during the entire show. Normally the leftist media would throw in some hitler solutes (sic) and racial comments just so you know they’re white.”
You get the idea. Some of the stuff they say is just magnificently, eye-wateringly off-base. In their world, Season five’s white supremacists were introduced as an even-handed treatment of Aryan gangs. In the show itself, Hank’s casual racism to his DEA partner Gomez is an ugly personality flaw; on Stormfront it’s part of his honest law-enforcer’s charm. At least one appears to have attended enough high school English to get to the bit where names = “symbolism!”. Think about it, he explains. “White” and “Pinkman.”
We can leave the straw-nazis for a bit and dial it back to the wide, charmless midway of Facebook, of TV comment sections – anywhere, really, that Breaking Bad fans got together to fulminate over Anna Gunn’s Skyler. Again, the readings diverge: you might have watched a show where awful people do very awful things, and where flawed people also do slightly less awful things out of habit, desperation, or love.
Or, like Aurini, you might have watched the show where bad boy hero Walter White goes to extraordinary and terrifying lengths for the financial security of the family he loves, as his malignant and idle wife cheats, bullies and blackmails him to her will.
Gunn was herself moved to write in the NYT about playing Skyler and witnessing the vicious antipathy against her fictional character. It makes some strong points about what we’ll lap up from our tormented male protagonists and will not abide from the women in their lives.
Subsequently, the Facebook page “I Hate Skyler White” declared the gloves were off. “It became apparent to us that Gunn is not acting when she plays Skyler. She is actually a shrieking harpy in real life too… We still want to keep the focus on hating the character of Skyler White, but we don’t mind jabs against Gunn anymore. Fuckin’ histrionic bitch.”
Make no mistake: Breaking Bad is The Walter White Show to a legion of people, and it’s an awesome, badass ride. My experience wasn’t quite the same: from the start it felt like a sort of horrible undertow. White begins diminished and ineffably sad, but that man retreats. He’s being replaced, and corrupted somehow, and you want him to quit while he’s ahead. You feel disoriented, like you’re being dragged away from the shore. And then you realise that this was the man you were dealing with the whole time.
I understand that some people watching thought they were witnessing an awesome empowering tale of itinerant self-actualisation where you’ve gotta break some eggs to get an omelette, or whatever. But how can any normal person not just feel a gnawing sense of horror? Vince Gilligan, for his part, envisaged Walt’s inexorable descent from the start.
Though some of Gilligan’s triumphs were a matter of serendipity (I’m thinking mainly of Giancarlo Esposito’s insistence that Gus become a regular), that awful pull wasn’t. The show confronts you and alienates you even as its mechanics charm you, but it’s weird to watch it and imagine that a whole heap of people aren’t thinking that, to feel like you’re the one clinging to the redemptive reading.
For me, it cast a pall over the show’s highlights. I was floored to discover that Season 3’s “Fly” – a masterclass in doing a TV bottle episode if ever there was one – is considered “boring” and “pointless” (“There is no place in this series for an episode of slapstick!”, IMDB fans cried).
And I’m too scared to actually research this, so I’ve just got to cling to the notion that Season 4’s “I am the danger” monologue is unhinged, pitch humour on the writers’ room’s part, the point at which White is lain pitiful and hollow when he thinks he’s being tough. If it’s just that he’s actually being tough, it becomes a different moment, and a crap one at that.
Acknowledging all the show’s strengths, which I think diversions like “Fly” exemplified, I’m still uneasy: there are plenty of writers out there who have given the advice, usually hard-learned, that if large numbers of an audience take away a different meaning than the one you were going for, you probably weren’t clear enough. Whether that applies to TV like Breaking Bad isn’t a given: on the one hand, you wouldn’t expect it to be lucid and didactic like an essay, but it’s also an immensely successful thriller TV that’s not buried in reams of slippery symbolic abstraction.
And it’s resoundingly clear: a lot of awful people like this awfully good show. They’re a noisy kind of awful, sure, and that might stand out more. But it’s a distraction from the act of enjoyment, where in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we tend to imagine an audience as a great big army of ourselves.
Usually, this spell is broken by healthy differences of opinion (“that was good”, “no, it was bad”) – but knowing that people love Breaking Bad as a white supremacist fable, or as the story of a henpecked man who overcomes his conniving wife, or even as the adventures of a take-no-shit 24/7 catchphrase cool dude, leaves a sour taste. I’m left with a third show – one I can admire in many ways, but not love.
The elements that lend themselves to those readings – the gross go-for-broke Othering of any Latino person south of the New Mexico border, the broad and unsympathetic strokes Skyler’s character is often given for want of time, the misanthropic glee in carnage – yeah, they’re there. And Breaking Bad’s importance in terms of finesse is likely to survive them, though I think that in 5 or 10 years its critical star will probably have dimmed.
Hopefully, the worst elements of its fandom will have too. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine a pack of Internet anti-Semites flocking to watch Better Call Saul with me – fingers crossed they don’t remember he was born Jimmy Morgan McGill.
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