What I like about the tortoise scene is that the guy who has a human reaction to it ends up being saved because he had a human reaction.
Yes: Very typical of the kind of higher justice, sometimes a tragic justice, that we ask for from our fiction, since we rightly cannot expect it from our correct and official ideologies. It’s the same justice we applaud, and even halfway worship, in a Ripley or Hannibal Lecter, that is expressed in Greek tragedy, and that can be found in the central myths of monotheism.
But let’s go to House for a moment. I’ve never been a fan of the show, I think because, as I will explain, I tend to see myself as one of the winner-loser society’s “losers” – which might mean in this case “in the wrong from the perspective of a wrong world,” but would not exclude, and likely would require, detecting the peculiar shapes of victory that “only a loser” would grasp. This potentially too complicatedly loser-y idea has to do with why, though I’m sure that there must be many people who are big fans of both House and BB, the biggest fans of House would not tend to be the biggest fans of BB, or the biggest fans of BB the biggest fans of House.
Now, part of this is guesswork, because I’ve not watched a lot of House, but I think that successful, self-confident, but still somewhat conflicted people would likely be bigger fans of House, built around a central character who is known by one and all to be a super-doctor. To my understanding, he gets away with being House-like – telling extremely uncomfortable truths or otherwise overriding other people’s moral squeamishness – because he’s so good at what he does, and what he does is good, supremely good, and everyone knows it. He’s in command, generally, but it’s not as oppressive to a post-modern, very post-Dr. Kildare sensibility because he recognizes that it’s all pretty much pointless Hell anyway, not that healing people or solving other problems is not still enough good in itself to be worth doing. I haven’t watched the show enough (hardly at all) to have much feeling for how “real” it gets about the scummier side of life, or whether it’s mainly located in the upper-middle to upper class universe where almost everyone is handsome and well-dressed, and mostly worried about other things than bills, but my impression is that it’s the latter.
Not my world. Doesn’t mean I have no interest in it, but it’s not where I live. I long ago gave up any expectation of living in any semblance of that world. (My world feels more Walking Dead than Mad Men, too, even if I know that on another level they’re the same world, but that’s the subject for another post.)
BB‘s anti-hero Walter White’s world feels more like my world. Walt appeals to those who know they’re wrong for the world, or right for the wrong world because wrong, and who therefore move from crisis to crisis, with all their greatest victories hidden to all, especially the people closest to them – because the wrong world that requires those victories also rejects or pretends to reject them, or simply does not see them or seem to see them or admit seeing them. Walter White is the exact opposite of House in that respect. When Walter solves an impossible problem through some combination of courage, knowledge, stubbornness, and creativity, the truth of it, its depth and excellence, is and usually must remain a secret. It’s between him and God/the universe – and us. If anyone else knew – his wife, his partner, his closest friends, his doctors – it would destroy him as well as the work itself. Not that his work is perfect or anywhere close. If Walt were perfect, he wouldn’t exist for us as an object of identification: His stratagems often fail, and his self-control slips. His normal human desire for recognition leads him to take unnecessary risks or to act out emotionally, generally the same thing.
Heightening and justifying the whole – this complex narrative about taking one’s own fate into one’s own hands against the rules, rules that clearly are insufficient and to that extent deserve to be “broken” – is Walt’s elemental confrontation with his own mortality. The “breaking” point for him is his diagnosis with rapidly advancing terminal cancer. It makes him into a Job character, pushed by God/fate toward rebellion against God/fate. His personal choice, one merely good way to take control, would, we learn early on, be to accept his bad fate, and his personal and financial limitations. His initial preference is to decline chemotherapy and the rest of a life-disfiguring, impossibly expensive and, he’s told, unlikely treatment regime, but his wife and son are devastated and spiritually contaminated by that choice – which to them is an example of selfishness, nihilism, cowardice, and abandonment, not a demonstration of existential courage. He gives in to them, which means fighting for himself, another key irony underlying the story, and the decision becomes his main excuse – the mafioso excuse of “family” – for becoming a criminal, not just to pay for the hopeless and unwanted treatment, but to provide for his wife, teenage son, and baby after he’s no longer around.
It’s a selfless assertion of self, at least at first, until Walt learns to enjoy the peculiar rewards, especially the fuller self-realization, it brings him. Because his expectation of imminent death had become a source of strength, the news that his cancer has gone into remission produces a crisis. This new problem – of what do with himself in the unfortunate circumstances of having after all to live with his decisions – comes later, but its contradictions are apparent from the first: In the process of watching him examine his options for paying for the extremely expensive treatment, we have also learned why such a brilliant chemist is just a High School teacher, not a wealthy or at least very well to do professional running or employed by some chemical company. Instead of humiliating himself all over again taking money from peers who became millionaires – in his mind by stealing his work – he decides to “do it himself,” manufacturing (“cooking”) what may be the best crystal meth in the world, but this choice takes him, and us, into the drug underworld, and constantly brings the human costs of drug addiction, living on the edges of society, and fighting the drug wars into Walt’s and our view: tallying moral costs that always threaten to overwhelm whatever moral advances. We also learn and are continually reminded about the compromises made by all of the others, including those outwardly respectable people before whom Walt has to continue to pretend to be a pathetic loser, even while he’s amassing a secret fortune, synthesizing a commodity that people very literally will kill for, and outwitting sociopaths in life-and-death struggles.
If it’s often extremely violent and sad, it’s just as often grotesquely hilarious, and often at the same time. As so often with genre fiction, that it isn’t always completely believable provides relief, though few of Breaking Bad‘s ironic coincidences or other challenges to credulity are totally outside the realm of normal human experience in our mysteriously synchronous-ironic universe. Season 5, the upcoming season, is slated to be the last. Finally, Walt’s wife has come to understand and has become consciously complicit in what her husband has been doing and has become – “I’m not in danger, I am the danger” – though she doesn’t know all that we know about how far he’s gone and is willing to go. As for how much further, it would be unusual for the show if every step down the path of self-assertion and self-renewal was not equally a step on a seemingly convergent path of self-destruction.