More on Breaking Bad: Setting up S5 and vs. House

the danger

Mr. Miller comes a bit off his high House to embrace the tortoise:

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.


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13 comments on “More on Breaking Bad: Setting up S5 and vs. House

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  1. It’s arguable whether White ot Fring who is the real Moriarty, seeing as House is a Holmes/Bell composite.

    • Just watched the episode where they meet. One main thing they have in common is that, like spies, they are distinguished within the narrative by their success at leading double lives. Fring appears to the real world to be a vaguely comical owner-manager of cheap chicken restaurant – though Walt recognizes his counterpart.Though one theme is that everyone lives a double life, Walter and Fring are aware of it, know the hidden identity as the real one, and see through everyone else’s false fronts. Most people – White’s pregnant wife sneaking a cigarette or flirting with her boss, the boss himself hiding income from the IRS, White’s sister-in-law shoplifting – think that their public identities are their real ones, and their private selves are diseases, mistakes, exceptions.

  2. And you will find that Fring’s operation is ‘enabled’ by large foreign commercial interests, that’s how the Feds track him, as to his string pullers are, back across the border,

  3. Sorry to quote so much of what you wrote, but this is the crux of the issue:
    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 at all. 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.
    Strangely, you’ve helped me understand my identification with House. You’re right about what House represents from a normal world perspective. He’s not a loser. But from a yoga world perspective, he is breaking bad. If I acted like House in the yoga world I would have to do it within the context of what you explain here. And actually I do. What I do is between me and God/the universe because if it wasn’t it would destroy me as well as the work itself. Not that my work is perfect or anywhere else. If I were perfect, I wouldn’t exist for students as an object of identification.
    The only thing you don’t address (maybe you get there, I don’t know because I stopped at the above paragraph to write this) is that House is “always right.” I could explain that point of my identification but you would hate me for it, and while I’m okay with people hating me, I think I’ll just not go there any more than I already have by bringing it up like this at all.

    • Well, I think you should go on anyway, but I’m just selfish that way. House’s infallibility will have to stand under the “super-doctor” comments. Haven’t watched the show anywhere near enough to know its rules.

      • Well, his drug addiction puts him in his own league as far as television super doctors go. Interesting that Walter makes drugs and House takes them. I wonder what that says about our respective identifications with the characters? Walter has cancer. House is a cripple. Walter has a family and is trying to do for them. House has no family and never lets his best and only friend know that he’s doing anything for him by way of selflessness–deceiving him right to the end when he lets Watson, I mean Wilson think he’s dead until it can be revealed that House’s manipulations have fooled the authorities and enabled them to ride happily into the sunset for the six months that Wilson still has left to live. Not sure if any of those differences are meaningful in the context of your critique but there you are.

        • It seems that House is “bad” without being evil. In going from being in danger to being the danger, Walt goes from being defined by his disease to being definable as a disease. He is heroically determined to define himself, to maintain control over his definition, but the only way to do it is through doing evil.

          But I’ll stick to Walt since I don’t know House. Maybe Walt is more a gnostic character than a Job, but on his own terms he seems to be pretty clearly an atheist and skeptic. I’m not sure if he ever uses the word “God,” even in a curse, although his partner prays or pleads when desperate for something to happen. Walt does have wisdom in addition to science, but he doesn’t acknowledge any larger spiritual or political purposes at all, even to the extent of considering and rejecting them. It’s as though he, and the show, have no awareness of them at all, other than to observe the economic downturn without naming any names or getting specific at all.

          At the party celebrating the remission from cancer, he is asked to speak. All he says is that when he first got the diagnosis, he asked, “Why me?” When he was told of the remission, he says, he had the same question. That’s all he says – before proceeding to get drunk and act out some of his resentments. It seems that the lack of an answer, or of anyone or Anyone to answer, is the fundamental assumption: So Walt’s world is overall meaningless as well as painful, but that doesn’t mean he can’t choose to protect the people he loves, even from that recognition, to the best of his ability.

          Maybe at some point this season he’ll have to tell the truth to his son (who by the way is a teenager suffering from cystic fibrosis, so needs to use crutches and has something of a speech impediment, but has not been developed much as a character in his own right).

        • House has a family, his father was played improbably by R. Lee Armey, the pain from the botched operation, did mark him, somewhat like Watson’s jezail round in Afghanistan,

            • I’m guessing House has no particular love of the law or interest in politics, and that his respect for conventional morality is highly situational at best. Probably he respects the Hippocratic Oath and generally his word is his bond, and he seems to enjoy the role of truth teller. The fact that he’s a drug addict (which drug?) implies that he must habitually break some laws, and deal with criminals.

              Has he fallen in love? If the person he was in love with was endangered, is it hard to imagine him taking the law into his own hands rather than wait for the authorities to handle the situation?

              Just watched a breathtaking episode of BB that culminates with Walt in effect murdering his partner’s girlfriend. The motivations are perfectly set up, as it’s become clear that she’s a lethal threat both to Walt and to his partner, and that all he has to do is let her drown in her own zonked-out heroin addict’s vomit, rather than intervene, in order to remove her toxic influence from the Earth. Can you imagine House doing such a thing? I’m thinking probably not. He’d have to find some clever way of neutralizing her, getting her sent off to prison or something, but what if his options were narrowed – if the victim had some information that could destroy House or someone he cared about?

  4. Walter is Thanos, the visage and destruction that the Avengers will confront, as the last snippet confirms, he cannot help but
    wreak destruction and misery, the parallel to Moriarty is not accidental in this regard, House as is his model, Doyle’s Dr, Joseph Bell, may be antisocial, meanspirit, iracible, but ultimately a healer, I think the latter ending was a cop out, he had dealt enough
    bad juju that he escaped consequences,

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  1. […] episode “FeLiNa” and on what it revealed about the show as a whole, though I still will never prefer House. This post also expands on my response to Don Miquel in the comments under the prior BB […]

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