On Breaking Bad

(taking up an e-mail conversation in mid-stream)

During the “knife fight,” Walt’s objective was clearly to gain control of the knife, not to stab Skyler. It was dangerous, for sure, but Skyler’s the one who introduced the knife, not Walt. She resorted to violence because Walt was not hearing her. Sure, Walt also indirectly endangered Holly by grabbing her, but it was not his intention to do so. From a purely pragmatic, though unrealistic if not insane narrow Walt-reasonable perspective, if Skyler and Flynn/Walt Jr. had run off with him, and brought Holly, too, they all would or might have been better off. That was also a fantasy for multiple but related reasons: It was morally and psychologically impossible for Skyler and Walt Jr., and the heat would have been too great for them to begin again somewhere else with new identities and $20 Million. He didn’t and couldn’t anticipate the consequences of his actions, which is the main theme of the show, that seemingly rational or “scientific” solutions to immediate problems turn into their opposites due to the complex interwovenness of real life or society: i.e., Crime Doesn’t Pay. Even when it seems to pay, even over-pay, it turns you into an unhappy monster, or someone who has “earned” millions of dollars for his family but is unable to put the money to use for them in any way. He can’t even find a way to get a fraction of it to them. They refuse and utterly repudiate his efforts: Thus Flynn/Walt Jr. in response to Walt, in the phone call that had Walt, for a second time, preparing to give in.

The ego project elements I mentioned weren’t about Jesse, but have to do with the couple being interviewed on Charlie Rose, happening to appear on TV in a flagrant violation of probabilities and believability, as sheer coincidence, interrupting Walt’s decision just to give up. The same plot element could have been introduced more believably, but such contrivances operate as the presence of the will of God (or the Devil – confrontation with the fatal choice) in Breaking Bad: In previous episodes, Walt has been driven to the edge of madness by the action of sheer coincidence – or synchronicity – which utterly confounds his scientific-rationalist worldview. The major plot point involving Walt’s negligent homicide of Jesse’s previous girlfriend involves another such playing out of horrific socialized consequences of a seemingly limited personal solution: It leads indirectly to the deaths of 167 people in an airliner collision (Wayfarer 515). You would have loved-hated Walt’s subsequent process of rationalization. I’ll have to find that episode and show it to you sometime.1

The murder of Jesse’s later ex-girlfriend was shocking. It’s also among other things the working out of Crime Doesn’t Pay in Jesse’s life, though also a consequence of the failure of his naively simple personal solution – betray Walt to Hank, not in the full spirit of justice or some Raskolnikovian confession and unburdening, but an attempt to use the law to serve his own personal ends as well. Hank also pays for the same error: Attempting to preserve his dignity, his own ego project, to be at least the man who brings Walt to justice, he rejects his wife’s advice to take the case to his colleagues. Hank produced other rationalizations for attempting to control events that were beyond him (as Walt tried to warn him), but his motives were clearly impure, and nothing less than 100% purity will do when you’re going up against Heisenberg (the principle as well as the man). Since no one is 100% pure, the world continually returns flawed and unexpected, fallen results for all of our real life lab experiments.


  1. Update: The episode I had in mind is “No Más,” in which Walt is asked to address a High School assembly on the subject of the airliner disaster in which, in a way known only to him, he has played a crucial role in causing. Underlining the link between coincidence and revelation, Walt mutters the words “Jesus H Christ” to himself before reluctantly taking the microphone, and proceeding to deliver a (for others demoralizingly, for us somewhat comically) scientific or scientistic response to the event, among other things by listing much worse disasters. []

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5 comments on “On Breaking Bad

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  1. No, Walter White is a psychopath, that much is clear, the Moriarty of the SouthWest, with a fair bit more blood directly on his hands, whereas the Grey Matter duo, are in part trying to remedy the damage he has caused

    • A misuse of clinical terminology IMO, though I did acknowledge that his incomprehension of the moral-psychological, or society, operates as a kind of madness. It’s a TV show, not the observation of an actually existing person. It precisely does not – and for a number of reasons including the totally fantastical central plot concept (i.e., of the Blue Meth whose purity drives everyone to extremes) – neither WW nor any of these characters can really be submitted for diagnosis. He is an exhibit or an idea, in a morality play. The Graymatterists played their role in creating the monster, too.

    • Sociopath is closer, though the term suggests a complete lack of conscience. Unlike Todd, for example – who feels nothing about his killings beyond a warped imitation of “normal” feeling (“I’m sorry for your loss,” “This isn’t personal”), Walt displays a conscience, shows shame, feels tormented, tries to make amends, and so on, which is crucial to making him sympathetic enough to be interesting. Nucky also seems to mean well mostly, though is a more hardened criminal type. Hannibal is operating on a different level. He might as well be a sociopath, but has a code of his own different from society’s, and ends up being a weapon of justice, punishing the sinners and sparing the good like Clarice.

  2. Speaking of sociopaths, I think Kevin Spacey got robbed losing to Jeff Daniels, drama is supposed to be dramatic, not dogmatic,

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TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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Understanding Trump’s charisma offers important clues to understanding the problems that the Democrats need to address. Most important, the Democratic candidate must convey a sense that he or she will fulfil the promise of 2008: not piecemeal reform but a genuine, full-scale change in America’s way of thinking. It’s also crucial to recognise that, like Britain, America is at a turning point and must go in one direction or another. Finally, the candidate must speak to Americans’ sense of self-respect linked to social justice and inclusion. While Weber’s analysis of charisma arose from the German situation, it has special relevance to the United States of America, the first mass democracy, whose Constitution invented the institution of the presidency as a recognition of the indispensable role that unique individuals play in history.

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[E]ven Fox didn’t tout Bartiromo’s big scoops on Trump’s legislative agenda, because 10 months into the Trump presidency, nobody is so foolish as to believe that him saying, “We’re doing a big infrastructure bill,” means that the Trump administration is, in fact, doing a big infrastructure bill. The president just mouths off at turns ignorantly and dishonestly, and nobody pays much attention to it unless he says something unusually inflammatory.On some level, it’s a little bit funny. On another level, Puerto Rico is still languishing in the dark without power (and in many cases without safe drinking water) with no end in sight. Trump is less popular at this point in his administration than any previous president despite a generally benign economic climate, and shows no sign of changing course. Perhaps it will all work out for the best, and someday we’ll look back and chuckle about the time when we had a president who didn’t know anything about anything that was happening and could never be counted on to make coherent, factual statements on any subject. But traditionally, we haven’t elected presidents like that — for what have always seemed like pretty good reasons — and the risks of compounding disaster are still very much out there.

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