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October 07, 2013


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I actually thought the Macbeth comparison especially apt. The end of Granite State is "I'll not fight with thee." The Grey Matter interview is "Then yield thee, coward" and the finale "Yet I will try on to the last, lay on McD, etc." It's especially apt in that my own little head. I always read that last speech as a small victory for McB ever since I was a wee kid. Although it's not a victory in any conventional sense--the moral thing is to bow to justice, and it's not as if in McB regaining his mojo for a few moments that he atones or repairs any damage. We don't even want him to beat McD. But it's strangely satisfying in a local way without eclipsing the larger spiritual climax of "Tomorrow tomorrow and tomorrow." So it is for BB's finale to Ozy.

My latest thought: I've been partial to the wish fulfillment fantasy interpretation before I read a word about it. There's been discussion of whether the prayer in the car is to God (support my quest for justice) or to the devil (support my quest for revenge), a prayer which is rewarded by the mystical appearance of the car keys. I like both of those, but it occurs me the prayer is not to God or the Devil but to the Writers.

Dominic Orlando

Great post--complicated food for thought (as usual).

I've been fascinated this past year with the faux-moralism of thinking there's something deranged about rooting for Walt now that we know the full extent of his villainy. Hank remains the same puffed up goof he always was, and the show really becomes a Western when Hank decides to catch Walt himself instead of turning him in immediately (his heroic reason being he wants to save what shreds of his career he can). So rooting for Hank is ridiculous. As Shakespeare and the Greeks seem to've understood, on some level we continue to want the main character to get away with it, no matter how far he sinks (mostly "he" unfortunately), because he's us, and all of us hope to ultimately get away with it, whether "it" is romantic, financial or just life itself. Saying we can't possibly root for Walt knowing what he's done tells us more about the person expressing that sentiment (and their view of their own actions) than it does about Walt. No, we're not all drug dealers--but we're all the heros of morally ambiguous lives, just on much more subtle and acceptable levels.

Structurally speaking, Oedipus in fact achieves self-knowledge, in the sense that he recognizes the pestilence he's searching for is himself. The irony of "Breaking Bad" is that when Walt achieves self-knowledge, instead of tearing his own eyes out, he just becomes more of a bad-ass. Walt's real progression is from miserable, bitter loser, to dead master criminal--hence the smile at the very end. His self-knowledge basically amounts to: I always knew I was a genius, and I was right.

Whether this is a "good" or a "bad" ending, it's soaked in irony, which does in fact raise the show above pure entertainment. That the writers chose not to punish Walt by having all his money gone, or having the Nazis kill his family can indeed be read as the writers chickening out--or just their continued desire to muddy the waters between a clean resolution either way. True, most drug lords don't die in their beds surrounded by grandchildren--but to claim they never get to put their money to use, or that no one is ever enriched by it, would be a different kind of fantasy.

I would suggest the reason the finale is unsatisfying to many of us is it's too rushed, and Walt's actions are too "magical". I have no doubt he could have schemed his way around the various obstacles in his path to accomplish all he does before his death --the question is, why didn't the writers do it that way? Why did they make it so easy? It can't be a matter of time--AMC would've given them a double episode if they asked for it. And it can't be, This Is All Walt's Dream & He's Dead In New Hampshire--because then Vince Gilligan would have to spend the rest of his days in fear for his life.

I don't have an answer for that, but I'm convinced it's the real flaw of the finale. There have always been plot-holes (you know, I'm not going to list them, cause there's more than a few)--but the finale was a festival of logical leaps, and we expected (thought we deserved?) more.

Last thought--why is everyone obsessed with the prayer for the keys? Even atheists say prayers like that all the time--and sometimes they come true. Why's this one such a big deal?

Thanks again for the blog.

Karl Miller

I don't think Team Walt is about justifying or gratifying Walt so much as wishing to see his heart-of-darkness journey continue. Remember the insane momentum of the first 2.5 seasons? Each episode took us deeper, further down the crazy train. Jane's death was compelling not because it gratified Walt (it didn't); it was compelling because it was a moral trade-off. Walt left the scene shaken and teary. Her death profits him nothing, except the chance that Jessie might be free from her spell. I think Team Walt just wants to see how deep one can go down this twisted trip, that means watching Walt do evermore evil things, yes.

The Skyler-bashing comes in part from a thuggish "bitch, make me a pie and let me play ma GTA" faction but also, sorry to say, from the writers who have given the splendid Anna Gunn so little to do for the last 16 episodes. This is also the story's breaking point with "Macbeth" - a braver turn would have killed off Skyler in Season 4 instead of having her wallow and drag for so long after.

I'm not sure how much we gain by swapping genre labels. Abel's "Metatheatre" is a refreshing read, but his and Sontag's definitions of tragedy in no way exclude Hamlet from the genre. Hamlet may be the cleverest figure in literature, but you'll remember he does commit a blind, tragic action in the dead center of his story ... and then transforms, suffers and perishes because of it. It doesn't matter how self-conscious you are; you can still commit tragic action and undergo tragic transformation. Hamlet does it three or four times. Walter White does it as many, if not more.

A more "satisfying" breaking bad ending for me would be one of the following: 1) Jessie and Walt stand off in perfect "what next" equipoise and then we fade to black to see Vince's name for one last time or 2) Walt uses his chemistry powers to weaponize his chemo, set off a dirty bomb at Gray Matter, or improve on his brand with Red Meth - a drug so powerful it turns mild-mannered meth heads into the zombies from "28 Days Later." If Walt's scourge against society had continued apace, instead of being derailed by the Gus showdown ... if he'd continued to make sacrifices side-by-side with his gains ... then the show might have ended with the same depth and rush that accompanied its kick-off and first 2.5 seasons. I don't think the ending was bad because it doesn't un-write or re-write what came before. And knowing the ending won't prevent me from going back and enjoying the whole series all over again. But I don't think any genre designation or dramaturgical structure helps us interpret Walter White.

Our grand TV epics are not Greek or Shakespearean; they're psychoanalytic. They all seem to involve drugs and gangs or bureaucracies (Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy). Drugs are the potions, the magic, the oracular forces and gangs are the answer to a more corrupt society. Drugs are the id and gangs are the super-ego. There's a chemical force and a cultural force and they clash.

Breaking Bad fascinated because it kept tearing down moral firewalls until something resembling Fate seemed to be guiding the proceedings. It just so happens Walt is fated to die perfectly content, which is what he wanted at the beginning. All he could have wanted was more of the same ... and he gets it.



I like this! But I also disagree with it. There's no way to psychoanalyze Walt in a way that makes sense. (For ex: Is he a psychopath? No. He wouldn't feel the grief he feels at Hank's death and the loss of his family if he were). And I don't see any way that gangs are posited in The Wire or The Sopranos as the superego. In the former, they are an institution that works as a distorted mirror for the institutions of society. In the latter, they're a decaying husk of their former selves that no longer have any reason to exist and are capable only of violence and destruction.

(Also Team Walt-- or rather #TeamWalt, if you go and search twitter-- is a real thing that that exists. I didn't make them up. While I think there are people who root for Walt for the reasons you say above, I was actually referring to a codified subset of fans.)

Karl Miller

Yeah, I'm not about to vouch for every asshole who uses that hashtag (I don't have a Twitter account). Much of the more prosaic discussion of the series has referred to Team Walt with an indignant tut-tut that I find strange. When we speak of resolution or, more elusively, catharsis for Walt, I don't think we're speaking of him getting away with anything. The trademark rush of BB has always been this Macbeth-esque black magic. Just as we are drawn into Mackers by his evil AND his imagination, so are we drawn into Walt. It's what we signed up for and kept coming back for, so when so many media writers become moralistic in the final lap, I get annoyed. To be clear, you're not doing that here, so thank you!

Psychoanalysis isn't just about psychopathy. Gillgian hides so much of Walt's backstory (imagine the same premise in, say JJ Abrams' hands) that we have few real emotional roots to grasp for a classic psychoanalytic inquiry. Its his halting and then heedless rush into brute empire-building that defines him. A Neizschean will-to-power fable ... a fable, not a cautionary tale and not really a tragedy.

When Walt saw Gus as a competitor and not a potential partner, when he became fearful after the box-cutter execution, he took on more than he could or should have. That and the misplaced edition of "Leaves of Grass" are what led to his downfall -- not some hubristic, blind, tragic action. It's the only thing about the series that disappoints me. He makes so many other classically tragic actions throughout but the end of Season Four and all of the final season are basically burn-off from that.

Of course, that, too, seems to follow a tragic structure: Shakespearean tragedy, which often had the climax in the center of the play, not the end. Hamlet's defining tragic action - his blind stab at Polonius - is the hinge of the whole story. But while BB spends itself by Season Four and then keeps spending for the remainder, I'm not sure I can identify a comparable hinge in the larger composition. Can you?

It is a supreme luxury to bitch and dicker about one of the best shows I've ever seen, so I'll stop here. I'm mostly bored by all the writing about BB, so I thank you for breaking open the discussion. Oh, and if you have the time to read Abel's book, I'd love to hear your take!

Zailig Pollock

"It’s at the moment of confession and self-knowledge that Walt ceases being the protagonist in a tragedy forever and becomes fully the protagonist in a Western."

Walter does not attain self-knowledge and he does not confess the truth. His last speech to Skylar is a lie. He is still using her, tricking her into believing he is broke, so that she will accept his money when the Schwartzes offer it to her. He is as manipulative and unremorseful as ever. He is happy at the end because he has defeated all of his enemies (Gus, the neo-Nazis, the Schwartzes, cancer -- he is not going to let mere cancer kill him); he has proven he is the smartest and toughest guy on the block; he has magnanimously forgiven Jesse for betraying him; he has found a way of supporting his family even though they don't want his support -- he couldn't care less what they want -- he has proven he can do it and that is enough for him; and he dies with his Precious by his side. He is happy. The fact that the world is worse for his having been born into it doesn't matter to him because, like many powerful and attractive people he is a narcissist. If you are looking for tragedy, that is where you will find it, pretty much the same place you will find it in Shakespeare. Hamlet is a better comparison than Macbeth -- an enormously gifted, completely self-involved individual who, as he dies tells Horatio to explain to the world how, despite appearances, he has in fact wrapped everything up quite nicely. In fact, like Walt, he has left behind a bloody mess for others to pick up.

Karl Miller


Hamlet tells Horatio to draw his breath in pain to tell Hamlet's story. He fears a wounded name, but I don't see anything in the text about wrapping things up quite nicely. Are you thinking of "report me and my cause aright to the unsatisfied"?

In any case, Horatio goes on to say to Fortinbras that he will speak "of deaths put on by cunning and forc'd cause, / and in this upshot, purposes mistook / Fall'n on th'inventors' heads ..." That sums up not only Hamlet's sad end, but also the end of Gertrude, Claudius, Polonius, Laertes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They didn't perish by Hamlet's self-absorption, they perished in the act of trying to pin down Hamlet.

The only death that remains mysterious and ethically slippery is Ophelia's, which I think can be traced to Hamlet's self-absorption. (I thought they were setting Skyler up for a watery end at one point, but they backed away.) Each of the deaths in Hamlet is "multi-determined", except the murder of the King, which was straightforward unvarnished blood/lust. Each of the deaths in Breaking Bad flows directly from Walter's ambition.

I think you're right on regarding the rest of Breaking Bad. Walter doesn't gain knowledge, gets everything he ever wanted, only wants for more of the same, and the world is a far worse place for his choices and ambition. Hamlet leaves Elsinore a bloody mess, but is there any doubt that the world is a better place for his thoughts and efforts? He's Shakespeare's grand executor of fate. Terrifying and flawed, certainly, but life would be so much dimmer and sadder without him.

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