Friday, August 23, 2013

So You're Still Rooting for Walter White...

And so, apparently, is Skyler. I've already gone through why Walter White is a wholly objectionable figure elsewhere. But I wanted to talk a little bit about why viewers and critics remained attached to the show, finding it continually praiseworthy. I don't exempt my own judgments from the dynamic I am attempting to analyze: I remain invested in the show as well, and think so far this seasons two episodes have been excellent. But there are at least two strains of fandom that I want to talk about. First, those who are invested in Walt as the Heisenberg "badass" and view Skyler as some kind of killjoy, and second, the more sophisticated arguments about how Skyler is the moral center of the show, serving as a sort of cipher for the audience to participate in the narrative without being corrupted by Walt.

Representatives of the first view have become scarcer as Walt's naked ego-driven ambitions have become clearer, rendering less and less credible his claims that he "Just wants to provide for his family." Comments like those of popular twitter character (and AV Club commenter) @ZodiacMotherfucker (who is known for his all-caps tweets) suggest a masculine identification with Walt, as in this example:

While one might roll their eyes at this (its a comical account, clearly) the comments sections at any number of websites that do recaps of Breaking Bad like Hitflix or the AV Club have sections of fans who do root for Walt a somewhat surprising amount. For example commenter "HISLOCAL" on Hitflix says that "I'm getting a little tired of Jesse moping around, for the same reason I got tired of Skyler's attitude towards Walt. I understand that any of us would, in reality, act like Jesse or Skyler, but it's just kind of a buzzkill to watch on TV." The commenter understands the relation between the fantasy of television, but nevertheless admits that the charge of the show is the connection to Walt and his survival/success.

Similarly the most popular scene from the first episode of this season was the showdown in the garage between Hank and Walt. Even though Hank has the physical upper hand on Walt when he punches him, Walt maintains a mental edge with his gruff "Tread lightly" comment that finishes off his soliloquy about his own power and capacity for dread. This phrase was all over twitter following the episode, and even showed up on fan paraphenelia and imagery, permeating Gchat statuses and social media discussions of the show. They belie a certain kind of admiration for the badass side of Walt's "Heisenberg" persona.

Even articles that take a distanced and critical view of Walt depoliticize the grid of identification that sustains the relationship between the viewer and show. For example this Slate piece argues that Skyler is the best character on the show because "she’s the one who reminds us that it’s necessary to loathe Walt. She is our moral grounding." All well and good, but the last stanza of the article claims that it is easy to get sucked into identifying with Walt because of "the show’s narrative logic—Walt must overcome obstacle A to achieve goal B—to the point of blinding oneself to the evil of the particulars and their endpoint. We root for Walt because we want the show to continue." I disagree with that assessment because the formal characteristics of a show do not necessarily guarantee our investment. No matter how many Dick Wolf procedurals are put it, the level of intensity between the viewer and say, Jerry Orbach's Lenny Brisco is often less intense than that between them and Bryan Cranston's Walter White.

In her recent book Washed in Blood Claire Sisco King examines three periods of American cinema wherein shows featuring sacrificial male leads have helped America to "work through" difficult national traumas in a manner that reified and stabilized rather than undermined the hegemony of white masculinity. King examines cinema from the period of Vietnam, the nineties, and post 9/11 America to make her claim. The critical supplication permanently attendant to the drama of Walter White suggests his suitability as an avatar for another American trauma: the first period of the nation that sees a black man in the White House. Breaking Bad saw its critical star really take off during its second season in 2009, where the adrenaline pumping tales of a science teacher who "finds himself" when he is confronted with the threat of cancer. This despite the fact that very early on in the show many of Walt's "struggles" are coded as such only by a misogynistic masculinity: we have no context to determine whether Walt's feelings of restriction within his marriage are legitimate gripes or results of his own small minded selfishness, as later seasons might suggest. What Walt is "finally awake" to is not his objective status as a victim but instead the legitimate possibility that his situation might be able to count as a situation of victimage in need of redress.

In this way Walt's "break bad" authorizes itself to take a position typically denied in the "mass public" according to Michael Warner: Walt may operate simultaneously as both the righteous agent of his own professional/marital vengeance and also take a position that satisfies the need to matter (be seen) attendant to a public where the cost of white male privilege is also the denial of the subtle pleasures involved in relaxing and "being seen" rather than constantly gazing. One describes these as subtle pleasures only on account of Walt's whiteness and maleness: that it takes the trauma of cancer to push him into the exercise of his agency suggests in part the sinister capacity of the subject to interpret trauma not as a sign of something gone wrong but instead evidence of the correctness of what has been, driving them, in melancholic righteousness, towards the pursuit of control and mastery that has only appeared as a horizon rather than a reality. That it took many viewers many seasons to realize Walt's horrible and empty center suggests this reading has more than a little merit.

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