Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Redemption of Walter White

Tonight's finale of Breaking Bad seems to be generally well received in the instant-information world of Twitter and Facebook, although like many of you I eagerly await tomorrow's write-ups at Time, Grantland, and, among others. In general, I expect the ending to be heavily praised for three reasons. First, unlike the somewhat controversial ending to The Sopranos this ending focused on the resolution of loose ends: there were no Russians left running in the words or Members' Only jacket-related assassination speculation. Secondly, the show left Jesse Pinkman alive and (somewhat, at least) free not only from the Neo-Nazis but also Walter White. Thirdly, the structure of the episode allowed viewers to explicitly disavow themselves of any positive connection with Walter White related to his deluded convictions that he was "helping his family."

It is this third point I want to explore in this blog post. Walter's actions in the episode, while nominally gesturing towards a recognition of his own intense egotism, Lockean fetish for individual ingenuity, and an ultimate acceptance of his fate (and destruction), actually create conditions for the audience to once again root for Walt as  a hero of sorts.

Take, for example, Walt's encounter with Elliott and Gretchen at the home of his old Gray Matter partners' home. When they discover Walt, Elliott holds a small kitchen knife at him, flinchingly. Walt looks down condescendingly at the knife and says "If we're going to go that way, you're going to need a bigger knife." Not only does this serve as an excellent Crocodile Dundee throwback, it also gives Walt a moment to act as a Heisenberg-esque action star, one who acts calmly and cooly in the face of violence. And one would be remiss to not note the phallic relevance of suggesting that the man who took his one-time girlfriend from him needed to get a "bigger knife."And of course Walt comes out of this showdown having "persuaded" his old business partners to start a nine million dollar trust for Walt Jr. with his meth money.

And what about Walt's almost superhuman ability to dodge the police? They miss him in the snowy car at the New Hampshire bar. They hear rumors of him all over town, so much so that even Marie knows, but he nevertheless manages to sneak into Skyler's house. And while the show has certainly established Walt's criminal capacity, just how easily can a cancer ridden man dodge massive police surveillance?  (I understand the false flags Marie refers to in the phone call but, still, Skyler's house?).

The scene with Walt and Skyler is the most pivotal of the episode. As Walt finally begins to make his peace with her she says she's tired of hearing about how he does it all for his family. In this moment she is a cipher for many in the audience who have grown weary of Walt's hoary self-serving moralizing that  has served to displace his own culpability under a regime of attachment to the idea of the nuclear family. But in a turn, Walt admits that he was doing it for himself all along. His selfishness admitted, Walt gets one final chance to connect with his daughter (THAT HE ABDUCTED!) by coming clean about his real motives all alone.

From this point on the episode becomes a series of moves by Walt to atone for the crimes of his selfishness. Enraged that Jesse is cooking again, Walt plots to kill him and the gang of Neo-Nazis, not knowing that Jesse is now toiling in the Giorgio Agamben Bare Life Meth Basement (All Rights Reserved). In the show's final bit of grim homage to Mr. Wizard's World, Walt erects a remotely-triggered pivoting machine gun. Confronting Todd's uncle's gang, Walt realizes that Jesse is not willingly serving them but instead their slave.

The set up whereby Walt discovers that Jesse is enslaved rather than a willing partner certainly strains credulity. King Neo-Nazi, after Walt accuses him of partnering with Jesse, claims that Walt has sullied his honor and demands that Jesse be brought in so that Walt may see his broken and finished state. Certainly, this is near Bond-villain territory stuff. In the past Todd's crew has made no show of morality or principle, killing easily for pragmatic or economic reasons rather than on principle. In this case however Jesse's appearance enables one last element of Walt's redemption: seeing Jesse's state, he tackles him before he sets off the remote gun, holding him down while the gun blasts the Neo-Nazis to death, save Todd. Following the shootout, Jesse chokes Todd to death, avenging his meth slavery. This entire scene is certainly gory, but also has more than a hint of action movie flavor in the way it is shot: stylized blasts from a cannon that paint the outer wall of the building red, an unleashed torrent of seemingly infinite bullets that hit the Neo-Nazis who seem to be just so grouped closely enough together.

Once Jesse kills Todd, Walt and Jesse are left, with Walt holding a gun which he puts down and gives to Jesse, urging Jesse to kill him. For once, Jesse is free of Walter White's power and refuses to do so, instead hopping in the car and taking his leave. Walt, meanwhile, in a scene set to some musical stylings of Badfinger, dies surrounded by the cooking equipment in the Neo Nazi meth lab. Splayed out on the floor of the lab in a Christ-like callback to "Crawl Space," Walt dies, having given himself to rescue Jesse and murder a gang of Neo Nazis, not to mention the morally bankrupt Lydia whose Stevia-laden tea he so carefully poisons with his now highly Chekhovian-ricin. At the end of the show, Walt's ledger is clean: he has provided information to Skyler that will allow her to barter with the police, Walt Jr.'s future is provided for, Jesse is free, and the Neo Nazis are dead, along with Lydia. Despite the fact that over the course of the show Walt is a rapist, a murderer, and a drug maker, the structure of the narrative continues to suggest his heroism in an almost tragic fashion, rather than a polemic condeming Walter White.

In her recent book Washed in Blood Claire Sisco King examines three periods of American masculinity and their relationship to traumatic cinema, looking at Cold War America, the 1990's, and the post 9/11 period to argue that various films index the changing nature of American masculinity, trauma, and national identity. Whether thinking through cinema as a response to military defeat (Vietnam), various and sundry culture wars (the 90s), or a newfound ineradicable vulnerability (September11th), King argues persuasively that cinema tracks these moves by suggesting how the masculine action hero who heroically gives themself transforms what could be understood as a tragic flaw into a heroic or even laudable trait. I think it is impossible to separate the popularity of Breaking Bad from the contemporary political context of American politics, specifically thinking about the show as emerging at the very moment that America's polity faces increasing demographic changes that, from a political standpoint, put the white male, not to mention the nuclear family, very much on the run at both a demographic and symbolic level. After all, America has its first black president. Gay marriage is increasingly visible at the state and federal level. Traditional relationship structures are undermined in public discourse at rapid rates (Think about how many useless "Girls in college are hooking up more!" stories you see in The New York Times, and then think about how Walter White would feel about his daughter, if he had one).

The show, however, is rarely understood in this political context, with critics instead praising the transcendent performances of the actors and actresses, especially Brian Cranston, and many insist that it may be the best show in the history of television. But I think it is fair to ask: what is the source of this praise? One response is to praise the show's formal characteristics: the cinematography is excellent, the direction crackerjack, and the acting superb. This is all true enough, although were are also in the midst of a television renaissance of such heights that one could credibly say that these things are true about any number of television shows.

I want to suggest that the show appeals by turning Walt's pathological egotism into a relatable character trait rather than a tragic flaw. To wit: simply admitting that his ego was the root of it all convinces Skyler to let him see his daughter again. Or another point: up until this week many would be at pains to distinguish Walt from the Neo Nazis, suggesting that the only real difference between the two of them is that Walt's racism is sublimated through his own (unearned) sense of self-worth while the Neo Nazis bear the markers of "conventional" (and thereby less threatening) racism. But the show's finale features Walt slaughtering a bunch of Neo Nazis. And then, most troubling of all, Walt humanity is found in his recognition that the treatment of Jesse at the hands of the Neo Nazis is too much even for the rather evil Walt to tolerate. But consider what Walt has done to Jesse over the course of the show, not only that he is responsible directly for Jesse's enslavement but also an unlistably long set of violences to Jesse, including Jane's death (murder? Probably murder.)

In a nation still in the throes of economic doldrums and a political scene where demographic shifts are rapidly outpacing the capacity of political discourse to manage difference, Walter White offers a fantasy that simultaneously suggests the legitimacy of feeling victimized and aggrieved so long as one simply owns up to the selfishness of such feelings. This is not too far off from the unreflexive celebration of Going Galt and valorization of "job creators" that permeates contemporary conservative discourse: selfishness is a virtue, and pride is a reflection of one's ability to apprehend the market's brilliance (and of course the brilliance of one's own recipe for pure blue crystal meth). Personally, I think a darker ending was necessary to hammer home Walt's evil, to give the viewer absolutely no place to hide. But instead we are left with this redemption of Walter White.

Twenty five years ago, Oliver Stone made Wall Street and was surprised to discover that viewers came out of the film not skeptical of the ills of finance capitalism but instead in love with Michael Douglas' portrayal of Gordon Gekko, the rapacious financier whose charisma and attraction made Charlie Sheen's Bud Fox seem a pale and tiny human in comparison. Oliver Stone is not known for his subtlety and so one might easily believe that he had simply, accidentally, produced the opposite result. On the other hand, interviews with Vince Gilligan suggest that he understands the element of Walt White that might lie within all of us (or, certainly at least, within the public realm where discourses of masculinity and victimhood circulate together to generate praise for Breaking Bad as a show that demonstrates "complexity" rather than the pathological actions of a brilliant but blowhardy chemistry teacher). Much of  the praise heaped upon the show, and the extra acclaim will no doubt be piled on this finale, might derive from a very troubling source: that is, our capacity to identify with the very worst of Walter White but disavow that identification by praising a set of formally impressive but politically problematic narrative structures.

Saturday, September 7, 2013


The recent debate over Syria has highlighted a clear political dynamic of the Barack Obama administration: the tendency of the opposition Republicans to oppose almost any policy simply because it is associated with Obama. This is certainly not unique, at least in simple terms to the Obama administration. A multitude of American progressives remember the Bush administration more for its foreign policy boondoggles that they stridently opposed than the social policies (like Medicare Part D) that ran counter to a number of conservative political positions. Going back further, one might remember the attacks on Reaganomics, a name similar to Obamacare in terms of its ability to reduce the understanding of a set of policies into a metonymic expression of a president’s worldview rather than a more rote unpacking of the content of said policies.

When critics, politicos, and citizens conflate policies with presidential personas we are in the messy realm where politics and charisma intermix. Max Weber offers a popular and influential understanding of charismatic authority as “resting on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by them ." Weber’s definition acknowledges a difficult problem for those interested in the study of political authority: a leader may not be selfsame with “the people” lest the distance that sustains their authority be abolished.” At the same time, there must be relays of identification between a leader and “the people,” lest the gap between them spawn a legitimacy crisis that weakens or even deposes the leader. Charisma is the bulwark of ether that suggests an unpopular decision by a leader should be read by the populace as evidence of the leader’s character rather than an indict of the leader’s judgment. Alternately (or perhaps simultaneously), a charismatic leader elevates themselves above the people, as a hero of sort, claiming exceptional status as earned.

Naturally, many thinkers are suspicious of charisma. Some, like Kenneth Burke, find in the charisma of a figure like Adolph Hitler the poisonous medicine of tragic unity, where the leader’s charisma blended with their naturalized affinity with their population in a way that created a nationalist feedback loop. Going back further, Plato worried that too much charisma might ruin the Republic, with the charisma-laden rhetor lying not far away from the demagogic despots who might lead “the people” astray.

The most interesting question about charisma, however, lies not with the rather futile debate about whether or not to ban it from the Republic. As numerous scholars of emotion and affect remind us, “feelings” are intrinsic to our democracy and we cannot banish them from the world of politics without constructing a somewhat tragic relationship to an ideal and emotionally purified politics that never has and never will exist. Instead, as Joshua Gunn suggests in his excellent piece in the Western Journal of Communication on Huey Long, we can understand a leader’s charisma as having at least two possible structures. In one, the leader maintains a kind of distance from the audience, routinely offering them most of what they want while denying at least one important emotion and/or policy item, producing a desire for the leadership of the rhetor even as the relation between speaker and audience remains split. On the other hand, Gunn’s reading of Huey Long implies there may a second rhetorical kind of demagoguery, more prone to rhetorical burnout, where the leader and vox populi merge into one avatar, a fiery figure of populist bluster that offers the intense satisfaction of popular sovereignty but is also left without any rhetorical firehouse to put out the intense burning passion ignited for a pure populism.

In the case of the Obama presidency we see a similar but somewhat opposite dynamic: the flight away from any policy associated with the president regardless of its content, or even its legitimate connection to President Obama. Take, for example, the “Obamaphone” a racist meme circulating extensively in the conservative blogosphere, Based on a short video clip of a black woman flashing a new cell phone and saying “I got an Obamaphone!” the meme circulated to suggest that Obama had created a program for anyone to get a free phone, working in tandem with the argument that Obama secured his electoral majority by promising (in 2008) and delivering (in 2012) “free stuff” to his constituents. The video suggests a racial animus underlying these claims, not unlike the (mostly white) figures who do not benefit from welfare in a 2012 campaign ad put together by Mitt Romney’s campaign team.

A second, more obvious example that came to mind when having a chat with a colleague the other day, is Obamacare. Rather than referring to the bill by either its official name (The Affordable Care Act) or even the shorter acronym (ACA) there is by now a more or less bipartisan consensus that the bill is to be called Obamacare. Despite the fact that hundreds of legislators (and lobbyists and citizens) contributed to the passage of the ACA, media critics and scholars all seem more or less resigned (or is it excited) to define the bill through the Obama administration and vice versa.

A third instance I will not dwell on long, but it is the continued assertion of Obama as central to the political imaginary. Whether found in the hilarious references to Obama in Louis CK’s television show whenever something goes wrong (“Fuckin’ Obama.”), the various anti-Obama iconography popularized by Tea Partiers, or the circulation of racist Obama images in various conservative counterpublics (the “witch doctor” image, for example), the ubiquity of Obama is at once a reflection of American political culture’s fetish for the presidential but the racial element also exceeds that element. (This may be true of most difference that threatens the normatively white and masculine office of the presidency: anyone remember Hilarycare?)

The recent Syria debate suggests again a move by conservatives on the basis of opposition to the president’s authority in and of itself, that is, his charisma. The particularly opportunistic nature of Republican oppositions suggests this. While some, like Rand Paul, may have familial and historical backgrounds that suggest their decisions are more principled and less opportunistic, for a number of rank and file Republicans who supported previous military interventions, its difficult to read this move as anything less to another knee jerk reaction to deny Obama something just because he wants it rather than on serious policy grounds. (Note: I don’t want to be construed as saying the Obama administration is on the side of principle here. It is a depressing fact that foreign policy, much more than domestic policy, tends to reveal similarities rather than differences in the parties. This is in part why the second Iraq war is such an outlier: it was a real moment where party affiliation really mattered on foreign policy, though many Democrats were complicit in authorizing the war).

These opportunistic moves are very short sighted, however. Which of these arguments about the “cult of Obama” will carry over when the Republicans have to campaign against presumptive 2016 nominee Hilary Clinton? Being against Obama on principle is not only nihilistic, it will be counter-productive for the GOP in terms of generating a party identity that can argue its policy differences with the dominant party. The tendency to reduce all Democratic actions into reflections of Obama may hoist the conservatives on their own petard, as they scramble for a set of Hilary-specific charisma attacks rather than carving out meaningful policy differences.