Breaking Real: Reflections on complexity and paradox in ‘Breaking Bad’

Promotional image in a threatening stance of the two main characters Walt and Jessie in the television drama 'Breaking Bad'.

The image above is referenced from a post by Leonard De Lorenzo on the Notre Dame University blog, an indication of the extent of interest and depth of debate going on about this deeply engaging drama, even as far reaching as theological circles.

We received the box set of ‘Breaking Bad’ Series 1-4 as a Christmas gift and it has turned out to be the biggest time bandit of my life this decade. I am no stranger to excuses to procrastinate the evening away but our nightly sessions with ‘Breaking Bad’ have turned into something of an addiction! And none of the kids even bother now to book the television after 7.30 pm as they know Mum and Dad will be glued to the screen. So I keep asking myself, WHY???? Why has this drama gripped my imagination to the extent that I am throwing all my time management habits and new year resolutions out the window? There are several possible answers to that question.

Lorenzo’s analysis of the draw and relevance of the show cites Pride as a major theme, leading to increasingly elaborate schemes of lies, deception and self-pity. He goes on to point to the other two main foci as Responsibility and Social Connectedness – no one is an island and Walt’s dilemma is continually re-enacted in his conflicted concerns about his own standing vis-á-vis the needs of his family. While these points are certainly valid, I feel there is more to the alchemy of the show and of course I will suggest that a Depth Psychology perspective can open this up.

Depth of Character

Firstly I think it is the depth and complexity of the characters. They pull on every emotion and frailty as well as strengths and attributes. Unlike the sometimes superficial, uni-dimensional figures in some of the material presented to us through the media, who are either a good character or a bad one, we can identify with the chaos and muddle of many of the players in Breaking Bad. Fear for the welfare of our children  and a desire to do the best for them may sometimes conflict with meeting our own perhaps long unmet needs and secret desires. It is this kind of existential crisis that sparks off the whole rollercoaster ride of Walter White’s descent into a world of deceit and scullduggery, not to mention extreme danger. For me this points to a potential understanding of many of the social issues that are, in the mainstream mentality, seen to be located in the ‘disordered individual’ or ‘criminal mind’. Not making excuses for evil-doing such as aggressive drug pedalling, and drug addiction is certainly a social ill, but perhaps if we understood the root causes to be more social and cultural than individual, we might be more effective at primary and secondary prevention?

No-one knows the moment when the tide of life might turn from the ordinary everyday to extraordinary nightmare. From seemingly everyday family life and trivial irritations (such as Walt’s frustrated genius and resulting irritability and like Skylar’s arguably patronising and disempowering style with her husband and son early on – note the scene with the veggie bacon and the conversation where Walt asks her to ‘just for once, get off my ass’)- the drama quickly moves on and each character is thrust into immeasurably scary life events that call forth a whole myriad of unexpected depths: Skylar’s infidelities and shifts in loyalty and occupation; Walter Junior’s struggles with identity, loyalty and the right-wrong continuum; Hank’s macho exterior alongside a deep affection for his family and his own vulnerable psyche and struggles with fear and panic; Jessie’s self-hating loneliness and attempts to curb it through reckless behaviour and substance abuse.

Now all this would be hard to take in large doses if it were not for several other features of the show. As far as humour goes, some of the temper tantrum and irritation scenes with Walt and Jessie are hilarious but I have to lay my vote on the funniest and most well acted character of them all – the colourful lawyer Saul Goodman, whose vocabulary and stock phraseology are unsurpassed. In terms of the background music, again the variety in style and the tongue-in-cheek relevance of many of the chosen songs would justify a thesis of its own. But of all the addictive factors of the drama, I believe it is complexity and paradox as central themes that are, for me, the major hooks.

Complexity of Themes

Where to begin? It’s all there….

– unconscious drives, unfulfilled needs and emotional blindness that lead to the slippery slopes of grasping and denial, as Walter makes one disastrous decision after another, then attempts to justify and distract himself through projection and obsessive rituals (including the chemical process which he seems to worship like a religion). It must be said here that we are only halfway through the third series and thus I am blind as to the final outcome – no spoilers thanks 🙂

-the power of money to enable or corrupt, its role (or lack of one) in human fulfillment and how it can rob us of real meaning-making in our lives, yet we all know we need a certain amount to get by and to raise our children. I love the old adage that goes something like: ‘Money is a good servant but a terrible master’.

-the way in which perception and thinking can gradually become grossly distorted over time. An example is Walt’s wife Skylar, whose first reaction to Walt’s secret drug business is horror and anger, yet she begins to come around to the idea of using the money for Hank’s physical therapy, justified by incorporating a sense of Walt’s initial motivation as being a desire to provide for his family in light of his originally terminal cancer diagnosis.

-the fuzzy boundaries and cultural relativities in concepts of right and wrong, good and bad, and the growing awareness that each individual person harbours potentials for all of these aspects of human behaviour, given any number of possible sets of circumstances conducive to desperation. There is also allusion to certain possible hypocrisies such as violence being justified in one context and not in another. I find myself lurching from sympathy to disgust and back again during the course of the narrative and in relation to all the characters (with the exception of Hank – for some reason I see him as the only really decent person so far, personal opinion and stand to be corrected).

-We are also challenged by these characters and their actions to examine really big issues about modern society and how it repeatedly fails people in terms of nurturing self esteem and opportunities for self actualisation. Social justice and its relationship with social ills such as drug addiction, drug dealing and corruption in high places are deep themes here I think, as is the microcosm of society which is the nuclear family. There are hints that Jessie, for instance, had been labelled and treated as a disappointment at a young age, resulting in a rebellious turn and a lapse into drug abuse, becoming increasingly alienated from his frankly obnoxious parents.

-Essentially I see the story as being all about paradox: humans are complex mixtures of selfishness and altruism, hawks and doves, creativity and destructiveness, all the archetypal forces of the Universe. Jung recognised this as the core of human maturation – making contact with all aspects of ourselves, including the Shadow and the Trickster, reining them in, taming them and channeling their energy into constructive and creative living and relating. The late great Dr M. Scott Peck provided invaluable knowledge and insight on the need to accept paradox and work with it rather than live in denial of our innate humanness, and if we don’t do this we live then in denial and become ‘People of the Lie’. This is essentially where Walt started out on the wrong foot – heading down the path of increasing denial and lies. I’ll be hooked ’til the end, I hope and dread but won’t stop watching.

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Bridges over troubled waters

Bridge symbolism is evident in the film The Bridges of Madison County, where Meryl Streep’s character, a homely and dedicated wife and mother crosses over into her antithesis via a secret and passionate encounter with a visiting National Geographic photographer, played by Clint Eastwood.  That he was creating a photo-essay on bridges was not a mere trivial fact but a poignant and meaningful one.

 

The bridge as a symbol occurs in numerous contexts and can be thought of through a range of different meanings. The key function of a bridge is a connecting one – to join opposite sides and to bring people together. Previous President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, made ‘building bridges’ a central theme in her maiden speech and indeed it came to define her presidency.

The integrated education movement in Ireland really got off the ground with the launching of Lagan College, in the Castlereagh area of Belfast. The school’s ethos, to educate together children of all religions and none and of all abilities, is encapsulated in the centrepiece of its badge, the bridge over the river Lagan to symbolise the connecting of diverse and separated communities.

Lagan College Integrated School Badge

To bridge the final gap, listen to Simon and Garfunkel’s timeless Bridge over troubled water

Enjoy 🙂

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GYKJuDxYr3I

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