Monday, September 30, 2013

What does the success of Breaking Bad tell us about the current state of marriage?

I know this is the kind of crass thing only I would link to a major moral point but go back to the pilot of Breaking Bad and watch the birthday handjob scene. Remember that Walter has done nothing particularly bad at this point. They are just husband and wife and he feels trapped by his job, his financial worries, his having to eat veggie bacon, his smart ass son and feeling old. So what does his wife do for him? She gives him a handjob with one hand while playing a video game with the other.  She won't even look at him and spends part of the time making plans for the weekend and part of it telling him this is "for you".

She only has two minutes left on her video game. She could have finished and then done more for him but she doesn't because she is a selfish jerk. And that is important to remember: she was a selfish jerk from the start.

Do I hear you say, "At least she didn't start making and selling crystal meth." That's okay because neither did Walter White. Yes, I know he does in the series but if you think that's a credible character development you're stupid. Mr. Chips doesn't become Scarface in real life. It just doesn't happen. The whole series is a lie.

Now that's okay for some kinds of shows. The A Team wasn't even remotely credible either. But that sort of lie shuts off any reasonable presentation of serious moral issues in a TV show. In Breaking Bad one of these is what an absolute horror it is to be dating or, worse, married to a woman like Skyler White.
Walter: Alright, I've got the Talking Pillow now. Okay? We all, in this room, love each other. We want what's best for each other and I know that. I am very thankful for that. But...what I want...what I want, what I need, is a choice.
Skyler: What does that...mean?
Walter: Sometimes I feel like I never actually make any of my own. Choices, I mean. My entire life it just seems I know, had a real say about any of it. Now this last one, cancer...all I have left is how I choose to approach this.
Skyler: Then make the right choice, Walt. You're not the only one it affects. What about your son? Don't you wanna see your daughter grow up? I just...
Walter: Of course I do. Skyler, you've read the statistics. These doctors...talking about surviving. One year, two years, like it's the only thing that matters. But what good is it, to just survive if I am too sick to work, to enjoy a meal, to make love? 
Again, take away the highly artificial background and imagine something remotely plausible like an ordinary science teacher with no huge achievements followed by unexplained failures in his past who isn't cooking crystal meth. Why is this poor bastard being obliged to play games like a kindergartener who has to wait for the talking pillow before he can express his view? Notice that when Walter says he wants to have some choice over his own body, his wife's response is to tell him that there is only one choice. If you saw this scene take place within some non-exotic family dialogue, the only reasonable response would be to think, "you poor pussy-whiped bastard."

Related to that, we might notice that the only time these new-golden-age television shows are worth watching are when the men do get to act and make choices. And others have noticed this too:
First, I’ll confess that I do watch the show and I don’t like her character (well until the last episode, now I hate Jesse), but it’s not because she wouldn’t stand by Walt’s side anymore or be a “good wife and be quiet,” it’s because she gets in the way of Walt’s character arc.

If she had stuck to her guns and not accepted money and took the kids after she found out about Walt’s new job, then she could have something to stand on, but she didn’t. She lost a lot of credibility when she didn’t leave. And the writers most likely wanted it this way.

Walt wasn’t going to hurt her and she knows he wouldn’t hurt the kids, so that’s the writer’s fault, not ours. She has little reason to complain anymore, because she’s accepted to live that life. Even though it’s been forced upon her, we all have the choice to leave a situation, no matter how crazy it may be. This is how the show’s writers wish her to be perceived.

I believe the biggest reason fans dislike her character is because she slows down the arc of Walt’s character. We want him out cooking meth with Jesse in some crazy situation; making deals, killing people – it’s terrible but it’s what has made the show so thrilling to watch.
(Exactly the same point could be made about Don and Betty/Megan Draper. It's only when Don swings into action that the show is worth watching.)

But while it is true that within the batshit-crazy logic of Breaking Bad that this life has been forced on Skyler White, the situation that Walter White finds forced on him at the outset is only a slightly exaggerated version of what a lot of men do live with the added complication that he will get no moral support if he leaves.

Do I think somet of the Skyler White and Betty Draper hatred is over the top? Yes I do but you but I suspect an awful lot of it is men who have had quite enough of living in a you-can-make-any-choice-you-want-so-long-as-it-is-the-right-one world are coming to a slow boil .


  1. Well, this is our world today, welcome to it. I never watched past the first two episodes after it premiered because the premise was so implausible (I never watched the A-Team either), but I did watch the series finale. I think you could get the gist of the series by watching the first one or two episodes and the finale, whatever happened in between was superfluous, but I guess it kept a lot of people employed. As you say, you could get what their relationship was like in the pilot, and nothing changed.

    1. " I think you could get the gist of the series by watching the first one or two episodes and the finale, whatever happened in between was superfluous, but I guess it kept a lot of people employed."

      Yes! That's the story of a lot of the new TV series. There is the basic set up and the finish and whole lot of filler in between. You can get all of Breaking Bad, the Sopranos, The Wire by watching the Pilot and a few episodes here and there and then the finale. I suspect the same will be true of Mad Men when the time comes.

  2. I think you're probably right. Betty and Don will be back together living in Ossining like nothing ever happened.