* The posting below was written while we were in the midst of watching Season 2 of Breaking Bad. Be sure to check out the Part II follow up to this, written after we concluded the series!
Ok, so I realize we're about a decade behind, but Christina and I are obsessed with Breaking Bad, the AMC television series that aired from 2008 to 2013. We recently began watching it after getting Netflix. As many of you probably already know, the series gets its title from an old Southern expression that refers to a person who turns to the wrong side of the law. It revolves around a financially struggling, terminally ill high school chemistry teacher (Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston) who starts manufacturing crystal meth to leave money for his pregnant wife and special needs son. He's assisted in his endeavor by a former student (Jesse Pinkman, played by Aaron Paul) who failed his class and eventually became a low-level manufacturer and dealer. Throw in a DEA agent brother-in-law, along with a host of other characters, and you have a series that is, like it's subject matter, quite addictive! Christina and I have now experienced the infamous "Netflix binge."
I haven't read much commentary on the show, because I don't want to see any plot spoilers. But my gut feeling is that many viewers are rooting for Walt and Jesse, despite the fact that they're contributing to the drug epidemic that shatters so many lives. Like any well-crafted story, whether in literary form, theater, or film, the viewers are pulled into it and vicariously experience the thrill, danger, and excitement, as if it's we who are one wrong move away from an unpleasant death or a lengthy prison stay. I know that's the case with Chris and I. We're only on Season 2, and already on multiple occasions we've found ourselves making verbal commentary, trying to give the characters our input, as if they can hear us.
There's probably many people who can relate to Walt. He's overqualified and underpaid, spending his days teaching students who, for the most part, would rather be anywhere but there. He and his wife have a surprise baby on the way, and his teenage son has cerebral palsy. They live from paycheck to paycheck, and are pretty much one unexpected circumstance away from financial catastrophe, which comes in the form of Walt's cancer diagnosis. When he hears his Fed brother-in-law talking about how much money drugs pull in for the criminals they're busting, he decides to put his chemistry skills to use in a different way, with the noble purpose of saving his family from certain financial ruin.
I believe when push comes to shove, we'd all do anything to protect or save the people we love. If the circumstances were extreme enough, I believe that includes the realm of what's considered illegal. So, for starters, this probably makes the audience sympathetic to Walt. But I believe it goes even deeper than that.
It seems in our modern society, and throughout history, the everyday working people have always gotten the short end of the stick, while the rich corporations and government leaders (or back in the day, the royalty) get richer. Here in America, we practically pay an arm and a leg in medical insurance alone, often to insurance companies who will find any way possible to skimp when it comes time for them to pay out. The pharmaceutical companies rule the medical industry, charging astronomical prices for the side effect-laden substances they peddle, while blanketing Washington with their lobbyists. I just read where one prominent congressman went to D.C. with a net worth in the $360,000 range and came out worth over $7 million! All this goes on amidst the ever-increasing costs of living and endless taxes for the "common people." The words of the immortal George Carlin ring on: "it's a big club, and you ain't in it."
How many people have found themselves in a situation like Walt, with crappy health insurance, or none at all, and faced with hundreds of thousands of dollars in treatment expenses? So I think when people hear of someone who finds a way to strike back against any injustice, or even read or view it in the fictional setting, deep inside there's a part of them that's glad. It's as if that individual who stood up somehow represented all the people who have felt stepped on. Through the generations, the heroic outlaw has a place in people's hearts. Another movie that comes to mind is Braveheart. Completely different circumstances, and I'm sure that story was spruced up and tinkered with for Hollywood, but the basic theme of people fighting back against brutal oppression is endeared by people of any era. While Walt in Breaking Bad may not have been helping anyone outside his family, the idea of doing something extreme to help loved ones is what I think resonates.
There's other subplots and themes in Breaking Bad, and the writers and actors did a tremendous job of creating characters that are very real and human. For example, Jesse, Walt's partner in crime, at first appears to be a burnout drug user and dealer, but as the story progresses, he shows that he has a good heart and spirit. He comes from a stable family background, and his addictions and shortcomings have put a severe strain on his relationship with his family.
As I said, I haven't read much commentary on the show, because since it ended in 2013, I don't want to inadvertently see any spoilers about where the plot is heading. However, I imagine there must have been people who felt the show glorified the drug trade. I'd be willing to bet that people who have lost family members to addiction or who have or have had someone close to them who is battling addiction might not be huge Breaking Bad fans. I get that, and can't begin to imagine what experiencing such a thing is really like.
However, the show does a great job of confronting a question that humans have always faced: at what point does protecting and caring for loved ones outweigh what society may deem as right or wrong? As someone who has always tried to shake the "goody-two-shoes" stigma of my upbringing, I personally have a great appreciation for how Walt goes from being a quiet, meek kind of guy guy who always plays by the rules to someone that's quite the opposite. How many times in my life have I done the polite thing, or spoke calming words to diffuse confrontations, when after-the-fact I daydream of having taken a different approach? Of course, on those occasions when I did take the different approach, I've often felt guilty about it later! So yeah, I get a kick out of Walt's antics, relate to him, and find myself rooting for him. Though at times, he seems to be taking it a bit far, such as in the things he says to Jesse or in his moody confrontations with his family. He also finds that this lifestyle will eventually require him to make choices that go against his sense of morality.
At one point, Walt makes an interesting observation. He says that before he got sick, he used to wake up in the middle of the night worrying about something such as finances or whatever his particular concern was at that time. It always seemed there was something weighing on his mind, and he was filled with anxiety. However, after his diagnosis, he said he started sleeping through the night. It makes you think about the stuff we think is so important, but actually isn't.
So if you happen to have Netflix or get it anytime soon, definitely check out Breaking Bad. Don't be surprised if you too find yourself on a binge!