I am several years late to the Breaking Bad party. I tried watching it two years ago but lacked the fortitude to see how Walt and Jesse were going to dispose of the dead body and get themselves out of trouble in just the second episode. But having spent the past three weeks catching up—I want to use the word “binging”—on Seasons 1 through 4 (so no Season 5 here), I’m struck by the ways in which the show—about how down on his luck high school chemistry teacher Walter White turns to cooking meth to provide for his family when he’s dead, having discovered he has late stage lung cancer—thoroughly borrows from, and just as thoroughly subverts, all of the stale ingredients of the superhero story to cook something new and powerful.
There’s the basic Superhero 101 stuff: Walter White has an alliterative name : Clark Kent, Peter Parker, Reed Richards, ad infinitum; he has a sidekick who is younger and physically smaller, Jesse Pinkman, whose own name is superheroic, although The Adventures of Pinkman may not appeal to the target demographic. (Jesse also has a sketchpad full of superhero drawings, each, according to his late gf, a version of himself). Walter has an identifiable vehicle (although, like Pinkman, it’s not exactly awe-inspiring—it’s an Aztec), a secret lab (with a 60s style Batcave entrance—a secret staircase behind a secret door), a disguise (hat and sunglasses count), and most importantly, a dual identity: Heisenberg, the nom de guerre he takes that, like Batman, reveals something important about who he is to the viewer but somehow not any characters—Batman’s legend of the bat flying through the window as a way to inspire fear; Heisenberg, as one of the key thinker in quantum physics but known in the popular consciousness for the Uncertainty Principle, which could have been the name of Breaking Bad itself. And like Batman, Heisenberg has no superpowers, just his superbrain and whatever gadgets and plans the brain can come up with.
But what BB really borrows from the superhero story is less the outer trappings than the inner workings of the dual identity conceit. In a show obsessed with secrecy, it’s not surprising that Walter has more in common with Superman than the newest version of Superman himself (except for the good and evil thing, which I‘m getting to). Instead, what Walt is hiding is neither the meth nor the money, but something that harkens back to the earliest symbolic and dramatic appeal of superheroes themselves: that there is something special, wonderful, and necessarily hidden about Walter that only he and his closest confidants—including the viewers—know about him. The Walter that the world knows is a regular guy at best and a bit of a loser at worst. In devising a cover story for a multiple-day disappearance, Walter lays out what he knows he looks like to the world for a psychologist (and here I paraphrase from memory): having seen all of his peers surpass him and make millions, Walt now makes $44,000 a year, has a disabled teen-aged son, a baby on the way, and a terminal disease. Ouch. But secretly, he is fearless, awesome, and superhumanly capable—everything he is not on the surface. He synthesizes the best crystal meth ever, improvises explosive and poisonous chemicals, charges his RV’s dead battery out of the pocket change lying around, and takes on and takes down crime kingpins.
Like Superman’s Clark Kent, the Walter White that the world knows, and who he used to be, becomes the hapless alter ego, the disguise of normalcy he wears for protection so that no one knows who he really is. Even Hank, his DEA brother in law, so often superheroic in his own cop instincts, cannot fathom that lame ol’ Walter is Heisenberg, just as Lois Lane, star reporter, cannot connect that Clark is Superman. Despite staring them in the face, the notion is too preposterous to take, even when Walt jokes, on several occasions, that he is a super criminal. “Got me,” he says to Hank, who laughs, and to the audience, who laughs for entirely different reasons.
Which takes me to the other significant superhero trope that Breaking Bad appropriates: dramatic irony mixed with suspense. That is, the audience, but almost none of the characters, knows all about Walter. We know what Walt knows, which means that we can see how the tensions between his identities and secrets will play out. It’s a great device that seems to have fallen out of favor—witness Man of Steel’s jettisoning of the classic Clark Kent/Superman/Lois Lane triangle of dramatic irony, as well as the many excellent movies of the last decade—the Bourne movies, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Memento, and more—that use the what used to be tired trope of amnesia to reverse the very premise of dramatic irony (undramatic irony? Dramatic sincerity?). Instead of knowing more than the characters, we know as little as they do and learn as they do. It’s interesting and maybe fun, but it can be exhausting.
Yet even though we know what we know, one of the show’s addictive qualities for me is the suspense, even back to that second season 1 episode that almost put the brakes on the Bad for me. We know Walt is the smartest, most resourceful, and most desperate guy in the room. We know he has to get out of whatever craziness the particular episode focuses on—disposing of dead bodies, disposing of live bodies, getting out of a trap, luring someone else into a trap, breaking into one building, breaking out of another—and whatever Walt has now gotten himself into, he somehow has to get out of it. Until the very last episode—sadly, coming up soon—we know that Walt somehow has to walk away mostly unscathed. (Unlike in, say, Game of Thrones.) But again and again, we need to see how. In a form pioneered by superhero comics, the show continues the best tradition of the serial narrative. It has a larger, longer, season-wide arc that shifts and varies, but also a single-episode, smaller arc that never changes: Walt gets into trouble, Walt gets out of trouble, seeming to restore the status quo, but the getting out must somehow create newer, even worse trouble for next time. It’s 60s Batman with a meth twist.
The big question, then, is the moral one. Aren’t superheroes the good guys? Isn’t Walt really a villain, not a hero? The bald head he decides to keep post-chemotherapy, not to mention the way that Brian Cranston is able to change his face from fake kind to real evil like it’s a special effect, puts him in firm Lex Luthor territory (sorry, Professor X). It’s been the perennial post-Sopranos TV problem. Walt is a lot like a combination of Tony, or the dad version of Nancy from Weeds, an regular guy version of Jax from Sons of Anarchy, or, at times, Dexter. And since my time is up, I’m not going to resolve the idea of narrative sympathy, subjectivity, or evil here (which I talked about a greater length for Game of Thrones anyway), as much as to say that it reminds me of a large-scale version of a dopey old Jerry Seinfeld routine:
I love these nature shows, I’ll watch and kind of nature show, and it’s amazing how you can always relate, to whatever they’re talking about. You know like you’re watching the African Dung Beetle and you’re going “Boy, his life is a lot like mine.” And you always root for whichever animal is the star of the show that week — like if it’s the antelope, and there’s a lion chasing the antelope you go, “Run antelope Run! Use your Speed, Get away!” But the next week it’s the lion, and then you go “Get the antelope, eat him, bite his head! — Trap him, don’t let him use his speed!”
But instead of a lion and the antelope, we root for whoever is on screen. Go, Walt! Get away from Hank! Hank, you can get Walt! He’s right there! Walt, get away from Gus! Gus, kill the cartel guys who killed your old partner! Jesse, get back at Walt! Walt, stay away from Jesse! We are simply suckers for the point of view characters, morality and uncertainty be damned.
Time: 80 minutes. Darn.
BONUS HOURMAN! It’s been a while since a major show had a character named Jesse (which is my name.) Dukes of Hazard, Full House, and Rick Springfield ruined my childhood, but Breaking Bad seems not to have had any effect, other than the weirdness of hearing my name so many times on TV. In Comments, feel free to post about your own experience sharing a name with someone or something famous or in the media.