Breaking Bad: A Review

Ever since The Wire and Battlestar Galactica finished, I’ve been looking for an episodic drama that is more than your terrorist-chasing, baddie-bagging, clock-ticking thrill ride. Dexter was OK, House is too convoluted, Lost just got boring and the British dramas simply cannot compete at the moment (although Luther, I here, is generating some interest beyond these shores). Then stepped in Charlie Brooker with a suggestion, ‘Breaking Bad‘, by Vince Gilligan. I find it difficult to disagree with anything Mr. Brooker says at the moment, and after all, he was the one that alerted Britain to The Wire years before it was fashionable. So I decided it was worth a try. How right he was. NB: I will be discussing the series in some detail, and there are some spoilers, but don’t let that put you off.

Breaking Bad is essentially the story of Walter White, a middle-aged high school chemistry teacher who at the very beginning of the pilot episode, is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Then begins his downward trajectory to seeming madness, eventually getting involved with an ex-student, turned junkie, using his advanced chemistry knowledge to ‘cook’ crystal meth. The entire 3 series to date then chronicle his involvement with the drug trade, juxtaposed with his desire to maintain a normal family life. The surrounding characters (his junkie partner, his wife, his brother-in-law in the DEA) also begin to ‘break bad’, and basically, everyone is constantly battling personal demons, lying, trying to survive drug turf wars and generally surviving.

The prevailing winds of the show then are Walter’s erected edifice around his criminal life that systematically comes crumbling down, harming himself and those around him. His emotional justifications for his actions, coupled with the lies he tells to his family and friends serve to create a wall of (in)security around him, and what the writers, cinematographers and directors do so artfully and intriguingly, is to show us how intricately Walter tries to ‘plug’ the gaps in this wall, and how he copes with that inevitable failure.

Zizek wrote; “our most elementary experience of subjectivity is that of the ‘richness of my inner life’: this is what I ‘really am’, in contrast to the symbolic determinations and mandates I assume in public life…. The first lesson of psychoanalysis here is that this ‘richness of our inner life’ is fundamentally fake: a screen, a false distance, whose function is, as it were, to save my appearance, to render palpable (accessible to my imaginary narcissism) my true social-symbolic identity” (Zizek, 2008: 12). Playing on the Lacanian Imaginary – Symbolic – Real triumvirate, Zizek goes on to suggest that the ‘public masks’ people put on to disguise their ‘real self’ is something which of ‘itself’, becomes a truism, but a varied one. This is highly evident within ‘Breaking Bad’, as Walter’s battle to keep the Real separated from everyone else consumes him and you start to see the blurring of one with the other in varied and multiple ways. There are numerous examples of this, not least his new found (we assume it is new found anyway) desire for sexual extravagance with his wife. The murder of the captive drug dealer in the basement is also a telling scene – where initially he is reluctant and convinces himself to let the captive free, but when he realises the captive’s plan to kill him, he then improvises a murder. While perhaps designed to think it was in self-defence, the continued journey of Walter into the organised criminal world suggests that it was the first signifier of a dissolution of the ‘mask of the real’.

In the recently concluded series 3, his wife becomes aware of his ‘cooking’ and of course, as any respectful citizen should do, she recoils in horror, demanding divorce and a complete defenestration of Walter from the family life. But as the series progresses, she too begins to show that the Real cannot be masked, and her ‘true self’ (as Zizek would puport anyway) comes to fore in the form of, what is essentially, pure greed (although this is initially directed as a need to support her brother-in-law’s recent expensive physiotherapy sessions caused, in directly, by Walter’s involvement in illegal drug production). And so, as Walter’s actions begin to infect everyone around him, so to is the bifurcation, and then eventual blurring of the Real from publicly-serving Imaginary. What was once thought of as initially ‘real’ (wholesome family life), then is shown to be a simulacrum of a seedier, truer reality. So far, his children remain encamped in the first instance of reality, but my inkling would be that not even they remain immune from the contamination of Walter’s reality.

Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad insists that the show will have an ending, rather than a continual, ongoing story that reaches absurdity and repetition, at the behest of the Hollywood bean counters. This being the case, we can surmise that the eventual conclusion of Walter will be death, but not due to his terminal cancer (which is currently in remission), but through the ongoing cataclysm of the Real and his attempts to stop it from surfacing not only to those around him, but to himself. I for one, cannot wait to find out.

Battlestar Gallactica: A review

Having just finished watching the entire four series of Battlestar Gallactica, rather modestly, the conclusion of the show evoked a wide range of thoughts, emotions, arguments and queries about the nature of society, religion, philosophy and morality. So where to begin?  Not much to deal with is there?

First things first, if you haven’t seen it all then stop reading now; go out and buy the boxset (or download it), stop watching any series you are currently engrossed in (unless it’s The Wire, or the first half of season 1 of 24) and clear a week in your diary.

A detailed synopsis is available on the Battlestar wikipage, but very briefly, the series details the journey of humans as they escape from their home planets (called the 12 colonies), having just been nuked by humanoid robots (Cylons). The Cylons then chase the remaining humans, led by a military ‘Battlestar’, called Galactica through the universe. The president of the fleet, inspired by mythical visions and prophetic texts (akin to the Bible) is leading them to a new home, ‘Earth’ (the fabled 13th colony), only to find that this planet has also been nuked. It turns out that this destruction-chase-resettlement cycle has been going on for a while, with humans creating Cylons, Cylons rebelling against the humans, war, then resettlement. However, in the final battle, a truce is agreed, and together, they find ‘Earth’ (as we knew it 150,000 years ago) and decide to forgo their technologies and create a new civilisation with the primitive hunter-gatherers they find on the planet, based solely on their interactions, language and minds (and all the culture and socialisation therein imbued). Hence, throughout the series, what we see as human-like technology and culture, is in fact the basis of our current society. This is ossified by the final scene that is set in our present New York City (some 150,000 hence) – with the cycle seemingly over. However, it concludes with what feels like a warning that our current obsession with AI and technology may be fueling another occurrence of man-made robot rebellion (re Frankenstein, Terminator or any other Sci-Fi cyborg-related story out there) and the cycle will start again once more (note – this echoes the message I teased out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in a previous blog post).

The show is rich in philosophical and societal tangents and it seems almost ignorant to boil the show down to one ‘theme’, but if there is one thought that permeates throughout the series (for me anyway) is the spirituality of it – references to God, gods, souls, angels, demons and a ‘higher purpose’ are rife throughout and ultimately conclude the show. However, this is not to say that the show has a preachy evangelistic message, far from it. The adult dialogue and (for the most part) undiluted and deliberately esoteric language demands attention and forces the viewer to engage with what religious people will proclaim is ‘God’, and what other people ignore or fail to comprehend. There are many Christian references, with Christ-like resurrection, angels and even the importance the Bob Dylan track ‘All Along the Watchtower’ with it’s direct biblical quotations, namely Isiah 21:5-9. The hook of the show is essentially that some ‘higher power’ has been guiding the fleet and presiding over (or the direct causation of) the ‘cycles’ of destruction and rebirth, and with freewill the way it is, waiting for the humans to decide to stop the cycle by engendering a ‘clean slate’ which is what we see in the finale.

What is interesting to me is echoed in the closing dialogue of the show:

The reference to mathematics and complex systems is elsewhere in the series, however, the interplay between the workings of mathematics and the planning of a deity is a deliberate attempt to align the two. They are further interwoven with the remark “You know It doesn’t like that name”, with the word ‘it’ used instead of ‘he’ – the more traditional definitive article of a deity (the retraction of this afterwards I put down to a final exchange of comedy between these particular two characters that has played out throughout the series). Herein lies the crux of the matter. The producers of the show, while they have talked about how they like the show to be interpreted however you choose, seem to be alluding to the visceral knowledge of ‘something else’ other than what can be attributed to empirical observation. This ‘ether’ can be interpreted though a range of experiences, idioms or processes including complexity and mathematics, an infinite and collective consciousness, the emotional swell felt with a piece of music, or by assigning it the name ‘God’. Unlike The Matrix, which also has as its hook the breaking of a cycle of war between humans and machines, Battlestar Galactica plays on the otherness of experiential humanism by engaging with the significance of it to our behaviour, both individually and collectively. The limitations of the human body to experience this otherness is all too obvious (such as the fact that the human eye only sees only a small percentage of the electromagnetic spectrum) and there is a wonderful piece of dialogue between two Cylons earlier on in the series which alludes to this fact. The characters struggle with these other ‘forces’ at work (interpreted as either destiny, God, luck, angels, fate etc) and some accepting their humanity for what it is, others fighting it every step of the way. The exploration of this matter is far from perfect (as it is to be expected, laced with Hollywood banalities), however, for the thoughts it leaves you with alone, it is worth the hassle.

The fact that the filmmakers suggest that the present day human race are decedents from the Cylons, with the overt implication that the Cylon-human hybrid little girl (seen in the video above) is Mitochondrial Eve, is also one of many interesting tangents (one that Bruno Latour would no doubt have alot to say about) that could be extrapolated from BSG (there are many books delving much deeper into the topics – this being one of the best). It’s geopolitics and commentary on contemporary American foreign policies is particularly striking, sometimes forehead-slappingly determinate, but always thought-provoking and comes with notable acting performances by some. In answer to the question posed by this journalist, I would levee a big frakking ‘no’, however it deals with a much broader range of issues, and arguably leaves a more emotional lump in the throat than Baltimore’s finest.

Interlude 2: The Wire and the Event

I know that I probably watch too much TV, in fact, I once watched the whole first series of 24 in 18 hours, but when it comes to The Wire, I don’t think I could ever watch too much of it. The genre of cop drama/crime thriller has never been one to enthral me that much but this is a whole new ball game. Not only is it brilliantly written, with complex story lines that intertwine and then diverge with the single pull of a trigger, but it typifies the complexity of the urban in a way that very few urban geography textbooks or journal articles can.

If you have not seen The Wire then you should. If you are and have not seen season 3 yet then stop reading, it is far too good to be spoiled by this lowly blog. The reason I have singled out season 3 is because of it’s covert nod in the general direction of poststructural dialectics. A synopsis of the series is provided in the video below:

In season 3, we are properly introduced to Major Howard Colvin, a policeman coming toward the end of his tenure, looking forward to retirement. He hatches a plot to move all the street drug trafficking of the streets of Baltimore to three ‘safe zones’ in the Western district, where he then proceeds to let the drug dealers deal freely, turning a blind eye. All the time, in the rest of the Western district, he implements a zero-tolerance rule on any drug dealing on ‘the corners’. The resulting ‘free zones’ are by no means pretty, but they do succeed in helping the crime statistics drop for the rest of the Western district.

During this ‘experiment’ as Major Colvin refers to it, there is a mayoral race, with a white mayoral candidate – Thomas Carcetti, running against the black mayor incumbent, Clarence Royce. The ongoing drug feud between the ‘Barksdale crew’ and a new drug dealer, ‘Marlow Stanfield’ occupies the rest of the thematics of season 3.
What unfolds, eventually is that Major Colvin’s experiment, while keeping it under wraps (and in doing so, drives down the crime statistics in the Western district) is eventually found out by the police commissioner, and to turn a phrase, “the shit hits the fan“. Colvin is demoted and then kicked out of the force, the ‘free zones’ are raided, and the mayor and City Hall are left to try and explain away to the media why the city has effectively legalised drugs.Much of the last episode of the series is devoted to various characters reflecting on this ‘event’, with Colvin suggesting that ‘at least he tried something’, with the white mayoral candidate (and eventual winner) Carcetti giving a heartfelt lecture to the police commissioner arguing that while the motives may have been wrong, at least Colvin was trying something new. In echoes of Zizek, it was the “right step in the wrong direction“.

What this series said to me was that it takes monumental events, such as the ‘safe zones’ in Baltimore to effect a reaction from the societal strata we find ourselves enmeshed in. The laws that govern our lands are constantly shifting, and indeed the dynamism of globalisation is an important process to study and be aware of. But the seismic shifts in regulation like that witnessed in series 3 of The Wire are the very catalysts of effecting real change. Alain Badiou’s theorising on the Event has much influence here and in many ways, Colvin’s safe zones could very well be seen as one of Badiou’s ‘Events’.

The pace of change is something that we have become accustomed to in this complex world, so much so that tiptoeing through incremental change can either pass us by (and therefore be erroneously and sometimes harmfully mistaken for stasis), or cause as desire for more irruptive measures.

This, however, should not be read as an excuse for legalising drugs, revolution or any other peremptory strike on society or the economy, merely a lean toward Beckett when he said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better”. Trying to effect ideological change through titanic events that make the world sit up and notice can be detrimental and even harmful, but failing is what humans are good at, but progress cannot be made without it.