A Review by John David Ebert
Walter White has a problem: the model that he has been following as the “imaginary signification” to shape his life by isn’t working. He is an affable high school chemistry teacher whose wife and in-laws do not respect him. They regard him as an amusing and powerless individual whom life has passed by. And indeed, he is a spineless, castrated husband and father who, for the most part, does what his wife tells him to do. She possesses the Phallus. He has to get it back.
His little domestic microsphere, furthermore, is leaking: the necessary funds to create a capitalist flow to keep it afloat in the post-2008 economy aren’t there. Indeed, his household is rapidly sinking to the level of Barbara Ehrenreich’s lower middle class of the “nickel and dimed” who are in constant danger of capsizing into foreclosure.
What to do?
The problem, as Vince Gilligan sees it, is one of image dynamics: Walter must scrap his identity as a domesticated suburbanite –“break” the mold, that is to say — and trade it out for one that will scale up his image to one more suitable for repairing his damaged family microsphere. In doing so, he traces a line of flight out onto the plane of immanence — i.e. the desert, in this case — and plugs himself into an altogether different imaginary signification, that, namely, of a barbarian tribal warlord.
The desert produces nomads, for it is itself a plane largely unmarked by striated space. While Walter and his sidekick Jessie Pinkman are out cooking crystal meth in their RV in the desert, Walter thinks he is merely making a marketable product, when in fact, he is melting down his own image in the alchemical alembic and transforming it into something more formidable. (Note that the three colors of alchemy, black, white and red are present in the names of Schwarz, his previous business associate, Walter White and Jessie Pinkman. The alchemical stages of nigredo, albedo and rubedo end with the production of the magical lapis exilis, or philosopher’s stone, that turns lead into gold. Here it is the production of the crystal meth that turns ordinary chemicals into capitalist flows.) But the real alchemy, of course, is the process of his own transformation into a modern tribal chieftain, for the desert is the nomadological plane of the Bedouin, the Berber, the Hun, the Avar, etc.
This transformation consists essentially in a 90 degree rotation of his axis of orientation: from a (failed and spineless) vertical and arborescent axis as domestic family man, to a horizontal and nomadological axis as wanderer-amongst-the tribes. This is also tantamount, though, to an exchange of legal spheres, for the rational legal system of checks and balances does not work out on the desert plains, but rather the old tribal eye-for-an-eye juridical system of blood vendettas, a “legal” world that is totally at odds with checks and balances. Blood and the way that it flows — as Ibn Khaldun wrote in his Muqadimmah, in which the Bedouin is always connected by blood relatives to the ruling powers, whereas once the city as a structure is built, it ruptures the connective tissues of these bloodlines and so produces the decadence of civilized life — is the only concern of the nomad. If it is spilled, it must be redressed with further spillage.
And so, the alchemical transformation of Walter’s Image into that of a barbarian tribal war lord of a Southwestern desert drug empire brings along with it certain structures that are completely incompatible with those of a family man living an arborescent life inside the striated spaces of a contemporary city. In direct proportion to the ever-increasing size and scale of his Image, his wife grows ever more and more terrified of him as his Shadow looms over their house, and soon engulfs it. This is not Walter White, high school teacher and family man, but Heisenberg — the name of a modern alchemist, known these days as “quantum physicists” — a shadowy and powerful drug lord who ruthlessly dispenses with anyone who gets in the way of his greed.
Image dynamics, apparently, are not a thing to be taken lightly.
But this transformation does enable Walter to create a supplement — in the Derridean sense — out of the money that is generated from his manufacture of crystal meth, and it is a supplement that, at first, solves the family’s financial problems and prevents the leaking microsphere from collapsing. But soon, the supplement becomes a surplus, and eventually devolves into an example of Bataille’s “accursed share,” a surplus, namely, that becomes a manifestation of so much excess energy that it has to be gotten rid of at all costs lest its build-up destroys the system.
Walter’s partner Jessie Pinkman, on the other hand, inhabits the nomadological plane of immanence which today’s crumbling cities are generating on the insides of their public spaces: namely, urban gangs, drug dealers and roving human wolf packs. In the age of failed systems of transcendence, Pinkman is an example of the hapless individual who is forced to construct his own artificial transcendence through the instruments of expansion that link him as part to the Whole via the drugs: crystal meth, at first; then later, heroin. (For the priest, the equivalent instruments of expansion are wine and wafer). These drugs allow him to construct his own Transcendenz, albeit an ersatz one, in which he is able to induce ecstatic trance flights of the kind known to shamans since Time began. But the constant process of separating his astral from his physical body generates a dissipative by-product: his house becomes full of wandering human ghosts who have themselves, for various reasons, come unplugged from their microspheres and collective assemblages. Pinkman’s house becomes a pure plane of immanence filled with the destratified who have traced erratic lines of flight out onto a plane of consistency that they can never return from.
Walter, meanwhile, through the course of the show’s five seasons, oscillates back and forth between Pinkman’s nomadological plane of immanence and his own ruptured domestic microsphere. While Pinkman is busy plugging himself into ecstatic Transcendenz, Walter is inadvertently unplugging himself from his own domestic microsphere. He gradually constructs a drug empire which becomes a sovereign overcoding of the Southwest with himself cast as barbarian warlord at the head of a violent war machine.
But his empire captures, traps and overcodes the tiny — and ever-tinier as the show goes on — domestic microsphere that he had built it in the first place to protect. It soon becomes apparent that the captured microsphere of the little house in Albuquerque is too small to accomodate his ever-expanding Image as barbarian warlord, and soon, he finds himself almost literally growing out of it like a giant, or like Alice once she has taken the pill from the table and finds herself too large to fit inside the house. When Walter turns back to speak to his family, they are like small, frightened children cowering at his feet: they are too terrified to recognize what he has become. The Image has swallowed him up.
As an immunological response, however, the metabolism of his domestic microsphere soon ejects him as a waste by-product of its dissipative functioning. The surplus that he has created actually pushes him onto the Outside of this microsphere, where he finds himself in exile along with the accursed share of his surplus millions, which are now useless. Vince Gilligan, the show’s writer and creator, is an almost Kubrickean master of irony.
By the show’s end, the transformation is complete: Walter White is now fully and thoroughly a nomad and can only live like Cain, a wanderer moving horizontally across all systems whatsoever. The domestic sphere, on the other hand, is by nature arborescent: today’s suburbanites are the contemporary equivalent of farmers and villagers living in houses rooted to the spot (locked in by mortgages and bank loans) in their plant-like stasis.
Walter, though, is no longer a plant, but a spore, drifting across the countryside, too large and legendary, too full of myth and proverb now, to be domesticated any longer. He has, indeed, become a proverbial figure: the Wanderer With Millions He Couldn’t Use. By the show’s conclusion, we see him fading — like Tyrone Slothrop in Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow — into the mists of myth and legend, a victim of inadvertent image dynamics that made him too large for daily life in the suburbs.
What to do?
When a man’s identity has been scrapped, the standard response is to turn to violence as a quest for a new identity, as McLuhan pointed out, and so in the last episodes, Walter is preparing for the final act of violence that will redeem him.
As Flannery O’Connor said: “(Only) The Violent Bear it Away.”
Greg Desilet says
Hello John, (if I may),
I really like your website and have just purchased two of your books—your latest, Post-Classic Cinema and also Celluloid Heroes. I haven’t read much in the latter yet but have read many of the chapters in the former. I appreciate your mythic level approach to analysis of film and television dramas. In my writing I have also found it productive to use a mythic approach. I find it interesting that we draw different conclusions regarding certain films such as The Terminator. You can read my review of The Terminator series here: http://www.gregorydesilet.com/code/The_Terminator_Film_Review.html
However, having just read your analysis of Breaking Bad (and having just seen the last episode last night) I want to engage you a bit on that series. I think descriptively you get it just about right, though I would change your last line to read: “Walter is preparing for the final act of violence that he thinks will redeem him.” And though your analysis speaks of the postmodern tension between the nomadic and arborescent forms of life, your last sentence identifies what I believe to be the correct understanding of the mythic form offered in Breaking Bad. That form is the one described by Richard Slotkin as “regeneration through violence.” And this form has constituted the foundation of the predominant plank of Western (and I would also say Eastern) metaphysics. Metaphysical choices go deeper than myth because they remain implicit in and underly the conflict structures of all myths. All drama, all storytelling, contains conflict and every choice of the structuring of conflict, in my view, exposes an underlying metaphysical choice about the nature of being and the nature or particular structuring of oppositional relations (such as good and evil, essence and accident, life and death, etc.).
The problem I have with your analysis concerns the fact that it does not address the metaphysical level, the fundamental conflict dynamics of the series. As a result, your analysis remains only descriptive and not evaluative. We don’t see whether you think Breaking Bad offers something worthwhile or not to the cultural milieu. Is it a helpful critique of the current cultural predicament? Is it a mere reflection of current culture? Does it offer any positive message? Is it dark entertainment or high drama?
It’s one thing to identify the mythological type within which a series such as Breaking Bad may fit. But it is another task altogether to evaluate the quality of the myth and the relevance of its repetition with regard to current culture. In my opinion, Breaking Bad falls into an all too predictable and dysfunctional mode of storytelling—especially when considering the presentation of violence and the potential effects of violence on audiences. It is essentially a noir melodrama in which a guy feels (wrongly I believe) that he is emasculated and in an effort to alter this mistaken self-image turns anti-heroic. And making meth is certainly a way to become a titan among anti-heroes (making and selling meth is the work of really BAD folks). And this anti-heroic figure does not make for good drama (re: Aristotle: the story of a man going from bad to worse is simply “odius”). We all sense this intuitively and so the writers of this series really had no choice (if they wanted a “popular” series) but to develop Walter in such a way that he eventually confronts elements even more evil than he is or has become. From within this contrast he then starts to look like a hero. So then the drama reduces back to the hero/villain scenario of standard melodrama. And my complaint with melodrama is that it is metaphysically traditional (locked in the metaphysics of presence) and dramatically predictable (we know how it will end—the really bad guys will get what’s coming to them) to the point of being nothing more than mere spectacle (and usually a spectacle of—VIOLENCE).
Now I don’t have anything against the dramatization of violence—except when it is pure spectacle. In the role of spectacle it becomes only a kind of pornography—which, of course, has nothing to do with good drama. Furthermore, as I have argued in my writings (see, for example, my review of Shane), the exaltation and selling of violence (as, say, redeeming and regenerative) is a paradoxical necessity arising from any attempt to make a statement against violence from within the structure of melodramatic form. Melodrama is not only bad drama (and equally bad myth and equally bad metaphysics and dysfunctional conflict structuring) but also mere spectacle when it serves to convey graphic violence. Consequently, Breaking Bad breaks bad in every direction for the viewer. One need only cite the ridiculous sentiment many viewers developed for Walter (alongside hatred of Skyler—which is in itself frighteningly weird) to understand the corrosive effects of Breaking Bad’s noir melodramatic structure. See here (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/29/breaking-bad-finale-reactions_n_4006189.html?ref=topbar) for the “warm glow” that many viewers got from Walt’s so-called “redemption” in the last episode as he poisoned Lydia, laid waste to Jack’s troupe of neo-Nazi thugs, and freed the “heart” of his former meth empire—Jesse. (And, by the way, if Jesse had any real “heart,” as many viewers have been seduced into believing through the noir melodramatic plot structure, he would have initially cooperated with Hank, which might have saved Hank’s life).
Anyway, those are my thoughts. I would be interested in any response you might have.