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Monday, September 30, 2013

Breaking the last one

First off, spoilers. Secondly: duh, spoilers. Thirdly: spoilers are not confined to only one show.

Much ink--virtual or no--has been spilled over the trend in television known as 'the anti-hero,' which is a semi-fancy way of saying most male characters on television right now are assholes. Anti-heroes have been around since the beginning of television, of course--Jack Benny was, I would argue, one of the first popular, if largely benign, TV anti-heroes--but Tony Soprano really kicked up the movement, almost single-handedly launching the trend which now dominates most TV series.

When writing about this trend, it is obligatory to tip the hat to James Gandolfini's near-flawless portrayal of Tony Soprano, and then applaud Tony's creator, David Chase, who guided the mafioso through six solid--if occasionally uneven--seasons of The Sopranos on HBO. Fine. Why buck convention, even if it means ignoring HBO's earlier series of male assholes (literally and figuratively), Oz, a show which centered around hardened criminals doing harder time.

For simplicity, I'm gonna focus on three recent shows--not only, to be honest, for simplicity; honestly, these are the three shows I'm most familiar with (I'll skip Dr. House, no doubt an asshole and a hero, but a stagnant one and therefore less interesting). There's a connection between the three shows I'm writing about that is missing, for the most part, from House. The shows: The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad. The connection: a change in worldview, and a poor skill set in place for the three main male characters to cope with the changes.

Which is not to say the three men--Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White--don't try to comprehend the new worlds in which they find themselves. They do try, or at least delude themselves about the attempts.

In Mad Men, Don listens to the latest release by The Beatles and confesses not to understand why anyone would like it; in The Sopranos, almost every part of the mundane new modern world Tony encounters is perplexing, strange, sometimes threatening; Walter White, of course, has the change within himself, and cancer eats at his body just as relentlessly as the new drug world he finds himself in eats at his soul.

Perhaps the popularity of such characters has something to do with our own fear of a world that is changing quickly. Who knows. I do know that the rise of The Sopranos matched, step for step, the pace of the internet into becoming an almost inescapable aspect of life, like it or not (a good portion of us, surprisingly, do not like at all, thanks).

Breaking Bad debuted in 2008, a year which famously saw both a woman and an African-American man run viable Presidential campaigns, with the African-American going on to run a successful
campaign against a lily-white war veteran of a certain age, and an attractive, comfortably dumb younger woman. When the Black guy won, a good portion of the American population promptly lost their minds, raging like Walter that they, not some Black guy, were the ones who knock.

Naturally, if you're knocking, you're outside wanting to be in. And these angry white people, mostly men, aren't unlike Walter, forever outside trying to get in, and then, upon gaining entry, promptly trashing the place (blowing up an old folks home, setting a meth lab on fire, shooting countless hosts).

Word to the wise: If angry white people come a-knocking, perhaps turn off your lights and pretend to be out running errands.

So what of the popularity of Mad Men? If we can (superficially!) tie The Sopranos to the technological anxiety bubbling beneath the surface of pre- and post-millennial America (Sopranos debuted in 1999, after all, the year of Y2K), and if we can connect the enduring fascination with consummate son-of-a-bitch Walter White to Tea Party insecurity, how do we account for what, in my opinion, is a terrible show made good by virtue of its style?

And yes, Mad Men is a bad show. Let's just get that out of the way. I hate-watch the shit out of it. Maybe when the final season starts up, I'll also hate-write about it, but for now, it's enough for me to say: Matthew Weiner, you're writing schlock so please stop acting as if you're fucking William Shakespeare with a cool cast.

Anyway. Mad Men. What can we connect it to to make a superficial, broad statement about change and fear? Mad Men is a show about media, and advertising within media, so it stands to reason Mad
Men is about the decline of conventional media outlets (networks, newspapers, magazines, radio)  and the rise of upstarts (blogs, Netflix). As our options expand, the technological anxiety we felt in the late 1990s and early 2000s has shifted to the fractured way our society consumes information. Don, quickly becoming old-fashioned and out-dated as Mad Men marches through the 1960s, embodies the dread some of us have of becoming too fractured. No longer do we go to one of the three nightly news programs, as we all have our own general news outlet from which to choose, each of which confirms or rejects our own personal worldview. When confirmed, we feel at peace. When rejected, we grab the nearest bottle of whiskey, divorce our wife of a decade or so, marry our secretary, and have a fever dream every other day.

So. Breaking Bad. The finale, as you may know, was last night. In it, a monster regained a bit of humanity (it is claimed by some, anyway, that Walter regained his humanity--I don't think so; he held two innocent former co-workers hostage, coerced them into doing his bidding, murdered several (admittedly awful) human beings; and bravely evaded justice by suggesting his wife use the final resting place of his brother-in-law as a legal bargaining chip).

The last episode of Breaking Bad was not, in my opinion obviously, an exercise in the hero becoming an anti-hero becoming a hero. Certainly he took a bullet for his former cook-partner Jesse, but he did originally intend to murder the guy, only to discover Jesse had already paid for his own sins. Walter is fine for sin-paying by others. For himself, not so much. Despite the terminal--imminently terminal--nature of his lung cancer, Walt fails to do the right thing, give himself up, and once and for all get Skyler, his wife, off the hook.

And what of Skyler? The final scene between the husband and wife was an echo of an echo of an echo. How many times have we seen them discussing matters both serious and frivolous while sitting in a kitchen? This final time, of course, found them sharing a conversation in a different kitchen, a kitchen stupefyingly more depressing than the depressing White house kitchen. Skyler chain-smokes. Skyler does not smile, does not express even a hint of joy. She is clearly broken and empty. When she tells Walt not to pretend he did all of it--the meth, the money, the murder--for her or the family, she has no reaction to speak of when Walt responds, "I did it for me. I liked it." Only when Walt hands over the lottery ticket and explains to her the significance of the numbers--finally, a show that explains what the lottery numbers mean!--do we see any real emotion from her.

But no emotion from Walt. Skyler still has an ounce of herself. Walt and Heisenberg are both long dead. What is left is Mr. Lambert, an amalgamated man who is all parts but no sum.

It's hard to call Mr. Lambert even an anti-hero by the time he drives onto the Nazi compound. Certainly, anyone who kills neo-Nazi meth-dealers is, under normal circumstances, something less than a hero but something a lot more than a villain. Yet Mr. Lambert is the author of the entire endgame. Walt may have created these Nazis and handed Jesse to them, but Walt, forever powerless, left them to their own devices in order to disappear into the snowy woods of New Hampshire. When Mr. Lambert drives his car onto the compound and enters the KKK Klubhaus, it is as something more than a villain, something less than a hero. Mr. Lambert is the worst possible human being: he is a writer, taking over the treatise on impotence Walt left unfinished.

Everything works out for Mr. Lambert. The neo-Nazis search his car's interior but neglect the trunk. They take away his keys, but place them in a location easily accessible to him. They take umbrage at being called liars just as they are about to shoot him in the head, and bring in his former partner Jesse--beaten and manacled--to confirm the fact that Jesse is their slave, not their partner. And they all neatly die, just as Mr. Lambert scripted. In a final flourish, perhaps a sublimated expression of guilt, Mr. Lambert the writer even allows Jesse to exact his own revenge. Mr. Lambert spares Opie Hitler (Todd) from the hail of bullets, and lets Jesse break the guy's ginger neck.

Mr. Lambert even scripts his own demise. Ever the control freak--the one trait shared by Walter White, Heisenberg, and Mr. Lambert--one of the bullets from the Lambertmobile's murderous trunk-gun fatally wounds him. And how does it wound him? It wounds him by slamming into his body as he throws himself onto a confused Jesse. Mr. Lambert gets to feel himself a hero one last time by not only sparing Jesse's life (a life he himself ruined in a most spectacular way, mind), but by giving his own life for Jesse's.

Mr. Lambert also gives Jesse a demented happy ending, decreeing that Jesse drive off into the night, cackling like the madman he no doubt truly is after everything he's been through. Then he gives himself a happy ending: Mr. Lambert writes that he goes into the meth lab of his own design, lovingly stroke the cooking containers, and then die peacefully just before the police swarm in to bring him to justice.

Again, the one trait shared by all three characters Bryan Cranston so brilliantly played was their need to control a situation (remember, one very clear habit of the vessel known as Walter White was that he took on the traits of those he'd murdered). Walter never controlled anything, as much as he wanted to. He bluffed and blundered, but he was a helpless man in an unhelpful universe. Heisenberg, who eventually murdered Walter White, also sought to control the events and the people around him, with mixed results, sometimes even adopting the impotent cunning of the helpless Walt to find the best way to bluff, but usually relying on an uncanny ability to manipulate through a stoic, adopted ruse of coldness and reputation. Mr. Lambert got everything right. He inherited from Walter the ingenuity, and inherited from Heisenberg the psychotic ability to detach from any situation. Mr. Lambert's ending was his own choice, made possible by the two men--Walter White and Heisenberg--who had come before him.

In the end, Mr. Lambert was, sort of, the legacy of Walter White.

I'd wager, also, that we're done for a while with the anti-hero trend in television. Not completely, of course, but Mr. Lambert, aka Heisenberg, aka Walter White, aka Mr. White, scripted the eventual demise of that trend. Quite apart from cutting to black just as the bullet hits the brain (as in The Sopranos), or ending with a no-doubt lonely, heart-diseased man dwindling away as the comfort of the Eisenhower era melts far into the past, leaving only Women's Liberation, Stonewall, and even more Beatles albums (I'm guessing--Mad Men hasn't yet began it's final act), Mr. Lambert addressed the issue head-on: change is inevitable, and one must use what one has to resist it. There may be no redemption, but if one desires it enough, there's a way to plan ahead and force the world to be as you wish even beyond the grave. Which is exactly what Mr. Lambert did.

Junior will get his money, laundered through the successful, despised couple who stole your research (even though they didn't). Skyler will use your benevolent (cough) gift of a lottery ticket to find something better than money: she'll find closure in the decayed bodies of Hank and Gomez; even better, she might find a way out of the legal predicament you put her in to begin with. Nazis will die--very bad men who had it coming. Your partner will escape both his pain and his own justice. And you get to die in the temple you created for yourself, smiling.

Not even the great Tony Soprano pulled off that hat trick.

Addendum: It does interest me--in relation to Breaking Bad's popularity being tied to the Tea Party and angry white men facing a changing world--that Walt's initial foes were Latino--brown Chileans and Mexicans--but when faced with true racism, Walt/Heisenberg/Mr. Lambert realized just how disastrous his choices were. By accepting the help of the neo-Nazis--angry white guys with no real direction until HeisenWhite gave them direction--it became all to clear to Walt that he himself was now beyond hope. The same trend has happened with the Republican party (bet you didn't think I could make this political).

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