Thursday, September 19, 2013

Okay, Walter White, I'm Ready to Let You Go

A recent post declared that I will miss Walter White. Today I admit I’m over him. My Facebook feed warns me that mine is a minority opinion. Other viewers, at least those in my small circle on Facebook, seem thrilled, surprised, and eager for the next episode in the few remaining for the series, Breaking Bad. I’m not thrilled. I am, however, surprised. Still I’ll watch the two remaining episodes with dread, definitely not eager. Here’s why: Consistency is all I ask! (Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead)

Inconsistency in character diminishes my pleasure. In fact, mystery writers who drag a minor character center-stage to star as the killer, as Agatha Christie occasionally did, seem to me to have defaulted on a contract between author and reader. If clues and hints, however subtle, were completely absent, if nothing in the character’s nature matches the nature of the crime, and if I must be told, as Poirot often told, why and how a crime took place, I’m not inclined to close the book satisfied and so far, I’m not satisfied with the inconsistencies in character in the final season of Breaking Bad.

Marie, Hank, and Saul all seem to have evolved along expected lines. Marie, the consummate enabler, is a tiny moon caught in the orbit of larger planets. She serves Skyler’s needs, cares for Skyler’s children, labors to make Hank whole, and lives as an upright citizen after that minor blip as a shoplifter. She’s become a clueless moral center with a healthy human slice of fair play. She wants bad guys dragged into the town square and shamed, especially because those bad guys threaten her husband, niece, and nephew.

Hank was an inept DEA agent from the first episodes. He proves he’s unprofessional when he discusses cases with his wife and brother-in-law. He proves he’s not the most astute observer of human nature when he fails to notice his wife’s kleptomania and falls for melodrama, believing Walter and Skyler’s fiction about gambling, marital strife, infidelity, and law-abiding convictions. In a final proof of his incompetence, he asks one other DEA agent to help him bring down Walter White, a man he knows to be a murderer, bomber, and blackmailer. He thinks two lone men, standard weapons at the ready, badges on display, are sufficient against a crime boss whom he acknowledges as the most intelligent man he knows, the same crime boss that assassinated ten witnesses. Hank simply didn’t deserve to survive so many errors in judgment.

Saul was and remains the consummate opportunist. He knows guys who know guys. He hires others to do the ugly, physical work sometimes required, and he’s practical, recognizing that appeasement is a necessary survival skill and that Jesse needs to be eliminated. Saul will take his thirty pieces of silver and live to slither another day.

But Skyler and Walter? Those two haven’t just turned a corner; they transmogrified, rendering me indifferent to the ends to which they come.

First, Skyler is a vessel into which writers poured the convoluted ways in which mere humans deal with catastrophic losses and humdrum challenges. Pregnant with a second child, mother to a special needs son, she learns that her husband, Walter, has advanced lung cancer. The White family lacks funds sufficient to save her husband’s life, even with health care, and she turns to old friends with money for help. She also enters into an affair with a former flame, in part because she lives with anticipatory grief, but viewers must recall that Skyler was never a noble gal. She aided and abetted illegality. She literally cooked the books to cover embezzlement. Later, in a series of gross misjudgments, she tried to save Ted the embezzler, then let him go to terrible ends, if necessary, to save herself.

She’s also shown the paralysis that sometimes grips us mortals when we cannot comprehend our own venal and mortal sins. She drank too much, lied easily, and staged a suicide attempt in full view of those who would save her in order to slough off her responsibilities as a mother and citizen confined by the laws of man and moral codes. Aware that her husband mutated into something unrecognizable, she indulged herself until she decided to become a participating co-conspirator. She, like Saul, recognized the need to eliminate Jesse, admitting that they, Mr. and Mrs. White, have already committed so many crimes, why not commit one more?

Perhaps more important, Skyler confirms her ignobility when, cornered by Hank, she waits to learn what he really knows, reasons that he must not be able to prove much or he would have arrested her, and advises Walter not to panic. She then helps Walter create a video that will force Hank to be silent, and she coughs up the words, “I’m sorry” only when confronted by Marie even though viewers know Skyler cares little for Marie or Hank. She was not coerced into making that video. She accepted risks and let Walter set the course, but now, the writers ask me to believe, she throws away all that composure, lays down all her cards, and bares her raw naked sin before her son. Foul, I cry.

Equally foul is the turn that Walter White has taken. He began as a man with absolutely nothing to lose if life itself is the only measure of worth. He looked into the deserts of … eternity (Marvell) and decided, none do there grow wealthy. He calculated loss against gain, deciding that his sole noble end was to leave his family wealthy enough to endure and enjoy. Thus, his ambition, borne in necessity, burns hot, and he sets out to use his education and skill to produce the purest, most desirably addictive methamphetamine. To this end, Walter transformed himself into a bad ass with street credibility sufficient to fight off competitors and anyone who would own his talent. He meets monsters, including men in snake-skin boots dragging themselves through the dust, men who decapitate other men and plant a severed head upon the back of a tortoise, men who slaughter a loyal servant in order to smother all impulse to flee or defy him.  And Walter becomes a monster himself, one capable of standing by as a drug addict drowns in her own vomit, of endangering a boy’s life, of orchestrating the assassination of ten men, of designing a second Great Train Robbery, and of ruining the soul of Jesse Pinkman, a misguided boy in need of a parent who will care for him and more important, forgive him for being lost.

Now writers ask me to believe that in spite of all his ruthless barbarism delivering dishes best served cold, Walter is little more than a needy, rash desperado. He who leaves no traces of his hand at work, he who anticipates the worst and redirects it, and he who wields power and wit like razor-sharp weapons can no longer think, reason, or abide. Walter spills all the truth over an open phone as he leaves a dusty trail racing to his money--as if money is all the treasure he requires in the days he has remaining, as if power and persona did not intoxicate and at last poison him. Writers ask me to accept that he could sacrifice a child, meth cooks, and crooks, but he refuses to sacrifice Hank, a man whom he’s mocked and manipulated. Writers expect me to believe that Heisenberg never really existed; he was just a mask that Walter donned. And worst of all, writers ask me to believe that Walter would snatch his baby daughter and leave her alone, sobbing, to make his escape with $11 million and teach Skyler a lesson, one that he preaches over the phone, believing her lie that she’s alone at home begging for her child rather than surrounded by police whom Junior summoned after a knife-fight between his heretofore caring parents.

I object! Neither Skyler nor Walter are characters who act foolishly in desperate times; their sense of self-preservation is too great. I also object to these confessions. Neither Skyler nor Walter have shown any real remorse and therefore, they are not now on a path to redemption. Skyler’s confession to Junior and Walter’s unwillingness to let Jack assassinate Hank are simply inconsistent, and therefore, the last episodes of the final season dissatisfy--unless, of course, some M. Night Shyamalan Sixth Sense ending awaits me and this has all been an elaborate ruse, but I digress.

To save themselves from joining the ranks of the Literary Damned, Skyler and Walter must uncover genuine remorse, a path that will require them to confront a truth. They must stare into the vast desert around Albuquerque and search for the moment when they said yes for there was a moment at the beginning, where ...[they] could have said no (Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead). Mr. and Mrs. White must wish to be transported to that moment and do everything quite differently. They should not rush headlong into the clichéd end of rioters, thieves, and killers, illustrating the equally clichéd truth that no honor exists within them. They should continue as opportunistic organisms until they die, the ruin anticipated for those who fail to uphold moral duties imposed by family, society, and religion.

Reading Challenge:

Read Breaking Bad from Episode 1 to the last.

Writing Challenge:

Select evidence from previous episodes to counter my theses and prove that the final episodes are indeed consistent for the characters noted.

Next Week:

Under my microscope and whether his end is just desserts or tragic irony (Stoppard): Jesse Pinkman