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Thursday, 27 September 2018

Discussing characters on Breaking Bad

Time for another character discussion post! After a few years of watching the first season then stopping, watching the first and second season a few years later and then stopping, and finally completing seasons three, four and five, I finally finished Breaking Bad. And what a phenomenal show with an incredibly original story. It definitely gets better as time goes on; seasons four and five were brilliant. Post will contain spoilers.

Overall it's a wonderful show, however there were times when it was a bit too 'depressing' for me - I like a sense of comic relief and some lightheartedness even within a heavy crime drama, and there were times when I felt the show had too much of an overarching sad tone. I also prefer shows that have multiple sub-plots, and this show was very minimalist with one story line running throughout: a chemistry teacher with terminal cancer becomes obsessed with building a meth empire, all the while claiming he's 'doing it for his family.'

Walt. Walter White is complex. Throughout the show I neither liked nor disliked him. He is not your typical protagonist; he is (initially) an 'every man' character. A middle-aged chemistry teacher disrespected by most of the people in his life who finds out he has a terminal illness. He isn't sexy, handsome, or all that likeable. He's a nerdy white middle-class dad. He lives a normal life, not fulfilling his full potential, so when he finds out he's destined to die, something inside of him wakes up.

It's very clear all the way through that Walt is a genius. He is a phenomenally intelligent man with wonderful gifts and a passion for Science. It's quite sad that his talents ended up being utilised in the worst way possible, rather than being channelled into something beautiful. Walt is an example of someone who when driven to extreme frustration, ends up cracking and becomes incredibly dangerous. Walt had to die at the end because that was the end of his story arc; he could progress no further. He finally admitted to Skyler that he hadn't really been cooking the meth for his family - it's quite clear early on that yes, while there is a part of him that wants to provide, he cooks the meth because he loves the power that it gives him, and he loves the chemistry that flows from his fingertips. It's a part of his life that gives him the ability to take his life back when faced with death.

Jesse. Jesse was my favourite character and the only character I liked consistently from the beginning till the end. I was always rooting for Jesse and identified the most with him. My brother describes him as the 'most human' character on the show. Jesse cares deeply about people; he cares for the innocent, especially children. He is constantly dragged into horrific situations because of Walt's actions. Jesse dying would have been a tragedy, but he had to survive because that was also part of the story's arc - the monster (Walt) died along with his destruction, and the good (Jesse) survived, resurrected from the ashes.

Jesse and Walt have a very father-son like relationship; despite how much Walt mistreats, manipulates and endangers Jesse, he does really care for him and love him on some level. It's very similar to the relationship between Rick and Morty; a genius sociopath and his empathetic protege that ends up paying for his monstrous father-figure's sins. Many stories use the father-son conflict (Star Wars, Finding Nemo) to show the son initially idealizing their father, then becoming disillusioned with them, fighting with them, and then resolving with the son taking the place of his father as the 'new man in charge' or making peace with his father.

It's interesting that Jesse is more of a son to Walt than his own son; Jesse and Walt go through enormously life-changing experiences together -they experience some of the craziest things I have ever seen two characters in fiction go through. Jesse is also Walt's perfect student - he laps up everything Walt teaches him, and becomes as good a meth cook as Walt. Walt is able to pour his passion out to Jesse, living it with and through him.

Skyler. Skyler is a widely disliked character. I've read a lot of books, seen a lot of movies and watched a lot of TV shows and come across many characters far worse and more annoying than her. Skyler is a pain in the early seasons, but in the third, fourth and especially fifth season I have nothing against her. I like her in many parts and really feel sorry for her. Skyler is a smart woman who loves and cares for her family, and is trying to protect her children from Walt's crimes. She becomes sucked into them like Jesse, and ends up trapped in an awful situation. She constantly looks depressed during the final season.

Yes, she is no saint; she has an affair, although that was when she and Walt had separated. She becomes Walt's accomplice, getting a taste for the alluring nature of the criminal world and the money. But ultimately it destroys her. Skyler will never be the same after everything Walt put her through. She reacts as any person would; angry, confused, hurt, worried. I don't think she deserves the hate she gets at all, but that is the power of this show - it forces us to sympathise with a man who does truly awful things, in the same way The Sopranos gets us on the side of a mafioso boss who kills people with his own hands.

Hank. This show sides us with the villain, so it makes sense for us to not be rooting for the hero. If this story were told from Hank's perspective, of course we would all be rooting for him. His crazy (but brilliant) brother-in-law was creating a heinous operation that was destroying everyone around him, and Hank spent five seasons trying to find this man who was right in front of him all along. I didn't care much for Hank initially; he was annoying, rowdy, boisterous. But his accident humanized him more, and I started to respect him. Hank is a good, caring man; he is excellent at his job, and cares about people. He cares about the law. Hank's death is a tragedy, but because of the type of story this is, it wasn't going to happen any other way. This wasn't a story where the hero won; it was a story where no one could possibly win, but hope could arise (in the form of Jesse).

Marie. Again, didn't much care for her at first, but over time liked her a lot. By the end she was one of my favourite characters. I felt really sorry for Marie and was devastated for her when Hank died. Hank and Marie's love ran very strong throughout the show, even when Hank broke his leg and acted like a stroppy cunt towards his wife. Marie is another unconventional character (or a conventional character executed unconventionally). She is the quirky sister-in-law who suffers from kleptomania, but deep down simply loves her husband and her family and wants everyone she loves to be ok. (I always wondered why Marie and Hank don't have children; did they not want any or could she not have any? I can't remember if it ever got addressed).

Gus. What an awful, evil, ruthless but absolutely brilliant man. Gus is a cold villain who cares only about his business. He does everything to further his corporate interests and to protect the empire that he carefully built. I think Gus is a wonderful character and there is something to learn from the way he is. Unlike Walt, he doesn't prioritise his ego. He is a man of reason and pragmatism. Yes, it is only within the context of furthering his interests - if someone is getting in the way of business, they must die.

But the way he carries himself, his work ethic, and his ways of dealing with people are something to be admired. In the end he is killed because of Walt's ruthlessness, but if Walt and Jesse had complied with Gus rather than effectively making a mess of things, things would have worked better for them all if Gus had remained alive. It is fascinating to see a man who manages a drug corporation - selling people their own death - with the cold calculation of an ordinary business. This is why he is much more successful than the messy drug cartel dealers, who use blood and impulse. One of my favourite scenes in the show was when he wiped out all of the men that betrayed him and killed his old partner.

Saul. When in doubt, better call Saul! I was initially weary of him (my impressions of everyone apart from Jesse really moved in all directions) because I thought he was dodgy. Saul was one of my favourites by the end, along with Jesse and Marie. (And Mike; I liked Mike a lot). Saul provided some much-needed comic relief to the show, and added that light touch that I felt was lacking at times. In the end, he got out and decided to become an every man, slipping out of side. He was another victim of Walt's greed, as well as an intrigued accomplice, but if he had stayed then it's likely he'd have ended up dead.

Mike. Ah, Mike. I was pretty sad when Mike died. He did it with style though. Mike was always sort of lurking around, as Gus' sideman. The last thing he said before he died really summed him up; getting on with it and getting out. 'Will you shut the fuck up and let me die in peace.' That scene nearly had me in tears; you could see Walt regretted killing Mike as he looked around in shock. These little moments, to me, revealed that deep down Walt is not an evil man - he became a bad person through bad choices and bad actions, but deep down he did still have some humanity in him that cared for others, like Mike, Jesse and Hank.

Other character discussions:

Mad Men

13 Reasons Why

Game of Thrones

Jane the Virgin

The Big Bang Theory

Orange is the New Black

The Sopranos

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