By: Anna Faktorovich
Why is Breaking Bad one of the best television series I have seen over the last few years? My instinctual and reasoned guess is its Shakespearean dimensions. The story arc has similarities with Hamlet and Macbeth. The first because of the feigned madness that Hamlet assumes, and the actual madness that his beloved Ophelia suffers that leads to her suicide. The second because of the conscious decision Macbeth and Lady Macbeth take to fall into extreme evil out of ambition for power and wealth. Both plays begin in the midst of a war, and Breaking Bad similarly plays out in the middle of the War on Drugs, with battle scenes across the plot, and with the leading anti-heroes as the key players in the battles. The series’ plot is full of common Shakespearean devices and elements, such as the disguised poisonings of rivals, deliberate secrets and lies that escalate into tragedies when they are discovered by loved ones, and extreme overreactions to presumed or actual wrongs that lead to ever-escalating tragic events.
To be frank, the actors in Breaking Bad are some of the ugliest people on prime-time TV, with deep wrinkles, chubby thighs, yellow faces, round unsymmetrical heads, with most of the extras appearing as if they are actual hobos and gangsters on the run from the law, all these features distorted further by a constant green lens. The only main actor that initially looked like the standard American pretty character-lead is Aaron Paul, who within the bended timeline of the show’s two years, meanwhile recorded in five years, appears to age by at least a decade and in the finale looks like he gained twenty pounds, uncharacteristic because he is called skinny and bony derogatively across the show, and also because he is supposed to have spent eight months in slave labor cooking meth, while living in a dug-out dungeon. Aaron confessed to Rolling Stones that he has a medicinal marijuana card, but has been put off from all other drugs by an ex-girlfriend who was a drug addict, “Meth is the one that grabbed, like, nails-deep into her soul and slowly just ripped it out. She was this beautiful being, turned to this hollow shell.” This explains it, marijuana induces the munchies, and if he was using it for five years medicinally to simulate being a hard-core drug-addict, there was no way he could have avoided the weight gain. Take a look at these two stills I put together from the show, one from Season 1 and one from Season 5, which show Aaron’s comparative weight.
Aaron has lost most of this weight in the months after Breaking Bad ended, and he is approaching his personal-best. I am not talking about weight here as a shallow concept, but as an artist that appreciates beauty in form. Most classical painters had a different standard for beauty from the one that’s popular today, but a color camera lens portrays every millimeter of the actor’s face and body, and these images can be magnified on enormous home TV screens. While I found agents in my youth who were interested in working with me as an actress, I decided not to pursue this craft because I was slightly overweight, had a slightly over-sized nose, and had a few other flaws. If I fired myself from acting, I feel that I can frankly criticize the weight of other actors. It is more common today to criticize women for gaining a few extra pounds, while most of the most popular and best-paid male actors have wrinkles, are a bit out of shape, or have dermatological or other flaws that would place any actress out of the business. Why aren’t there more female directors? Perhaps, because they are not inspired by the male actors. If filmmaking was about creating beautiful moving works of art today, there would be more actors with classical physical forms like Michelangelo’s “David.” Long, curly hair, thick lips, sculpted cheeks, and a body lean on fat, and with muscles that flow in natural waves. Sculptors and painters have found these elements to attract viewers, and to add a powerful romantic quality to a work of art. I do not weigh most modern films against these standards, but if a series, a film, or an actor shows an ambition for greatness, I have to elevate my expectations to these classical standards. Here is a still from the series that is an example of this ambition towards greatness in the positioning of the shot, the background imagery, and in the careful study of the form of the actor.
But, this scene is an isolated still out of many very ugly and artistically flawed cinematographic moments, when the director allows actors to do their worst. Still, somehow, these repellently externally ugly characters manage to keep the viewer mesmerized by their images. The mesmerism is not even rooted in the acting, as it is usually atrocious, with only a few phenomenal outbreaks. Aaron gives a heart-stopping performance in the final scene with basically a single line, and a lot of grunting. But, at other times the actors use monotones, or act in the same flat way when they are happy, sad and indifferent.
I believe there might have been only one stuntman that drove a car through a gate at the end, and the rest of the stunts were done by the actors. A couple of years ago I was one of the supervisors of the Theater Club at the Middle Georgia State College. We put together a dark comedy about a string of murders at a dinner show. Most of the characters died during the show, and the student director had instructed all of them to fall straight down onto their knees, before collapsing in “death.” I was only the assistant supervisor, but after watching a dozen of these falls, I finally pointed out that professional actors never fall on their knees when feigning death or a faint because the knees can be seriously injured by this repeated motion. Falling sideways or gradually onto the bum, or using knee pads under the pants or a long skirt are some common approach in the theater. My advice was naturally ignored. From closely watching the stunts, fights, falls and tears in this series, I have come to the conclusion that the actors are typically in actual pain, and are actually falling because the contractions of their facial muscles are not mimicking reactions, but are clearly suffering actual reactions to hurtful contact. This detail throughout the series makes those actors who suffer extreme pain, and in particular Aaron, extremely realistic, which forces sympathy on the observers, even if an observer finds drug manufacturing, murder and various other crimes that same character has enacted appalling in the extreme. The sympathy is really for the actor, and not for the portrayed character, even though one does not realize this while watching the drama.
Imagine if the depicted events were happening in your own life, and you were watching a young, white thug shoot a middle-aged chemist in the eye, would you feel pity because the thug is crying, or because he feels guilty for what he did? In Shakespearean and most moralist classical plays, sympathy is never allowed for a murder that is based on anything other than revenge for a selfish murder, or is it? Hamlet is compelled to kill his step-father and mother because they poisoned his father, so reasons are offered to feel sympathy for his justified revenge, and Hamlet’s death washes away some of his guilt, thus allowing viewers to feel a stronger sense of tragedy and sympathy. On the other hand, Macbeth cannot wash away the blood of the king he killed, despite repeated attempts, and even though he murders for power, readers and theater goers feel some sympathy with his awareness of having done a grave wrong. In Breaking Bad, there are around four instances when a murderer notices and wipes away small drops of blood on their finger nails or shoes, including scenes with Mike Ehrmantraut (the ex-Philadelphia police officer, turned hit man) and one with Jack Welker (the leader of the white-power gang). The wiping away of these drops or pools of blood has a very different affect from the one created in Macbeth. For most of the murders in the series, the murders are logical, financially motivated, and otherwise a part of a cold calculation. Only one of the characters feels any guilt, remorse, hesitation, or trepidation regarding the hundreds of direct and indirect murders depicted in the series, and this is Jesse Pinkman, who is simultaneously playing the Shakespearean fool or clown, the guilt-stricken antagonist, and the avenging protagonist.
There is a clash in the series between Aaron playing the part with emotional depth and guilt, and the writer-director, Vince Gilligan, clearly failing to be honest with the audience about the character-type that Jesse represents. I have encountered drug abusers as a substitute teacher at juvenile jails, as a professor at community colleges, and on a personal level with a prior friend who left an actual deep cut on my hand. Drug addicts, who are unstable and self-mutilating, are typically incapable of sudden precision, accuracy, or clarity. In other words, somebody who is actively consuming meth regularly cannot regularly attend work in a lab, and create near-perfect chemical formulas. They are prone to forgetfulness, illogical agitation, and lack of coherence in written and oral communications. In other words, if Jesse kept saying that Mr. White’s chemical lectures were putting him in a “coma,” how could he have seriously become the top meth cook in the country? I say this after having taught college English for over three years. The students who whine about being forced to learn are prone to have total inactivity as their goal. I watched a documentary about meth cooking in a residential domicile on a small scale, and it involved cutting some Sudafed pills, iodine found in disinfectants and medicine, matchbox strike strips, and mixing them in a bottle. To say that there is a small step between that and assisting the production of a factory-grade illegal narcotic is insulting to serious chemists.
I took honors chemistry in high school and it was tougher than the four humanities AP classes I took my senior year, and tougher than college calculus. So, I was suspicious enough about all this to do a search online to check this fantastic 100% pure meth formula, and sure enough I found that the whole concept was bogus, not only the fact that a junky could not create it. In an article called, “Breaking Bad Fact vs Fiction: Walter White’s Secret Formula” in Popular Mechanics, Jonathan Parkinson, an analytical chemist, explains that the best chemic, if following Walter White’s method of creating meth from the raw chemical ingredients, without using Sudafed, is likely to create a 50% pure meth, and this percentage is likely to fluctuate wildly. I think I recall that I might have started a small fire once in chemistry lab, or caused serious damage to the desk just by mixing a few drops of chemicals together without perfect precision. If one is running a lab where giant industrial-grade containers are cooking meth, the chances of catastrophic reactions from a minor miscalculation, impurity of ingredients, the weather, forgetfulness and the like are unbelievable. People are known to blow themselves up from making home explosives; one of the steps in the depicted meth P2P cooking process is actually adding a “dash of hydrogen atoms,” in other words by making a tiny hydrogen bomb reaction. Even if things do not go that wrong, Parkinson explains that there is an even chance of making a decongestant (Vick’s Vapor Inhaler is the resulting product of this reaction) when following this process perfectly, as there is of making meth, as the two are the two possible chemical results of the reaction. So, a “badge” really has to be tested after a cook to check if it clears the passageways. Drug companies charge hundreds or even thousands of dollars for some new brand name drugs in the first decade after its creation, and wait for half a decade before releasing a new drug to the public because of the research, testing and new methodologies that go into the creation of a drug that will be consumed. How can any chemist possibly have invented a new 99% pure formula on his first attempt? And why would he have seriously let his lab assistant be the guinea pig for trying it? If no human being had tried 99%-pure meth before, the tester’s physical reaction upon taking it was likely to be catastrophic, and Walter White does not even attempt to test the product on a rat before allowing Pinkman and his friends to give it a try. One of the other reasons I started researching this question is that I read that a chemist advised the show makers on the chemistry, and wrote the formulas displayed on the board. I can understand that the writer-producer-director, Vince Gilligan, was able to go against criminal character-typing, but why couldn’t this chemist stop him from doing science fiction on her watch? It is immoral to portray the idea that there is such a thing as the Holy Grail of meth, or a perfect formula that gets users “insanely high.” It is a case of false-advertising that fails to portray it as the unstable, poorly tested, and unprofessionally cooked street product that it is.
I also studied the test that Jesse Pinkman took in Mr. White’s class, on the back of which he drew, “Why Mr. White loves chemistry” and the image of Mr. White bending over with his ass enlarged into a tube, as if he was engaging in rough homosexual intercourse. The homoerotic imagery, symbolism and interactions between Pinkman and White, and later Todd Alquist, repeat frequently in the series. The test in question has a few jokes on it, a few insults, and shows no signs that Pinkman awoke or comprehended any of Mr. White’s lectures. (I’ve seen similar exams in my community college years.) So, Mr. White seriously decided to work with one of his worst and most disrespectful students to produce a lethal drug that if improperly handled could create fumes that would have killed both of them? This goes beyond reasonable suspension of disbelief and into pure suicidal insanity.
The two also frequently end up cooking independently without the other partner. Indeed, I did not see a point in the documentary, which I reviewed, when a meth cook needed an assistant. On the other hand, the production of a product that could make $90 million cannot possibly be left to only two “cooks” in any logical legal or illegal business operation. Even in the scene where Jesse cooks with the Mexicans, there are dozens of chemists studying the process, so why couldn’t Gus import a dozen of them into the U.S. to replace Mr. White and his improbable 99% formula? Mass-scale pharmaceutical and illegal drug production is not like the movie business; this industry involves hard labor, while monitoring an unstable chemical process. AMC’s programming budget for all of its original shows in 2011 was $174 million. Based on this number, Breaking Bad’s annual budget that year might have been around $15 million, and they hired extras, supporting actors, and the chemist advisor, so why wouldn’t Mr. White have hired a few other assistants. Was Vince Gilligan projecting his own fear of being pushed out of a leading role, if he allowed an equal writer-director-producer partner share his role? Then, there is some truth behind the story in the series as it portrays modern competitive capitalism, even if the science and strategy are unrealistic.
The 100% purity element becomes necessary to support the storyline where Mr. White attempts to motivate Jesse to being great at something, meth cooking. Striving to achieve 100% perfection in this job is the goal, which, based on the standard dramatic motivation formula, every series has to have. The hero wants to be the best spy, or the best witch, or the best pot seller. However, unlike many of the other goals, this one was painful for me to watch as this glorification of the illegal drug industry as the new American Dream is insulting both to those with legal capitalist ambitions, and to those who regularly fight against the consumption of poisonous substances on the law enforcement side. The only redeeming quality about all this is that it reflects a part of the actual American society that is typically kept out of mainstream media. There are more Pinkmans out there actually working as lab assistants for the top chemistry professors than those professors would ever readily admit. And considering American murder, drug overdose, and drug conviction statistics, most Americans do aspire to excel in the drug business, and most of them die trying to be dominant, or in prison. Is this blend of pulp fiction and reality good for viewers who are making up their minds about entering the drug trade? From Plato to Shakespeare, writers have worked to instruct as well as to entertain their audiences. A drama like this reaches the very people who are tempted to “break bad.” Was this audience at the top of the writer’s mind when he wrote the series? Is the series really about “breaking bad” in order to break into making millions from a series by working on a topic that the majority of the public consumes illicitly, and that is destroying the core of American society? On the other hand, Shakespeare did not shrug away from covering murder, poisonings, and corruption because only by looking at overwhelming evil and its nature can readers have a catharsis, releasing the fear of overwhelming evil, and thus learning to overcome extreme hardships that evil might throw in their own paths later in life, as everybody that struggles to succeed has to overcome the ambitions and conflicting interests of others.
The premise is that the two anti-heroes are drawn regressively into deeper and deeper levels of “badness,” as they commit sins that are escalating in severity. But, somehow the worst sin, which neither of them crosses, is the direct murder of somebody that was once a friend or lover, as if the murder of hundreds of enemies and for business advantages is less sinful than the murder of a single friend or family member. Technically, breaking that “bond” of love or friendship would have prevented the audience from sympathizing with the murderer, and this is the greatest sin in the business of filmmaking. Mr. White merely nods when asking to have Jesse murdered for him, but the director intervenes and saves Jesse until the end, when Jesse has finally stopped his insulting and disrespectful attitude and is so humbled that Mr. White actually feels enough pity for him to “save” him by blocking a bullet from hitting Pinkman with his own body. Thus, two murderers become the savior and the saved, and the younger of the two might end up escaping to Alaska, to perhaps cook fantastic meth there. Did anybody else wish that this show ended with Mr. White and Jesse simply descending into the more realistic end of this trajectory, or into complete evil, where they would be mirror-images of Tuco, completely mad and killing people while high and out of their senses, which is basically what Mr. White is doing through most of the show, though it is explained as logical defensive actions against numerous foes. Taking out bosses, competitors, “rats,” and the other steps that Mr. White and Jesse take in their War for Drugs is exactly what other top national organized crime, syndicate, and gang bosses are doing, but this show is interpreting these actions as defensive. A logical equivalent that we are not likely to see on American television is showing the Columbine shooters taking out their “enemies” for logical and justified reasons. The director of Breaking Bad had a moral obligation to do much better research into the realities of drug manufacturing, and to sacrifice sympathy for the sake of truth and art. The elements that could have developed into a work of art are all there, some mimicked from the classics and others from pop classics, but why didn’t this show look closer at the details of these actions and characters, instead of rushing along on the surface of the action.
I began this review by comparing Breaking Bad with Shakespeare’s plays, but an image has been flashing in the back of my mind as I looked closer at the details of the show and this image was of two white mice. I am pretty suspicious that the leading duo of Breaking Bad was conceived as a mimicry of Pinky and the Brain, the children’s cartoon I watched with admiration as a young adult. Pinkman is an obvious imitation of Pinky’s name and mental capacity, and Mr. White’s name mimics the white color of the mice in the cartoon, as do the characteristic elements of the crinkled forehead and cringed eyes of Brain’s character. However, why did Breaking Bad’s creator end a ridiculous cartoon mimicry with an overwhelmingly tragic ending? Clearly, this is because he set up the cancer as the motivator for the illicit actions in the series. As a result, failing to tie this loose end by having Brain live to try to take over the world another day would have broken an unbreakable formulaic rule.
I doubt I would have written this much on the topic of a television series if I did not sincerely enjoy watching the action in the background, as I worked on design projects, and then closely, pausing the images to study the details. But, it was also the most painful television watching experience I have had in a while. Seven years ago, I was painting a rusted chair for my neighbor, when a young man came up, pointed a gun at me, while exposing himself, and threatening to rape me. I waved him off and told him to just go away, and after hitting me over the head with the back of the gun, he did. There is no doubt in my mind that this young man was using drugs, and actively involved in a gang that conducted the sale of drugs. Was this young man sympathetic? He was grinning, but then his eyes were a bit sad too. I have encountered so many of these blank, unfeeling men, who are willing to do almost anything for drugs, or on drugs that I do not have any sympathy for them, and only sympathy for that minority in America who are their victims. There are no victims among the characters in Breaking Bad, only dead eyed and red eyed lunatics, starving for blood money.