People told me to see Breaking Bad so often and so heatedly that I got it out last week and watched with Annie three series in two days absorbed.
Out of only six premises — Walter’s lung cancer, his chemical expertise, his young son’s cerebral palsy, his brother-in-law the honest cop, his wife’s pregnancy, and the American health care system — a drama that reaches out into all aspects of America: the drug economy, border protection, divorce law, public education, police forensics, gun control, the unimpeded rule of gangsters in the southern states and Mexico and what, under capitalism, is an adequate preparation for death.
Walter kills a man and we still like him. He manufactures meth and we still somehow admire him. He is trying to look after his family, to do what in Scandinavia the state would do on his behalf. He is doing his best for his loved ones, his people.
What got to me though is what drugs do to you. As in A Dangerous Method it is hard to believe in the continuity of human personality any more, for the drugs change you so much. We are at the best of times just a wandering archipelago of random impulses, but drugs strip us down to less than that. We are saints and murderers, reliable providers and whingeing infants depending on what we are on. Bob Dylan’s varied incarnations from cowhand to activist to prophet to Christian wowser to suburban dad to metropolitan cynic show how deeply they cut into our being. John Lennon, chiacker, nudist, campaigner, house husband, smack addict, poet and artist, show how undecided in our wants and priorities they can make us.
They work on us like religion. They turn us into ‘the new me’, the new edition of self, the Second Act that Scott Fitzgerald said is not allowed in American lives. Worse they make deniable what has happened before: hey, lighten up, that was last year, I’ve moved on from there, I’ve shed that skin, get used to me now, I’m different, I’m another person now.
Sabina in A Dangerous Method goes from psycho to psychoanalyst, sadomasochistic sex-crazed mistress to respected medical theorist to babbling madwoman jumping at shadows depending on what drug she’s on. Freud takes cocaine and believes he controls the universe; and Sherlock Holmes does too. Churchill administers World War Two while brain-deep in brandy, Hitler on cow-dung and bull-sperm injections, and so world history unfolds. Jack Kennedy, on steroids, needs sex three times a day. I found out last week that I am V8 Juice-deficient, low on iron, and I have been jumpy, impatient, suspicious and anxious for forty years for no other reason. And I might have a different personality soon. So watch this space, as they say. Are we anything more than a space, waiting to be filled? It’s a worry.
And the ideas of crime and punishment get very wobbly at this point, as Walter White’s grim journey of the soul so ably demonstrates. Are we truly responsible for anything? What vitamin or beverage or exercise regimen or frequent sexual position will make us so? Will prayer help? Religion? Are these drugs too? It’s a worry.
These are difficult questions, old friend, and worth thinking on.