Friday, September 20, 2013

Unpopular Opinions: What Walter White and Jerry Seinfeld Have in Common

Walt makes that phone call in "Breaking Bad"
What the hell is wrong with you?  Why can’t you do one thing I say?  This is your fault.  This is what comes of your disrespect.  I told you, Skylar.  I warned you for a solid year, you cross me, there will be consequences.  What part of that didn’t you understand?  Maybe now you’ll listen.  Maybe now you’ll use your damn head.  You know, you never believed in me.  You were never grateful for anything I did for this family.  “Oh no, Walt.  Walt, you have to stop.  You have to stop this.  It’s immoral.  It’s illegal.  Someone might get hurt.”  You’re always whining and complaining about how I make my money…just dragging me down while I do everything.  And now, now you tell my son what I do after I told you and told you to keep your damn mouth shut?  You stupid bitch!  How dare you? 

You…you have no right to discuss anything about what I do.  What the hell do you know about it anyway?  You know nothing.  I built this.  Me, me alone!  Nobody else!  You mark my words, Skylar.  Toe the line or you will wind up just like Hank.  You’re never gonna see Hank again.  He crossed me.  You think about that.  Family or no, you let that sink in.

This past Sunday’s episode of Breaking Bad has been an enormous point of contention between some fans of the show and television critics.  There is a certain group of people who still believe that Walter White is a fundamentally decent person and seeing the consequences of five seasons’ worth of terrible actions all come crashing down in one devastating hour has sent them over the edge.  In many ways, it mirrors the fan reaction to the season finale of Seinfeld, which saw a menagerie of supporting characters paraded in front of our heroes to demonstrate all of the ways in which they are terrible, terrible people.  What we find in both is an unwillingness to accept the obvious evidence that the characters we’ve been rooting for have been the villains all along.

The final phone call from “Ozymandias” (transcribed above) has caused an incredible rift among fans of the show.  There are two obvious, though not mutually exclusive interpretations to be had from that phone call.  The first interpretation is that Walter is finally unleashing all of the vitriol and bilious feelings toward Skylar that he’s been withholding for five seasons now.  The second interpretation is that Walter is letting Skylar, his wife and resistant, though willing, accomplice off by assuming all of the guilt for his various misdeed.

My interpretation lies in the middle.  I think that what we saw in that phone call was the last good act of Walter White.  He was absolving Skylar of all her responsibilities in his meth trade.  At the same time he was unleashing every terrible, horrible, no good, very bad thing he’s always felt about his wife.  You see, there is Walter White, mild mannered chemistry teacher, and there is Heisenberg, resentful, bitter, eager despot.  Walt is the desperate cancer victim, who is a terrible liar.  Heisenberg is the evil drug kingpin, desperate to be loved, who is a master manipulator.  And it wasn’t until “Ozymandias” that we finally saw the two acting in concert.  Walter White, desperate to do one, final good thing for his family, summons Heisenberg to spin a lie to the police who he knows are listening.  But once he’s unleashed Heisenberg, he can’t control it, leading to his alter ego spewing every bit of venom and wrath he’s felt in his life.  Bound in this one phone call are Walt’s anger at leaving Grey Matter Technologies, his bitterness at being a genius professional forced into subservience at the car wash, and his resentment toward a woman he felt never encouraged him to be his best.  Even through all the tears, everything he says in that phone call is meant to protect Skylar.  And he truly means every word he says.

What has been startling in the fan reaction to this phone call is the number of people who are completely unwilling to accept that Walter truly means any of the terrible words he’s throwing at Skylar.  Taking a sample of some of the comments left on prominent critics’ reviews:

Everything he did in this episode- offering his earnings from the past 5 seasons to save Hank, the phone call, the kidnapping- was all to protect his family. He had to come across as evil and soulless to pull it off, and that killed him to do so. Given the circumstances, we saw Walt do the most selfless things he could possibly do to save his family in that situation, including implicating himself for a murder he didn't commit.

I, for one, still am rooting for Walt. Everyone talks about how bad he's become but the only people he harmed were going to do him harm first

On the phone call to Skyler, Walter was trying to save his annoying wife's bacon. Jesus. As for Marie, that woman deserved to die episodes ago. There is absolutely nothing redeeming about her, which is why it is such a shock that Skyler would suddenly confess to her. Shows how beneath contempt both these sisters are. And how alone Walter White always was with these clowns: Marie, Hank, and Skyler. This is the definition of tragedy: absolutely No Exit from a horrible human condition.

It is amazing to me that somebody could have watched 60 episodes of Breaking Bad to date without coming to the conclusion that Walter White is a terrible, awful person.  He lies to himself, first and foremost, about his motivations.  He wants to believe, no he has to believe that he’s doing all of this for his family.  Otherwise he’s the villain of his own story.  And so Walt has built up a veneer of nobility to disguise the pride and bitterness that is actually fueling his empire-building.  And apparently this veneer is extremely convincing to many fans as well, rendering them unwilling to accept that the man they’ve been rooting for over the last six years is actually an evil, irredeemable wretch.

The contentious final scene of "Seinfeld"
In many ways it mirrors the reaction to an altogether different series, Seinfeld.  Now I’m not going to say that Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer were even remotely as awful as Walter White, but they were pretty terrible people nonetheless.  Jeremy Stahl of Slate wrote an interesting piece yesterday (which was the impetus for this essay) noting that Seinfeld was not actually a “show about nothing.”  It was a show about “narcissistic, banal self-absorption” which, to anybody other than the narcissists, seems like “nothing.”

Just think of all the terrible things the Seinfeld characters did over the course of nine seasons.  George faked being handicapped to get a private bathroom.  Jerry ignores Babu’s Visa forms resulting in the deportation of the former restaurant owner (“former” also thanks partially to Jerry).  Elaine and Kramer hired Newman to kidnap a dog.  Jerry stole a loaf of bread from an old lady.  I could go on, but the series finale kind of makes my point for me.  These were fairly awful people who showed a callous disregard for anybody other than themselves.  Since most of their callous disregard resulted in hilarious things happening, it was easy to forget.  But in the end the finale showed us, in excruciating detail, exactly who we had been cheering on for nine years and it was tough to watch.

And yet, when the weight of the characters’ actions finally came down on them (in an admittedly farcical setting), many viewers were furious.  Larry David threw a blinding spotlight on the true awfulness of these characters we’d been watching and laughing with for almost a decade by parading the litany of people they’d harmed over the years in front of us.  The truth was laid bare, and many people couldn’t handle it.

“I just can’t believe they went to jail for having bad character.”

Like others have pointed out, the characters were never that mean and cruel in previous shows: George bought a chair for a security guard because he felt it was wrong for him to stand the whole day!
Many fans spent the better part of a decade laughing along with Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer as they inflicted misery and humiliation upon pretty much every person they came into contact with.  When the camera was then turned around and Larry David asked, “Are these terrible people really your heroes?” they were unprepared to reflect on what it means to root for the bad guys and not even realize they’re the villains.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to shows defying our expectations.  Even in the era of the antihero, we’ve come to expect that the protagonist is the hero of the story.  What Seinfeld did in its finale and what Breaking Bad did in “Ozymandias” was to force its audience to deal with the fact that the protagonists of those stories were, in the case of Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer, banal narcissists and, in the case of Walter White, a truly evil villain.  And that’s not an easy fact to accept.

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