Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Legacy Syndrome: The Bad has Been Broken and We're All the Better For It

Gonna find my baby gonna hold her tight
gonna grab some afternoon delight...
In GOODFELLAS Henry Hill's (Ray Liota) description of fellow gangster James Conway (Robert DeNiro) included the following poetic and memorable line in a movie chalked full of poetic and memorable lines:

"Jimmy was the kind of guy that rooted for the bad guys in the movies."

Well, as it turns out, a great many of us are more similar to the psychotic Jimmy than are probably willing to admit, though not for the reasons you'd suspect.  There are many characters that have existed in various media from folk tales to reality TV ("Don't laugh!  This ain't reality TV!") that have embodied the antihero, which has become a cultural buzzword that has come to dominate the communal conscious.  In fact, if one were so inclined, one might effectively argue that the Age of the Hero is over and we are currently living in the Age of the Antihero.  While depending on whom you ask, the term "antihero" has either become another worn out, meaningless word like "awesome," or "epic," or "transvestite hooker" or a fundamental addition to the parlance of our times.  I fall somewhere in the middle, like the meat of the philosophical manwich.  The term "antihero" - much like "postmodernism" - can be part of an effective arsenal to intelligently contribute to various ongoing cultural dialogues with other free-thinking citizens as long as it is used sparingly and treated with the proper respect and care and not paraded out in front of friends and family in order to appear cosmopolitan and learned - much like a transvestite hooker.

You see, the reason that Jimmy and I and probably a lot of you can relate to the antihero is because most of us pretty much are antiheroes in our own life narratives.  Basically, the antihero is the protagonist of a narrative who does not embody attributes typically considered heroic such as altruism or selflessness or sacrifice... ness or the tendency when fucking a person in the ass to provide the goddamn common courtesy of a reach-around.  These individuals are typically self-centered, though they do have some sort of "code of (dis)honour" that anchors them and keeps them from drifting so far into the dark waters of moral ambiguity that those in the audience can no longer relate to or sympathize with them.  The fact is, most people are assholes most of the time, sometimes deliberately and sometimes through no fault of our own.  Most of us aren't heroic supermen who always do "the right thing" and, in fact, aren't always sure of what the right thing is or if there even is a right thing.

The archetype of the antihero was most recently exemplified in the quite excellent television show BREAKING BAD, which chronicled the misadventures of high school chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin Walter White (Bryan Cranston) as he cooked crystal meth in order to provide a nest egg for his wife and two children after he passed on from the lung cancer with which he had recently been diagnosed.  With help from former student Jesse (Aaron Paul) (of course you realize that I'm going to have to punctuate the rest of this article with random, emphatic exclamations of "Bitch!") and a host of wacky characters, including crazy Latino drug dealers, calm and collected Latino drug lords, sadistic Latino hit men, a dismembered Latino head-turtle-bomb, and his (not Latino) DEA brother-in-law who has no idea his wife's sister is married to the greatest thing to happen to crystal meth since somebody created a terrible drug using incredibly volatile and harmful chemicals (for some reason) that gets you high for a little while but ultimately basically rots your face off from the inside.  And they say innovation is dead.
I am the one who knocks... And occasionally the one who
sits surrounded by fat stacks of cash and stares menacingly
in case somebody happens to walk into my field of vision.
I mean, from that exact angle, I will scare the shit out of you.

Much like Tony Soprano, Walter White was a character who, on paper, is the kind of guy that beating to death with a tire iron would literally and quantifiably make the world a better place.  But in the context of the narrative of BRAKING BAD, it's seductively easy to sympathize with Mr. White, yo, because he's presented not as a desperate man engaged in increasingly depraved and destructive criminal activities but as a man with untapped potential a little down on his luck who is now properly motivated to solve increasingly complex problems.  We see things through Walt's eyes, so we see the production of crystal myth from a clinical (yet passionate) perspective as an entrepreneurial enterprise, a business.  He's like the little kid selling lemonade in homemade stand in front of his house who transforms into a soft drink magnate with a multinational corporation unleashing sugary drinks en masse to an unsuspecting yet willing public.  He's a businessman, an entrepreneur, who, with the right application of talent and motivation, can rise through the ranks and carve out his own sizable piece of the pie.  It's a twist on the same philosophy that gave rise to the trope of the American Dream.  Walter White is relatable because he's a projection of how so many of us would like to see ourselves; the underappreciated genius who given half a chance could excel - really fucking excel - at something and assert themselves and establish themselves as somebody to remembered for that one Great Thing who is also a part-time badass with a heart of gold (sort of like Han Solo).  

For some, the dialogue surrounding BREAKING BAD - especially the final season - revolved around a moral analysis or commentary on Walter's actions.  However, discussions about the morality of Walter White and especially of whether he was "a monster" (or "the devil" if you want to be dramatic like Jesse, bitch) are, at best, tangentially relevant to the mythology of the show.  Besides the incredibly useless and unhelpful endeavor of trying to categorize people according to essentialist notions of "good" and "bad" - as if people could only ever wholly embody one of these two alignments - from the very outset of the series, it was clear that BREAKING BAD was never a morality tale.  If it were, then it would have explored the (tens of ) thousands of lives ruined or severely harmed through the recreational (?) use of the thousands of pounds of methamphetamines that Walter and Jesse produced over the course of five seasons (or two years in BREAKING BAD time).

The only way to read the show and not be considered a soulless, sociopathic asshole is as an analogy or some kind of Western mythos.  Just as we in the audience were meant to sympathize and "cheer for" Tony Soprano in THE SOPRANOS, it was obvious that Vince Gilligan and the gang wanted the audience to sympathize with and cheer for Walter White.  Throughout the narrative, everything that transpired was ultimately filtered through a prism that bent the audience's perception to match that of Walter's.  Everything that happened in the show would always be shown in relation to Walter.  And if you were to interpret BREAKING BAD on a purely literal level and still garnered any enjoyment out of it, you would be a quantifiably terrible human being.  The shit that Walter White - not to mention almost every other character on the show - did could be classified somewhere on a sliding scale of moral reprehensibility.

Some might point to Walt's literal partner in crime Jesse as the show's moral compass and heart, but people seem to forget several important facts.  One, Jesse was the catalyst for Walter's transformation into the chronically knocking and dangerous drug lord Heisenburg, bitch.  Without Jesse's street connections to crack into the very competitive illegal drug market, Walter's plan to cook and sell meth might have ended as merely the insane ravings of a madman.  Two, Jesse spent a great chunk of the series as a degenerate junkie who was constantly engaged in criminal activities related to the distribution and ingestion of various mind-altering substances.  Three, despite his initial objections, Jesse ultimately guns down an unarmed man in cold blood.  Yeah, he felt guilty after, but curiously not guilty to actually turn himself in or, you know, face the consequences of his actions in any meaningful, mature way.

Walter's wife Skylar might also be seen as the moral yin to Walter's yang, but she, too, also existed in an ethical twilight zone.  While some spewed forth extremely vicious vitriol against Skylar and the actress playing her (Anna Gunn) for some reason, I never hated the character as some seemed to.  Skylar seemed kind of annoying sometimes, which was natural because we were seeing her from Walt's point of view as someone who was questioning him and impeding his ability to manufacture and sell poison to faceless users who could have included schoolkids and nuns for all he knew.  The worst part about Skylar wasn't that she was annoying; it was that she seemed to exist independent of any sense of agency and simple as an entity for Walt to lie to.  She only got more interesting when her own twisted morality was revealed.  Not only did she have an affair with her boss, she was also complicit in covering up and enabling Walter's rise to drug power.  Also like Jesse, despite her later reservations about her questionable decisions regarding her (admittedly limited) involvement in the drug trade, she also wants to get out scott free and avoid any actual consequences if she can.

For some, the foil to Walter's villainy was Hank's unquenchable thirst for justice.  But a closer examination reveals that Hank was also an asshole, just an asshole of another variety and caliber.  Hank wasn't exactly a  lighthouse of morality guiding everybody through stormy seas to a safe haven.  In the family proceedings prior to Walt's descent/ascent into the role of drug kingpin, Hank was the big swinging dick of the gang.  However, in the fifth season when he finally discovers that the drug lord Heisenburg is actually his seemingly mild-mannered brother-in-law, Hank becomes obsessed with bringing Walt down not for any moral reasons but because of wounded pride and the challenge to his alpha dog status.  If Hank was going the Robocop route to Serve the Public Trust, Protect the Innocent, and Uphold the Law, then he would have gone to his superiors right away with all of his suspicions and/or evidence even at the potential loss of his job, which he (probably) likely figured would be forfeit for, you know, being a top-ranking DEA agent who has been unable to identify a drug kingpin sitting right under his nose for almost two years like some kind of 70s style high school teacher mustache.  See, that's the very definition of nobility: sacrificing of oneself for the common or greater good.  But Hank wasn't interested in serving the greater good, only his own ego.  The real issue with Hank was that he was simultaneously A) envious of Walt who succeeded to a far greater extent in his chosen field than Hank ever did (or as it turns out, would) in his own and B) suffering from wounded pride for having been "one-upped" and outsmarted by Walter there by stripping Hank (in Hank's mind anyway) of his superior social status.  (Also, Hank eagerly admitted that he didn't give a shit about Jesse when he was working as an informant and would gladly have sacrificed him if it meant bringing down Walter.)
Hail to the king, baby.

All of the main characters were antiheroic to some degree, showing inclinations towards both socially positive and negative decisions and acts.  The point of the show wasn't to depict some epic battle of good versus evil.  No, ultimately what BREAKING BAD was all about was legacies and the establishing and passing on thereof.  Walt himself summed it up best when he declared to Jesse that he was "in the empire business."

This is another reason why it's easy to sympathize with Walter and others like him.  The need to establish a legacy, to do that one great thing that will live on in the collective memory of as many people as we each deem are necessary after we've all gone up to that great meth lab in the sky.  It's a form of immortality in a way to have something you created and built up stand as a monument to your memory long after you are gone.  It's one thing to be remembered, but it's another thing entirely to have somebody stand in the shadow of your creation and stare up in awe and wonder; if this monument, this achievement is so magnificent, how much greater must be the one who created it?  Creating a legacy is not just an effort to be remembered but the ability to differentiate oneself sufficiently by creating something unique that nobody else could have.  To look upon one's works and despair as was encapsulated in Shelly's poem Ozymandias recited to chilling effect by Walter White at the beginning of the (quite excellent) BREAKING BAD episode of the same name.  When your creation is so monumental that even its ruins inspire awe and wonder, then you know you've maxed out your legacy points.

For some reason, contemporary storytelling has relied on the trope of the criminal empire to address this concept of legacy in regards to empire building, otherwise known as the SCARFACE effect.  Bitch.  This, in part, is what has lead to some misinterpretations of BREAKING BAD and similar narratives as morality tales.  I think the key to viewing the trope of the criminal empire as containing the DNA of Shakespeare's famous dramas and tragedies.  In reality, those involved in the upper echelons (and lower echelons for that matter) of the drug trade are generally terrible people who would just as soon shoot you as shoot you full of their product.  But as metaphors or analogies, they represent a more visceral kind of empire building where one man or woman can rise to the top through sheer force of will (and a lot of bullets or exotic poisons).  It's a tantalizing proposition because in that dog eat dog (or man hit other man with Pontiac Aztec) world, one's rise to power is ultimately dependent upon the pure strength of that individual.  The concept of the criminal empire has been romanticized, and its a pill we can all swallow (bitch!) because through these narratives each member of the audience is enticed to see themselves as that exceptional individual.

A criminal empire is also enticing because it is an underworld with a unique and privileged membership and clientele.  It's appealing because if you have access it's like a secret fraternity.  You feel empowered because you have access to another world that other people can't even see even though it's right there in front of them.  It's a backstage pass of the highest caliber.  One can't help but feel a certain high not only from being able to traverse across boundaries between worlds most people can't even see but also to wield clandestine power right under the unsuspecting noses of all of those without that access.  There's nothing quite like being the werewolf in sheep's clothing, so to speak.

Huh, so that's what a donkey show looks like.
The other appeal in seeing legacy and empire in this sense is that it is a template of individual talent and ability that can be applied to various situations in our own lives.  From the pseudo-fatalist perspective, an individual rises to emperor status through the proper application of one's natural or unnatural gifts.  The problem with looking at people's talents as "callings," that is some kind of cosmic force urging us down a particular path is that people always assume that callings are noble of purpose and divine in spirit.  If the Calling Theory were true, we'd have to accept that just as many people were called to do as much shitty stuff as good.  When Walter finally admits to his wife Skylar in the final episode that he embarked on his little adventure mostly to satisfy his own ego and need to establish a legacy, he also admits that he was really good at cooking meth and he really enjoyed cooking meth.  If you're going to subscribe to this kind of fatalistic concept of individuals being called upon by some Entity to be really, really good at something, then you're also going to have to eventually confront the fact that all talents are not distributed equally across the spectrum of whatever prevailing moral philosophy is being used to measure their relative worth.  I mean, odds are, given the sheer odds, most of us are probably (and evidently) really talented at really useless stuff or really terrible (in the pejorative sense) stuff.

Which leads us back to the archetype of the antihero, bitch.  In order to balance out our most likely problematic talents and self-centered legacy- and empire-building tendencies, we like to try and embrace some sort of moral code (actually, it's more of a guideline).  A twisted moral code no doubt, but a basic set of rules and general lines in the sand that we continually convince ourselves that we will not cross in our pursuit of legacy.  In our relatively antiheroic lives, we need some kind of anchor to hold onto some semblance of what we consider to be humanity, some kind of redemptive quality to keep us from going all the way over the edge in our own minds or in the minds of others.  In a way maintaining a code is like maintaining some sort of karmic balance, a check mark in the Cosmic Ledger to show that despite all of the shit we bring into this universe, we also haven't completely extinguished all light either.  It's OK to be the scoundrel so long as you help blow up the occasional Death Star.

BREAKING BAD was that rare specimen; a critically acclaimed and popular television show that didn't overstay its welcome and try to milk another four or five seasons just for the sake of making a couple more bucks. The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, as they say.  It was the perfect proof of concept that it's OK to break bad, just as long as you do it well, and no doubt its legacy has been secured for the foreseeable future.

May you (and I) go and do likewise.

Amen, bitch.

Rating: BREAKING BAD is 10/10 = One Head Who is the One Who Knocks


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