Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Tweaker Tuesday: Oops!

Did you ever have one of those days where you just blithely sail through the day feeling pretty good about everything you've managed to get done, only to wake up the next day and remember you had forgotten something really important the day before? Yeah. I'm sorry about yesterday's missing "Meth Monday," Readers Mine. It's Fall Break in these parts and I think I was a bit too much in the vacation mode. In any event, let me try and make it up to you with today's brand-new installment, "Tweaker Tuesday."

"Lily of the Valley" fan art by Phantom City Creative

One of the main things that has always drawn me to Breaking Bad is the show's ability to place the viewer in  a very morally ambiguous place in relation to the story. For Seasons 1 and 2, the audience is mostly rooting for Walt, with a few notable exceptions. (I have to admit that my own honeymoon of Walt-backing came to an end with "Phoenix" (2.12).) Even early in Season 3, when Walt appears to seriously be considering saying "no mas" there is a nervous relief that he might be able to pull back from the darkness. In Season 4, the viewer becomes more convinced that Walt is irredeemable, but the presence of Gus, who seems to be so much more of a Bad Guy, still allows fans to come down on Walt's side in that particular contest.

Season 5 is a different story. From what I can tell by lurking about (and occasionally posting) on various boards devoted to the show, and from #BreakingBad searches on Twitter, Season 5.1 was more difficult for viewers. In part this is revealed by a slight lessening of the constant fan-love for the show, and by a general sense of unease among long-time viewers. I think this arises from the fact that, without Gus around anymore, and with Walt's new kingpin attitude, the viewer can no longer ignore the fact that the person s/he's been rooting for over the last four years now is an increasingly vicious, greedy, manipulative, selfish, violent, murderous, drug lord who doesn't care who gets hurt so long as he comes out on top. What do you do when the character you've been conditioned to think of as the (kinda) Good Guy is revealed to be the Biggest of Bad Guys?

This is just brilliant stuff on the part of Vince Gilligan, Bryan Cranston, and the rest of the cast and crew of Breaking Bad. In interview after interview lately, Gilligan & Co. have been emphasizing that what sets Breaking Bad apart from other shows is that BrBa places change at the center of the story. While this is usually referring to the characters, and to Walt and Jesse in particular, I think it is also referencing the audience's reaction to and engagement with the story itself. As the character of Walter White changes, so do the viewers' feelings towards him. We've always known that Walt and Jesse aren't Boy Scouts, but with Walt in particular, the audience has gone along on a journey from middle-class white male revolt to what appears to be true evil, and virulent violence. Walt can no longer be convincingly framed as the Good Guy, and the audience must deal with that, and with the uncomfortable realization that this change has been in constant, visible evolution, and that they have been rooting for Walt at every step.

So what happens when your hero become the villain? Some began rooting for Hank a couple of season ago. Others have shifted the primary focus of their feelings from Walt to Jesse, who has become (in a very weird and unexpected way) the heart and moral center of the show. Still others... have doubled down on Walt, apparently hoping for some kind of Tony Montana-esque bloodbath of a finale involving Walt and the M60 machine-gun in his trunk, and an all American ending of redemption through violence, where the Bad Guy gets it in the end, but goes out in a blaze of glory.* Me? I'm a Hank fan, and I want to see Walt caught, imprisoned, and crying like the cowardly little bitch he really is. I want to see Walt really and truly LOSE.

What can I say? I loved Jane too.

*NOTE: I love Al Pacino. I Hate Scarface. Perhaps Pacino's worst film, but it illustrates this trope. For a better film that does the same thing, and does it better, check out James Cagney and White Heat.

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