Breaking Bad between awkwardness and sociopathy

At my talk on Monday, I briefly addressed Breaking Bad, a show I’ve always really enjoyed but didn’t talk about a great deal in Sociopaths. Especially after watching the recent season premiere, I’m increasingly convinced that Breaking Bad represents the impossible union of the awkwardness and sociopath trends. In Sociopaths, I argue that it’s precisely our cultural awkwardness, which leaves us feeling completely powerless, that makes the fantasy of the ruthlessly effective sociopath appealling. “If only I really and truly didn’t give a fuck about anyone,” thinks the awkward viewer, “then I would be powerful and free.” And then in a second step, the awkward viewer receives back his fulfilling family life (or whatever) as the compensation that means he’s ultimately in an advantageous position over the sociopath — who is for whatever reason constitutionally incapable of enjoying the benefits of love (or whatever).

Breaking Bad breaks down this radical divide between the awkward person and the sociopath by presenting us with a story in which the awkward guy becomes the sociopath. I think there’s a sense in which the early episodes of the show actually depend on the viewer remembering that Bryan Cranston played the pathetically henpecked dad on Malcolm in the Middle (though the humiliation is obviously reinforced by the fact that literally the first scene of the series shows him running around in his tighty-whities). The shift from the cartoonish universe of Malcolm to the realistic one of Breaking Bad is devestating all around — the domineering wife becomes genuinely frightening, while Walter is not funny-pathetic, but sad-pathetic. (Another wrinkle: whereas the tititular son in Malcolm was the only thing staving off total disaster for the family, the “middle” son — here counting Jesse as the equivalent to the normally absent, trouble-making older son of Malcolm — is actually disabled and thus implicitly a burden, as is the forthcoming baby.)

It seems to me, though, that in Walt’s gradual shift to the dark side, the most important thing to remember is that he remains pathetic. He is not a genuine badass — he’s a pathetic guy who sometimes lucks into doing something badass. His plan to make meth to “provide for his family” is delusional, and he remains delusional as it unfolds and meets with an improbable success that begins to seem more and more like a kind of punishment. Walt is sometimes fully conscious of this, as when he is genuinely angry and disturbed to learn that his cancer has gone into remission, but in the season premiere, his God complex is at its peak. (One almost expects him to quip, “I love it when a plan comes together!”)

I’m sure there are viewers who get some libidinal satisfaction out of watching Walt’s progress, but to me it’s sad. It is precisely not sad in the sense of watching a good man be gradually corrupted — it’s sad in that a seemingly run-of-the-mill, dutiful guy is revealed to have always been a bitter, resentful, vengeful man. Walt isn’t directly exercising power, he’s getting revenge for all his years of pathetic powerlessness. When Skylar reveals that she’s scared of him, that makes up for all the years when Walt was scared of her. Forgiving her for her dalliance with Ted is revenge for when she demanded a divorce on learning of his criminal activities. I could go on.

In all this, what’s going on with Jesse? It seems as though it’s the one locus of genuine loyalty on Walt’s part, but I think the primary motive is selfish — he wants a new son to make up for the defective one, the son he lost to Hank (the fact that Hank becomes disabled in later seasons only emphasizes this pairing). Walt becomes a father figure in the worse sense: the abusive, manipulative father playing off the son’s feelings of guilt and inferiority.

That’s why the word “family” is so disturbing when it comes out of Walt’s mouth: he’s always hated his family, and now he’s getting his revenge on it — indeed, the very decision to become a criminal “for” them could be interpreted as an act of hatred and vengance. “You think I’m the dopey innocent guy, the inept brainiac chemistry teacher you can ignore? Well, no more!”

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9 Responses to “Breaking Bad between awkwardness and sociopathy”

  1. gerrycanavan Says:

    It is precisely not sad in the sense of watching a good man be gradually corrupted — it’s sad in that a seemingly run-of-the-mill, dutiful guy is revealed to have always been a bitter, resentful, vengeful man.

    The dangling plot thread involving the rich friend who supposedly ripped Walt off — though when we meet those people, they are aghast that that’s how he remembers it — seems important here too.

  2. gerrycanavan Says:

    Wait, is that an observation I stole from your own book? Why didn’t you read your own book more carefully and deploy its insights?

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I don’t think I mention that plot thread in the book — let me check.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    No, that’s your own insight! (Though I did mention it in the talk — did you have a spy there?!)

  5. gerrycanavan Says:

    Well, I definitely stole it from someone.

    One more: my secret fear for the show is that the Huntington’s disease dangler from last season is going to turn out to be not a writing error but an actual plot point. We were told, more or less out of nowhere, that Walt’s father had Huntington’s disease — only to be told immediately afterwards that they did “tests” on Walt as a child and determined he wasn’t a carrier of the gene. But no such test existed when Walt was a child; they only developed presymptomatic tests for HD for adults in the 1980s, and a genetic test in the early 1990s.

    I’m 95% sure this was just a generic goof, but 5% worried they’re going to use this later. (It is the kind of ill-advised, comforting lie someone might tell a frightened child, after all.) This would reinsert exactly the sort of prophylactic barrier between Walt and the audience you mention at the beginning of the post: “Oh! So Walt was mentally ill. That’s why.” Again, I’m pretty sure it’s just a throwaway, but it would be a very disappointing way I think for all this to end.

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Thinking about that possibility just ruined my day.

  7. André Dias Says:

    I’ve stopped watching after episode 12 of the 2nd series, when Walt cries after choosing to let the junkie girlfriend of his partner in crime choke to death. That abject step in his ‘gradual shift to the dark side’ — a very common feature of character evolution in all these american Tv series, as they become more and more cynical — made him out of reach for me.

  8. Ray Davis Says:

    “A story in which the awkward guy becomes the sociopath [and] remains pathetic” — yeah, this is why I love mad scientist stories. Great for splicing humor, romance, and spectacle into tragedy, and for expressing the rage of geeks, the fears of yahoos, and the rifts of mobility, but terribly underutilized by television until “Breaking Bad”. Which (although I’m not a fan) may also have come up with the structure’s most novel twist since the glory days of Carpenter’s Christine and Cronenberg’s The Fly. Usually the dweeb-turned-criminal plot is played purely for laughs.

  9. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Andre, For me, that was the moment when I thought, “Wow, they are really serious about this.” There’s a great follow-up episode in a later season — a whole episode that’s just Walt and Jesse alone in the lab.


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