Since I was 12 I’ve had an unappealing, didactic distrust of people with the extreme will to live. My father’s parents were Holocaust survivors, and in grade school I received the de rigueur exposure to the horror—visiting geriatric men and women with numbers tattooed on their arms, completing assigned reading like The Diary of Anne Frank and Night. But the more information I received, the less sympathy the survivors elicited from me. Each time we clapped for the old Hungarian lady who spoke about Dachau, each time Elie Wiesel threw another anonymous anecdote of betrayal onto a page, I eyed it askance, thinking What did you do that you’re not talking about? I had the gut instinct that these were villains masquerading as victims who, solely by virtue of surviving (very likely by any means necessary), felt that they had earned the right to be heroes, their basic, animal self-interest dressed up with glorified phrases like “triumph of the human spirit.”
I wondered if anyone had alerted Hitler that in the event that the final solution didn’t pan out, only the handful of Jews who actually fulfilled the stereotype of the Judenscheisse (because every group has a few) would remain to carry on the Jewish race—conniving, indestructible, taking and taking. My grandparents were not excluded from this suspicion. The same year, during a family dinner conversation about Terri Schiavo, my father made the serious request that should he fall into a vegetative state, he would like for us to keep him on life support indefinitely. Today he and I are estranged for a number of other reasons that are all somehow the same reason.
Before Breaking Bad—the fifth season of the show, about a schoolteacher-turned-cancer-patient-turned-meth cook, premieres Sunday on AMC—the tragedy (and black comedy) inherent in the idea of people intentionally making villainous choices without the promise of redemption was pretty foreign. Even in The Sopranos, Tony and company had simply normalized the violent culture they’d grown up with. American viewers are largely uncomfortable with this sort of ambiguity, which is the reason why you’ll see a disproportionate number of widowed single mothers rather than divorceés in your average romantic comedy. If a man up and died on her, it makes her a more “likable” and “sympathetic” heroine than a character who actively made the choice to marry the wrong person.
In all the critical discussion of the show, it is surprising how infrequently the main character’s cancer is referenced anymore, probably because Walt’s disease has gone so far beyond its first-season gimmick that it feels irrelevant. But it isn’t, of course, since nothing is in the version of Albuquerque made by Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator. If you have ever had cancer, or been kitty corner to cancer, you know there is a lot of waiting and pleasantries and HMO negotiation and the same bad jokes (and some good ones; my aunt who had a double mastectomy recently offered me the use of her $2,000 silicon falsies for a date). When you tell someone a relative has cancer, their immediate response is never shock but often, “Oh, my [insert X loved one here] had cancer” as if this knowledge is a comfort of some kind. Walter White looks this one-size-fits-all mortality square in the face, and his first instinct is to swim against its current:
These doctors, talking about surviving. One year, two years, like it’s the only thing that matters. But what good is it, to just survive if I am too sick to work, to enjoy a meal, to make love? For what time I have left, I want to live in my own house. I want to sleep in my own bed. I don’t wanna choke down 30 or 40 pills every single day, lose my hair, and lie around too tired to get up, so nauseated that I can’t even move my head. And you cleaning up after me?
He ultimately elects to do it, because his wife and son love him, and because there would be no show if he didn’t. But the words “I’ll do it” represent the game-changer that stymies and eludes so many critics. Walt doesn’t change by degrees: He changes at the very moment he accepts the loss of dignity that he so wanted to avoid, and so begins the second, cursed life that he would not have chosen for himself. Later, of course, it emerges just how sociopathically important dignity and pride have become to Walt. The rituals, routines, and various institutional, dehumanizing elements of chemo left their mark, their mundanity the primary reason why Walt “breaks bad” with the level of intent displayed in later seasons of the show.
Evil, as Jean Améry says, overlays and exceeds banality. There is no “banality” of evil. In At the Mind’s Limits, Améry—a Holocaust survivor—discusses “concentration camp syndrome”: “The character traits that make out our personality are distorted. Nervous restlessness, hostile withdrawal into one’s own self. … It is said that we are ‘warped.’ ” He goes on to describe how the option of forgiveness is obsolete for him, and yet the acknowledgement that it would be moral and fair to forgive (a step that he felt unable to take because of this very emotional “sickness,” thrust on him by the very people he should forgive) created an impossible duality, one that doubtless led to his 1978 suicide.
Being a man of science, Walt doesn’t have Améry’s impulse to question his gut instincts and realize they’re his direct emotional response to what he’s gone through. All he has is indignation at the memory of his illness and the determination to flip the script: He suffered, now others will suffer. Walt and Breaking Bad express one of our most inherent psychological fallacies: the ability to do any number of consciously reprehensible things while persisting in considering ourselves the protagonist at all times. From world wars to breaking hearts, we cling to the destruction done to us in the past as a justification for the destruction we will cause in the future.
As Walt tells his worried wife Skyler in the third season, “I am not in danger, I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? No, I am the one who knocks.”
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