Thursday, March 05, 2015

Straying from the Party Line: The Lack of Hard Choices in “Breaking Bad”

On “Breaking Bad” Walter White is facing a terrible situation and he has nothing but bad choices ahead of him, but here’s the thing: they aren’t really hard choices, and that’s very unusual, because most stories are driven by a series of hard choices.

We cancer victims get a lot of credit for being heroic, but this isn’t really true, because heroes are defined by heroic choices, and we don’t really get to make any choices whatsoever. The medical gears that grind us up were set in motion long ago, and they’ll keep spinning long after we come out the other side, whether alive or dead.

Pretty much the only decision we’re allowed to make is whether or not we want to ignore our doctors entirely, and that’s kind of a no-brainer...unless you’re Walter White.

On most shows, even if they’re about unlovable leads, the lead’s bad behavior seems to be necessitated by the impossible decisions they have to make. Jack Bauer and Dr. House are sociopathic in pursuit of their goals, but they get results, dammit! Their unsympathetic behavior allows them the clarity they need to get the job done.

But this is not true at all of Walter White. Yes, he’s desperate for money and treated unfairly by the system, but the decisions he makes are unquestionably wrong. This show is about a man who comes to the breaking point and chooses to break bad, even though it was still possible to break good.

Walt could have just meekly submitted to the process and made the most of his final years with his family, and everybody would have been much happier with the result. Yes, they would have less money, but as Walt soon discovers (and as we can already guess in the pilot) nobody wants drug money anyway. It’s just a really stupid decision.

The wrongness of Walt’s decision becomes even more pointed in the fourth episode when we find out that Walt does have a lawful option for paying his medical debts: his wealthy former business partner is willing to pay for his treatment, but Walt is simply too proud and resentful to accept. Gilligan is keen to drive home that Walt isn’t making the best of this bad situation, he’s making the worst of it.

This was a shocking and brave storytelling choice. This show isn’t going to get you rooting for the bad guy. You’ll be empathetic towards his situation, but you’ll never really empathize with his decisions, because Walt’s decisions aren’t really tough, he just chooses to make them tough. Yes, he’s in a bad vs. bad situation, but he’s clearly choosing the greater of two evils. 

So why does this work? Why aren’t we exasperated by Walt’s willful destruction of his life, even in the face of better options...especially after episode four? Well, we are, but we keep watching anyway. Why?

I think part of the answer is the fact that the show never settles down to a rhythm. Unlike “24” or “House”, “Breaking Bad” never wrapped one story and moved on to the next, so we never had to stop and tabulate the moral calculus in hopes of balancing the books. Just about every decision made things worse, so the entire show became one long downward spiral without any satisfying wrap-ups along the way. Everything was a cliffhanger for five brutal seasons.

This was a trade-off, because it meant that the show couldn’t go for eight seasons, as those others did. In the end, Gilligan stretched Walt’s story out as far as he possibly could, but Walt could only circle the drain for so long until he finally went down.

Was the trade-off worth it? Absolutely.

This show had a lot in common with “The Shield” (FX developed it as a companion show), which did have the courage to portray a truly irredeemable anti-hero on a downward spiral of his own, but Vic Mackey was ultimately more similar to Jack Bauer and Doctor House than Walter White. Sure, he was evil, but he also got a lot of killers and child molesters off the streets, so it was always portrayed as kind of a wash.

In pilot-writing class in film school, I worked on a pilot about a crooked prosecutor who specialized in convicting the innocent. My fellow students were horrified. Who would watch such a show? Well, I said, people watch “The Shield” so they’ll watch shows about evil law enforcers, right? I got blank stares. Then every single one of them said that, as opposed to my anti-hero, what Vic did was ultimately worth it. Now it was my turn to be baffled. Had they forgotten the end of the pilot, in which Vic killed a good cop who was about to catch him dealing drugs? How could that be worth it?? Eh, they shrugged, maybe Vic’s actions weren’t ultimately worth it, but in most episodes, his actions felt right, and that’s what kept them watching.

This is the moral hazard that Gilligan avoided with “Breaking Bad”, Walt’s actions never felt right, and yet we kept watching anyway. This was a genuine descent into evil. Walt had lots of motivation, but no justification, and that was where this show excelled above all the other anti-hero shows, dramatically and ethically. Gilligan crafted a totally-compelling anti-hero without ever letting us cheer for his bad behavior (or not for long, anyway).

This was a very worthwhile goal and the ultimate writing challenge. Next week, we’ll look at more tricks he used to make it work...


A.D. said...

Also: Breaking Bad is a study of pride as a tragic flaw. WW's endless well of pride creates almost every story point, including the first crucial one: not accepting the money from Grey Matter, which is the moment you realize he has 5+ seasons of moral descent in him. And it works because pride is relatable. Even when we know it's wrong, we all want to win on our own terms, and we all want to be recognized for our inherent specialness.

j.s. said...

I agree with A.D.'s astute comment, which also relates to many of Matt's past suggestions that a hero ought to feel misunderstood and/or underestimated. The sin of pride is a biggie that keeps on giving. It's why the great Russian novelists were obsessed with it. And why this theme is at the heart of one of the best and most despairing films ever made from their works, Bresson's L'ARGENT (an adaptation of Tolstoy's THE FORGED COUPON).

I'm curious about Matt's bad lawyer show. Was the protagonist only pursuing trumped up charges on career criminals known to have gotten away with things like murder before? Isn't that just like a darker, more honest legal procedural version of -- wait for it -- HARDCASTLE AND MCCORMICK? What's not to like?

Maybe it's really just that the stakes are clearer on the street, where a bad cop who rights a wrong illegally can be shown to believe he's acted in exigent circumstances. And that the application of that sort of justice, once abstracted and removed from the immediacy of the street, feels too creepily cold.

But I'm biased, since I've always been partial to self-justified vigilantes. My superhero myth of choice, BATMAN, is basically just a slightly more relatable version of DEATH WISH, where the bereft survivor of a family massacre, unable to avenge the long gone and anonymous murderer(s), instead transfers his vengeance to every other criminal.

Matt Bird said...

Oh no, he was totally evil and putting away genuinely innocent poor people, just like real prosecutors do. Basically, the show was based on the line in "The Thin Blue Line" that prosecutors can't impress their bosses by convicting guilty people, because that's considered to be too easy, so the only way to impress the DA and get bonuses is to win the "impossible cases", which is to say cases in which the accused in blatantly innocent.

In order to highlight this problem, my anti-hero was going to be a shark with too many ethics complaints against him, so the DA wouldn't let him touch open-and-shut cases for fear of contaminating them, but he was kept around just to win those "impossible cases", which he hated, but he was also on some level proud that he was good at it.

I never finished the script, because I couldn't overcome three problems. (1) Most obviously, I couldn't figure out how to get people to care about this evil guy, because I hadn't figured out the tricks that the great anti-hero shows use to get us to care despite out disgust. (2) because he was living in a world that was totally corrupt, I couldn't figure out to make it clear how horrible his actions were. There is no Internal Affairs Bureau for prosecutors, so their crimes go totally uninvestigated and unpunished, so the audience had no representative. (3) The show was called "Guilty" because the anti-hero was suppressing his guilt about his actions, but I didn't have any good way to show that.

It was only when I saw "House of Cards" years later that I saw how it could have done it: Asides to the audience like Frank Underwood's would have solved so many problems: I could have explained in a lively way the horrible dynamics at work and he could have won us over by droll self-mockery as he did it, underlaid with volitile self-hatred.

j.s. said...

But if the D.A. himself knows this guy is no good, why keep him around at all? Especially to win cases that probably shouldn't be brought to trial at all and likely would be strongly, rightfully challenged in appeals even if your hero won? And wouldn't he kind of need the backing of an entire system to succeed consistently?

There's something especially distasteful about abuse of the court system, which is supposed to be the final check on police misconduct and incompetence. It feels like it should take more than one individual to corrupt it.

It's why THE THIN BLUE LINE is still so harrowing to watch, why the recent revelations of a corrupt judiciary in places like Ferguson and Miami Gardens are in some ways even more disturbing than the systematic racism of the police in those communities.

It's why the Innocence Project is so compelling and why D.A. offices across the country have voluntarily started reinvestigating their own convictions via so-called Conviction Integrity Units.

I guess I'd wonder what your bad lawyer's actual goal is beyond merely incremental career advacement and temporary job security? If he hates his job so much and he's so unethical, why not just switch sides and make way more money defending mobsters and Wall Street robber barons? Where's the juice in convicting an innocent person who's really not even guilty of other crimes, especially one who could be steamrolled by a prosecutor like this, one who would have to be poor and less intelligent, to have the crappiest kind of public defender, somebody even worse off than Randall Adams. Where's the sport in that?

About HOUSE OF CARDS: Other than the too convenient way in which everyone else around him so easily succumbs to his machinations, one problem I've always had with Frank Underwood was what he didn't seem to have an ultimate goal or agenda beyond power for its own sake. Even if he's deluded, the Nixon of Oliver Stone's NIXON genuinely believes himself to be a better leader for the nation with a stronger sense of what will best protect us, unify us, make us prosperous. Underwood is a big cipher in this regard. Though I admit, I checked out after Season One, so I don't know if it gets any better.

Matt Bird said...

Yup, those were all issues I ran into! Basically the DA wanted to be governor and the prosecutor wanted to be DA, so they both only cared about their win percentage

(This is very, very common in DA offices. If you question any arrest the cops make, they'll turn against you and endorse your opponent next time, so you just convict whomever they arrest, even if you know they're innocent.)

As for Frank, that issue become even more pronounced in season 2 of HOC, so I'm interested to see what happens in season 3, now that he's in a very different situation. Nevertheless, I think this is sort of a strength of the show: It's a portrait of the lust for power for power's sake, which is a pretty good description of certain modern politicians.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Why not make the DA a true believer rather than a cynic? His great virtuous difference is that he truly believes in the guilt of the people he's railroading. He "just knows in his gut" that the suspect did it -- the audience knows otherwise -- and we get to watch a procedural of how railroading happens. Evidence ignored, interpretations skewed, etc.

He will be in contrast to the other DAs or cops who either don't care that much or are actively corrupt. They are actually less dangerous to the people than this idiot.

The problem is how you'd get people to watch this clown every week ramming innocent people through the system because he "just knew" they were guilty.

A villain-centered series, where perhaps the hero(es) are Innocence Project-type people or maybe apathetic cops/prosecutors who are disgusted with a recent railroading? You could have others who want the villain brought down due to the DA's self-righteousness and obnoxious demeanor. His protectors would be either people who benefit from his astounding conviction rates or those who so fear crime that they don't give a shit that he puts his thumb on every scale.

The running story arc for a first season would be others trying to expose evidence he hid, etc. Then have him sent to prison himself midway through season two (IT IS NOT A CLIFFHANGER - midway through a season would be more shocking than at season's start or end) when his obstructions of justice are uncovered, and he has to figure his way out. He's a brilliant lawyer, so he will. He also knows where a lot of bodies are buried. Sometimes literally. Our Villain regards himself as the most morally righteous man who hates his enemies all the more for "making him" engage in such foul deeds.

It'd be tricky to make him appealing, but it could be done. Shit, Nancy Grace gets good ratings.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

To continue, you might be able to make the railroading DA a compelling character by making him an exemplar in every other way. He's a good husband, a caring father, a philanthropist, etc., who also has this One Giant Problem. He's surrounded by scumbags. Men and women who aren't as smart, aren't as dedicated, aren't as honest (for particular values of "honest").

You could also give him self-doubts and a need for his self-righteousness. Maybe his psychology won't let him handle shades of gray, so "cops arrest X means X is guilty" is the only way he can function. Admitting the possibility of error sends him into a terror spiral. It's pathetic, but people can get that. He lives in fear, and is doing his best to fight back. Again, people could get that. I think.

Or maybe he regards himself as morally irredeemable -- for reasons other than his legal career -- and is doing what he does to "atone." He's on a never-ending quest to make up for a shortcoming in his mind or in his past, and the twisted way he does so is to see to the convictions of absolutely everyone he prosecutes. He desperately wants to do the right thing, and he thinks he is, and our heart breaks to see what damage that does. Perhaps "maybe this time he will finally see the f'ing light" could be a driver?

We could be disturbed and entranced by the structures around him that reinforce and reward his worldview. The people who see what he's doing are easily marginalized and laughed off as deluded or perverse.

So you have a guy who really, truly wants the world to be a good and simple place, and he's making the mistake of living his life as though it already is. His career is jamming square pegs through round holes because, goddammit, those pegs belong in those holes because if they don't then all is madness, and if the corners of those pegs have to be chiseled off or sanded down, then by the cigar of Clarence Darrow, that's what he'll do.


Jeff M. said...

I feel the business partner subplot was one of the few loose ends of BB. Even though it got ostensibly paid off in the final episode when Walt confronts his former friends in their home, that whole story arc had long been abandoned, and the confrontation didn't come across (to me, at least) as dramatically salient.

It's interesting that Gillian is revisiting the theme of the backstabbing business partner in Better Call Saul, and I have an inkling that it is going to be a major plot thread this time around.

Geekademia said...

The bad lawyer was probably wisely abandoned. No amount of wry self-awareness, talen, or even pangs of conscience can make up for the fact that he's someone who picks exclusively on people weaker and less evil than himself. That's the definition of a bully, and no one wants to sympathize with a bully.

Matt Bird said...

Yeah, I ultimately abandoned it for two reasons: (1) It was a compelling character and a "story that needs to be told", but it's just too hard a sell because nobody want to know this goes on, and (2) ultimately his job was just too EASY. Yes, he was fighting ethics investigation and inter-office rivalries and lawsuits, but generally speaking railroading non-wealthy defendants is just a really easy job and the case-of-the-week element wouldn't have enough conflict.