If you don’t watch television, apart from seeing the latest news reports of young Americans using legal firearms to slaughter large numbers of children, and I’m not referring Iraqis or Afghanis, you’re missing out on some really great Sunday School lessons. If you do watch lots of what we should refuse to call, out of respect to women, the boob tube (and who doesn’t watch too much of it?) you may not notice that you are getting a spoon feeding of how to be a better operator in this, the best of all possible worlds. Media interests, which have no interest at all in the kind of religious thinking that freethinkers find so annoying about the Sermon on the Mount, have long replaced schools and churches in preaching the finer points of the American gospel that teens who walk into American schools with assault rifles have already taken to heart – sensational violence, virtual power and the appearance of winning.
Witness Breaking Bad, the dramatic series telling the uplifting story of Walter White, “a struggling high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. He turns to a life of crime, producing and selling methamphetamine with the aim of securing his family’s financial future before he dies.” Who would have thought that a tale espousing the traditional values of a noble family man sacrificing himself for the good of his beloved wife and children would be, in these rebellious times, so popular and so critically acclaimed?
It has been called, by serious people (those most likely to blame the second Amendment for mass killings at American schools) “unquestionably one of the greatest dramas in TV history” and no less than Stephen King has praised it as “the best scripted show on TV.” Serious critics admire the heck out of Breaking Bad; and even if the show has won six Emmies, serious opinons do count for something. They tend, after all, to represent the opinions of the better educated in a not dissimilar way that the books Oprah pushes on her lady friends usually end up best selling their way to the critical acclaim of Toni Morrison. And let’s be clear – What serious people, or those who are taken to be serious, admire and acclaim is of some interest in discerning the character of better educated Americans, such as that of the current president and his cabinet, and of what makes them tick, like bombs.
For those who enjoy watching a lot of television, and consequently do not notice that they suffer from more than occasional memory lapses, what is most intriguing about the acclaimed story line of Breaking Bad is that it is grounded in almost identical narratives found in critically panned Hollywood pap, like the old Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal flicks. In those retro storylines, the hero’s über violence and his out-badding the bad guys was routinely justified by his family’s have been victimized by the baddies (who these days are simply called terrorists) thereby morally excusing his doing “whatever it takes” to avenge himself, to get justice done and even make some money while doing it, all for the sake of his precious loved ones, which often included the nation whose flag he wrapped himself in. Breaking Bad, at least, spares viewers the patriotic clap-trap, focusing solely on family and business and violence, unlike the series’ commercials for Humvees and most politicians in their campaign frenzies for Israel.
The fact that audiences were then and still are glaze-eyed keyed into the cartoonish story line and get off sticky on the hero’s subsequent evisceration of the cartoon villains is not much worth discussing. Of more interest, here, is that inside those old storylines, just as in the old is new again Breaking Bad, is a far more troubling and even stickier fact – Viewers are encouraged to identify morally with the heroes. They are cued to not only sympathize with them but to recognize in the heroes’ dreams their own hopes and fears. In the guise of being a vast feeding trough entertaining its supine viewers, Hollywood is actually the primary force in the moral edification of the viewing public. No religious institution can compete with its power of persuasion. Since this notion is inadequately acknowledged, what remains unspoken about mass entertainment is that a storyline’s popularity is based mainly on its unconscious effectiveness in teaching viewers the practice of realizing their hopes and of overcoming their fears in order to live their dreams. Only a cold-hearted viewer would not take the side of an attractive, sadly victimized hero struggling at all costs to reach the mountaintop. And if it means destroying the mountain in order to reach its top, the way the heroes in these storylines often do, well, you have to crack a few heads to make an omelette. Or as President Obama stated in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, almost exactly three years to the day before the Newtown massacre – “Modern technology allows a few small men… to murder innocents on a horrific scale.” The citizens of Newtown, as well as villagers in Afghanistan and Pakistan droned by Presidential order, might disagree on whether Hollywood films have helped them to live their dreams, but they could certainly agree with that.
It is unfashionable among the educated to criticize fiction for being amoral, or to condemn Hollywood for teaching odious lessons to its fan base. For one thing, it is not always clear that script writers and producers are interested in doing much more than couch casting while making scads of money entertaining themselves and people like them with their copy-cat productions. But, if the producers of Breaking Bad are to be considered innocent of Taliban like accusations, and if they are to be considered unaware of the darker sermons they are preaching to viewers, then how can some of their well thought out business decisions be explained away? Such as this one: As part of their first season’s promotional material, they created an online customizable interface in which Walt, the show’s drug dealing, murderous hero, would send them a webcam message urging them to “live their life to the fullest.”
Really, how thoughtful of the creators and producers of the show to offer viewers a role model as unflinchingly life affirming as Walt. How caring of them that they should provide adult viewers with a businessman, made wise by facing death, whose voice can be carried around in their heads as they go about their days trying to provide as best they can for their families before they themselves kick the bucket. And for younger viewers, the Ritalin riddled teens with limited career opportunities, dreaming of being Kid Rock or Captain America, their heads full of game imagery gearing them up for their confrontation with the dark side, many of them with access to their parent’s gun drawers and cabinets, how forgetful of the Emmy award winning creative staff to provide viewer discretion warnings.
Still think that the Breaking Bad crew is no more dangerous than a bunch of ex-frat boys who have nothing more cynical in mind than buying a mansion in Malibu and living off of the residuals for the rest of their lives? Well, check this: A promotion for season three involved an online, interactive quiz called ” The Breaking Bad Criminal Aptitude Test.” (I’m not making this up.) It allowed users to compare their personal competencies and aptitudes with those of the “various criminal character types featured in the series.” Are you living your life to the fullest?
Test takers would have some pretty tough standards to live down to. But, you complain, fans of the series are only as loyal as the firmness of their grip on the remote. And it’s true, one can’t be sure that advanced Alpha males are not smirking at the quiz’s naivity and surfing for more challenging fare, like from the Sopranos. Or that stilletoed, construction worker booted females are not switching the channel to less competitively ethical fare, like Desperate Housewives. Do we now really want to say that the producers are merely making business decsions by providing the audiences with what they want to watch? That viewers are merely being given what they have been asking for?
But those are academic questions, and not even the serious critics who regularly pan TV shows aren’t too worried about their answers. There’s a war on terrorism going on. And who says TV can’t educate viewers in good family values while fighting it? The way The Waltons used to during Vietnam? If being the hero of the show can include being the kind of guy who starts a business that manufactures and sells drugs, who kills people and who orders an employee to kill people, and who does it all for the “love” of his family, well maybe viewers should rethink their moral priorities. After all, were going through an economic crisis, and survival may mean taking some really extraordinary measures. Or maybe viewers will finally catch up to academic theorists who have been preaching for decades that family, like love and religious principles, is merely a “social construct” and can be defined and redefined at will, without suffering any loss of personal meaning. Sort of the way that Mafia bosses go to church every Sunday and hand out coins to the orphans and widows of their deceased competitors.
The above mentioned promotions and quizes combined with how the show’s writer and creator, Vince Gilligan, defines what he means by his curious title “Breaking Bad” – he means “Raising Hell”, along with the fact that Sony Pictures Television spends over three million dollars producing each episode, should give the hint that one critic’s praise of the show as “a complete work, one thought out long in advance” might be truer than we can know. How long in advance did Adam Lanza and his fellow marksmen of Aurora and Columbine plan out their fifteen minutes? But lets not talk about making connections and drawing necessary conclusions, for that might makes us judgmental.
This does not mean that every male viewer of Breaking Bad is going to go out and start selling drugs and murdering competitors any more than it means that every female viewer of Desperate Housewives is going to start behaving as if every male is a panting jerk waiting to be fleeced in a divorce court. (Then again…) Nor does it mean that every well-educated social critic is going to run off and become a Unabomber or a Dr. Laura Schlesinger. Rather, it is to suggest that the way the idea of selling drugs and doing away with competition by whatever means necessary and behaving like a bitch-on-wheels to get what you want and, most importantly, to think oneself good and innocent while doing so (even if it requires lots of prescription drugs) has been transformed decades ago into something that is more and more feeling like it’s really not so bad and definitely not evil (for that would be to use the language of Talibinist morality) and maybe it’s even okey-dokey, apart from some blippy issues that any therapist could handle. And if Adam Lanza were still alive, a few of those therapists would soon be handing him boxes of tissues and asking about his anger issues.
Since almost all of us Americans are spectators of a political theatre in which a highly educated President orders the less educated military to attack and kill people including American citizens in foreign countries, without even getting congressional approval; and since almost all of us are investors, putting our money in technically insolvent banks and gambling “investment” houses whose well educated C.E.O.s brazenly run their Ponzis while their factotums laughingly email each other about “the sacks of shit” they unloaded on trusting idiots; and since almost all of us are watching the same kind of TV shows and Hollywood movies that extol success stories with cool, sexy, anti-heroes, lording it over their fellow survalists of the fittest; and since we are all swimming the same water in the kingdom of feel good individualism where divorce rates, addiction rates and psychotropic drug intake rates don’t ever seem to be on the slide, one must be forgiven for suspecting that taking a walk on the wild side while wearing fuck me pumps and fuck you suspenders is not just a dance of keeping up with the Joneses, but it is rather a heartfelt, testicular embrace of the bungle in the jungle law: Eat or Be Eaten. And as Anders Breivik showed last year in Norway, while doing his part to save Western Civilization, school age children are at the lower end of the food chain.
Non-viewers of Breaking Bad and non-believers in Walter White’s wisdom, and I hope you, gentle reader are among them, can only hope that they don’t run into people like him without protection or warning. But who in America would, or could, warn them? Politicians who depend on campaign contributions from Hollywood? Religious leaders who are already busy warning about homosexuality? Average parents who watch too much television themselves and see nothing wrong with film portrayals of sex and violence? (Hey, it hasn’t harmed me a bit!) Educated parents whose viewing habits are influenced by what educated critics acclaim? (The New York Times says the cynical violence is an ironic commentary; so I should consider it as an esthetic treatment!) And if you wouldn’t want to run into someone like Walt and his henchmen on a dark road, why would you want to spend hours of your life watching their antics in a darkened living room or theater, or worse taking vicarious thrills in them? And would you want your children, or pets, to do so? At least not without a prescription?
One might complain, here, that too much is being made about one TV show and the long accepted practice of relating to fiction as if it were just a bedtime story or a form of psychological release. But there is no making too much about the moral messages promoted by the hell raising of Breaking Bad just as there is too little being made about the use of the highly popular, if not critically acclaimed, video war games. Their hyper violence that gives vicarious thrills to adolescent (and not so adolescent) users has been put to educational use by the US Military. Recognizing an effective teaching aid when it sees one, it uses those video games in its training programs, honing the minds and reflexes of youthful warriors with the imagery they will have to get used to. Fighting a “Just War” that all too often produces “collateral damage” has to be experienced as a professional – that is a former human being unburdened by undue emotional responses. It’s just war, one could say, or rather, it’s just a war game. So, the question arises – Are adolescents simply venting their dark sides in a non-destructive way while playing their war game videos? Or are they augmenting their already developed skills of disassociation and storing them for future use in their interpersonal relationships, on the battlefield and off? Just asking.
In reality, Breaking Bad is not much more than a successful restylization of the myths flushed out of Hollywood, as well as out of American schools and corporations, for decades. Its fundamental lesson inculcated in us consumers, who used to be called citizens, is summed up by the character of Walter White himself in last season’s final episode. After he has killed all of his enemies and destroyed the meth lab business that he had created, he declares to his beloved wife, who he has done it all for: “It’s over… I won.”
And Americas chattering classes, following a long, thrilling and victorious election campaign, are kept busy arguing over the sentimental content of their President’s Newtown speech. Analysing his every gesture of spontaneous emotional display, they somehow neglect to inquire: “Isn’t this display of rehearsed precision coming from the same guy who, without a hint of regret, orders drone pilots to launch Hellfire missiles that have killed far more children and innocent parents than all the psychos in the past thirty years of U.S. school massacres? And why isn’t that well spoken guy, who talks peace one minute and authorizes military action the next, in handcuffs or in a padded cell along with his smirking and less dangerous predecessor?”
Killing defenceless school children with assault rifles is incomprehensible mainly because we are unwilling to make critical connections about our society that might shame us. But it is not quite so despicable as what certain Nobel Peace Prize winners have inflicted on all ages while promoting vicious military polices and getting rich on their taxpayer-supported salaries. Newtown, like Aurora and Columbine, demonstrates the extremes to which youths can be driven to – youths whose lives have been made desperate by the lies and hypocrisies of desperate adults who know how to act as if their charades were perfectly normal and that anyone who thinks otherwise is cynical or nuts, or simply not a grown up.
Inside the machine are the dreams that come when we are shuffling off our mortal coil and we hear these two voices rattling in our heads – “The people I really want to do this to are too powerful and too well guarded.” And: “I cannot imagine a beautiful world, and I cannot go on living in this hell.”
If the latter of those voices does not sound to us like the hissing of certain world leaders driven mad by their virtual power, then maybe we are too close to being on the side of the nightmare they are producing with our unjudgmental help.
Michael Robeson lives in New York.