Breaking Bad, Arthur Miller, and the New American Tragedy

Breaking Bad

It was in “To’hajiilee” when it all clicked. For me, anyway. Walter White had just just been handcuffed, finally, after so many months of his infamy and actions wrecking havoc not just in Albuquerque, but pretty much all over the Southwest. He is brought face-to-face with Jesse Pinkman, the kid who just played the manipulation game like the adults around him, and managed to win. He stares at Jessie and calls him a “coward.” How does Jesse respond? He spits in Walt’s face. The two immediately starts to rough each other up much as they can while Hank and Gomez barely restrain them. The final season of AMC’s titular show has been about many things, but in particular about how lies, deceit, paranoia, and manipulation can be, and will be, exposed, and the full, painful consequences of these revelations. The sad truth is that it ends up being pure violence, as distinctly portrayed in those horrifying final five minutes before the episode cut to black. You can’t lie around a punch in the face or a massive shootout.

That mini dust-up, though, reminded me of a moment in Arthur Miller’s tragic American play, A View from the Bridge. It was the spit in particular, for in the play, a confused and desperate Eddie Carbone, genuinely concerned for the well-being of his daughter (but deep down, more concerned about his sense of masculinity), calls immigration to stop his daughter from marrying the “dancing European” Rodolpho, an act of betrayal that enrages Marco, Rodolpho’s brother and protector. In a tense scene, Marco spits into Eddie’s face, and the two indeed have their own mini dust-up before being restrained. Breaking Bad’s little desert fight reminded me perfectly of that scene in A View, and while there are plenty of cinematic fights begun over a loogie, Breaking Bad connection to Arthur Miller’s seminal work struck a chord. In fact, Breaking Bad connects to the general output of Miller’s work, marking Vince Gilligan the new, definitive author of the new American Tragedy.

Of the many themes one can draw from Miller’s plays, the most common and important one was about the power and meaning of “the name,” which, to put simply, represents an individual’s reputation. In The Crucible, John Proctor signs his name to confess to a false accusation, then goes against it when his defiled name would be put on the church for all to see. In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman desperately tries to get his disillusioned son to pursue a real business, a legacy he can leave behind that means something, unknowingly being the cause of Biff’s unfocused drifting in the first place. He kills himself to jumpstart his son’s call to action, for god’s sake. In the final climactic scene in A View from the Bridge, Eddie bellows out to Marco to restore his name after his own act of betrayal destroys it in front of his friends, family and community. Eddie will be damned if his name is sullied, and even fights Marco to his own tragic death over this.

Sounds familiar? Did Walt read A View from the Bridge and somehow take the story to heart? “Remember my name,” “I am the one who knocks,” “Tread lightly” – these are the words of a man who knows what the name Heisenberg means, and who rushes in with a metaphorical knife to ensure there are no Marcos around to sully it. Hell, a desperate Walt shoots Mike over a series of mild insults – he’ll be damned if anyone, even someone like Mike, would question the reputation of Heisenberg.

There’s been a lot of critical speculation that Walt has always been Heisenberg, that all Breaking Bad’s early episodic claims of leaving enough money for his family when he’s gone was a lot of postulating, masking a monster beneath that’s always been there. I used to agree with this – but in pondering this argument, this connection to Miller’s American Tragedies, I now have my doubts. Tragedies are at their most poignant when the protagonist, for all intents and purposes, means well despite his horrific actions. He has a moral/ethical endgoal, but forges a decidedly immoral and unethical (or at least questionable) path to get there. If Walt was always just a burgeoning, evil monster, who just needed meth to unleash it, there would be no tragedy.

Classic Tragedy made it a point to show the protagonist realize his horrific mistake and suffer for it, the cathartic release of problematic behavior come to light – Oedipus, Agamemnon, Romeo and Juliet. American tragedy had no such reservation: protagonists stubbornly stood their ground in their decisions, and while acknowledging and stewing in own their regret, ultimately gave into their sins. John Proctor went to the gallows. Eddie, no short of irony, is stabbed to death with his own knife. Willy Loman blindly rants and raves to his own vehicular suicide. These are not people who truly realized their mistake and simply suffered for it. They went to the grave aware of their offenses but steadfast in their in defiant denial to change. Gilligan, among his showrunner entourage of Weiner, Sutter, and Chase, introduced the world to the New American Tragedy focused on men who not only thrive in their monstrous behavior but fight tooth and nail to maintain their success, giving false or little concern to those who crash and burn along side of them. It is tragic in that these people, who have “everything,” or, at the very least, are provided very obvious means to achieve anything, but opt to grab hold onto a Devil’s contract and profit within its cruel legalese.

To be clear, Walt is a New American Tragic hero, in so much that a murderous, meth-creating, drug dealing, anti-hero can be. It’s why so many people “feel” for Walt (and uncomfortably focus their rage at Skyler) – the New American Tragedy isn’t really about people that mean well. It involves people who are flawed, exaggeratedly so, in incredible, monstrous ways, yet nonetheless have a clear sense of direction. Drama has gotten as “larger than life” as comedy has, and if Community, It’s Always Sunny, and Venture Brothers go to great lengths to make its comedy stick, drama can, too. So Walter White can blow up meth gangs and beat cancer and make powerful electromagnets, bitch, and every choice is over the top and every coincidence is wildly outlandish, but the show focused primarily on one character against the world using his intelligence, spurred on by an enormous ego and an incredible amount of luck, to beat it back. Walt, like Dexter from Dexter or Tony from The Sopranos or Don from Mad Men, are awful people who decisions are made to be understood, and they are decisions that managed to work, even if the results of these decisions are pure evil. “Rooting” for these characters is meaningless in this New American Tragedy. Instead, it is about people who will go through anything to make their ideals come true and keep their legacies intact, and knowing that it will never last and will violently bring down anyone crazy enough to willingly (or unwillingly) be the vicinity. We as an audience can only watch the inevitable happen. The American Tragedy always had an air that maybe, just maybe, the protagonist can escape, or at the very lease, understand his fate. The new New American Tragedy says no – the protagonist will go down in flames, and you can only sit back and watch.

“Ozymandias” is a poem by¬†Percy Bysshe Shelley about the inevitable fall of all leaders. Ozymandias (not coincidentally) is also the name of a brilliant “superhero” in Alan Moore’s Watchmen, a genius millionaire who “masks” his true intentions, unleashing a massive-scaled, unexplainable tragedy that destroys New York, in order to bring the world together and prevent a nuclear war. That horrific event will be made even more tragic when, in the final panel, a lazy reporter pulls out Rorschach’s notebook that reveals Ozymandias’ plan to a T. And so it goes that the episode entitled “Ozymandias” is not only about Walt’s almost-instant “fall from grace,” it’s also about how Walt’s efforts inevitably lead to their own insular tragedies – Hank’s death, Walt’s loss of money and empire, Walt Jr.’s exposure to the truth, Holly’s kidnapping, the utter destruction of the family, Walt’s phone call and “cathartic” confession to it. With two episodes left, Walt’s disappearance into hiding, after he stated he had unfinished business, is the Rorschach notebook, a quiet, unassuming reveal that will lead to even more chaos (that may involves an assault rifle).

“Granite State” built upon “Ozymandis,” tracking Walt through every trick in his arsenal to exact his revenge, and failing. He can’t get hitmen, he’s tossed out in the middle of nowhere, he can’t get Robert Forester’s “fixer” to stay two hours, even for extra money, and he can’t use the claim for family as Walt Jr. throws that excuse right into his face. The name-theme is particularly noticeable here, and how it’s reduced to nothing. Walt has to change his identity completely, reducing “Walter White” to a sad, skinny man dying in bed, and “Heisenberg” to a scared man afraid to walk eight miles in the snow. Skyler changed her last name, cutting off all ties instantly. The sympathy established for this monster is built in the utter destruction of the name (and not necessarily because he’s up again a gang of sociopaths worse then him – these are guys who pretty much did everything Walt did, just more up front and without the false sense of regret) and all it meant. It meant terrible, terrible things, but it meant SOMETHING. So as we watch Walt seethe, watching his name ripped to shreds by Gretchen and Elliott, metaphorically spat upon in every way possible (the Charlie Rose interview destroys all of them – Walter, White, Heisenberg, Grey Matter, the blue meth signature), I can see Eddie Carbone in his face, demanding Marco to give him back his name. That’s all he has, and even the most evil of men can garner sympathy with this claim.

And so it goes in “Felina,” the low-key, somewhat divisive, but perfect ending to this New American Tragedy, where Walt comes to terms with himself, and we as an audience indeed finally reach our cathartic moment. Right at the beginning, as Walt struggles to start the car in the cold, lonely, isolated world of New Hampshire, he closes his eyes and pleads to a higher power just for a chance to get home. The results are that the car keys fall right into his lap. It was in this final act – of forcing Gretchen and Elliott to create a trust fund for Walt Jr., of acknowledging his outsized ego as the real motivation for his heinous actions, of taking out the Neo-Nazi thugs and freeing Jesse from his prison – that he came to the realize who he was, what he meant, and what truly he needs to leave behind. His money is left to his family but not in his name. He watches his literal namesake, Walt Jr., enter the apartment, gone from his life forever. He takes out the Neo-Nazis with nary a mention of the Heisenberg reckoning.

I loved how utterly workman-like this episode was, Walt robotically going through his final actions without the blunder and bluster of his lies and manipulations threatening to unravel like before. It’s pure Walt, no longer masked by any false distinctions. When he and Jesse stare down each other, the latter with a gun in his hand, I’m reminded of Biff’s final confrontation with Willy, who too was close to death via a rubber hose. Walt, shot in the stomach like Eddie’s stab to the gut, spends his final moments wandering around the catalyst to his infamous name: the meth lab. There was a chance to escape his fate – staying in NH – and there are still terrible, terrible consequences – his family is ruined, Hank is dead, Jesse is scared for life – but similar Eddie, John, and Willy, Walt is a victim of his self-created tragic fate. They all confronted who they really were and what they really did, and ultimately died for it. Yet while Miller let his protagonists face their regrets and become self-deluded martyrs, Walt embraced his monstrosity and let it consume him, yet managing to focus his terror through a minor mission of redemption before succumbing to his grave.

Arthur Miller’s plays were fascinated with the perversity and corrupt fallacy of the American dream, focused not on broad ideas but on personal stories. Fathers and father-like figures, weakened and crumbled by their own personal flaws, which inadvertently are exposed, ripped apart, and inevitably lead to a vicious downfall. Miller was brutal, with implied hangings in The Crucible and brutal choreographed fights in A View, but he’s not Vince Gilligan, and it’s not 2013 TV. If he was, though, I could see Miller fitting perfectly in the Breaking Bad writing room and weaving another chapter of the downfall of Walter White. Breaking Bad brought forth a new idea of tragedy, a New American Tragedy, so expansive and far-reaching and horrific and personal. These last four episodes made it clear. Like Miller’s tragedies sought to beat back the idealized 1950s of Americana, Gilligan signature work destroyed the 2000s idea of definitive entitled Americana. I was happy to be there throughout it all.


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