Sunday, December 15, 2013

Breaking Bad Semiotics

“Chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change. Now, just think about this. Electrons, they change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements, they combine and change into compounds. Well that's... That's all of life, right? It's the constant, it's the cycle... It's solution, dissolution, just over and over and over. It's growth, then decay, then transformation. It is fascinating, really.”
~ Walter White, Breaking Bad, episode one

        The denotative concept of Breaking Bad seems simple, and altogether not even that original. A good guy is forced into cooking/selling drugs to support his family. Weeds, which began airing three years earlier proposed a similar plot, and heaven knows that crime related dramas are not new to TV. And yet, Breaking Bad has won ten Emmys, been named by the Writer’s Guild to be the thirteenth best written TV series of all time, and in its final season held the Guinness record for highest rated TV series of all time. So why then, all this fortune and glory for an idea that seems to be not all that new? Because the seemingly bland Walter White and the seemingly simple Breaking Bad, are just that seemingly. The truth to the show’s success is found behind layers of manipulation, illusion, and subconscious, as the audience through the show’s progression strips away the layers of lies built by Walt, and eventually discovers him for who he truly is. It is Breaking Bad itself and the audience’s perspective of Walt that evolves, not Walt himself.  And as each layer is stripped away, much like a person changes and grows, so too does the shows. From relatable, to tragic, to protective, to the questioning of agency and moral character, Breaking Bad succeeds at being a show that thrives less on character growth and more on audience adaptation.

        Breaking Bad begins with the 50th birthday breakfast of Walter White, a man who appears to be just as boring and bland as his name suggests. Walt, as he is known to others, while being gifted chemist (as evidenced by a plaque commemorating his participation in Nobel Prize winning research), is stuck working two demeaning jobs. One as an underpaid and disrespected high school chemistry teacher, and the other as a cashier at a local car wash, where he is often forced to confront many of his most disrespectful student. Walt also seems to be burdened with a paraplegic son Walter Jr., an overbearing wife Skyler, and Hank, a cocky DEA agent brother-in-law. With this introduction to the poor life of Walter White, audience sympathy is triggered long before he discovers that he has lung cancer. And so when Walt decided put his long neglected chemistry knowledge to good use and financially secure his family’s future by cooking meth with his old student Jessie (who he discovered during a DEA ride-along after Hank’s insistence he “get a little excitement in his life”), the audience is all on board.

        Audiences have supported shows that offer a life escape since the invention of the cubical, and the overwhelming sense of mediocrity that comes along with it. While shows like The Office achieved popularity by mocking this all too familiar humdrum life, shows like Big Love, Weeds, and The Sopranos, create a catharsis by offering an escape through an extreme lifestyle. In the beginning, this was also the case with Breaking Bad. Walt’s life, it seems pretty clear, is no Sunday stroll in the park. And while his struggles are most likely greater than those of the audience, the relatable feelings of desperation and disappointment create a bond, allowing the viewer’s similar feeling towards his own life to be projected onto Walt. And so Walt’s rebellion is supported, as it serves to represent our own, and his exciting and edgy life of drugs and danger (which he was clearly forced into) become an escape not only for Walt, but for a time, us as well.

        It was when Walt let Jane die just keep Jessie in his place that the audience first began to realize something was seriously wrong. The man they had sympathized with and prescribed with their own frustrations of inadequacy seemed to be no more. Walter White was now far from the victim he claimed to be. Walt’s famous “for the family” speeches, which had once seemed to be so sincere and desperate, had become nothing more than excuses to justify his highly questionable actions and need to rise in the drug word (despite generally causing him to loose large quantities of money and put both himself and his family in danger). That was now clear to everyone, except perhaps to the delusional Walt himself. Walt’s contradictory behavior is particularly manifested when he greedily goes to work for Gus Fring, and is thus compared to Fring’s “head of security” Mike Ehrmantraut. A cool headed professional and a true family man, Mike, despite his clearly criminal ways, always maintains the audience’s respect and admiration for his integrity to himself. Serving as a foil to Walt, Mike (whose name literally mean “man of honor”) cares only for a job well done and the wellbeing of his granddaughter Kaylee. He dislikes Walt, who he considers to be dramatic and unpredictably reckless. And if the viewer for some reason still had yet to see the truth, Walt’s famous “I am the danger” speech to Skyler makes it perfectly clear that it’s not about family anymore.

 “Who are you talking to right now? Who is it you think you see? clearly don't know who you're talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler. 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!”

        As Walter is revealed as a character that all but in pretense has rejected the notion of providing for his family for his own arrogant and egotistical power struggle, it is again the sense of catharsis that keeps the audience interested. Instead however of an emotional connection through projected feelings of inadequacy and an escape through the thrill of a dangerous life, it is through the connection found in the common tragedy. Tragedies, from the famous Greek stories to those of modern day, use the principles of both schaderfreude and a greater valuing of relationships to capture interest.

        Schaderfreude, which is also partially responsible for the popularity of reality TV, is the notion that cathartic pleasure is experienced through witnessing the misfortune of others. As Walt and his life are seen, where there was once hope for imitation, there is now joy in the contrast. The viewer may have started out like Walt but will certainly never end up like him. Our own sense of superiority is boosted. Tragedy also causes an audience to analyze their own personal relationships more closely and more deeply, as those being portrayed are seen falling apart. This is particularly true in Breaking Bad, where the main dynamics are that of family and Walt’s attempts and later “attempts” to care for and provide for them. Like schaderfreude, this analysis of personal relationships causes happiness through comparison that serves as a form of gratitude and blessing counting.

        And so the audience again has a sense of sympathy for Walt. Not for his horrible actions or even his circumstances, but for what he has become. A man once so devoted to his family despite his burdensome circumstances, seemingly swallowed up by the life of crime he was forced into. And the egotistical, dramatic, and power hungry Walt, while we remain appalled by his choices, still receives from his audience, for a time, the last thing Walter would ever want, pity.

        The final moment of discovery for fans of Breaking Bad occurs sometime around the realization that it was Walt who poisoned Brock in order to manipulate Jessie into killing Gus. Jessie was Walt’s trusted partner and friend, and yet his psychological wellbeing, not to mention the life of a child, meant nothing to him when his future as a kingpin was threatened. This act is beyond anything seen by Walt before and all sympathy for the man is ended. It is difficult to understand how a person could become so deranged so quickly, until Mike again provides the answer. When asked by Walt to work with him after Gus’ murder Mike refuses, insisting that Walt is egotistical, dangerous, and unpredictably sporadic, and accuses him of being “a time bomb tick, tick, ticking.” While Mike eventually reluctantly goes back on his statement, the viewer applauds him for standing up to and realizing what Walt truly is. And the viewer suddenly does the same. Mike was correct calling Walt a ticking time bomb, but he didn’t become that way, he always had been.

         Walter White’s manipulation, unpredictability, and self-interest were not created through his experience, only manifested. Walt never broke bad, he always was. And his ruse had fooled not only Jessie, his family, and the greater New Mexico area, but the audience as well. As a betrayed audience looks back on Walt’s earlier behavior with fresh eyes, it becomes all too evident that the man who once gained sympathy, admiration, and eventually pity, had been operating under the same code of conduct that lead to the poisoning of Brock from the very beginning.

         Even before his total entanglement in the drug world, Walt’s aggression, egoism and unpredictability, had been secretly evident. In the very first episode when his sees a group of high school students making fun of his son’s handicap, Walt rushes over to the leader, pushes him to the ground and pinning him by his legs, mocks him. A few episodes later Walt retaliates at a cocky business man by blowing up his car at a gas station.  And when he feels emasculated by Hank at a family party, in order to prove his power over his son, Walt pressures Walt Jr. to drink until he can no longer physically stand it. Towards the end of the series Walt also admits that every day for years he has bitterly checked the stock price of the company that he felt he was forced out of, thus providing a daily feeding his jealously and self-sympathy, perhaps ever since the company’s start of success without him.

        Even when these same past friends and business associates offered to provide money for his treatment he refused, unable to overcome their success without him and choosing to keep his family in danger rather than surrender his power. And it is power over pride that he desires. Because although Walt rejects financial help, he tells his family that is where the money is coming from, preferring to stay in control even if it means appearing to accept “charity”. But despite its slightly lesser role, pride is far from not being an issue. When Hank assumes Walt’s temporary assistant Gale is the mysterious drug lord Heisenberg and marvels at his genius, Walt insists that Gale really seems to be more of an assistant rather than a mastermind, causing a questioning Hank to reopen the case. While hiding behind Gale would have given him a much needed scapegoat, the pride behind another “less competent” person being credited with his work makes it worth the risk.

        Walt’s claims have always been that he does what he does for the protection of his family, and yet they are regularly put in danger or at best, neglected or heartlessly manipulated. Walt’s first 24 hours of cooking meth to provide for his family involved angering and eventually murdering two distributors because to let them go would mean the inevitable murder of his entire family. And yet Walt had little trouble afterwards deciding to continue cooking. When his first big deal with Gus occurs right as Skylar goes into labor, he chooses to miss the birth of his daughter for the potential possibility of making more money. And when Hank is moments away from discovering Walt, he calls him to tell him that his wife Marie is in the hospital after having been in an accident, causing a distraught Hank to rushes off, allowing for Walt to escape.

        When questioned by Gus about his insistence on working with Jessie, Walt coldly answered that he keeps him around because he does what he tells him. While at the time the audience assumed that this was only a ploy to get Jessie back, the statement later is seen as truth.  Walt keeps everyone he “cares” for around because of the validation they provide for him and ultimately because they do what he says. Though Walt faces many threats during his reign, it is Skylar who is his true antagonist. As she stands up to Walt and rejects his lifestyle and his money, she destroys his delusions of fulfilling the traditional patriarchal values of caring and providing for family, that along with his intellect, he so desperately hides behind. At the end of the series Walt eventually admits his true intentions. Partially to Jessie when he tells him that he isn’t in the meth business or the money making business but the empire business, and fully and finally to Skyler and to himself in the last episode when he delivers one of his famous “for the family” speeches but admits that it was all for himself all along.

         This realization of betrayal from someone of trust and empathy strangely enough drives the viewer away from Walt and towards his family. A common cause and enemy unifies and creates emotional connections, and so as Walt drives his family away, we are driven towards them; and the viewer hopes to fill the role that Walt once claimed to. To stay and see what happens, to make sure Jessie and Walt’s family are safe, and most importantly, to ensure that they see what we have seen and understand Walt’s true treachery. Particularly as it becomes ever clearer that they are the ones who have been directly betrayed and destroyed. As the viewer openly saw and broke free from Walt’s deception, the same freedom is wished for Jessie and for Walt’s family. Where the audience once wanted to be like Walt, they now wish to be like Skylar, the person who will always “protects this family from the man who protects this family.”

        The realization of Walt’s true self also makes the viewer question himself. After all, Walt once had not only his full support, but also in a small sense his jealously, as it seemed Walt was able to escape from his dull life with an exciting and extreme lifestyle. And if it was so simple to stand behind Walt, a man who is finally revealed to have always been awful, is it a mistake that could be made again? Walt himself for a time seemed to be blind to his own motives. Vince Gilligan, Breaking Bad’s creator once said “Walter is a man who lies to his family, lies to his friends, lies to the world about who he truly is. But what I think makes him a standout liar is that first and foremost he is lying to himself.”. And if it happened so easily to Walt, what’s to say it isn’t affecting us?

        A man makes drugs to save his family. Denotatively it seems so simple, but Breaking Bad radically succeeded where other similar shows did not because of the nature of its story telling. In the first episode, Walt tells his students that chemistry is they study of change. This statement is often interpreted to be a foreshadowing of the rest of the show, and it is. Not in terms of Walt’s development, but in the development of the show itself. While Walt’s circumstances and what they “required” him to do certainly changed and adapted, Walt himself never did. What changes is that way that the audience understands and sees him, as his situations gradually strip away his masks reveal him for who he truly is and was all along, bad.