No one would like Walter White in real life. And by like, I mean LIKE. That feeling of oh shit, this guy is awesome. The Walter White of Breaking Bad starts off as a grumpy science teacher, and quickly descends into the rank corridors of the methamphetamine trade. It isn’t cute.
I have been on meth. I’ve watched a middle-aged woman in a track suit snort lines next to her bulimic 17-year-old; I’ve watched a guy show me how he had to “parachute” his meth because he only had a few teeth left, and little to speak of separate nasal cavities. (Parachuting is where you wrap the drug in toilet paper and swallow it.) It’s a toxic thing that kind of reminds me of cancer—a thing that feeds and spreads with the anger of wildfire. And while my interaction with meth involved mostly innocuous college nights spent playing spades until 8 in the morning, the stuff I’ve seen that drug do to people’s faces is enough to make me recoil. This is the truth: I never became a meth head for the same reason that I never became a hardcore drug addict of any kind. It really isn’t worth getting ugly over.
The thing that I like about Breaking Bad is that it takes an unlikeable guy, and makes you like him. You start to identify with his motives, and excuse his rationalizations. So he’s manufacturing a drug that basically acts like cancer…he needs to take care of his family. The personal, and the selfish, begin to seem more important than the good of anyone else. It’s compelling, interesting and terrifying to see how the wellbeing of those few people you care about (especially yourself) will almost always trump the good of a whole society. Why is this?
I remember listening to a discussion about this topic on This American Life. Some guy was talking to Ira Glass about a hypothetical situation in which several people are hiding underground from an army of people who want to kill them. There’s a baby down there, and the baby starts crying. What do you do… kill the baby? The guest speaker said yes, of course you kill the baby. They can just have more babies. And the host, maybe it was Ira, says something like, “You obviously don’t have kids.” Because in real life, you would have to kill the mother of that child before you killed the child. She would just as soon see every one of you motherfuckers dead as let you do that. This is a paradox—it belies logic.
And that’s what good drama does. It shows you how the irrational, attached, insane part of you will generally overcome what’s logical and sound in a way that basically defines your life. There are people who know this, and prepare for it—people like Walter’s wife Skylar. But even she is caught in the snarly chaos of it all. It only takes one bull to ruin a China shop (whatever the fuck that means), and destruction is much easier than…construction. Understanding this, knowing it, is enough to turn you upstream. But you’re going to get tired. You’ll need to sleep. And the currents don’t.
One intrinsically Buddhist concept is that of suffering. We are all suffering. It is impossible to understand another person without seeing his pain points. (“Pain points,” in fact, is a popular marketing term that helps you to understand buying behavior.) You can understand how people act and feel by understanding how they hurt. Some are anxious; others fear humiliation. This pain can be understood emotionally but also literally physically. Anxiety tends to hit people as a cold sensation. Sadness is more like muscle pain, a hurt that slows and wears you down. I’ve heard many people describe divorce—my own personal current hell—as a ripping out of your insides, and this does feel accurate.
When you approach life based on this understanding of pain, panic and dysfunction, you no longer ask questions like, “Why aren’t we doing anything about global warming?” Or: “Why can’t she just get over herself?” You start to see that the driving feature—the pain itself—is overtaking the person’s energy in a way that leaves nothing left over for greater good. From this viewpoint, “breaking bad” is not a turning point. It is the arc of life.