Culture / Television

Breaking the Bad Rolling Stone Controversy



I loved Breaking Bad.  That is, I loved Breaking Bad prior to its final half-season.  No, I wasn’t disappointed with the Blood Money, the premier to season 5.5; it was excellent from start to finish. Moreover, I’m very optimistic that show runner, Vince Gilligan and his team will churn out a fantastic final seven episodes; that doesn’t worry me.  The reason that I won’t truly be able to appreciate the end of one of my all-time favorite TV dramas is because CVS stopped carrying Rolling Stone.

In other words, the end of Breaking Bad doesn’t matter.  The reason: to most people it will be all that matters.  The show will surely end dramatically and that dramatic ending will surely be all that anyone cares about.  The first 5 ½ seasons will become as irrelevant as lunch and dinner are to Walt Jr.  Walter White will go down in history as Heisenberg: the science teacher who went mad and became a murdering, meth-dealing kingpin.  The show that was supposed to be about how Mr. Chips became Scarface will simply become ScarfaceScarface is great, but I’ve seen it before.  No one empathetically reflects on Tony Montana’s harsh beginnings as a Cuban refugee.  Instead, they talk about Montana snorting Mt. Cocaine and screaming “Say hello to my lil’ friend!” before he unloads his oozy and goes on, perhaps, the most infamous killing spree to hit the silver screen.  I don’t want Walter White to be remembered as one-dimensionally as Scarface, but it’s as inevitable as Tony Montana’s death was after he uttered those infamous words.

At this point, Walter White is inarguably a villain.  But if there’s anything that we’re supposed to learn from the show, it’s that villains aren’t born villains – sometimes they’re underappreciated science teachers who are diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when Walt broke bad, but I think I first realized that Walt wasn’t the good guy at the end of season 2, when he let Jesse’s girlfriend choke to death on her own vomit.  Most of the evil things that Walt did before that moment – killing drug dealers, stealing materials, lying to everyone – can be justified as necessary reactions, meant to protect himself and his family from the crooked life that he entered with the right intentions.  When Walt has clashed with other meth distributors – Krazy-8, Tuco, Gus – it’s always felt as if he was the good guy, battling an ‘evil’ drug dealer.  We probably viewed Walt through this prism both because he is the show’s protagonist and because the glimpses that we got of his nemeses make them seem like evil drug dealers.  (Gus is the only enemy who appears to be a complex character, but we lose sympathy for Gus when we learn that he had kids dealing his product.)  At a certain point Walt became the villain that we’ve become so accustomed to seeing him defeat.

As of the season 4 finale, Walt has been the baddest man in town; Heisenberg is the villain.  Yet, my impression from talking to fans of the show makes it seem as if everyone is still rooting for Walt.  Even Julie Bowen, who plays a charming housewife in Modern Family, said in a recent episode of Talking Bad, that she was still rooting for Walt.  Fans, like Bowen are rooting for the guy who poisoned a child – not to continue to kill or poison kids, but – to escape the mess that he’s gotten himself into.  And I think that that is what peoples’ real issue with the Rolling Stone cover was: The problem wasn’t that Rolling Stone glamorized Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, which they didn’t, it was that they humanized him.

In the court of public opinion there’s no room for humans; everyone must be good or bad, black or white.  But, life’s more complex; there’s a lot of gray.  In a recent Vulture interview, Gilligan said “Walt has behaved at times in what could be regarded as an evil fashion, but I don’t think he’s an evil man.”  The distinction is important.  If all we knew of Walt was his season 5 trip to the dessert in which he boasted of killing Gus Fringe and forced his potential business partners to “Say my name!” we’d probably feel pretty confident that he was cold-blooded.  But that was only a brief moment in Walter’s life.  If there’s such thing as good and bad people, a single moment is rarely enough time to indicate their true nature.

Similarly, it’s easy to categorize the younger Boston Bomber as evil.  Bombing the Boston Marathon was inarguably criminal and tragic.  But, prior to that moment Dzhokhar was about as much of a villain as Walter Jr., whose biggest crime is changing his name to Flynn.  The point is that in real life, real people—not cartoonish characters with turbans, or hoody-wearing thugs, or Hannibal Lecter-style human-eaters—do bad things.

I don’t think that Vince Gilligan or Rolling Stone writer, Janet Reitman care much about blame.  Though the revelation that Walter had cancer marks his character’s Heisenberg-bound turning point, Walter’s life was already steadily building to that point.  It’s not as if everyone who is diagnosed with terminal cancer starts cooking meth and dissolving bodies in hydrofluoric acid.  Similarly, there are a whole host of factors – the influence of his brother, the break-up of his family, Islam – that led Dzhokhar to ultimately bomb the Boston Marathon.  Neither being a murdering meth dealer nor bombing the Boston Marathon is excusable, but luckily justification and education are not mutually exclusive.  Gilligan and Reitman’s stories are case studies, examining how feelings of alienation or inferiority can, in the wrong circumstances, yield a disastrous reaction.  The difference between Gilligan and Reitman is that Reitman didn’t create the experiment, she merely recorded the results.  And, as any chemistry teacher knows, if you record the products of an equation without the reactants, you’ll never know the solution.

Max Cea is a contributing editor at NyackNewsandViews, a Hypervocal reporter, and the founder of Ceaworld.  Follow him on Twitter @max_cea.

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