1985

THE BREAKING BAD WIKI tells us that Walter Hartwell White was born September 7, 1959 and died fifty-two years later on the same day in 2011. The number seems to be transparently meaningful. Taking fifty-two weeks in a year, then Walter’s years ought to correspond to the seasons of his life, making a convenient yardstick of his rise and fall.

The idea is helped by the fact that seasons two through four have thirteen episodes each, a number that goes neatly into the number of years in Walter’s life. If that explanation seems like an accident of the television business, the theory might be tested by another detail that appears in the first episode. Walter, waking in the middle of the night to brood on his cancer diagnosis, contemplates the plaque on the wall of his study:  S1E1 1985 award pan

It flashes across the screen briefly: “The Science Research Center . . . hereby recognizes Walter H. White, Crystallography Project Leader for Proton Radiography. . . Contributor to Research Awarded the Nobel Prize.” Devotees of the show know that the citation refers to actual Nobel-prize winning research (which–for devotees–gives the plaque its glow of authenticity). But the series does not return to it, and we learn no more about his specific role on the team.

BUT THE DATE OF THE AWARD, 1985, is significant, because it marks the true high mark of his career. In 1985, Walter was twenty-six, meaning that his most important scientific work was done with exactly half way through his fifty-two years. Fate, being both just and perverse, gives Walter his greatest success in what is literally his middle age, then lets him to live long enough to destroy himself. The irony is barely audible, but even at this point in his journey, it announces the beginning of the end.

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whitening the lobby

BREAKING BAD HAS SOMETHING to do with race, though exactly what is hard to say sometimes. TV critics weren’t slow making the connection, not least of all because Walter was after all born a White. And yet if that fact seems to explain too much or too easily, it does remind us Walter, the underworld kingpin, is still a member of privileged caste, slumming with untouchables.

But getting to the finer points on race in Breaking Bad means taking roundabout paths. It would be interesting to see race through Walter’s own eyes, but for all his intelligence, he doesn’t show much interest in race (or for that matter, in most other people around him). Instead, it is more revealing to look at Walter through the eyes of immigrants, criminals, and all the others he steps on, bullies, betrays, and destroys. As many episodes demonstrate, they understand him better than he understands himself.

This one-way mirror is at work from the beginning of the series. In the pliot episode, Walter is moonlighting behind the cash register of a car wash in a futile attempt to pay for his anticipated cancer treatments.  When someone quits, his boss Bogdan, a Romanian immigrant, orders Walter to go help the other “carwash professionals”—mostly Hispanics and Native Americans—do the shining and buffing. (Actually, Bogdan doesn’t order Walt; he pleads: “Walter, what am I to do?”) Walter finally relents but not before protesting, “Bogdan, no—we talked about this.”

S1E1 carwash pan 2

The agreement: Bogdan sends Walter to wash the cars (S1E1, Pilot)

What Walter and Bogdan talked about—keeping Walter from doing the work done by Hispanics and Native Americans—was apparently a part of their deal when Walter was hired. Why did Bogdan sign on to this agreement in the first place? Maybe Bogdan never intended to honor it. On the other hand, why didn’t he just hire someone who was willing to run the register and wash cars?

Bogdan’s rationale might be found in another branch of the service industry where immigrant owners use white employees as the face of their business. In Life Behind the Lobby, a study of American motels owned by Indian immigrants, Pawan Dhingra explains that Indian-born owners often hire white women during the day and evening shifts, when most check-ins occur. This strategy, called “whitening the lobby,” is meant to reassure a typically white American-born clientele, who are relieved to find a face like their own when they arrive. The agreement between Walter and Bogdan mirrors this arrangement, and Walter, who probably understands the service he provides, uses his position as leverage.

Whitening Bogdan’s lobby is prologue to the higher-stakes washing that happens later. Later, after Skyler and Walt acquire the car wash, they use it to launder both Walt’s profits and their image. The car wash makes them successful small-business owners, a model of what ordinary Americans can still do with pluck and hard work. Which is another form of whitening–polishing maybe.

looky-loos

“LOOKY-LOO” IS A WORD that comes up just once in Breaking Bad. In S4E1 (“Boxcutter”), Victor goes to sweep the evidence from the apartment of the dead Gale Boetticher, but seeing a knot of tenants crowding Gale’s door, flees the crime scene. In a moment of unique nervousness, Victor tries to reassure Mike that the tenants would not be able to identify him—they’d see him as “just another looky-loo.” As Mike suspects, this isn’t the case: Victor, pushing through the crowd, is conspicuously not a “looky loo,” and as we learn not much later, this fact costs Victor his life.

S4E1 looky loo 2

As Victor uses it, “looky-loo” means a person who stops and stares at an accident, a crime scene, or a shocking event. But the word means something more than “bystander.” A looky-loo has to get in the way of those who have real work to do. Police officers, for example, hate the looky-loos who slow traffic by gaping at accidents. They are like TV viewers,  flipping channels, looking for something interesting to watch.

By some anecdotal accounts, the word originated on the West Coast in the 1960s, as a way for real estate agents to describe people who came to tour a home for sale without any intention of buying. The slide-whistle sound of the word still bears the exasperation of the agents who had to sort out the real buyers from the ones who were just window-shopping. But a culture that elevates looking to a kind of doing, or more to the point, into a kind of having is bound to produce looky-loos.

SO, TAKING A LOOKY-LOO at an open house is a kind of theft: you take for free what you never intended on buying, a line which Marie Schrader’s periodic kleptomania blurs (S4E3, “Open House”). Straining from her husband Hank’s bilious recovery, she poses as a homebuyer at open houses using fake names (“Tori Cosner,” “Charlotte Blattner”), and quietly makes off with the little tschotschkes that seem to grow like moss in a middle-class home—a tiny silver spoon, a small porcelain animal, a picture frame with the photo of the married couple still in it.

S4E3 Charlotte Blattner looky loo

In other words, Marie sees all the little things that show the world that the owners here are happy, and that they are right to be happy, for they are the right person for the house they live in. It belongs to them just as they belong there. Being a looky-loo isn’t necessarily fueled by jealousy, but Marie seems to get a lot of torque from it: what others have is always more desirable when their claim to enjoying it seems more legitimate than yours.

IT IS NOT A STRETCH to see that Marie takes these miniature icons of middle-class happiness to compensate for her own unhappy home life. But taking them also sets her apart from the middle-class happiness they define. It is no wonder looky-loos first showed up at open houses. The objects that define the middle-class aesthetic are often made for them. These objects are meant to be presented to the admiring world as examples of happiness. This is apparently why in so many homes, we find the endless photos, souvenirs, all the silly gifts from one spouse to another. Looking is a substitute for having, because having is only the first condition for the act of getting looked at.

Marie knows what she is looking for and also knows that looking is not at all the same is having. Criminals—like Marie, Victor, Walt and Skyler and the rest in Breaking Bad—know the difference. What they want, they want to have. Once Walt and Skyler begin to enjoy this kind of thinking, it is very hard to turn back to the conventional way of living (and looking). Once you have the thing, you want to keep it. And, as the show reminds us again and again, keeping means concealing—which is to say, not displaying.

sheep in sheep’s clothing

IN THE FIRST FEW SEASONS of Breaking Bad, we see a number of men dressed in sweaters. And the men we see them in are almost always middle-aged, typically fathers. But maybe more accurately, they are vulnerable, gullible, soon to be swindled. Like the father in many TV shows before, the sweater says, oh poor dad, tricked again.

S1E1 chem class 2

“Pilot” (S1E1)

The apparel sends the signal from the first episode. Walter White, still the eager, unappreciated high school teacher, begins the school year in something that looks picked out from a floor display at J.C. Penney. There’s a joyful, clueless naivete in Walt that we’ll soon miss in him.

And we see other men with dimmed vision in the same apparel. Donald Margolis, having mislaid the blame of his daughter’s death on Jesse, returns to work a sweater vest, with tragic results. Jesse Pinkman’s father, well on his way to getting had by his son, wears a tasteful v-neck. Even as Walt is losing his innocence, he receives his latest diagnosis in a hot pink pullover, a color that reminds us of his flesh-and-blood vulnerability.
S2E13 sweater at doctors ofc
In the first three seasons, sweaters signal a fear of becoming a middle-aged man:  becoming too benign,  estranged from sex, attempting a wisdom and maturity that’s bound to look postured to the kids. As a symbol, sweaters convey this effect pretty well. I think that men in their 40s like sweaters because they cover up their bulk. But sweaters tend to advertise the weight they’re supposed to hide, billowing out rather than slimming the midsection, as if to show why you can’t hide what you’ve become.

Still, sweater-wearing men are good, decent, trustworthy men, and sweaters signal that too. Even those who aren’t as innocent seem to understand their reassuring power and don’t mind playing the part.
S3E11 Fring sweater crop

introduction

I LIKE THE TELEVISION SHOW Breaking Bad for a lot of reasons, but what I’ve been continually impressed with is how the show tells, in neat compact examples, the story of middle-class life in contemporary America. Walter White’s problems, if not his solutions, aren’t much different than those of millions in the US over the last decade. He’s just another striver who feels caught running up a down escalator.

What also struck me is how well the show tells this story through single scenes, sometimes single images: a certain make of car, an inflatable pool lounger, a flat-screen TV. As objects, they’re commonplace enough that most viewers own at least one of them. But as props in a story about a man who seems to be losing his economic hold on things, they often reveal more than they say.

What these everyday objects reveal are certain basic hopes and disappointments of today’s middle class. But because these things–mid-sized cars, mall-outlet sweaters, low-fat bacon strips and so on–are so familiar to us as Americans, they often escape our notice as viewers. This weblog gives these objects a second glance and tries to get them to say something, both about the show and its characters, and about its viewers as well.