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.

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