Breaking Bad: High art or pointlessly violent?

Television moves beyond ‘vast wasteland’

I just finished reading Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel, “Gone Girl,” which was certainly a page-turner, cleverly crafted, and engagingly written. Yet I felt empty, somehow, spending so much time with two such thoroughly despicable protagonists. I felt the same way watching Netflix’ “House of Cards,” which, while brilliantly-acted and written, takes a very cynical view of human nature, finding corruption in virtually every character. No politician, no reporter, no philanthropist was motivated by anything but power lust and greed.

Given the rave reviews of people I respect, I have little doubt of the quality of “Breaking Bad.” As my friend John Hancock raved, “Breaking Bad is quite simply the best written TV drama…ever. It is Wagnerian, Greek tragedy, Voltaire, Kafka, and Vonnegut rolled into one.”

Yet I still have felt reluctant to spend my very limited free time with these meth-dealers and murderers. Is this art, a form of gritty realism, or is it a distorted view of reality that only sees the evil in human nature?

Don’t get me wrong. I actually like difficult and depressing movies and works of literature and theater. I read Faulkner and Dostoevsky for fun. And contemporary television drama boasts some shockingly good writing. As Hancock observed, “Take ‘Sons of Anarchy, Mad Men, The Shield, Person of Interest, Nurse Jackie,’ to name a few award-winning series that dealt with moral ambiguity, questionable and illegal activities, drug use, and violence. I’m just saying there is drama in them there hills.”

Yet I still need someone to root for, and to care about, no matter how flawed. I reveled in Woody Allen’s latest, “Blue Jasmine,” about a wealthy socialite (a transcendent Cate Blanchett) whose life is unraveling into madness. As one of my friends confided, “I had to look away at times, because I thought, ‘I shouldn’t be watching this.’ I forgot that I was watching a movie, and thought that I was in someone’s living room.”

Perhpas it was the very premise of “Breaking Bad” that turned me off: Mild-mannered chemistry teacher Walter White turns to a life of crime after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

In my experience, both in life and my career as a journalist, many cancer patients become their best, truest selves, rather than resorting to drug-dealing and mass murder. I had the honor of getting to know many cancer survivors through my stories about the Noble Circle support group for women with cancer.

Jennie Stockslager of New Lebanon, a longtime member of the Noble Circle, finds the “Breaking Bad” premise interesting: “I will say I have witnessed women for whom this journey has been a nightmare financially. I have been fortunate to have health insurance throughout. At one point when I had to think about lifetime maximums, I remember saying to my husband that I would forgo treatment before ruining his and my children’s lives.”

She added, “Eight women transformed their desire to deal with their cancer in a constructive way by creating Noble Circle. For that I am so grateful. Much better than what happened in ‘Breaking Bad.’”

Her fellow Noble Circle sister Rhonda Traylor of Huber Heights also finds it very difficult to relate to Walter White: “When faced with the idea of my own mortality, it is virtually impossible for me not to try to fix the world around me. I have found myself working at another school with needy kids. It is where my heart is, and it is with the kids that I work with the best. How can a death sentence prevent me from embracing life? How could the thought of dying, of actually watching myself die while chemo coursed through my veins, take me to a place where the life of everyone is not valued?”

When I asked my friends for their opinions, it set off a Facebook feeding frenzy of the best and most thoughtful variety, the kind that made me long to be back in an English lit class.

Barb McManus also has avoided “Breaking Bad.” “I have heard nothing redemptive about it, and have to wonder about the glorification of these predators — drug dealers, meth cookers — and the desensitization of the human race toward the victims: addicts, their families and friends, all of use who pay the awful price for addiction. It’s sad that this is the theme of what appears to be clearly one of the best-written and performed television dramas of our time.”

But Dave Gulliver opined, “What ‘Breaking Bad’ eventually revealed was that Walt did tap into his truest self — a man with deeply-held grudges and a need to prove his greatness to all those people who wronged and belittled him. Not everyone finds their better angel.”

As Sue McDonald observed, “It’s less about cancer, or the meth world, or the DEA and more about the human condition: What do people put who are put in trying situations do to get out of them, and how do they decide? What choices do they make? What alliances do they form or re-form? What keeps them going against the odds?”

My son Alec views Walter as “less of a good guy gone bad than an angry and isolated man embracing evil through an end-of-life crisis in which the pursuit of power and meaning and a series of resulting moral injuries ruin him. It’s like when you see certain combat veterans change into very different people through extreme stress over mortality and morality and the things they must do. People can become evil if they are placed or place themselves in evil situations. Walt makes bad and selfish choices and wounds his soul essentially when he makes immoral decisions to protect himself or others from his conduct or to further his activities.”

I’m still not sure if I want to enter the world of “Breaking Bad,” but its fans certainly make persuasive arguments.

If nothing else, it’s heartening that television — that erstwhile vast wasteland — is sparking such literate and thought-provoking debate.

Great art, after all, reminds us of our common humanity. And it is often found in unlikely people and places.