On Wednesday of last week, I brought you along on my happy little tirade, if you will, over the classical definition of a tragedy according to Aristotle. Let's review that before I move forward into the world of Breaking Bad (because I PROMISED).
1. The Greeks invented what we now know as Theatre. INVENTED IT.
2. Aristotle wrote a book about the rules: The Poetics (this also applies to literature, and since the Greeks basically invented classic literature as well, one can assume The Poetics is basically the Bible of literary art).
3. The Greek Tragedy is comprised of specific aspects or tropes: A protagonist of high standing (doesn't have to be nobility, but someone respected), with a tragic flaw (within his character), who fights the gods (or something like fate), and loses, as he is expected to lose.
Every time the world of art has undergone a "renaissance," the Greeks have been re-explored, re-explained, and re--------animated.
Then we talked about Arthur Miller, who wrote about the romanticized American Dream (Death of a Salesman). It was a romanticized dream, and still is. Miller's tale, in a way, takes the romance out of it by pouring it all on this one guy, who is going crazy, and who eventually kills himself. And we call it the great American tragedy. But it isn't really...it's tragic, but not tragedy in the sense that Aristotle describes.
Enter Vince Gilligan (and Spoilers).
Breaking Bad, according to its creator (Vince Gilligan), is a story of what makes a man bad. He wanted to show the transition of a character from protagonist to antagonist (these terms are also Poetics terms). The protagonist is our hero, and he drives the story forward; while the antagonist is our villain (to simplify it), and he works against the protagonist. Our hero in Breaking Bad, Walter White, is both, by design, but I believe he is still our hero.
I admit, halfway through the series, I began to think that Jessie was our protagonist. As irritating as his character was, he was the only consistently moral character in the entire show. Moral? He was just a junkie. God bless artists like Gilligan, and actors like Aaron Paul, who work together to show that no man or woman is just one thing or the other. Jessie is our Everyman (that's another old theatre reference). We connect to him and his response to what is happening around him. It makes sense to us. But, Walter, both pro and antagonist, is our tragic hero.
White is a teacher. The very term can be seen as a tragedy in American society (guh. I hate it when people say "in American society") (so. much). Teachers are simultaneously celebrated and spat upon. Teachers are glorified and underestimated. There's a whole 'nother blog in there about the injustices in the American education system. Gilligan focuses on a tiny one (that's hyperbole, in case you didn't know): pay. White has cancer, and his meager teacher salary/health care plan, won't pay for ANY OF THE TREATMENT.
He could have been more; he could have been a bajillionaire like his friends at Gray Matter, but he sold his share of the company. Here's where we see the first inkling of his tragic flaw. It was the research he did at Gray Matter that gave him the lung cancer, and it is his old friends, the beneficiaries of the success of Gray Matter that offer to pay for his treatments. How appropriate. BUT, Walt won't have it. He refuses it, primarily, I THINK, because of Pride.
His Pride in his work rears its head throughout the story. Here's one example: His son sets up a website to help raise money for the treatment, and Walt uses this to launder some of his "cooking" money. Sounds like a great thing, except Walt Jr (oh, Flynn) gets the credit, and this is inFURIATing to Walt.
So there's the tragic flaw. But, what are these GODS he's fighting? It's not like he's fighting fate. Perhaps one could say he is pitted against man's very nature and tendency towards greed (the vicious circle of money hoarding that causes health insurance companies to destroy the concept of "free market" when it comes to health care...which is the reason Walt "thinks" he has to do what he is doing...I could go on and on it's the circle of freaking life). I posit that he is pitted against the gods of our time. The men and women who think themselves gods. Walt stands before each of them, and defeats them. Gus Fring, a truly terrifying villain, who is perceived as untouchable and unbeatable by the audience (at least I felt that way), protected by the most stalwart of guardians (Mike), and who has been quietly building his empire over the years. He made himself into a god, and Walter takes him down.
Then there are the Neo-Nazis. They exist for no other reason than to exert power over others. What greater power is there, than to be able to hold someone's life in your hands? They do not hold the same respect for art, music, or food, like the sophisticated Fring, but they are master's at what they do: killing. It is a fitting skill for a group that exemplifies hatred. Hate. Darkness. Death. These aspects of the human experience were once embodied by ancient gods. Look it up!
And then there is Walter White. The ultimate villain in this story. I imagine we all signed on thinking it would be fun to observe the silly antics that ensue when a goofy high school chemistry teacher gets mixed up with the drug lords of the west. But Walter White was too proud, and, as all great literature attests: pride always goes before a fall.
In the end, the only villain White has to face is himself, and in the end he does so as the hero he once was. Knowing that it will be end of him, he walks into the lions den of what HE CREATED, and he destroys it all.
Some may have wanted Jessie to kill Walter. I know I did, but when Walter sees what he has done to this kid who was "just a junkie," and gives him the gift of the opportunity to take him down, Jessie does exactly what any of us would have done. First, he says he won't do it unless its actually what Walter wants him to do. Then, when he sees that Walt is already dying, he drops the gun, and he runs. And it's beautiful.
Why were most of us satisfied with the ending of Breaking Bad? Because we travelled down the darkest path a man can take WITH Walter, and we knew, just as he knew, that the only way out was through the finality of death. Instead of hiding away in the woods, and letting the final throws of cancer take him in his sleep, he went back to do what he could to honor those who died on his watch. Each character in the story has a flaw, and each character suffers or dies for his or her flaw. To appease the gods, Walter offers up himself and the empire that he built through his multitude of sins.
Greed begets more greed. Hatred begets more hatred. Only love drives any of these things away. When did it happen for Walter? When did the light of love begin to chisel away at his carefully constructed villainy? I believe it happened when he saw his brother-in-law die at the hands of the Neo-Nazis. Hank looked death in the face and was not afraid. He did not beg for his life. He did not back away from his beliefs. He saw a gun pointed at his head and no way out, and he resigned himself to his fate. Walter has to watch this, and everyone else watching (the guys outside the television set. you guys. me.) felt the subtle shift.
Breaking Bad was and is, truly, a great American tragedy. It takes a man who values his family over his fate, who allows pride to change his course, who tumbles into oblivion as he battles gods that are bigger and more frightening with every turn, and through the reminder of what it means to love...to truly love...goodness and light, he picks himself up, and he tears down his kingdom of pride, burying himself in the rubble.
In the end, there are no more lies. He can admit to his wife that he loved what he did. That it made him feel alive. And he can absolve his anger towards Jessie (whom he truly loved) when he sees his suffering, and grant him the freedom that he could never win for himself. He was the hero and the villain of his own story, just as we all are. And when we see that he can do it...that he can stand up in the face of certain death....we know we can too. And we feel better (that's catharsis).
So call it what you will, and take from it what you want. This is the not the end of Breaking Bad, and it is not the end of the reinvention of the dramatic arts. The themes of fear, fate, pride, courage, love, and light will live forever, even if none of us live long enough to ride in a flying car.
And, honestly...I thought we'd have flying cars by now. What gives?