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Breaking Bad as Literature
Breaking Bad is full of 'em: men who want to be manly, men who do bad things to feel more manly, manly men who can't help but be manly, and unmanly men that get shot in the face (we're looking at you, Gale). Being "manly" is at the center of most of the main characters' motivations.
You could even argue that Walt's basic motivation for breaking bad in the first place isn't just his cancer diagnosis, but his drive to take care of his family—because that's what a man is "supposed" to do. It's pretty much exactly what Gus Fring says to Walt in "Más" (Season 5, Episode 3):
What does a man do, Walter? A man provides for his family. And he does it even when he's not appreciated, or respected, or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it. Because he's a man.
(Of course, Gus himself has no family to provide for, unless you count the ol' Pollos Hermanos.)
In a show like that, the relationships between men are bound to be important. And even more important are the relationships between fathers and sons.
In this lesson, we're going to break down the dads of Breaking Bad, and figure out how the different characters' daddy issues lead them on a road to ruin.
For starters, read this article on New York Magazine's Vulture blog that cuts straight to the point of what we're talking about:
"All the instances of real fatherhood are polluted, all the guidance warped."
They give a quick rundown on Walt's parental status with each of his literal or figurative children (spoiler alert: not good), and a whirlwind tour of the other paternal relationships in the show.
Vulture does a pretty good job, but we'd like to cruise through a little more carefully and put each of the father-son relationships under a microscope to see how they all add to the simmering daddy complexes that power the characters' troubled psyches.
Walt and Walt Jr.
When you've got a kid named after his father, you're automatically set up to draw correspondences between the two.
Walt doesn't have many limits, but one thing that he's absolutely bent on is not letting Walt Jr. know anything about what's happening, no matter how obvious it gets. Which means he doesn't really get to see Walt Jr. a whole lot. And Walt Jr. responds to this absence by weirdly changing his name to "Flynn" in "Down" (Season 2, Episode 4)—he's got a secret alternate identity, just like his old man.
Walt's guilty about his secrecy, too, which he deals with by showering Walt Jr. with gifts, from the 2009 Dodge Challenger in "Cornered" (Season 4, Episode 6) to the hotel room in "Rabid Dog" (Season 5, Episode 12). But there's not much else he can do to relate to Walt Jr. without involving him in the dirty secret, so Walt Jr. stays in the dark about everything all the way up to "Ozymandias" (Season 5, Episode 14).
And Walt ends up acquiring a different son…
Walt and Jesse
Even though they're not blood-related, this is easily the most significant father/son relationship in the series—and the show is plenty aware of it. In "Salud" (Season 4, Episode 10), Walt even accidentally calls Walt Jr. "Jesse" after he gets screwy on beer and painkillers.
Basically, it's like this: Walt starts cooking meth to "provide for his family," but the more he works with Jesse, the more Jesse follows in his footsteps, becoming the son that Walt can't let his real son become. For a while, it's a beautiful bromance, but Walt soon becomes quite the bad dad.
We've already talked about Breaking Bad's classical-drama stylings in our first few lessons, so it's not surprising that Walt and Jesse's father/son relationship also has some mythological overtones. Walt makes an important reference to the myth of Icarus and Daedalus in "Hazard Pay" (Season 5, Episode 3). Using a deeply mixed metaphor, he reminds Jesse of the time when Gus murdered Victor: "Maybe he flew too close to the sun… got his throat cut."
Quick refresher: Daedalus is a brilliant artificer (sort of a cross between a craftsman and an inventor) who gives his son Icarus a pair of wings attached with wax, and he warns Icarus not to fly too high, where the sun would melt it, or too low, where the sea water would get the wings wet. Well, Icarus flies too high, and… well, you know.
Jesse isn't much different than Icarus: he's full of energy, but prone to flying high on manic rages, or else flying low on depressive benders. And Walter, of course, is the brilliant inventor, who also appears in another myth, in which he builds a complex labyrinth he himself can barely escape (much like the meth-based hijinks it takes him four seasons to get out of).
Of course, it's pretty hypocritical for Walt to lecture Jesse on the dangers of flying too close to the sun, but Walt's a chemist, not a literary critic.
Jesse and his girlfriend Jane Margolis are cut from the same cloth: both are kids who've been kicked out for using drugs by their parents, who still worry over them a lot. They're both in and out of their drug recovery, though mostly out.
But Jane's issue with her father is a little different: he's still her Narcotics Anonymous sponsor, hasn't kicked Jane out of her apartment the way Jesse's kicked him out of his aunt's place, and in "Phoenix" (Season 2, Episode 12), he tries to kick Jesse out of his apartment when he sees evidence of him and Jane doing heroin together.
But Donald's main significance in the series isn't necessarily his relationship to Jane; rather, his influence on Walt's father-son relationship to Jesse. Remember that incredibly unlikely moment when Walt and Donald randomly meet and start chatting at a bar in "Phoenix"? Donald says, "Just love them. Just... I mean, they... they are who they are"—and Walt replies:
Yeah. I've got this nephew. This nephew who is, I mean, he's an adult. But you can't infantilize them, you can't live their life for them. But still, I mean, there is that frustration. You know, that... God, that frustration that goes along with, you know: 'Yes, as a matter of fact, I do know what is best for you, so listen.' But of course, they don't. I mean, what do you do with someone like that?
Donald then says, "You can't give up on them. Never. I mean, what else is there?"
Well, there's a big pile of money, but Walt's obviously not gonna tell him that. Still, Donald is probably the guy who brings the whole father-son relationship into Walt's mind to begin with—for better or (much, much) worse.
It's revealed early on that Jesse's affluent suburban parents kicked him out for his drug use ("Cancer Man," Season 1, Episode 5). We only meet them briefly, but the main thing to know about Jesse's father is that, well, for most intents and purposes, he doesn't have one. So he latches on to Walt, Mike, or whoever else wants to kick him around.
Jesse definitely has some deep rooted nurturance issues that go all the way back to his childhood. Think of the time where he shows Jane his drawings of "Kanga-man," a superman he designed who carries along his sidekick in his pouch ("Over," Season 2, Episode 10). Yeah.
"Family is all," Tio Salamanca says to his two nephews—right after holding one of them under a pool of ice water to teach him a lesson about fighting with his brother.
(Fun fact: in that scene, Tio is sitting in a chair made of wheels, years before he sits in his wheelchair. The psychic camera strikes again!)
Tio and the Cousins aren't exactly chatty types, so we don't know that much about them, but we do know that Tio's the patriarch of the Salamanca clan. And as the last surviving Salamanca, he suicide-bombs Gus Fring to avenge the deaths of his many adoptive sons, who certainly would've done the same for him.
Yeah, we know, Hank and Marie are childless—but as usual, Hank ends up becoming an interesting foil to Walt; he becomes a "surrogate father" to the same kids as Walt. Just in opposite ways.
Let's start with Walt Jr. In "Gray Matter" (Season 1, Episode 5), Walt Jr. gets busted buying alcohol and calls Hank for help instead of Walt. The cop lets him off with a warning, and tells Walt Jr., "You're lucky you've got a good dad here." Hmmm.
And then Walt Jr. has another alcohol-related incident in "Over." Walt pours Walt Jr. tequila shots at a pool party, and Hank tries to stop him: "What, are you going for Father of the Year?" he says to Walt. A confused Walt Jr. looks at Hank for permission to drink, and Walt grouchily says, "What are you looking at him for?" Then Walt lays down the law: "It's my son. My bottle. My house." And so Walt Jr. ends up drinking until he yarks into the pool.
Then there's Jesse, Walt's spiritual son. Hank beats up Jesse in Season 3, so it seems like there's no love lost there, but in Season 5, Hank ends up being the one who becomes Jesse's caretaker, after Jesse discovers that Walt poisoned Brock in "Confessions" (Season 5, Episode 11). And yes, Hank repeatedly proves that he cares more about nabbing Walt than protecting Jesse, but he still does right by Jesse, helping him entrap Walt in "Rabid Dog" and "To'hajiilee" (Season 5, Episodes 12-13).
So, on the good dad scoreboard, it's Hank: 3, Walt: zip.
P.S. Though this isn't anywhere in the show's official canon, Betsy Brandt, who plays Marie, said about her childlessness: "I always thought they wanted to, and they couldn't. That just felt right to me; I felt like there was a kind of undercurrent of sad when they're with Walt and Sky's kids."
The Random Little Kids
Have you noticed how many kids hang around the margins of Breaking Bad? There's not just Walt's baby daughter Holly ("Daddy did that for you," Walt says, when he shows Holly his money stash in "Phoenix," Season 2, Episode 2), but there's also all these:
- The kids who find Walt's gas mask in "Cat's in the Bag…" (Season 1, Episode 2)
- The kid whose toy car Marie runs over in "Seven Thirty-Seven" (Season 2, Episode 1)
- Tomas Cantillo, the kid who kills Combo and gets killed: "They used this little kid like some puppet. They used him to shoot my friend" (Season 3, Episode 12)
- The kid Todd shoots in "Dead Freight" (Season 5, Episode 5)
- The six-year-old daughter of Jesse's support group leader
- The kid whose toy car Walt doesn't run over in "Blood Money" (Season 5, Episode 9)
- Whichever kid owned the pink teddy bear from the exploded jet liner in Season 2
- Brock, duh.
They all get hurt, abused, or damaged in some way—intentionally or unintentionally—as a result of the main characters' shenanigans.
What does it mean? Is the series trying to say that the violence of adults inevitably ends up affecting innocent kids? Is it just a convenient way for Vince Gilligan to convey how evil Walt is?
Maybe both, maybe neither, maybe something else entirely, but one thing is for sure: except for Brock, none of these kids are shown to have parents. They're out by themselves.Go to Lesson: Happiness is a Warm Lab