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Meth, Myth, and Mayhem
We're about to cook up a fifteen-lesson batch of pure knowledge about Breaking Bad, the tensest, gnarliest TV crime drama since The Sopranos.
First stop: Breaking Bad as tragedy. This show has a ton in common with the classic tragedies of Western civilization, from Sophocles to Shakespeare to Scarface.
But before we can get into all that, we've got to wrap our heads around two things: exactly what tragedy is, and exactly what makes Breaking Bad qualify as one.
Okay, let's start up the RV.
Let's put up the Vamanos Pest fumigation tent.
Let's break bad.
Cue the Periodic Table of Elements.
We use the word all the time, but what exactly is it? According to Aristotle's classic Poetics, tragedy is a genre of drama that depicts a noble character—someone all high and mighty—who falls from grace. The genre is meant to create the emotions of pity and fear in its audience, who then purge those emotions in an act of catharsis. Translation: cry it out.
Usually, the whole fall from grace thing is brought about by some sort of tragic flaw (a.k.a. hamartia) in the hero, like ambition, greed, or pride (we're lookin' at you, Walt). But it can also just come from bad circumstances (Walt's cancer), unfortunate coincidences (Hank finding Gale's Leaves of Grass while on the toilet at Walt's house), and rotten luck (Jane's accidental overdose).
All this jazz got its start in ancient Greek drama, including plays like Antigone and Medea. But over the years, it branched out into other narrative forms. Novels like Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men or href Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are considered tragedies today.
And of course, so are cable TV shows.
Breaking Bad's Tragic Cred
Starting with the ancient Greeks, different cultures have added their own spins on tragedy, and Breaking Bad fits in with almost every convention.
We'll give you the low down on just a few.
Tragedy of the Common Man. Tragedy isn't just the stuff of nobles and kings these days. Go ahead and ready this short essay by famous playwright Arthur Miller, "Tragedy and the Common Man." Even though it was written back in 1949, the whole thing applies pretty directly to Breaking Bad, especially this little tidbit:
I think the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing—his sense of personal dignity. From Orestes to Hamlet, Medea to Macbeth, the underlying struggle is that of the individual attempting to gain his "rightful" position in his society.
Sometimes he is one who has been displaced from it, sometimes one who seeks [to] attain it for the first time, but the fateful wound from which the inevitable events spiral is the wound of indignity and its dominant force is indignation. Tragedy, then, is the consequence of a man's total compulsion to evaluate himself justly.
That's Walter White's whole deal in a nutshell.
Notice the big fat scare quotes around the word "rightful": Miller is saying that the hero is trying to claim what he thinks is his rightful position in society. Walt thinks his "rightful position" is as the billionaire Nobel Laureate who never left Gray Matter Technologies.
At the beginning of the show, he's totally robbed of his dignity (washing his students' cars, teaching for peanuts), and out of sheer indignation, he lays down his life time and again to become the man he really feels he should be: Heisenberg.
(Fun fact: Werner Heisenberg, the theoretical physicist Walt names himself after, won the Nobel Prize in 1932.)
Shakespearean tragedy. Of course, you can hardly say anything about tragedy without mentioning our boy William Shakespeare. In the first lecture of Shakespearean Tragedy, the famous Shakespeare scholar A.C. Bradley broke down the basic features of Shakespearean tragedies:
- One protagonist. Sure, there's Jesse and Skyler and Mike, but Breaking Bad is definitely "Pre-eminently the story of one person, the 'hero'": Walter White. (Or Heisenberg, if you prefer.)
- Exceptional suffering and calamity. Bradley says that stories about "a man slowly worn to death by disease, poverty, little cares, sordid vices, [or] petty persecutions" aren't Shakespearean tragedies. So if the show were just about Walt dying of lung cancer, it wouldn't count. But, of course, it gets a lot more exceptional than that: murders, kidnappings, betrayals, poisonings, assassinations, blackmail—and that's just the first two seasons.
- The tragedy extends far beyond the hero. One of the main things about Walt's tragedy is that he keeps sucking people into it—not just Jesse, Skyler, and the other main characters, but Jane, Gus Fring, Mike and his ten guys in jail, the 167 passengers on Wayfarer Flight 515 ("ABQ," Season 2, Finale), and much more.
- Five acts. Or five seasons, whatever. Spooky, right?
- A total reverse of fortune. Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, is frequently quoted as saying that his plan for the show was to "take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface." That's pretty much what happens, and it puts a complete 180 on Walt's life.
- Persons of "high degree." Bradley's talking about kings, princes, and generals, but as we read in Arthur Miller's essay, it can happen to the "common man," too. Still, you could easily argue that Walt's Nobel-caliber brain puts him a notch or two above Joe Schmo.
- The hero dies. We know that Walt's cancer is gonna get him—and sure enough, that’s the last shot of the show. Really, the question for most viewers is how he’s going down.
Revenge. Revenge became such a common theme in tragedies that they formed their own genre, the "revenge tragedy"—think Hamlet or the plays of Seneca. While revenge might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Breaking Bad, there's no denying that it plays a huge role in the plot:
- Walt explodes the "KEN WINS" car in "Cancer Man" (Season 1, Episode 4)
- Hank beats up Jesse in "One Minute" (Season 3, Episode 7)
- The Cousins shoot Hank in "One Minute" (Season 3, Episode 7)
- Gus poisons Don Eladio and his cartel in "Salud" (Season 4, Episode 10)
- Tio Salamanca blows Gus's face off in "Face Off" (Season 4, Finale)
- Walt impulsively shoots Mike in "Say My Name" (Season 5, Episode 7)
- Everything Jesse does to Walt after "Confessions" (Season 5, Episode 11), starting with soaking Walt's house in gasoline
Like Shakespearean tragedies, revenge tragedies contain a few specific elements, too:
- Secret murder. Walt's attempt on Brock, Gus poisoning Don Eladio, Walt killing Mike—the list goes on.
- Murder victim's ghost visits a relative. There may not be any ghosts, per se, but we've got plenty of flashbacks. Gale and Jane, especially, come back to haunt Walt and Jesse.
- Hero wants revenge. Take your pick, really.
- Plotting, Disguises, and Intrigue. Throw in "meth," and you've basically got a four-word summary of Breaking Bad. We'll get deeper into Walt's disguises later in the course, but for now: there's his Heisenberg get-up, his hazmat suit, and on a metaphorical level, his secret double-life as a mild-mannered schoolteacher.
- Real or pretend madness. Oh yeah. See Walt's "fugue state" in "Bit by a Dead Bee" (Season 2, Episode 3) and Skyler's pool party meltdown in "Fifty-One." (Season 5, Episode 4).
- Rising body count. Uh-huh.
- Major bloodbath, including hero's violent death. The bloodbath thing is pretty well-covered, wouldn't you say? It's worth pointing out how totally in-your-face it is about it—Gus Fring's head getting half-blown off, people getting turned into "raspberry slushy" in hydrofluoric acid, planes exploding in the sky, and Walt going down in a hail of his own robot-assisted bullets.
Gesamtkunstwerk. Big German words scare us, too, don't worry. But we'll break this one down for you.
Gesamtkunstwerk is a concept that was popularized in the 19th century by the composer Richard Wagner, and it translates to something like "the total artwork." See, Wagner had this idea that Greek tragedies represented the best of all arts, because they combined as many different kinds of art as possible—singing, storytelling, acting, and so on.
Whether or not you agree with Wagner (the guy was kind of a snob, not gonna lie), television definitely incorporates more different artistic mediums than ol' Rick Wagner could ever dream of: cinematography, directing, screenwriting, music, acting, computer graphics, special effects, and… we'll let you fill in the rest.
But Breaking Bad goes even further—bet you saw that one coming—by constantly throwing in new genres, styles, filming techniques, and points of view, and using them to flesh out the universe. Examples? But of course:
- The Los Pollos Hermanos commercial at the beginning of "Kafkaesque" (Season 3, Episode 9)
- The narcocorrido music video ballad to Heisenberg that opens "Negro Y Azul" (Season 2, Episode 9)
- Gale's Thai karaoke video in "Bullet Points" (Season 4, Episode 4)
- The episode that's basically one long scene ("Fly," Season 3, Episode 10)
Sure sounds like a Gesamtkunstwerk to us, especially if you count the games, quizzes, apps, graphic novels, and blog posts on the official website.