Breaking Bad and Walter White’s Too-Neat Conclusion

Breaking Bad‘s finale was a little disappointing. After the relentless darkness of the second half of the fifth season, I had let myself believe that the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, would go all the way and serve up a stark, brutal ending, one that would put the finishing touches on the show’s reputation as an exception to much of the standard fare dished out on television dramas and Hollywood movies. As I wrote in an earlier post:

If Gilligan remains uncompromising and brings the White nightmare to an end in as unsparing fashion as he has shown recently, then Breaking Bad will have performed a very useful service: it will make conventional endings look almost unsustainably trite.

Instead, Gilligan, caught up in the desire to provide ‘closure’ and to ‘tie up loose ends’ gave us a conclusion that seemed to borrow a little too much–for my taste–from Hollywood. Perhaps too, Gilligan sought to give Walter White fans one last chance to cheer for their anti-hero, one more chance to applaud his Macgyversque ability to extricate himself from the tightest of jams.

To his credit, he left matters just a shade ambiguous when it came to the matter whether Walter had managed to succeed in his mission of caring for his family – via the extended ‘holding hostage’ of Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz. Whether they’d comply, whether they’d break down and confide in a friend, the DEA or the police is left for us to imagine; in any case, the plot was a Walter classic in its bravado and ingenuity. I initially found it hokey but could respect its cheekiness. It’s a little flimsy, for who knows how Gretchen and Elliott would respond as time goes by, but still.

The Massacre of the Aryan Brotherhood–for its sheer implausibility–was another matter altogether.  Other than some rather cursory testing there is no evidence Walter has gauged the operational capacity of his quasi-robotic machine gun, and moreover, Walter’s plan had too many failure points: it depended on all of the members of Jack’s gang assembling in the same space at the same time; on Walter not being summarily executed; on the car keys being accessible; on the car not being searched; on the car being parked in a very particular spot; and so on.

Again, to Gilligan’s credit, there is only a partial reconciliation with Walter’s family: Walter and Skyler do not make up, and neither do Walter and Flynn.  Skyler is given a legal lifeline, but Walter’s reputation with his son will not be rescued.  And Walter does ‘fess up to having done it all for himself, so that he could, as I noted yesterday, feel alive with death inside him.

The all-too neat tying up of the show was not a huge departure for Breaking Bad; Walter’s escapades have always flirted, even at the best of time, with a just a teensy bit of implausibility.  It was only the arc of the second half of the fifth season that led me to believe its creators would serve up a bleak reminder of how, in life, for most people, at most times, things just don’t work out as planned.

But at the end, the urge to provide material to cheer for, to provide relief from that grim, unrelenting lesson, won out. In any case, it was a good ride.

PS: How did Walter poison Lydia at the cafe? Sleight of hand?

PPS: I would have much preferred the modified Breaking Bad theme, as played in ‘Granite State’, as the closing music – as opposed to Badfinger’s ‘Baby Blue.’

Walter White’s Rage Against The Dying Light

Ross Douthat ponders the question of what makes Walter White the target of such sympathy–and perhaps even affection– even as it became clear that his criminality and amorality had run amuck:

The allure for Team Walt is not ultimately the pull of nihilism, or the harmless thrill of rooting for a supervillain. It’s the pull of an alternative moral code, neither liberal nor Judeo-Christian, with an internal logic all its own. As James Bowman wrote in The New Atlantis, embracing Walt doesn’t requiring embracing “individual savagery” and a world without moral rules. It just requires a return to “old rules” — to “the tribal, family-oriented society and the honor culture that actually did precede the Enlightenment’s commitment to universal values.”

But people don’t subscribe to moral codes in the abstract; rather, they find a set of practices and customs that best express the instinctive, visceral emotions and drives that animate them, and get behind those.

What groundswell of passions is evoked by Walter White? First and foremost, Walter is a dying man. And he isn’t dying in the sense of being a ‘marked man,’ one who is destined for death by the hangman’s noose or the assassin’s bullet; he carries his death, his decay, inside him. His body has turned traitor and betrayed him. But Walter has not decided to lay down and face death with calm, resigned acceptance; he has not stood by and let that quisling,cancer, do its dirty work in peace. Instead, he has raged and raged and raged. The diagnosis that Walter received in Breaking Bad‘s first episode lit a fire within him, and it has not been quenched; it made his sense sharper; it reanimated his quiescent sexuality (as evinced in his almost feral lovemaking to Skyler soon thereafter).

It is this straining at the leash, this savage slapping aside of the Grim Reaper, that so provokes our admiration.  We know our death can come in many ways: perhaps suddenly, painfully, brutally; perhaps silently, while we sleep; perhaps we will receive a proclamation like Walter’s. We wonder how we will respond: will we fall to our knees, groveling for mercy, soiling ourselves, shaking at the knees? Will we retreat into a sullen silence and in shocked disappointment, refuse further intercourse with this world? Or will we, like Walter, snap back hard, every ounce of our being straining for one last demonstration that we can still resist the inevitable fate that awaits all human beings?

A minor weakness in Breaking Bad has been its refusal to make Walter’s illness more prominent. Perhaps a few more exposures to the other science, besides the cooking of meth, that is now ever-present in Walter’s life: the chemo, the radiation. Perhaps a little more visible pain and discomfort, forcing more awareness on the viewer that Walter is a fatally ill man. But these are minor omissions, because we have known for a while that every act that we see on the screen is, despite its running counter to many norms of ours, an act of visible, angry resistance to a preordained fate.

We might express our resistance differently, and that is why we disapprove too, of Walter. But the rage against the dying light? That will always  evoke our admiration.

A Small, Yet Beautiful Book Collection (And Its Scholarly Owner)

As an academic, I’m used to seeing large personal book collections in homes and offices. Many of my colleagues and friends–some very accomplished and smart folks–have, rather effortlessly, put mine to shame.  This is the story of, in contrast, a small book collection. But a very impressive one, one that revealed its owner to be a true savant–in the best and original sense of the word.  It also tells us something about a possibly lost art associated with books: quality curating and diligent reading.

During my post-doctoral fellowship at the University of New South Wales, I became friends with a mathematical logician specializing in–among other topics–computational learning theory. His work was forbiddingly mathematical and I soon developed a rather awestruck appreciation of his competence in his chosen field. Even more impressive was his attention to elegance and conciseness in both his verbal and mathematical expression; we co-authored a journal paper together and I was–for lack of a better word–blown away by his insistence on getting our written and technical formulations just right. No superfluous words, no bloated definitions, no vague sentences were to be tolerated. (Needless to say, I left the mathematics to him and concentrated on getting the exposition right.)

During this period, I had ample opportunity to visit his office. On one such occasion, I wandered over to the solitary bookshelf present. It was stacked with books, but compared to the many book collections I had seen the collection was, numerically speaking, a rather undistinguished one.

I looked closer.  Most books–hardcovers–on those few shelves were covered with a protective plastic cover; they were a historical classic or an authoritative treatise of some sort.  This was not a lightweight collection, making up with quantity for what it lacked in quality.  A discerning mind had clearly sifted the dross out and selected merely the gems.

I picked out one of the books on the shelf; a selection of papers by the Bourbaki collective in the original French. I leafed through its pages, fascinated by the history on display. I reached the end of the book. On its last page, a series of elegantly handwritten numbered notes were written on a sheet of paper and stapled there. I peered at them; the following might have been a sample entry:

Pg 33: y ‘ should read y“ in line 41

This list continued for a page or so.

I put the book down and looked at others on my friend’s shelves. Many of them had a similar erratum sheet attached to them.

I’ve never quite forgotten the feeling I experienced then, and have repeated this story many times over the years. My friend didn’t just have a book collection of exceedingly high quality, he had actually read them all. And he  had read them carefully, closely, comprehensively, and made note of any errors he had noted. Then, with a final nod to his painstaking, diligent scholarship, one that disdained ugliness in every form possible, he had refused to markup the text itself with a pen or pencil, and had instead, attached a separate sheet detailing the mistakes he had found.

A not easily emulated model.

Alina Simone Doesn’t Like The Internet, Her Best Friend

The New York Times periodically publishes blog posts and Op-Eds by defenders of the intellectual property regimes that are a blot on our cultural landscape today; these defenders include what I describe as–for lack of a better term–‘the whining artist.’ This category includes all those who, seemingly stunned by the fact that the political economy of the production and distribution of cultural products have irreversibly changed, insist on incessantly bemoaning it and ascribing all sorts of malefactions to its agents, whether human, economic, or material.

In this category we can now include Alina Simone, who in her piece titled ‘The End of Quiet Music‘ displays an acute lack of an ironic and historical sensibility. Roughly, Simone is disappointed: that in the new music economy she had to be ‘entrepreneurial’ and this left her little time for creative production; that seeking patronage is time-consuming and counterproductive to the nurturing of artists (‘ this mechanism naturally winnows out the artists who lack the ability, confidence or desire to publicly solicit donations’); that, wait for it, ‘piracy’ is to blame.

So far, so ‘we’ve heard it before.’ But it gets interesting now:

Late one night, after playing a show, I came home to an e-mail from an editor at a publishing house. He’d heard my music on Pandora and bought my albums at the (now defunct) Virgin Megastore in Union Square. He had a question for me: Would I consider writing a book?

Two years later, my collection of essays was published.

Imagine that: the ‘new economy’–one in which music not belonging to private collections is now streamed–had resulted in another avenue of creative production opening up for her. And her first book is being distributed on Kindle; perhaps it can be downloaded and read anywhere?

Then Ms. Simone publishes a novel, and pretty soon, ‘a university press commissioned another book.’ (She also has a regular gig blogging for The New York Times; a ‘blog’ those online spaces where writers can write and be read; Ms. Simone’s articles do not appear in the print edition.)  Ms. Simone is not satisfied though and is still anxious: writers will soon be threatened by this piracy-infused world but they do seem to have it better because there are more avenues for patronage:

[P]ublishing is facing its own pressures, and the day may come when writers have no option but to become entrepreneurs, too. For now the center continues to hold; you can still write for a newspaper instead of founding your own.

But even if it doesn’t hold, there are other sectors writers can lean on for support. They can seek funding through fellowships or residencies, or teach writing at a university. These kinds of opportunities have helped a significant group of American artists carve out a middle-class living for themselves.

Ms. Simone does not seem to realize that artists and intellectual of all stripes have always relied on patronage of corresponding diversity. The creation of industries that relied on tangible products which could be made artificially scarce produced a new economy whose heyday saw the creation of much wealth for those who controlled the means of production and distribution. That economy is now in its death-throes. Artists will now seek patronage in other ways, yet to be determined. (Incidentally, there are ‘fellowships and residencies’ for musicians, and many of them teach music too at a variety of institutions.)

It will be replaced by one in which many reconfigurations will need to take place; artists who might have flourished in the old one will not do well in this new one; some who would not have done well in the older one will do better in this one. Its contours are hard to determine; there is too much flux to permit any more facile predictions like the ones I have just made.  (There might be some genre-switching too.)

But so long as the creative impulse lives on–and there is little to suggest humans will stop writing novels, poems, and plays, making music and painting, given that they did so before the industries whose deaths are now being forecast ever came about–we can expect art to be made. Entry to its world might be harder or easier; its products might be available in ways different from the ones we are used to; we might consume them differently.

We need artists to turn their imaginations to conceiving what this world might look and feel like,  and not spend their time griping about new modes of creation and distribution.

When they do so, they don’t sound like artists. They sound like reactionaries.

Turn Down the Comments; We’re Talking Science Here

A couple of days ago, Popular Science decided to turn off comments on news articles. In a blog post, Suzanne LaBarre explained why:

Comments can be bad for science. That’s why, here at PopularScience.com, we’re shutting them off….[W]e are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former,diminishing our ability to do the latter….[E]ven a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story, recent research suggests….[A]s Brossard and coauthor Dietram A. Scheufele wrote in a New York Times op-ed:

Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.
Another, similarly designed study found that just firmly worded (but not uncivil) disagreements between commenters impacted readers’ perception of science.

If you carry out those results to their logical end–commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded–you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the “off” switch.

A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to “debate” on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.

Many blogs do not have comments turned on for a variety of reasons, though I think Popular Science‘s rationale is the first I’ve heard from a public policy perspective. It is seemingly an ironic one: isn’t science supposed to flourish in an open atmosphere of review? Well, no. I left off the word ‘peer’ in there. Those who comment negatively on science stories–and I mean the ones that think evolution is ‘just a theory’ for instance–are not peers; more often than not, they are ignoramuses with a political axe to grind.   They are not offering constructive critique; they are actively seeking a proscription on the dissemination of scientific knowledge.

I do not mean to suggest  that peer review in science or in academia works perfectly. Indeed, I have suggested, in the past, that in many ways, it is a broken system (here; here; here; and here). But whatever its faults, it will not be fixed by opening the field to those whose agenda runs directly counter to that of the academy, no matter what the discipline.

I have often advocated open peer-review in the sciences (and other fields as well): place draft research articles in an open forum, invite comments and critique, let the author take the article off-line for revision and then place back online for ‘ final publication.’  Such a system will obviously only work if commenters on the article are suitably qualified peers. The editors could vet them and then allow anonymous comments as well.

I do not know if Popular Science‘s policy will be followed by other science forums on the net but at the least it is a depressing reminder of the Internet’s dark side.

Note: In a future post, I will offer some thoughts on Internet commentary in general.

Breaking Bad and the War on Drugs

A video made by the Brave New Foundation and titled ‘What Breaking Bad Reveals About the War on Drugs‘ is making the rounds these days. It is brief, well worth a watch,  and made up of rapidly edited clips from the show. It features the following  screen legends–designed in Breaking Bad’s trademark ‘chemical elements letters’ style–that successively make its central points:

The War on Drugs Doesn’t Stop Drug Use

It Just Creates More Violence

And Enriches Drug Lords

Want Safer Streets?

End the Failed War on Drugs

The folks at BNF have it right.

Walter White would never have thought he could make a fortune and provide for his family without his knowledge of the contours of the illegal black market in crystal meth. That drug–like many others–is expensive because it is illegal and ‘scarce’; it promises huge profit margins–its expected payoffs–to those who traffic in it because of this particular peculiarity in its economic standing, And those who deal in it, who distribute it–Krazy 8, Gus Fring, the Mexican cartels–do not appreciate competition, whether it be in the form of law-enforcement agents or rival manufacturers and distributors. The greater the risk involved in bringing the drug to market, the greater the constriction on demand, and correspondingly the greater the price users are willing to pay and dealers to charge. The resultant profits will then be defended ruthlessly, by any means possible; competitors may sometimes, in the best case scenario, be forced out  because of the superior quality of the ‘product’, like Heisenberg’s ‘blue‘, but occasionally that won’t be enough; they may need to eliminated too.

And sometimes, it may not be enough to just kill off a rival; sometimes it may be necessary to scare off any future ones. In that case, the violence might need to be ratcheted up, turned up a notch, made more lurid and gory, to drive home the message that here be dragons: this is dangerous territory, you would do best to stay out, to ‘tread lightly.’

Those who oppose the illegal trade–the DEA and Hank Schrader for instance–are ruthless themselves; they will skirt constitutional limitations on police power if need be. Promotions and careers hinge on it; quotas are in place; reputations rest on it. Nothing will be allowed to get in the way of these imperatives. Municipal budgets might shrink; city services might decline; but funding for combating the ‘scourge’ of drugs must maintain an upward trajectory.   The meth-heads Breaking Bad sometimes let us glimpse in its early seasons have few avenues for treatment available to them; the war has turned them into criminals, not patients.  And there’s no money for them anyway; if drugs are going to be ‘fought’ it will happen via the handcuff, the gun, the arrest, not the counselor and the clinic.

Breaking Bad, like The Wire, is not just a complicated morality tale: it is a damning indictment of the war on drugs.

Note: In a future post, I will take a closer look at The Wire. Much has been written already about its positioning within the anti-war-on-drugs debate, but I hope there is still something to be said there.

A Tiny Pleasure: Heading Home On Time

Yesterday evening, I took the train to my wife’s place of work at Brooklyn’s MetroTech Center. I was going to drop off my baby daughter at her mother’s office, and then head to the gym to workout. It had been a tiring day as any day of infant daycare invariably is; my wife was going to take over for the rest of the evening. As I arrived at the MetroTech subway station at 5PM, I noticed commuters waiting for the train, waiting to go home; as I walked up the stairs, out into the plaza and into my destination office building, more commuters streamed past me, wearing suits, jackets, formal and semi-formal wear, and a mixture of expressions, some tired, some smiling, others engaged in conversations with co-workers. The workday was done; families and friends awaited; the rest of the day did too.

Somehow, I found this sight absurdly pleasing;  it had been a 9-5 day, and now those who had ‘put in their time’ could put it behind them and move on. Here was visible proof then, that workers could still go home on time, that a life beyond the workday, and not just on the weekends, was possible.

Of course, that same pleasure reminded me that the reason I had had occasion to experience it was that I knew all too well that most workers put in ridiculously long hours at work, that they do not earn overtime or ‘comp’ time for it, that they often do not manage to take advantage of their vacation days, that sometimes falling sick is not an option, and finally, that very often retirements have to be delayed, if not postponed indefinitely.  (This situation is undoubtedly worse in the US than it is elsewhere in the world, though when I hear stories about the Indian corporate world during my trips to India, I’m convinced the US has serious competition there.)

Somehow, bizarrely, too many workers in the US have settled for a situation whereby not only are they working longer hours, they are not compensated for it. Their workplaces are unregulated in the worst possible way: their bosses can command them to come in early, stay late, skip lunches, work on weekends, spread their two weeks annual vacation out over the year so that they become a bunch of long weekends instead, and perhaps to final injury to insult, suggest that they aren’t really sick enough to take the day off. As for ‘personal days’, well, they aren’t.

Workers could change this, of course. They could unionize, bargain collectively as a unit, push back on employer power so that space is made for their needs, their time, their lives. They could ask for paid overtime–in time or money. But most workers in the US have convinced themselves, or have been so persuaded, that organized worker forces flirt with the Antichrist, with all that is good and holy in America, that unions are parasites. So rather than organize themselves and secure for themselves the benefits of a unionized work force, they’d rather stand by and let the remnants of organized labor in this country come under sustained political attack.

And never get home on time.