High-Tech, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down

This afternoon, overcome by a mounting frustration at being unable to get two monitors working on my new single-graphic-card-equipped home desktop personal computer, I blurted out the following on Facebook (only a couple of minutes before I entered a plaintive plea for help on the same forum, which resulted in several responses, and indeed, even a phone call from an old friend):

Nothing quite sums up our relationship with some kinds of high-tech better than the fact that in order to get it to work, you have crawl around on your hands and knees.

I’m not exactly a naif when it comes to high-tech; indeed, to invoke the spirit of Walter White‘s claim that he was the one “who knocks on doors,” I’m often the person asked for technical help by my friends. But over the years, I’ve lost my patience with the promises of the high-tech world: all too often, to interact with high-technology is to be left fuming, spluttering, hypertension and cortisol levels spiked. Many interfaces still remain counterintuitive, trouble-free interoperability between different kinds of devices–and the software they run–remains a distant mirage, and day by day a bewildering alphabet soup of formats, protocols, decimal-annotated versions, and their various misbegotten cousins rains down on our heads like a malevolent anti-manna.

I know, I know, I sound like an old fart. Fair enough. I’m not that young anymore, and it’s been years since I wrote my last line of code (whether in a lowly scripting language or in a more exalted programming language.) But the funny thing is, I used to bitch and moan like this even when I was a ‘techie,’ a programmer and systems analyst at Bell Labs, or later, a UNIX system administrator. I’ve always felt vaguely resentful of the discordance between the promises of high-tech and the stress it induces in our lives. (My complaints about the ‘fragility of the digital’ are another dimension of this unease.)

Yes, I’m well aware that I’m getting this message out using a writing and distribution platform on a computer connected to a gigantic worldwide network, which I use daily for communication, entertainment, and accessing vast stores of information relevant to my ongoing learning and education. Respect. Much respect. I am staggered by the ingenuity and brilliance and labor that makes this thing–or things–work. But this same friend and aide, the one dispensing benefactions which make our lives so much easier, also exacts a fairly high psychic cost. (I have, on many an occasion, felt like hurling my computer monitor at the wall.)  And, yes, I’m aware, my complaint today this is not a particularly new complaint. But it remains interestingly persistent and finds newer forms of expression as our technological ‘gifts’ and ‘burdens’ grow in seemingly equal proportions. Perhaps that’s the sobering part of this giddying rush onwards to the ever greater technologization of our lives.

Note: I have still not managed to get my two monitors to work. At one point in the afternoon, I decided I had had enough of looking up help forums on the net and banging my head on my desk, and decided I would get to work instead. On a computer, of course.

Jesse Pinkman and Eklavya: Teacher-Student Relationships Broken Bad

The grand old Indian epic Mahabharata contains, among its thousands of stories, several which unsettle us by their moral ambiguity. One such story is that of Eklavaya. The Wikipedia entry for him notes:

He is a young prince of the Nishadha, a confederation of jungle tribes in Ancient India. Eklavya aspired to study archery in the gurukul of Guru Dronacharya, the greatest known teacher in the use of weaponry and martial knowledge at the time. He was son of Vyatraj Hiranyadhanus, a talented soldier in the army of King of Magadha….Eklavya sincerely sought the mentorship of Drona in weaponry and martial art. Drona discouraged him, and ultimately rejected the boy due to his caste. Out of respect for Drona, Eklavya began a program of self-study, using a clay image of Drona for inspiration. Eventually, Eklavya achieved a level of skill superior to that of Arjun, who was Drona’s favorite and most accomplished student, and part of the royal Pandava family. The Pandavas come across the boy in the forest one day, and Eklavya told them of his self study under the idol of Drona. In a cruel move, the guru demanded that Eklavya cut off his right thumb in obeisance to his guru, a request that could not be refused by a student in a gurukul. Eklavya agreed to the demand without hesitation, severing his right thumb and presenting it to Drona.

The story of Eklavya horrified me when I first heard it, and it continued to exert an unsettling effect on me as time went by: it acquired the stature of a singular betrayal of the student by a teacher, a figure in whom the student had reasonably accorded some faith, trust and hope for ethical treatment. Years later, as a doctoral student who had heard too many stories of horrific dissertation supervisors, I would often recount this story as an archetypal instance of the abuse of the student-teacher relationship.

Thanks to Breaking Bad, and the sorry story of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, we now have yet another such demonstration of the flagrant disregard of the moral parameters of the teacher-student relationship.

Jesse is not Walter’s student in school anymore, of course, but he does function as a junior understudy, one mentored and taught by Walter. In his continuing references to ‘Mr. White’, in his awkwardness around Walter’s family and in his home, it is clear a certain impression of Walter White has not been erased from Jesse’s mind. The old teacher-student relationship has now been replaced by a new one; the classrooms and homeworks are admittedly different, but it is evident that a basic, familiar template still persists. It is thus all too easy for Walter and Jesse to fall back or rely on the behavioral patterns and expectations prescribed by it.

For Jesse, this is a persistently abusive relationship. From the very beginning, from the time that Walter threatens to betray him to the DEA, through the twists and turns of his tortured partnership with Walter, one marked by hectoring, verbal expressions of contempt, overt and covert manipulations, and almost right up to the end, Walter takes advantage–among other things–of whatever psychological and emotional edges might have been afforded him by Jesse’s memory of him as his teacher in high-school.  Walter White was always keen to draw upon any weapons available to him when he waged his battles; his drawing on the status he had once enjoyed in Jesse’s life was, for him, a foregone conclusion. If Jesse is deferential to Walter, it is only to the latter’s benefit.

Many of us cheered Jesse on when he punched Walter senseless during their fisticuffs in the fourth season; I suspect some of our anger at Walter was driven by the sense that he had betrayed an implicit trust that Jesse had in him, one that would, hopefully, protect him from the kind of abuse Walter subjected him to.

By saving Jesse from the purgatory of a life as a meth-manufacturing slave, Walter White partially redeemed himself. But his actions before that fateful night had already become established in the annals of moral failures in teacher-student relationships.

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.

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.

Breaking Badder Than I Thought

Almost exactly a year ago, I speculated about how Breaking Bad would wrap up.

I wondered about Walter White‘s eventual fate:

[P]erhaps the writers will give Walter a glorious back-to-the-wall-defending-his-family-shootout kind of death, saving  them from the depredations of a ruthless set of ganglords, thus redeeming himself in spectacular fashion even as he loses his life….Hank will finally catch up with Walter, his Heisenbergean nemesis, a man who has nearly caused his death, and caused him plenty of misery.

I seemed to be on the mark here. In a fashion. But there were other speculations that I got wrong:

[W]hen Hank catches up with Walter, it will be too late; Walter will be dying, and Hank will let him go, cognizant of the price to be paid by the family if Walter’s cover is blown. Most centrally, Hank will keep Walter’s identity secret so that Junior does not come to know his father was a demented meth cook….As for Jesse, Walter will apologize for having induced such a catastrophic trajectory to Jesse’s life, but I do not know if he will ever spill the beans about his role in Jesse’s girlfriend’s death….These redemptions add up to a happy ending of sorts: there will be a funeral and tears will be shed, but Walter will have provided for his (extended) family, eased the uncertain torments of Hank, and maintained his image in the eyes of his befuddled son.

As the series heads for its finale next week, it’s pretty clear there will be few happy endings. Indeed, the only outcome that could count as such would be Jesse liberated from his horrific servitude. Every thing else would be very weak balm on a large sucking wound. Walter White is at the bottom of a deep pit; it’s going to take some desperate scrambling up its slimy sides to get ‘out.’

Not that there’s much waiting up top:  his money seems destined to go waste; wiping out a gang of feral killers seems unlikely. As does reconciliation with his family, the unkindest cut of all. And of course, a painful death from lung cancer awaits in any case.

Vince Gilligan had indicated that Breaking Bad would ‘not end well,’ and if the current trajectory of the show is any indication, that seems very  plausible. Still, I have been surprised by the bleakness of these last few episodes and wonder how much of the feel-good wrap-up style I had relied on in my earlier speculations will be on display in its conclusion next week. Walter donning his Heisenberg hat and the flash-forward earlier in the season which showed him with a gun suggest that at least some dramatic, blood-soaked resolutions lie ahead, and the wrinkle introduced by the mention of Gray Matter Technologies is certainly an interesting one.

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.   It has already set new standards for bleakness–Jesse Pinkman‘s recapture and Andrea‘s execution were merely the latest flourishes.

I’ll be sad to see the show end, but I wouldn’t mind a little relief either.

Skyler White, The Anti-Muse?

Yesterday I wrote a short response to Anna Gunn‘s New York Times Op-Ed about the negative reaction to the Skyler White character on Breaking Bad. I want to add a couple of points to that today.

Some of the adverse reaction to Skyler finds its grounding in her instantiation of an archetype that I alluded to yesterday: the domestication, and hence taming, of the artist. Walter White is an auteur, a maven who marries science and art to produce the purest crystal meth possible, who worries incessantly, and proudly, about the quality of his ‘product.’ This is a man obsessed, like all good artists are, about whether his vision has been realized, who is capable of endless ‘revision’ and ‘drafting’ to get things to come out just right. His pride may be his downfall, as in when he cannot stop himself from bragging to Hank about how Gale was a mere child compared to Heisenberg, but it is a justified pride: his work is just that damn good. Skyler, however, is no such thing. Remember that in the first season we are told that she writes short stories and sells items on Ebay. The former activity marks her not as creative but as delusional, like all those people who imagine they will write the next Great American Novel, the latter as a not particular edifying combination of a hustler and parasite. Later she becomes book-keeper for Beneke Fabricators.

The contrast is clear: in one corner, creativity, innovation and enterprise, in the other, dull, stodgy, mundane beancounting. And more significantly, the brilliant male artist, bought to heel by the cackling, nagging, domesticity of the home and hearth, his rising star brought back to earth by the dead weight of the home. An old joke has it that one mathematician wrote to his colleague after his marriage, ‘Congratulations, you can do more mathematics now’, but in general, the received wisdom is that the artist’s work suffers after marriage. He is called away from his easel, his desk, because of the calls from the kitchen and the nursery. Skyler is thus the sand in the wheels for Walter’s artistry; she gets in the way of his work. she prevents him from realizing his potential. We are invited to see her as a millstone and barrier.

There is an interesting visual grammar to the contrast drawn between Skyler and Walter. As the show progresses, Walter becomes sharper: he loses his hair, starts dressing in black, speaks with gritted teeth, delivers his lines with barely controlled violence, and his actions follow a trajectory of decreasing compromise (like all good artists’!). His rough edges are smoothed, he becomes menacing, not just in his deeds, but in his appearance as well. Compared to him, Skyler appears rooted in the ordinary. indeed, for a while, she is visibly weighed down with pregnancy, viewed here not as fertility, but rather, as a symbol of the artist’s enslavement.

It is little wonder Skyler provokes such visceral reactions; her character carries the burden of many pernicious tropes.