“Breaking Bad” and our Collective Shadow

I have recently been watching the first four seasons of Breaking Bad, finally relenting to the pressure of a good friend who insisted it was television at its finest. He was right. It is the most compelling television presentation I’ve ever seen. The story-line, the plot, the character-development, the acting, the directing, the cinematography is absolutely magnificent. I don’t watch a lot of popular television but once I started viewing this series, I could not stop and even now have embarked on the recently available season five.

BUT, this show is intensely disturbing and dark. Usually with a description like this I would refer to grisly violence and sexual perversion; and there is some violence but the real disturbing violence is psychological, emotional, and ultimately spiritual.

The story is about a benign…even lame…high school science teacher who learns he is dying of cancer and is going to leave his family nothing. He happens to be suddenly exposed to the world of methamphetamine manufacturing by his DEA brother-in-law and decides, “Hey, I can do that.” And he does. And he does it well.

From episode to episode he is lured down the dark path of drug culture though he always avoids use of the meth himself. But relentlessly he makes poor decisions which lead to other poor decisions which brings him to a point where he has gone over to the dark side…he has “broke bad”…even though he continues to have the façade of a middle class citizen who is recovering from cancer.

But Breaking Bad is not about the drug culture, nor is it a “made for tv” morality story. It is about human ugliness and the way in which good, upright people can suddenly find themselves in the middle of this “shadow side” of life through a series of unfortunate events, compounded by the willingness to forego moral principles. Early in the series I found myself asking, “Why am I watching this?” It was so disturbing, creating unrest in my heart that I usually find only with violence in movies.

As I paid attention to my reactions as I watched the series, I could not help but observe that many world cultures would not permit this kind of social analysis and criticism. The Taliban, for example, would never allow self-reflection of this sort to take place. In fact, ultra-conservative ideologies of all stripes would not allow such self-reflection and would radically extirpate the first hint of such a tendency. In fact, in all ultra-conservative extremency there is always a theme of “purity” which serves the purpose of keeping out this “shadow side” which our culture permits in shows like this and in the arts in general. (Anthropologist Mary Douglas and psychologist Julia Kristeva are two people who have addressed the problematic nature of this “purity” obsession.)

And, for all the problems that our culture does have, I feel that ultimately to own this “ugly” dimension of our experience, to articulate it through various forms of art, is to give vent to it. Otherwise, we always project it onto others, that ubiquitous “them” out there, that “barbarian horde” which is always threatening our perimeter. We fail to own up to the wisdom of Charlie Brown, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

 

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