Breaking Bad and the Improbable

Tue Jul 31, 2012

I have recently caught up with Breaking Bad, which seems to be everyone’s favorite television show these days. And like most people, I have enjoyed it a lot. I think it’s fair to say, however, that it strains suspension of disbelief in many ways.

For instance, in the first season, Walter sends Jesse to meet with a violent meth distributor named Tuco Salamanca. Jesse loses both the meth and some blood. After Walter visits him in the hospital, he devises a plan to get their money back and establish a working relationship with Tuco. He goes to Tuco’s office and brings him what appears to be another bag of their product. Previously, Tuco crushed some of the crystal with an imposing knife and snorted it off the blade—with brio. This time, however, he merely scrutinizes one of the shards. He hands it back to Walter and asks him what makes him think the outcome is going to be any different this time. Walter tells him that what he was holding isn’t meth and throws the crystal down, creating an impressive explosion. (“Fulminated mercury” is what it turns out to be.) Now, if Tuco had followed his normal pattern and crushed the shard with his knife, the resulting explosion would have killed him. Walter himself would almost certainly die in the aftermath.

Jesse was not conscious to tell Walter about Tuco’s habit of testing the product, true. But it would be a reasonable inference. I suppose that if Walter planned that far ahead, he might have been hoping that he would kill Tuco and be able to do business with whoever crawled out of the rubble. But that would make him something close to a Kierkegaardian knight of faith. Another point is that his prognosis at this point is so bad that he might feel that he has nothing to lose. Walter had also recently avenged the world upon an aspiring Albuquerque one-percenter, whose own unsuppressed animal spirits have left him driving a BMW (and, also improbably, banking at a credit union) with “Ken Wins” on the license plate. Ken also wins in small ways, cutting Walter off for a parking space, and indulging himself in performatively lewd remarks while waiting in line at the bank. When fate presents Walter an opportunity to torch Ken’s BMW at a gas station by dropping the squeegee on his battery, he takes it. The bravado of his stand at Tuco’s might just result from the power rush at this one successful balancing act.

Walter, before he begins his second life, is a high-school chemistry teacher. But he was once a successful research chemist. His brother-in-law Hank (a DEA agent, about whom more in a bit), his former student Jesse, and chemists at his former company—along with everyone else he meets—treat his vocation with barely concealed contempt. Before long, Walter will be making more in a day or so than he makes all year on his teacher’s salary (just over \$43K, which seems a bit low to me for a public school teacher with Walter’s years of experience but maybe not). The back story about the now very successful company that Walter co-founded is, if I remember this correctly, that Walter left it over a romantic conflict with his founding partner Eliot, who is now married to the object of this conflict, Gretchen. Eliot and Gretchen now live in opulence and throw lavish parties of dubious taste. What led Walter to abandon the company and the offer of financial assistance he receives from his former partner at this party is his pride. The show seems to argue that becoming a schoolteacher is a prideful act—a self-denying activity similar to Walter’s second job at the car wash (where he is humiliated in the pilot episode by his own students).

Hank, the swaggering DEA agent, consistently fails to detect the increasingly obvious fact that Walter is involved in meth distribution. The show’s motivation for this is that Hank thinks Walter is a loser. Some of this comes from his Walter’s outwardly meek personality, but even more of is that Hank cannot imagine a schoolteacher doing anything as ambitious and dangerous as meth distribution. (Hank’s own brash personality is revealed to be largely compensatory when is transferred to the border and immediately traumatized by a violent spectacle.) Hank is determined to find Heisenberg (Walter’s nom de guerre), the mystery distributor of extremely pure meth, and he later engages in impressively perceptive detective work to uncover Gustavo Fring’s involvement. Fring, a local chicken magnate, becomes a focal character of the third and fourth seasons of the show. He also is an improbable character in several ways, though these improbabilities serve larger thematic concerns in the narrative logic.

A non-Gus-related staggering coincidence in the second season involves a spectacular mid-air plane crash caused by an air-traffic controller’s mental instability and distraction. This air-traffic controller is played by an actor best known for his role as an omnipotent alien narcissist, and the entire plot line that leads to him being responsible for this spectacle is seemingly designed to show how Walter’s pride will eventually manifest itself as narcissistic, magical thinking. Walter will begin to think, at least unconsciously, that (just like Q) anything he wills will happen. The air-traffic controller’s daughter, Jane, died in her sleep. A recovering heroin addict, she has resumed her habit with her boyfriend Jesse. Jesse moved in to a house that her father rents and she manages. Conflict between Jesse and Walter led to Jane and Jesse attempting to blackmail Walter. He goes to Jesse’s house, intending some sort of redress, and finds them unconscious. In the original script, Walter actually rolls Jane over on her back so that she would choke when she begins to vomit, but after an AMC note and a reconsideration, Walter finds her choking on her back and merely does nothing to help.

Before any of this happened, he stopped at a bar and ended up having a conversation about parenting with Donald Margulis, Jane’s father. While Donald was speaking of his own daughter, Walter was of course thinking about Jesse. Without this meeting, Walter probably would have still learned that Donald was Jane’s father and that he was thus responsible for the crash; but this chance encounter makes Walter immediately recognize his responsibility. All plotting depends on improbabilities. Most non-habitual actions and encounters in life are, individually considered, extremely improbable, so plotted events tend to be more regular and predictable than the realities of life they indirectly model. But in the symbolic economy of the series, this particular event legitimizes Walter’s sense that he has cheated death and is somehow becoming a focal point of the world. (As the lead character in a fiction, he is, of course; but I do not think that any metafictional gestures explain this dynamic.)

There are other things I wanted to mention: how I wish that they had shown Gus dosing himself Mithridates-style against the day, how they had tried to explain how Brock ate the berries (or how Walter could know that he would), everything about Saul Goodman and Mike the Fixer. Maybe next time.