At the risk of underestimating the creative power of Vince Gilligan and his merry band of audience-torturers, I’ll say that even if nothing between now and 10 p.m., September 29, 2013 equals the power of Walter White’s phone call in “Ozymandias,” Breaking Bad will still go down in TV history as the equal of The Sopranos in one particular area: its ability to toss a dramatic/rhetorical hand grenade into viewers’ collective laps.
We should start by establishing what happened in that scene at a plot level, if only because it’s been the source of a lot of straw man lectures by commenters and viewers who seem to have other agendas: Walt had a brutal fight with Skyler, kidnapped his daughter Holly, felt ashamed when the toddler asked for mommy while he was changing her in a gas station restroom, then called the house and talked to Skyler.
The plot function of that scene was to give Skyler an alibi by making Walt out to be a monster who dictated the terms of her complicity, and who was alone responsible for the death of Hank, who got shot in the desert by Todd’s uncle Jack. Whether the phone call ends up working, either as plot device or legal tentpole, might be revealed next week or the week after. But purely in terms of action, that’s what happened. And nobody really disagrees with this. There were a few viewers, including The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, who fixated on the hate in Walt’s words and voice and initially missed the performance part of it, but pretty much everyone I know who made this mistake (including Nussbaum) realized it, and eventually backed up and recognized the other aspect. Nobody misunderstands what Walt was trying to do in that scene. Repeat, nobody.
So let’s move on to the emotional aspects, because I think that’s what really makes the scene.
As I wrote in my recap, which went up around 1 a.m. Monday, “After watching the episode a second time, I think that terrifying monologue he delivers to Skyler on the phone after he’s kidnapped Holly suggests that series creator Vince Gilligan and company have gone in a surprising and altogether perfect direction with the character, one that integrates Walter and Heisenberg in response to the Ozymandias-like crumbling of the man’s ‘empire.’ The gist: I do not believe, as some are already speculating, that when Walter spews all that venom at Skyler while the feds and Marie and Walt Jr. listen in, that it’s ‘really’ Walt pretending to be Heisenberg — i.e. that it’s all some big fake-out. I think that’s Heisenberg speaking. But I think it’s Heisenberg speaking on Walt’s behalf.”
The controversy over Walt’s phone call is really about the relationship between viewers and television. It’s about the discomfort that ensues when an episode or scene or moment forces us to take a hard look at why we watch a show, what we truly get out of it, and what that says about us.
Bottom line: some viewers desperately, desperately, desperately need for Walt to be somehow a “good guy.” As in, good at heart. Good, deep down. Flawed but worthy of redemption. And also an incredible badass, a man with a plan. Heisenberg! A guy who really is doing it all for his family, though he’s made some mistakes along the way, Lord knows — but give the dude a break, look at the pressure he’s under!
I exaggerate, but not by much. My colleague Maureen Ryan’s piece about Walter and the phone call prompted this response from a reader: “Why are people blaming walt? What would you have done differently? He is not evil. Jesse is. He could have gone his way, but he had to skrew walt for what - poisoning? That kid didnt die ok? And what else? Nothing. This fake outrage is laughable.” Another wrote, “How many men would risk their futures and their lives for their wives and children? He didn’t concentrate on the fact HE might be dying. His first thought was of his family. He loved his family more than his wife loved him. He was also highly intelligent. No, he wasn’t a hero; he was merely, just one more, desperate person, facing death and the unknown. Plus, he had been cheated before in his career, deprived of the fame and wealth, he well deserved, explained early on in the show. Was he evil? No, just a very ill and desperate soul! But for the grace of God, go I.”
Brock and Jane and Mike might disagree, but whatever.
These sorts of viewers insist that Walt’s tears near the end somehow cancel out the unnervingly sincere hatred in his voice as he ranted and raved—that he was just a master showman putting on an act when he spewed venom at Skyler, using phrases that could have been copied verbatim from the countless “Skyler is a bitch” threads in comments sections and on message boards. Also that Walt was just putting on an act when he said Hank got what was coming to him. Because Hank is family, you see, and Walter would never hurt his family! That’s a bridge too far for him, you see. He did it all for his family in the first place, you see. He said so! You see?
It would be disturbing if it weren’t so sad.
Where does this impulse to Whitewash come from?
I think we know: We like Walter. We root for Walter. We think of ourselves as good people. We can’t root for a bad person. Therefore, if we root for him, he must be good. Or good at heart. Otherwise we’re bad for rooting for him.
There is no Team Walt, really, unless you’re a sociopath, or somebody who’s unreasonably attached to the sorts of frustrated little boy Alpha Male fantasies that got Walter in trouble in the first place.
The approach that makes sense — that seems reasonable, given what we know about this show, which for all its stylization is realistic about the messiness of psychology — is that Walter is not only a good guy or only a bad guy, nor solely a provider or a destroyer, nor solely or even primarily Walter or Heisenberg. He might have been a good person at one time; he has been a very bad person for a while now. That doesn’t mean there’s no good left in him, but it’s been so subsumed by Heisenberg and the fallout of Heisenberg that we can barely see it anymore, and even if it were possible to dig those good aspects out again (as he attempted to do, in his twisted and desperate way, in the phone call), it might be too late: hence the notion of Breaking Bad as tragedy.
No, what makes sense is the notion that Walter, like me, like you, like everybody, is complicated, and does things on purpose and on instinct, and on purpose while acting on instinct, and by accident, and in response to demons even he doesn’t understand; and Walter, like you, like me, like everyone, can be more than one thing at the same time, just as a great work of popular art can be more than one thing at the same time, many of them in seeming contradiction. Multitudes, multitudes.
By which I mean yes, of course, the phone call was a performance! We all know that! But like all performances, and like all convincing lies, it drew on true emotions, deep resentments. It was a magma-hot blast from Walt’s id, even if in that moment the id was helping the superego put across a lie intended to exonerate Skyler and put all the legal heat on Walt. As my friend Mark Johnson put it, “As Heisenberg, he hates her. As Walt, he loves her. He was having a shared moment with his alter ego.”
I think, or hope, that the writer of the episode, Moira Walley-Beckett, was coming from a similar angle when she told Vulture, “I personally feel like it wasn’t open to interpretation.” She was talking about it being a “ploy” or performance — which, as I said earlier, everyone seems to agree on, and understand, so there’s nothing to “explain” there. But then — and this is the important part — she goes on to say, “In the writing of it and the breaking of it we talk a lot about the line between truth and fiction. There are things in there that are truth, but it’s all subterfuge. It’s a very fine line.”
A fine line indeed — and when we as viewers try to shove the essential meaning of a work this complex onto one side of that line, we need to be honest about ourselves about why we’re doing it.
When Walter blasted Skyler as an emasculating shrew, an obstructionist, a “bitch,” he absolutely meant it. When he spat poison at poor, late Hank, he meant it. That on some level he means it in no way contradicts the notion that he felt horrible about Hank’s death, and perhaps equally horrible about mistreating Skyler all this time, and about bringing death and shame on other people he theoretically loves, including Walt Jr., who dropped a dime on him to protect his mother and himself.
But remember what happened a few minutes after Walter’s silent scream/cry over Hank: He had Jesse dragged out of hiding and sent on to imprisonment and torture and probable death, and twisted the knife by telling him something he didn’t know: that he watched Jesse’s beloved girlfriend Jane choke to death on her own vomit.
Walter is a sad, misguided, good man. Walter is a hateful, vindictive monster. Neither statement excludes the other.
These contradictory emotions and readings are all present, all essential, all of a piece. People are more than one thing simultaneously, always. There are lies in truth and truths within lies, in life, and in art.
Breaking Bad gets this. The phone call scene totally gets this. That’s what makes it art.
If you seek to deny or minimize the parts of art that don’t fit your reductive interpretation of Walt as a basically decent man, or a man who moves with a purpose and is somehow “badass,” as opposed to the complex monster the show has actually presented over five seasons, you are in fact, as Nussbaum wrote in her piece on the scene, watching the show wrong. In fact, you’re trying to turn a smart show into a stupid one. And you really should ask yourself why.
Why is it so important to you to believe that Walt doesn’t really hate or resent Skyler or Hank? Why is it so important to believe that equally intense elements of love and hatred, protectiveness and resentment, purposefulness and chaos, cannot exist in the same scene? Why must the scene be made simpler than it is? Why must it be made dumber than it is? Why do you need it to be so?
As commenter SeanMurd wrote, in response to Walley-Beckett’s remarks about the scene, “What Moira is saying is that the last shreds of ‘Good Walt’ had an impulse to so the right thing, but he needed to summon Heisenberg in order to put on a good performance for the police. Once Heisenberg started talking for him, well, stuff got said — stuff that’s probably been building in Walt for years. If you remove all the ‘exculpatory’ things he said, you’re left with ‘You never believed in me! You’re ungrateful! How dare you tell Junior what I did!’ I think that part of the phone call reflected Walt’s real feelings and had nothing to do with the eavesdropping police.”
Walt is complicated. Walt is a mess. Walt is not easy to pigeonhole. But we do know that he has been, throughout the run of the series, a horrendously manipulative, dishonest, coldblooded, violent, destructive person, and now he’s reaping the consequences of all the ill-advised or outright evil choices he has made.
It is possible to accept all these things and still root vicariously for Walter to outsmart his enemies. We root for Tom Ripley. We root for Michael Corleone. We root for a lot of characters who are, if you step back and take a good look at them, basically villains.
But as we root for them, hopefully we understand that what we’re feeling, or should feel, is a mix of attraction and repulsion — and that when we bend over backwards in our interpretation of a show, to maximize attraction and minimize repulsion, we’re making art dumber, and lying to ourselves about ourselves.