Entry from August 27, 2013

A propos of my New Atlantis article below on “Breaking Bad,” I got around to watching Sunday’s episode last night and found myself not alone in being puzzled by the ending. I had a vague recollection of some business with the Ricin cigarette and the boy, Brock, whom Jesse thought Walt had poisoned, but I had to go on the Internet to have it all explained to me again. I found that a crucial piece of business, where Walt had poisoned the boy’s juice box with the lily of the valley from his garden, had taken place off camera — and perhaps only in a later commentary about the episode by Vince Gilligan. That Jesse himself obviously had a much clearer recollection of what had happened at the end of Season Four is, of course, not surprising, but that his missing pouch of marijuana as he waited to be picked up by Saul’s new-identity merchant should have inspired him to unravel in an instant Walt’s whole devious plot — well, that just strains credulity a little.

My own dawning realization on having worked all this out was that the most implausible thing about the series so far, more implausible even than Walt’s building and then liquidating a criminal empire under the noses of the DEA, is Jesse’s quickness on the uptake. Finding his marijuana confiscated when Huell (Saul’s fat bodyguard) picked his pocket, he looks at his pack of cigarettes and realizes in an instant — in an instant, mind you — that Huell must also have pickpocketed, some months earlier, the Ricin cigarette, which in turn tells him that Walt had been lying when he said that Gus poisoned the boy and that, in fact, Walt had done it to obtain Jesse’s cooperation in the plot to kill Gus. In other words, we are being asked to believe that the characters in this very tightly-plotted series are as plot-conscious, as alert to the hidden significances of ordinary objects as the authors are, even though they presumably don’t know they’re in a TV show.

In real life, people like Jesse and Walt who have lightning fast insights into the evil intentions of others, which they can then counter with ingenious counter-plots of their own, are nearly always crazy. The elaborate conspiracies their sharp wits make them constantly aware of are non-existent, simply because things in the real world hardly ever happen as a result of conspiracies. Criminals may plot their evil deeds, but their plots seldom go according to plan, certainly not so often as Walt’s do. And when bad things happen, it’s usually because somebody has screwed up. In “Breaking Bad,” by contrast, nearly everything bad that happens happens on account of an ingenious plot, usually by Walt. And Walt is only the quickest and the cleverest of the plotters. He has to be, after all, in order to stay one step ahead of all the other characters, Jesse being the latest, who only require the slightest of hints to figure out his whole devious scheme.

Nor does anything ever go wrong, except the one absurd mistake — stealing the marijuana, leaving the copy of Leaves of Grass out where Hank could find it or shooting the kid on the motorbike during the train heist — that is so obvious, or becomes so in retrospect, that you’d almost think it was deliberate. This is the paranoid, the conspiratorial mind at work, and being let in on the cleverness of the plot, the multiple plots, is the audience’s chief pleasure in watching the show, now that Walt, like Macbeth, is

bent to know,
By the worst means, the worst. For mine own good,
All causes shall give way: I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

Yet Macbeth retains a measure of our sympathy just because he is beginning to share in the audience’s realization of his own wicked foolishness. Walt, so far, still imagines that he can evade his fate by being cleverer than everybody else — and the series’ authors are prepared to leave the audience in doubt, apparently up until the last moment, as to whether or not he might be right about this. I leave it to you to decide which situation provides the more satisfying aesthetic experience.

Speaking of conspiracies, I am teaching an online course this fall at Libertas University on “The Enemy Within,” based on last summer’s movie series. I’ll be talking about old movies and what they tell us concerning popular attitudes to patriotism and treason. Tonight between 8:30 and 9:30 P.M. there will be a “Meet the Profs” event for anyone who’s interested in signing up.














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