As a friend of mine used to say, some of us have a keen eye for the obvious and others don’t. Include me in the latter category, for a sudden realization came to me the other day. It hit me so hard that I gave myself a dope slap and did my best Homer Simpson impression: Doh! What a fool I had been to miss this one!
For the five or six of you to whom the title of this essay is not familiar, it refers to one of the most critically-acclaimed and also one of the most popular television series of all time. We are talking 9.5/10, folks! It is the story of Walter White, a smart but (initially) unlucky high-school chemistry teacher who, to fund the medical expenses of his terminal lung cancer, begins to cook crystal methamphetamine in partnership with one of his students, an addict and a pusher. Over several seasons, we watched Walter (aka Heisenberg) overcome impossible odds and survive, even thrive, only to succumb at the end (after he has taken care of all his foes, of course) in a denouement viewers found so satisfying that the final episode received the coveted 10/10 rating.
I always saw this smart, absorbing television drama as the story of one desperate man who undermined the rule of law, sacrificed his place in society, risked his family and everything else, to stake his all: initially on survival, but increasingly on aphrodisiac power. His smirk became as famous as the lines he uttered in the show, such as when he yells at his terrified wife, “I am the one who knocks!”, when she asks about the bad men who would come knocking on their doors.
I once heard Vince Gilligan, the maker of the series, interviewed on radio. A sincere, intelligent man, one obviously dedicated to his art, he told the interviewer about how he drew inspiration from the Japanese film Ikiru, meaning ‘To Live’, by the immortal Akira Kurosawa. Ikiru is the story of Mr Watanabe, a small-time bureaucrat who, like Walter, discovers he has terminal cancer with only six months to live. Unlike Walter, though, Mr Watanabe works to realize his lifelong dream – building a park in an impoverished district of Tokyo where the children can play. The final scene of the movie, in which Mr Watanabe sits on a swing in the park he has just built, singing a nursery rhyme from his childhood, is among the most moving scenes in all the films I have watched.
Wrong metaphor. All along. Now, only now, after the insurrection of January 6, 2021, do I finally see the obvious. Hence that dope slap. If Breaking Bad is a metaphor for anything at all, it is one for America. Specifically, white middle America. Chronically ill from the permanent loss of work and the loss of dignity that came with it, she is exactly like Walter White. Smart, enterprising, devoted to family, god-fearing and generally strait-laced. Until, of course, her life is threatened by a deadly disease. A cancer. Of the terminal kind.
And just like Walter White, white America has decided to break bad. To take things in her own hands. Lash out at those elites, criminals themselves in her view. You think you can tell me what to do? she asks, just like Walter, and responds: Let me tell how it will be. I have played by your rules for too long. Now you play by mine. And if you don’t want to, be prepared do die a violent death. Like all those who ever crossed Walter aka Heisenberg. He is the one who knocks.
Take heed, people. These folks are preparing for war. For them the stakes are too high. For them the laws of your land don’t mean a thing. This is not the America we know, your leaders are telling you. A worthless platitude, if I ever heard one. Believe them at your own risk. This is very much the America I know. I have seen it up close. It is like Walter was my neighbor once. And unlike the enemies of yesteryear, who lived in faraway jungles or mountains or deserts, these people are right in your midst.
So, be afraid. Be very afraid.
All is not lost, though. At his heart, Walter stayed a good man right until he died. He took care of those he loved when he had the means to do so. He was quite selfless too. And I do believe that like Walter, all these misguided people are good at heart. They have faced a grave injustice. They have had their lives taken from them. Understand their plight, treat them with compassion, make them feel welcome into your life. Treat them like the brothers and sisters they are to you. Show them the kindness you are capable of. Stop looking them down your nose just because they are different from you.
Win them over. One Walter White at a time.