THE SON AGAINST THE FATHER
As Breaking Bad winds down I am struck by what should have been obvious all along: Breaking Bad is a Gnostic drama of the Son against the Father. I have been in the habit of grouping it with The Sopranos and Mad Men as an exploration of the American man as father. And it is obviously that. But there are some crucial differences that are more pronounced in the final episodes as the drama’s focus intensifies. Don Draper and Tony Soprano, ambivalent fathers and husbands, are primarily engaged by the mother. Both men are incorrigible philanderers. But they aren’t simply dogs like Clinton. They are after a true love that lies outside of their world of home and work. They struggle with their wives. Don’s mother dies and he is raised in a whorehouse, and Tony’s mother is murderous. What makes Don and Tony fascinating as characters is the smidgeon of insight they possess, their alienation from the code of work, the laws of the world each man inhabits. The heart of their drama is their struggle with the past (the mother) and how this struggle brings them into conflict with their world. They are unsettled men able to see and understand things others around them don’t, but they are unable to change. Walt on the other hand is a faithful husband and he has no parents. The one incident from the past we know of is his friends ripping him off and making billions while he must teach high school chemistry. One of these friends is a woman he was in love with, and she has married their partner. The struggle even here appears to be with a male rival.
The action starts with cancer and time itself ceases to exist as the show unfolds a single year over five seasons. Walt’s intro to the world of meth, motivated by the need to earn enough money for his family when he dies, begins with his former student, Jesse Pinkman. Jesse at first educates Walt but Walt is a good student and the resentment he has nursed for decades blooms quickly into psychopathology. Walt becomes a gangster with few doubts. And his mission, or rather, his main rationale for all he does, is protection of his family and crucially, his ‘son’ Jesse. But unlike his actual son, Walt Junior, who is disabled, he has a full blown Oedipal struggle with Jesse. His desire to protect Jesse constantly endangers him. And Jesse’s desire to rid himself of Walt always melts as he time and again refuses to betray him, until Walt finally goes too far and poisons a child. The rhythms of the show are defined by this struggle, and it has all come down finally to the Son and Brother against the Father, the trinity of Jesse, Walt and Hank, fueled by betrayal, love and revenge, reduced now to a small circle of cars in the desert and men with machine guns.