In 1865, slavery was abolished in the US. Nice idea. But watching Breaking Bad I got a creepy feeling. Late in the final episodes, Jesse is confined in a meth lab where he used to work, tethered by a long vertical chain to an overhead girder like a dog in a dog-run. All he can do is what his keepers have ordered: cook meth to the excellent purity he has been taught in his partnership with Walter White. Should he balk, his compliance has been enforced by the tactical murder of his girlfriend, with the threat that her little son will be next if he is stubborn.
Have we really abolished slavery? Jesse’s chain is an in-your-face metaphor, but it would be a stretch not to call it slavery. I would suggest that the slavery begins with addiction, and that it defines a gut-wrenchingly large chunk of our population. It’s when you cannot extricate yourself from a situation when an external force, be it a gang or the addiction itself, totally dead-ends all your best efforts. And, as in old-fashioned slavery, somebody profits massively from status quo.
We have for-profit prisons marketing inmate labor for profit while getting handsomely paid to do so. We have corporate agriculture knowingly employing undocumented labor, engaging in wage theft (you work, but you don’t get paid) facilitated by the workers’ fears of deportation. Tomato farm workers in Florida actually got the beginnings of a grip on that one, but there’s a long way to go. When the “cleanup” after the Deepwater Horizon oil debacle got into gear, advertisements went out that brought in a lot of undocumented labor, and wage theft was the rule of the day.
Slavery obviously does a number on its victims, but what about the perpetrators? Prison guards in Florida have been revealed by a recent New Yorker article to be routine players in vicious torture of inmates, with an iron-clad “blue line” of self-protection worthy of any big city’s cops. Infliction of pain, sometimes of death, for entertainment purposes — something has gone awry in the brains of the top dogs. Does it make them happier?
When we mounted and performed Macbeth, from 1978 to 1994, we were moved to look at the effect of violence on the perpetrator. In 90 minutes Shakespeare compressed the entire action of Breaking Bad, and we embodied that play for years, as we did with our family-violence play Dessie. But not until now did I think of this as a form of slavery.
You take a step that makes you no longer the master of your own destiny. It doesn’t matter whether the slave-owner is a drug cartel or a corporate farm in Florida or the demon in your own head. It’s slavery.
—From the Fool—
I made the mistake, with some guys I know, to mention the little kid who shot his mother. From the back seat: took it out of her purse—or no, was that the one where it slid from under the seat? I just thought it was weird that a two-year-old was so precocious, but the guys misunderstood. They thought I meant there should be a law against two-year-olds packing heat.
The big hairy guy with the tattoos just sat there, pretty cool about it, but little rat-faced Jerry turned bright red and started quoting the Constitution. If my friend Gus hadn’t calmed him down, he might have either have had a stroke or killed me, neither of which I was ready for, being as I’m busy on weekends.
Jerry calmed down enough to let me know that kids were citizens from the moment of conception, so this one was probably almost three. Plus, parents were raising spoiled brats. Plus, there wouldn’t be so much family violence if they all had guns. Or at least they’d get it over with faster.
I knew I shouldn’t have brought it up. If something strikes me as weird today, it’s probably the next big thing.
Last night we finished watching the entire five seasons of Breaking Bad (took about a month). I was enormously impressed on several levels. I wonder if it’s unique (as I don’t know other long series, except a couple of seasons of The Wire) in having a plot that, while it takes many excursions, really does have “unity of action.” It’s sustained by perfect casting and superlative scene-writing (way superior to most live theatre that I see), though maybe a few too many you’re-about-to-kill-me-but-wait! scenes.
I’ve read that the original intent was to write out Jesse Pinkman after the first season but that the producers realized his potential, and indeed it’s a vital lesson in dramaturgy. He offers a complex outside-the-family relationship to Walter White, and makes White’s maddenly two-note character tolerable and powerful by providing a wild emotional roller-coaster to balance it. Maybe I’m made more open to it all by our recent immersion in Shakespeare—few of the Bard’s characters are morally unambiguous, and there’s a sense of scope that transcends the city limits of London or Albuquerque. Plus the Shakespearean dramatic expedient of killing off a huge load of characters.
I’ve been thinking, though: is the fascination with crime-as-entertainment more intense in America than in other cultures? Surely we don’t have a patent on it, as witness Titus Andronicus, Miss Marple, Medea, or the Icelandic sagas, but I wonder whether it’s ever been so pervasive in human storytelling.
Apart from the intrinsic appeal of violence—that extra spew of adrenalin—it appeals to our need for a story’s completeness. Shakespeare kills the old king, ushers in the hopes of a new administration. In Breaking Bad, the whole crew of baddies are mowed down or poisoned, the sympathetic characters (though being murderers or co-conspirators) are allowed some hope, and Walter (as protagonist and scriptwriter-in-effect) dies in the satisfaction that he’s wrapped up loose ends—himself the final loose end.
What a relief from the loose ends of real life, where stuff just goes on and on, up and down and sideways. All successful stories have that attraction of beginning/middle/end, of course, but violence nails it. If it’s a comedy, marry them; if not, kill’em. In Japanese Noh drama, the conflict is incited by a crime or trauma or betrayal, but the action is internal: the protagonist comes to a spiritual reconciliation, purgation, exorcism, whereas Hamlet, Lear, Othello, and Walter White just die, or else Sam Spade catches the crook.
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© Bishop & Fuller 2016