Scott Ellington's Blog

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Breaking Bad

A middle-aged, middle-class man is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer.  The terrifyingly inconvenient prospect of his imminent death forces him to evaluate the utility of his resources in order to provide adequate wealth for the family that will survive him.  The over-qualified high school chemistry teacher knows that his health and life insurance aren’t up to the task of compensating for his inevitable loss as a bread winner, so he decides to break with his own personal tradition of law-abiding, civilized behavior by becomming a manufacturer of an illegal chemical, crystal meth.  The product he creates is uncommonly pure, distinctive and sought-after by the market, the market’s regulators, television critics and by fascinated audiences.  (I’m a member of that last group.)

The process of his evolution from loser to entrepreneur beautifully illustrates the story of capitalism, a contraband/unfashionable class of tale Grant McCracken laments here:

The protagonist of Breaking Bad, Walter White, builds a superior mousetrap.  People want it.  The rapid introduction of Walter White into the complicated workings of fundamental capitalism make for fascinating television as he learns enough to survive the challenges of distribution, competition, personnel management, regulatory agencies…and loses his grip on his personal life while navigating through an increasingly complex tempest of lies, deceits and questionable/abominable ethical choices.  Not the least agonizing of these lessons is that Walter White’s wonderful product creates avid customers (partners, competition and colleagues) he can never ever trust.  That implication is the hallmark of insanely-intelligent storytelling; Vince Gilligan’s values demand a 300hour cruise, along with Milch, Whedon, Simon, Burns, Chase, Sorkin — oh, how I long to add Noxon to this archipelago of creative sphincters.

Maybe it’s possible to tell a fascinating story about an abstract economic idea like capitalism.  I don’t think stories work that way.  It seems to me that stories are always about people.  Even when the tale centers on an animal (The Call of the Wild, White Fang, The Black Stallion…), the lure of the yarn is the (human) intelligence that guides the actions of characters (and resonates with human audiences).  Does the world population of literate white whales explain the fact that Moby Dick still sells?

While Breaking Bad illustrates many fundamental principles of capitalism, the story is utterly rooted in the forces that move people to action.  Stories exist at the heart of social media because people create and recite them.  People pay attention to them.  And people are the active/attractive elements in stories of/by/for and about people.

I think of stories as the nuclear bond at the crux of social media that grow by being taken and spread regardless of compensation.

I think of money as the practical (not philosophical or theoretical) opposite of stories.  Money’s power (for good or ill) increases as it is accumulated/concentrated.

I think of stories about money as fascinatingly oxymoronic, and the current expectation that money should be exchanged when stories are told is just cosmically ironic.

The creation of stories is a necessary function of culture:   The cultural organism excretes an unlimited stream of narratives (through assholes we call writers and story-architects).  That certain segments of our population claim the right to exact payment for particular streams of cultural excrement seems, to me, shockingly presumptuous, especially when the protestors are armies of lawyers representing men at the tippy-top of a handful of pyramids  that comprise horizontally-and-vertically-integrated transnational media cartel(s); two entirely different sets of assholes, lawyers and moguls, from which socially-interesting excrement almost never spews.  I suspect that social media (story) and commerce (money) are practically antithetical, pulling in opposite directions (and sometimes spinning in parallel), and too-rarely do they collide as expected.  And Hollywood is obssessed with the art of bottled lightning.

The next day:

I’m picking up Season 3 via an iTunes “season pass”, and watched the newly-released third episode I.F.T. last night.  I’d probably have missed the significance of the title were it not for the accompanying Inside Breaking Bad download that highlights the meaningfulness of the episode’s title, which is probably an abbreviation of Skyler’s powerful, pivotal confessional statement, “I fucked Ted”.

I say probably, because  Anna Gunn’s actual pronouncement was probably censored to hush the naughty word in her sentence to a whisper.  So I’m not entirely certain whether Skyler mirrored Walter’s confession, “I make meth” with her own reference to a permanent and ongoing, parallel secret life that isn’t safely locked away in the past tense.

“I make meth” and “I fuck Ted” are significantly different statements from “I made meth” and “I fucked Ted” in context of the disastrous implosion of their marriage.  But the (probable) influence of lawyers and moguls leads me to surmise that my uncertainty over “fuck/fucked” will have to sort itself out in the course of the continuing story, so these three paragraphs amount to nothing more than a footnote of protest.

Eight days out (from I.F.T):

It mattered a lot whether Skyler confessed to a lone indiscretion or an ongoing romantic catastrophe for their marriage.  She confessed to iniquity to fix an inequity with Walter, whose resolve to go straight is perfectly illustrated (and perfectly thwarted) in the last few frames of the very next episode, Green Light.  One or the other of them might make an exception and forgive the other’s past and pardonable error in judgment, but all hope of change is negated as these married antagonists are drawn inexorablycloser together by the power of that which they each hold sacred, and against the dictates of common sense, self preservation and conscience while Jesse and Hank are doing exactly that very same thing.  (Hanks is The Bomb in Albuquerque and a tiny fish out of water in the bigger pond of El Paso.)

Whoever muted one naughty word in Skyler’s fateful confession will doubtless remain anonymous, and while that important decision does a disservice (that matters) to every member of the audience, it really doesn’t matter at all.  It just calls attention to the hypocritical stupidity that makes this show so powerful; systemic failures on showcased display, highlighting warts and all.

18 July 2012.  Last night I saw the first episode of season five, in which we learn that:

1.   Ted ain’t dead!

2.  Jesse’s contribution to planning the ultimate Heisenburglary is uncharacteristically brilliant, adopted, implemented, executed, and BEHOLD!  It leads to a whole new dimension of uncertainty represented by a fabled mountain of Fring wealth.

3.  Mike will graciously accept on-faith The Infallible Wisdom of Walter when pigs fly, Ted keeps his word, Skyler forgives Walter, and less is more.

4.  If Breaking Bad isn’t the best show on television (and it doesn’t have to be), it’s nonetheless, absolutely riveting,

Now that I’ve marathoned 7 seasons of Star Trek:  Voyager, and 6.5 of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I can say without equivocation that the advantages provided by appointment television (to audiences and culture) are relatively negligible.  They exacerbate the negative effects of uncertainty in cliffhangers, hiatuses, syndications, cancellations, pregnancies, firings, beard growth…while convening phase-locked watchers for the benefit of sponsors hawking crap in carts the industry puts in front of the engines-of-creation that actually draw attention.  Once upon a time, my goddaughter defended her beloved TNG when I told her that I loved the show, except for the irritating frequency of all the goddamned commercials.  Twenty years ago, we couldn’t have content without commercial interruption.  Since then, it has become more difficult to recognize the box canyon into which we’ve been hearded-up, headed in, rolled up, driven in…Rawhide!  Rawhide!  Rawhide!

Wipe that foam off your mouth!

05 Apr 10 - Posted by | Uncategorized |


  1. thanks for the McCraken piece as the idea you are raising here is a fascinating one – the human drama that arises in our struggles to better ourselves, through the legal & illegal means, remain more riveting that the grand historical narratives. I think you’re quite right – it’s obvious that what resonates at the end of the day are the stories of individuals caught in crucibles of difficult choices and the consequences of decisions made.

    I spent a good portion of a week recently with a philosopher from New Zealand who was adamant that the danger of ‘technology’ (following Heidegger) is that humans too become resources & will be subsumed to the imperatives of a technologically driven system, becoming secondary and/or immaterial to the continuance of the system. Gilliam’s Brazil fits here. To me this point resonated as a warning as to the danger of falling for the argument of ‘for the greater good.’ Walter’s tragedy is that he sacrifices so many (Jane…. all the users hooked on his blue meth) for the good of his family.

    Oddly, I started thinking about this teaching children’s lit years ago, where repeatedly the child protagonist rejects the adult’s arguments for the greater good, the abstract gain of sacrifice for X system, X goal. Repeatedly, in children’s lit from Huck Finn to The Golden Compass, the protagonist refuses to betray the individual for the greater good. What’s gripping about Breaking Bad is watching Walt make choices for the best of reasons that are so screamingly wrong.

    Comment by siobhanoflynn | 10 Apr 10

    • The grand historical narratives generally tend to minimize the virtue of living. Florentine Films reversed that trend by leading our attention deep into still photographs while telling us stories of people living minutely in the sweep of enormous battles, magnificent constructions, the births of industries and the sweep of eras. They’re multimedia stories designed to reach deep into individuals in the audience, who also make minute choices.
      Conscience doth make people of us all at a level of direct and recognizable, minute experience that adults and systems tend to ignore.
      Thank you for the observation that literature designed for children resists the sweeping, adult, objective perspective that spurns exceptionalism to serve pretty much nobody by aiming to address the needs of a mythical All.
      The first attractor in Whedon was music in Mutant Enemy’s fresh use of language, but the longer I’ve lingered with the work he makes, his stories uniquely illustrate the properties of conscience; choices and consequences.
      Star Trek was devoted to sanitary imperatives and the grand narratives of sweeping, adult directives. Firefly was created to explore the opposite view; of disperate individuals collaborating to survive in a crucible created by a theoretically benevolent alliance of pervasive corporate and govermental disinterest in people.
      The story of evolving capitalism is featured prominently in Deadwood, and Studio Sixty on the Sunset Strip incorporated more chewy metainformation about showrunning, screenwriting and the influence of capital on creative production than anything I’ve ever seen.
      No wonder I follow your blog, your grasp, insight and reach are profoundly inspiring!

      Comment by Scott Ellington | 10 Apr 10

      • Thank you, I’m honoured and I’m particularly enjoying your breadth of knowledge and anaylsis as I read your blog post & comments elsewhere, so I am returning the compliment. 🙂

        Comment by siobhanoflynn | 12 Apr 10

    • Jason Mittell dropped a Twitterlink this morning to this:

      David Simon references grand narratives, creative license and the search for a greater truth.

      Comment by Scott Ellington | 11 Apr 10

  2. I love the idea ‘that those who have perpetrated this fiction are indifferent to facts, chronologies, historical possibilities.’

    And that the idea that fiction ‘trespasses’ – goes back to Plato’s suspicion of the poets for the sleight of hand that can make us delight & weep.

    Comment by siobhanoflynn | 12 Apr 10

    • Simon’s statement makes no reference to Generation Kill, his miniseries that walks the wire above informed “intelligence on the ground” and the grand narratives created by exalted yes-men seeking WMDs. He seems (to me) to equate chiefs-of-staff with showrunners, demanding exacting scrutiny of both. Television’s never been riskier, unless it’s live, theatrical and sixty years ago.

      Comment by Scott Ellington | 12 Apr 10

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