Sketching the bars of our cage
Breaking Bad, marriage and the delusion of freedom
[I]n many Greek cities the law punished celibacy as a crime. This was in accordance with the ancient belief: man did not belong to himself; he belonged to his family. He was one member in a series, and the series must not stop with him. He was not born by chance; he had been introduced into life that he might continue a worship; he must not give up life till he is sure this worship will be continued after him.
— The Ancient City, by Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges
This mountain hunter was not a “noble savage.” Such concepts were always illusions of highly organized, overbureaucratized societies, wanting desperately to believe that man’s nature was to be free, and that somehow civilization had tyrannized him. The Shoshone hunter was hardly a joyous creature of nature. The People were not clean, not “good,” not “noble,” not merciful, nor, hard as their life was, were they industrious. They were a people surviving by the skin of their teeth, beset by forces they could not comprehend.
— Comanches, T.R Fehrenbach
I’ve written before about the potency of Walter White’s will to power in Breaking Bad, and about the reasons Breaking Bad fans famously loathe Skyler. Breaking Bad is in no small part about breaking bad from marriage. Walt’s jolt of freedom in empire building is also a breaking from his marital chains. His beleaguered 50th birthday handjob and designated fake bacon breakfast become muscular sex and domain dominance. The audience hates Skyler because in this telling she is the villain. She is Nurse Ratched and we are rooting for Walt.
This is not a subtle reading of the show. One of the most underrated and largely forgotten scenes is when Jesse goes to his old pal’s Paul’s place. He’s in need of help, a place to stay. They’re jamming to some grunge bit they wrote long ago. The scene is immediately funny. Paul is fair and handsome, clean cut, Captain America. Beside him is his angelic blue eyed blonde son. They’re in a simple suburban home, middle class America. Paul’s jamming like some punk kid, regressed to a Before Time, before he was Suburban Captain American with his blue-striped polo. Jesse is very clearly still a punk kid. The dad grew out of this world. Jesse didn’t. Paul banters half-longingly with Jesse — talk to me man, are you still having mad relations out there — in the manner of dads projecting their wildest fantasies onto a world passed and out of reach. Living the dream, he says to Jesse, in between cajoling his toddler into eating his meal. And of course the dad lets his old pal Jesse crash on the couch. That’s what guys do.
In comes Mum. Wife. And she looks upon the scene with barely concealed horror. Can I speak to you for a moment, she hisses at her husband and they disappear into an adjoining room. Jesse knows in that moment his cause is lost. They return and it is the husband’s regrettable position to tell Jesse, actually…
It’s a simple, beautiful and true scene. We’ve all seen this movie. It’s another oppressive data point in the Breaking Bad universe — we’re under their thumb! Walt’s under Skyler’s, and this friend of Jesse’s, he too is leashed by his new master. Paul’s a younger Walt perhaps, not yet worn and weary in the confines of his marital bonds. Woe is the state of man!
But of course Paul’s master is right. Jesse’s a loser meth freak. For all we know, in the adjoining room Paul’s wife asked him: did you notice a sign out the front of the house that said "Meth Freak Storage"? Jesse conjures some excuse for why he’s in need of a bed and Paul happily plays along but his wife knows. They always do.
We feel Paul’s pain and we laugh at him, but who is the good guy here? Captain America with his beautiful wife and kid, all grown up and clean cut and in chains, or drug-addled forever-adolescent loser Jesse, ‘free’ as a bird? Paul might be projecting his young and free fantasies onto Jesse, but Jesse isn’t ‘living the dream’. Jesse’s a degenerate loser slumming it even before Mr White came along. And the only time Jesse stops being a degenerate loser, or at least matures into a higher form of degenerate loser, is after his beautiful girlfriends dies (because of him?), and he becomes a pseudo-father to young Brock. It took a woman to make a man out of him. The mantle of responsibility.
Breaking Bad is pro marriage. Our Captain America lives a Good life. We don’t ever envy Jesse and his loser single friends, and the closest we get to admiring Jesse is after he wizens up with love. In the end Walt breaks his family apart. His wife drifts into oblivion and his son hates him.
But of course, the best example of a marriage in Breaking Bad is Hank’s and Marie’s. Marie is a kleptomaniac neurotic. Hank, a bullyboy all-American steak-and-beer cop. And they adore each other. Hank supports his wife and her sister’s family. He stands by her thieving and nagging. She stands by him after he is shot, through his moods and rock obsession. They don’t even have kids — love alone binds them. This is no grandiose love of the ages but the inseparable suburban love of one neckless cop and his radiologist wife. What more could you want? They begin the show as a stick-figure pair just as Hank begins as a stick-figure character. But just as he fills out and endures one of the most stunning transformations of a show famous for its stunning character transformations, in the background their marriage brightens into a light on a hill. When he dies, she wilts from view.
In life we don’t admire the elderly bachelor. It’s misguided at best, a tragedy or degenerate at worst. Perhaps empire building is a salve. What did Genghis Khan think of his litter? Alexander died too young to care. Rousseau's abandonment of his brood horrifies us. Woe to the man who who deludes himself into the path of Achilles.
Man yearns to be free like a poodle yearns to hunt bison. Woman domesticates man because being mothered and succored and fed and assured is his secret wish. Freedom is an illusion, as glorious and fake as the fantasy Paul projects onto Jesse. Out there is no sunny field of frolicking babes, it’s an empty, aging wasteland. When Marty in True Detective blows up his marriage with another honey trap, his triumph is long wasting away if it ever there was. He’s left eating his microwave meal alone on his couch, the fantasy of the free cowboy roaming the plains haunting him in the background.
Divorce has a uniquely deranging effect on men. Beyond merely a sense of failure — which is total — there’s something else. It’s unclear exactly why that demon burns so bright, but that it’s there signals that far from marriage being an unnatural bond for man, it is essential for him. Perhaps once we knew other ways, long ago. But those ways are as familiar to us now as bison flesh to that poodle.
But don’t take my word for it, I’m just talking my book. Nabokov wrote that Lolita was inspired by
a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: the sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.
Perhaps we are Nabokov’s ape, and can only describe the bars of our own cage. Maybe if we let the darkness inside yearning to break free whisper a little into our ear, we might ask: would Walt do it any other way if he had his time again? And we might hear him chuckle with a glint in his eye that says: no way in hell. He was born to build empires, family be damned.
"For something in their lives—the hot thrill of the chase, the horses running in the wind, the lance and shield and war whoop brandished against man’s fate, their defiance to the bitter end—will always pull at powerful blood memories buried in all of us."
— Comanches, T.R Fehrenbach
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