Wednesday, March 18, 2015

On Obfuscation and Clarity

Ever since I finished my second run-through of "Breaking Bad" (I'm finishing my third now), I've been pondering a particular aspect of the show: that all secrets are revealed. Every character who was lied to finds out the truth. Every moment when we felt the tension of knowing something one of the characters didn't has a corresponding moment of cathartic release. Hank finds out about Walt and Skyler. Jesse finds out about everything that Walt (and Huell) did. The cycle of setting up, maintaining and eventually releasing secrets informs the drama so conspicuously that it's clearly intentional and seemingly integral.

This aspect is interesting in light of twentieth century literature, which not only embraced confusion, but often refused to allow the characters one iota of clarity. Think "Waiting for Godot". A hell of a lot of twentieth century art is nothing but obfuscation.

Thinking over all this, it occurred to me that this attribute of revelation may be a characteristic of the western, and "Breaking Bad" certainly is one of those. Think about "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly". Think about the heroic tone of the western, and you'll probably come up with other obvious examples of characters who gravitate toward an inexorable revelation that is at least painful, and maybe deadly.

Wondering what this cycle of obfuscation and revelation implies about our storytelling impulses, I came to see it as a dialogue, a dance or a fight between modernism and its antithesis. "There are no absolutes," says modernism. "I will put the lie to clarity." And another aspect of our culture responds "There are absolutes. I will show people achieving clarity at any cost."

And then I thought about it some more. And I kept coming back to one particular pair of bookends: Jane's death, and its revelation to Jesse near the end of the show. When Walt stood there and let Jane choke, I wanted to scream "Noooooo! Jessie will never know... he has to know!" Yet three seasons later, when Walt threw the truth in Jesie's face, it was, if not the most horrifying scene, then easily the most gut-wrenching. As far as Walt knew, Jessie was about to die at his word. He had no reason to tell Jessie about Jane aside from cruelty. And yet... I wanted Jessie to know. I needed Jessie to know. And I think Jessie would have chosen to know, every time. Despite the pain, despite the consequences, Jessie wanted clarity.

...which leads me to the most striking example of Jessie wanting clarity. He was on his way to being disappeared, and he threw it away when he realized that Walt had poisoned Brock. He could have chosen to ignore the truth, to let it melt into the recesses of his mind as he melted away into Alaska. But he went back. Not only did he need to face the truth, he needed Walter to know that he knew: to look him in the eye and make him face the consequences of his actions and his lies.

When it comes to needing clarity, Walt is no slouch either. There's no better example in the whole show than Walt telling Hank that he didn't think Gale was Heisenberg. All Walt had to do was keep his mouth shut, let Hank believe he'd cracked the case, and live out his days happily with his family. But he couldn't let it go. He couldn't stand to see someone else get credit for his expertise. At that moment, he resembled nothing so much as Dustin Hoffman's character in "Wag the Dog"; he wanted the credit. He wanted it more than he wanted to live.

Those choices are striking in the moment. But from the point of view of having seen the entire story through to its completion, they're even more so. If Walt would have kept his mouth shut, he might have lived happily ever after, and Hank and Steve wouldn't have died. If Jessie had just done the easy thing and gone away, not only wouldn't he have been beaten and imprisoned, but Andrea wouldn't have died, leaving Brock an orphan. But in the universe of the show, it seems clear that this needed to happen. There's a sort of inexorable tone, and we're on-board with it; we needed all that death, all that pain, to happen. We needed the characters to know the truth: to achieve clarity at all costs.

That desire on the part of the audience is crucial. Without it, there would be little separating "Breaking Bad" from Shakespearean tragedy. The body count is similar. But in Shakespeare, we have a sense of impotent horror at the bloodshed. "If only they had known..." we lament. We see the tragedy as a manifestation of human flaws. But in "Breaking Bad", as in the broader western genre, tragedy lacks that regretful tone. We don't lament because we recognize the deaths as a necessary cost. Tuco died, Gustavo died, Hank died, Walt died... but it did not have a sense of grim inevitability. There was always an element of choice, and for all the darkness, for all the grimness—for all their foolishness and all their flaws—their final choices were virtuous. Because they chose clarity. They, and we, wouldn't have had it any other way. In the western, tragedy is not just heroic; it's chivalric.

I thought of all this--all these examples of characters shouldering aside easy opportunities for happiness in favor of clarity, and a word popped into my head: "enlightenment". That's a pretty good synonym for clarity, right? And it suddenly hit me: "Breaking Bad", and the western genre, have Buddhist overtones.

I know it's a stretch, and I'm the first to admit what little I know about Buddhism I know from my wife. But hear me out. In the Buddhist model, the world is pain. Pain cannot be avoided. On the contrary, attempting to avoid pain can extend one's journey through the cycle. The very best one can hope for is to achieve enlightenment, which is not a state of elevated being; it is un-being. Enlightenment means getting off the carousel onto which we are all born, and you can't get there except by riding.

In "Breaking Bad", and westerns in general, we're along for the ride not as rubberneckers wincing at pain that should have been avoided, but as solemn witnesses to pain willingly chosen. We know that avoiding pain is a fool's game. Pain isn't merely the cost of enlightenment; enlightenment is the only destination, and pain the only path to it.

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