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Walter White: Bigger Than Life


[Breaking Bad spoilers below]

“Ozymandius,” the most recent episode of AMC’s Breaking Bad, continued the gut-wrenching, emotional turmoil that’s been the hallmark of nearly every episode this final half-season. The complete dissolution of Walter White’s hopes and dreams finds its ultimate manifestation in the collapse of his family, or at least the family unit as imagined by Walt. His brother-in-law is dead, his surrogate son hauled off to torture, and his wife and son allied against him and his “plans.” The impulsive, sickening decision for Walt to kidnap his daughter, however briefly, marks him as irrevocably out of the family structures that he has professed, since the start of the show, to be so important to him. Even his money his gone, taken from him by the demonic embodiment of all of Walt’s latent racist, patriarchal dreams in the form of Todd, Uncle Jack, and the neo-Nazis (a kind of Bizarro White family, stricken of scruples or conventional morality).

In an episode with maybe a half dozen signature moments – the death of Hank, Walt’s spiteful confession to Jesse about Jane, Flynn learning about his father’s drug business, that final phone call – the most terrifying to me was the knife fight between Walt, Skylar, and Flynn in their living room. Walt tries to force everyone to pack and quickly leave the house, but his powers of persuasion are depleted and his family can only respond to him with fear and mounting anger. (Skylar’s “Where’s Hank?” taking on the familiar anxiety and intensity of that famous scene in The Wire, while Flynn’s “What? Uncle Hank is dead?”, delivered quickly and off-camera, captures the shock and horror upon hearing the unexpected death of a loved one better than any other scene I can recall.) It all culminates with Skylar picking up a knife and attacking Walt. The struggle, which moves back and forth between Walt vs. Skylar and Walt vs. Flynn, ends with Skylar and Flynn allied against Walt and is finally halted with a quickly placed 9/11 call. (“He attacked my mom,” Flynn says to the operator, which is only untrue in the most literal sense.) The whole sequence is shot masterfully by Riann Johnson, with that knife seemingly slashing closer and closer to the camera.

Thinking over the episode today, it struck me that the entire sequence bore a great deal of resemblance to the climax of Bigger Than Life, Nicholas Ray’s 1956 film about dying schoolteacher Ed Avery, played by James Mason, who takes some experimental drugs and transforms into a domestic tyrant. With the exception of taking drugs versus making drugs, that plot description sounds, of course, remarkably like Breaking Bad. In both cases, the story examines a “typical suburban family,” and peels back the layers of patriarchal control that keeps the whole system running to reveal the angry, oppressive core beneath.

Francois Truffaut made the critical point about Bigger Than Life in 1957: “The cortisone [the drug he takes] wasn’t responsible for Avery’s megalomania; it simply revealed it,” and Jonathan Rosenbaum has written that, “The madness of Ed Avery…is the madness of America writ large.” The same has been said of Breaking Bad, despite the objections of fans who think Heisenberg is “badass” and can’t wait for Walt to “win.” Or, if not that stark, to at least “redeem” himself with some last minute heroics and perhaps a final sacrifice. There seems to be an inevitable draw to root for the male protagonist in these types of stories, even if they represent everything wrong about our culture’s social priorities. As Linda Holmes wrote today for NPR, that’s pretty much bullshit:

It’s the hypnotic magic of this show that anybody would sit around parsing the goodness or badness of Walt’s behavior in making that phone call in the same episode in which he sent Jesse off to be tortured and murdered. This, I believe, is the frame. Whether it began this way or not, the frame has become, in part, the what are we doing? of antihero stories. What are we doing? Why are we picking apart how bad, how wrong, how evil is a guy who has killed or caused to be killed all manner of people?

Likewise, when watching Bigger Than Life I become increasingly uncomfortable with the prospect that Avery will be cured of his madness and that the family will be reconciled. After all, if this is who he really is, why would you want to live with this man anymore? The film does end on a note of reconciliation but, like so many films from classical Hollywood that have pat happy endings, it doesn’t leave you feeling very reassured. Avery hugs his wife and son in the hospital room, but what happens when they have to go home again?

Part of that unease comes from the immediately preceding scene, a horrific plunge into the depths of American anger and violence at mid-century. If Bigger Than Life has been described as “Leave It Beaver goes to hell,” this is why. Avery, increasingly frustrated that his son is not living up to his expectations, finally catches the boy attempting to steal his medicine (presumably to destroy it and restore his father to sanity). Avery, who is like Walter White a very smart man who uses his intelligence to twist others to his will, sends his son to his room and then reads his wife the story of Abraham and Isaac. He explains to her that God asked Abraham to murder Isaac, and that this display of justice in the face of presumed disobedience now needs to be re-enacted. The reasonining is totally illogical, but as delivered by Mason there is a seductive persuasiveness to it. Of course, his wife pleads by noting that God stopped Abraham from killing Isaac, to which Avery responds, “God was wrong.”

And so the American patriarch becomes the Old Testament diety himself, doling out judgment based on his own whims and sense of indignation. Avery sticks his wife in the closet and rushes up the stairs to murder his son, but fortunately at the final moment their friend and neighbor Wally (Walter Matthau) bursts into the house, and he and Avery have an intense fight on the house’s central staircase, tearing it apart before finally ending with Avery defeated.

The knife fight scene in Breaking Bad and the staircase fight in Bigger Than Life have obvious differences: Walt is attempting to save his family, not destroy it, and the outcome of Breaking Bad‘s fight is the horrific moment when Walt kidnaps his younger daughter. This fight will not lead to Walt’s redemption or rehabiliation. Both scenes, however, use the space of the home as a central feature. In Bigger Than Life, the staircase is the home’s most important element, binding its rooms and the family itself together. Its destruction seems to mark an inevitable break at the very core of the family unit. Walt’s house does not have stairs, but the central hallway operates in a similar way, a location that both connects the family and helps to keep them separated into their private spaces. After all the secrets Walt has kept within that house for so long, it is appropriate that this struggle begins in the physical nexus of those lies. That the fight then spills into the living room (as Avery and Wally’s fight falls off the staircase and into the foyer) brings the conflict out into the open, where its consequences and repercussions will reverberate for another two episodes.

I have no idea whether Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, episode writer Moira Walley-Beckett, or director Riann Johnnson were thinking about Bigger Than Life at all during the production of this episode. I doubt they were, at least explicitly. But it’s still noteworthy how the home in both cases becomes the site of violence, and specifically a violence that exposes the very real patriarchal rage that the family unit is designed to both protect and keep under a semblance of control. What are Walter White and Ed Avery ultimately angry about, after all? In both cases, it’s that the world has not treated them the way they expect, and so they react by doubling down on a sense of aggrieved masculinity they’ve always carried with them anyway. Avery and his family, at least, are allowed the illusion of a return to normalcy. I very much doubt any such domestic fantasy awaits Walt.



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