Monday, September 23, 2013

In (Very Mild) Defense of Walter White / New Work / Werner Herzog / Charlie Rose [UPDATED]

I've just published some new essays.

The one I'm proudest of, "Voice and Hammer," a long profile of Harry Belafonte in old age for Virginia Quarterly Review, probably won't be online. So you should subscribe. It's not just the best literary journal in the U.S., it's one of the best periodicals of any kind. It was great under Ted Genoways, and it's great now under my old pal Paul Reyes and Ralph Eubanks, Jon Peede, Jane Friedman, and Allison Wright.

There's another work of literary journalism, "Ditto Boys," published by my friends at Killing the Buddha as well as Salon. It's a return -- my last, I think -- to the fundamentalism of The Family.

And then there are three review-essays that together stand as my current thinking about literary journalism and documentary art in general. The longest is "The Blazing Facts," a review of two new documentary films about being queer in Uganda, for Harper's Magazine. For Bookforum I wrote about the anti-narrative narrative of Sheri Fink's excellent new Five Days at Memorial. And for Literary Journalism Studies I wrote about Aman Sethi's brilliant digressions in A Free Man.

Last, a recap, by twitter. I'm increasingly persuaded that recaps are the most interesting critical art of the moment. I've never done one. This isn't really one, but there are spoilers, so if you haven't watched the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad...

All this talk about the inhuman monstrosity of Walter White is itself monstrous.

Watching the latest episode, I thought of Werner Herzog's death row documentaries. His refusal to blink at the humanity of the monsters.

The desire to declare Walt inhuman is the desire to set the limits of humanity as those of decency.

It's akin to Gretchen Schwartz' smug insistence that Walter White is dead, replaced by Heisenberg. It's white hat/black hat BS.

"But Heisenberg DOES wear a black hat!" you say. Black hat on a man called White = grey = grey matter. Walt = Elliot = greed.

And greed isn't the opposite of desire. Only its close cousin.

Where would avarice fit in there?

Avarice is only a degree of greed. Greed, avarice, desire, love -- it's a spectrum & it includes Walter White.

So ask yourself: Do I desire? Anything -- are you a Buddha or are you human? If it's the latter, Walter White isn't so alien, after all.

Werner Herzog, in his death row films, speaks for the vastness of humanity. The spectrum includes monsters. Monsters are human things.

I've always appreciated that about Herzog. Humanity isn't let off the hook; it must reckon with its extremes.

I feel more pity & empathy, for Walt the more monstrous he becomes. Not the sad sack on the phone; the monster watching Charlie Rose.

Of course, watching Charlie Rose can easily drive anybody to terrible thoughts.

Have people already been speculating that the surprise ending is that Walt kills Charlie Rose?



I posted a link to this on Facebook and was rewarded with a great conversation with a Breaking Bad expert, Lindsay Beyerstein, a terrific investigative journalist who is also the Breaking Bad recapper for In These Times. We were joined by arts writer Jakki Spicer and documentarian Nora Connor.

Lindsay Beyerstein Jeff, are you arguing that Vince Gilligan is portraying Walt as a deeply flawed human being and viewers are misinterpreting him as a complete monster?

Jeff Sharlet Umm -- is that the subject of your commentaries? I know you write a lot about Breaking Bad. But no, not exactly: I don't know nothing about Vince Gilligan, and I'd say yes, he's a complete monster, as humans can be, and that although the question of whether I can relate to a character is not important to me, I do relate to Walt. I'd go further and say that all the analyses of Walter White based on race and class privilege, while persuasive, ignore that he's not demanding white man's privilege but that he's driven by an outsized desire for basic human dignity, to pursue his talents and to be fairly rewarded for it. Since that's not gonna happen, he desecrates his talents and is wildly rewarded and punished for it. Am I just repeating what folks are saying? I haven't read a lot of recaps. Couple of yours, though, which were great.

Lindsay Beyerstein I haven't written anything in that vein so far, but it's a view that I'm sympathetic to. The writers have done a lot to keep Walt human, even in his late Heisenberg period. The scene where he carefully strings his wedding ring around his neck because he's too emaciated to keep it on his finger was really touching. In his phone call to Walt, Jr., it's obvious that he really loves his son and wants to help him. And Walt's on the point of giving himself up to go home and really take the fall for Skyler, like Saul urged him to do before he got whisked off to Nebraska. As for what people are saying, yes, a lot of recappers and fans are saying that Walt is a pure monster at this point. The fans who still love Walt are saying something quite different from what you're saying, Jeff. By and large, they're convinced he's an unassailable badass who can basically do no wrong. No critics are saying anything like this, AFAIK, just vocal fans. To me Walt's a very unsympathetic character to me, but unlike some viewers, I think he has at least a few decent instincts left. Though, Walt may have squandered his last chance at atonement with his impulsive decision to go after Gray Matter rather than going home to save Skyler.

Jeff Sharlet To me the most moving scene was of Walt's monster call to Skyler, the tears on his face in contrast to the monstrosity of his words, clearly intended -- I think -- to save Skyler. Of course they were tears of self-pity, but I find that less revolting than these high minded critics and Breaking Bad fans who think themselves above self-pity. And more revolting yet are Walt fanboys. I find even Walt fan gear -- Heisenberg bumper stickers, t-shirts, mugs -- really genuinely repugnant. In Breaking Bad Gilligan and Cranston have made a portrait of a monster, yes, but consider it akin to a war criminal's love for his family. I'd no more wear a Heisenberg t-shirt than I would a Pinochet one, but I do want to understand the monstrosity of Pinochet. What I'm LEAST interested in is Walt's atonement: this ain't no Christian show. it's not about that. But that said, his decision to go after Gray Matter -- if that's really where he's headed -- was a moment of deep humanity. When he sees those smug, rich bastards on TV writing pathetic Walter White out, he vows revenge. Revenge, of course, is on a spectrum with dignity. They're not the same thing, but they're related.

Lindsay Beyerstein Revenge is sometimes consistent with asserting dignity. But being obsessed with petty slights is not dignified, especially not when someone's choosing to settle scores rather than attend to his real responsibilities. As Saul wisely suggested, Walt could go home, save Skyler, and maybe even see his kids a few more times before he dies. As far as we know, he's passing up his last, best shot to protect his children's future, all because Gretchen and Elliott distanced themselves from him, a meth lord fugitive, on television? Whether he's going to get revenge on them directly or pull off some huge caper just to "show them" he's a genius, it's not a good look. I can't look at Walt's struggle for dignity without considering his relative privilege. Most people could hold their heads high if they had a job as a school teacher, a loving wife, a home, and two great kids. Sure, Walt had to work a crummy part-time job under an abusive boss and he couldn't pay for his cancer treatments. Those are burdens, but unlike most people in the world with similar problems, Walt had a very comfortable "out" that he refused. Gretchen and Elliott were prepared to pay for his treatment and give him a better job that would allow him to be recognized for his scientific genius. It would have been a blow to Walt's ego to accept his friends' charity, but it wouldn't have been an affront to his basic human dignity. I can't imagine a mother in Walt's position turning down that offer. The early G&E scenes are written and acted to make it seem like G&E care about Walt and want to help him. They are very gracious towards him and he repays their overtures with contempt. The writers make it pretty clear that Walt's attitude goes beyond the normal human desire for respect into something downright unreasonable. Walt doesn't just want self-respect, he wants the adulation that he thinks he's entitled to in virtue of his genius. Walt feels incredibly slighted by whatever happened at Gray Matter all those years ago. Maybe we'll learn that he broke with G&E over a truly horrific betrayal. But all the foreshadowing we've seen so far suggests that it was a mundane love triangle in which Gretchen chose Elliot over Walt and Walt sold all his shares for a pittance because his pride was wounded.

Lindsay Beyerstein Now that I think about it, we still don't know exactly why Walt left Gray Matter. IIRC, Walt abandoned Gretchen on vacation and Gretchen only took up with Elliott after Walt left her.

Jakki Spicer It seems to be this is precisely not a Christian show, as you mention, Jeff, but more ancient, in the Greek vein. What always puts Walter on the road to monstrosity is hubris, pride. His belief that he is on the side of the gods, free from the weaknesses of mortals. Thus he is the one that knocks--the one that rules fate, not the one who is ruled by fate or the will of others. And it is this belief, if we're going to view this through a moral lens, that inexorably takes him one step closer to ruin--of himself and everything he cares about. Will we achieve catharsis? Tune in next week to find out!

Nora Connor I was enraged on Walt's behalf watching the Charlie Rose bit with Gretchen and Elliott, but I think there have been plenty of signals that Walt screwed up that initial partnership (and his love affair/relationship with Gretchen) due to his own raging discomfort, insecurity and class-based resentment--the same resentment that sets him off on whatever crazy train he's about to get on, after seeing them on TV. Whatever that rage is is pretty out of proportion, and I think is what has made Walt consistently screw himself (over decades, not just the time we're seeing on the screen). I think that's what the "white man's rage" reviewer is getting at, even though that diagnosis might be a little off the mark.

Jeff Sharlet I should say I didn't mean to suggest that Walt's vengeance is dignified. It's not, not at all. It's grotesque. Rather, I meant to say that I see his desire for vengeance coming from the same root place as the desire for dignity. We see this literally tragic figure (as Jakki writes above) grasping for dignity and finding himself only capable of clinging to vengeance. It's "not a good look," as Lindsay writes, but part of the power of the show resides in what a true look it is. Walt's debased pursuit of dignity is anything but reasonable. It is, of course, monstrous; but THAT is his humanity. There is no atonement for Walt -- like Ahab, he spits on it -- but there is a deeply unchristian redemption: our recognition. In the old Greek sense and in the contemporary world of capitalism we grasp for dignity and as often as not come up wanting. Yes, the reasonable thing to do is to accept our lot, to be grateful to be teachers (as Walt is, at the beginning), to be glad that a beneficent billionaire might be willing to lend a helping hand when what is due, and not just to white men but in a better world as a human right -- decent health insurance, the ability to support one's children by doing the noble work like teaching -- is wanting. That's the reasonable thing to do, but Walt, like Ahab, refuses. Fool! And hence our recognition. His monstrosity is profoundly human in that, as Jakki, suggests, he rejects fate's control; he rejects the gods. Walt IS humanism, and humanism, as my fundamentalist friends are fond of pointing out, is in the vast history of the world a monstrosity, an abomination: people rejecting the long the history of cowering before gods or God. Hubris! Well, the fundamentalists are half right. Humanism does breed monsters like Walt. But I think he is a monster not because he goes beyond "normal human desire" but because he so absolutely, completely, embodies it. Not its loveliest manifestations, to be sure; but ugliness is as true as beauty. That's our Heisenberg! Our Walter White, ourselves. Breaking Bad gets better and better because it is narrowing down to an exploration of this singular, awful, human possibility.

Nora Connor Well then it's a question of what is the 'root place' of a passionate attachment to either vengeance or dignity--is this 'humanism' or (capitalist) 'individualism' (I'm not so sure with Walt, where all this comes from). And more specifically, it's a question of what either the human imagination or the primal urge (root place) is aiming at and can imagine as fulfillment. What if you take both modern (Judeo-Christian) AND older (Greek?) Gods out of the equation? What's the metric for 'normal human desire' then? Now we're getting into Freud, another type of God, though more diffuse. also--walt isn't your typical high school teacher and thus the reasonableness of our culture's demand to 'accept and be grateful for your lot' doesn't apply to him as a character at all, right from the start. walt is in the 1%, intellectually, and could or should have been in the 1% financially and socially. he should have been not a teacher, but the person whose theories and achievements are taught by elite teachers to elite students. He let all that slip, at least that's how the show lets us feel walt views it. he's not an everyman--he's an exceptional man (or at least exceptional chemist/intellect) who hasn't gotten what he might have been able to have. i think that's an important distinction.