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BREAKING (The American Family) BAD

After decades of bottomless consumption and uncontrolled expansion, even the American family is struggling to make ends meet.

“America cannot continue to lead the family of nations around the world if we suffer the collapse of the family here at home”

—Mitt Romney

Exerting its influence well beyond the national frontiers, the idyllic American family has represented the ideal of happiness and security for a good part of the 20th century. Among its most valuable possessions we habitually find a fridge, a car or two, waving neighbours, smiling kids, a leafy backyard, a beckoning driveway, a chest-thumping husband, a home-chained wife, and last but by no means least, a glowing television set. Television is to the American family what the place of worship is to the faithful, a source of spiritual fulfillment offering a sense of belonging. Through the television screen the family is prescribed its material obligations, existential aspirations and ethical standards. The anchorman supplants the priest; community life makes way to talk shows, and advertising replaces biological needs with induced compulsions. It is not by chance that when television began producing narrative products, they were centered on family life. Sitcoms, the quintessential TV narrative fiction, took the American family as both their subject and addressee. The American household was short-circuited through a hypnotic loop collapsing the division between fiction and reality. Reflected and manipulated on their domestic screens, families were provided with a narcotizing dose of stereotypes to live up to.  

Above: Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life (1956).

The Consumer Dream was spelled out nationwide via the cathode ray tube. The assimilation of social minorities willing to comply with the impositions of “freedom” was the subject of sitcoms like The Amos n’ Andy Show (1951-53) or The Goldbergs (1949-56). The middle class Eden was open to anyone, even to Negros and Jews, on television at least. An affluent household and a patriarchal familial structure was the meritocratic ticket to happiness that sitcoms propagated through the ether. Shiny and sanitized images of white middle class life eclipsed those of immigrant and working class families so that ratings and consumption could go up. The birth of sitcoms had in fact coincided with the rise of suburbia; that seamless urban sprawl of boredom, ostensible perfection and quiescent horror (see David Lynch’s Blue Velvet for elucidating purposes). Shows like Leave it to Beaver (1957-63) or the unequivocally-titled titled Father Knows Best (1954-60) and Make Room for Daddy (1953-65) epitomized the bucolic suburban idyll masterminded by the creative directors of Madison Avenue. A baby-sitter and a role model, television has molded western consciousness in a way that doctrinal totalitarianisms have failed to: with our gratified and willing cooperation. Proud to be individual members of the middle class (even when not), ashamed to be collective agents of an exploited working class, we were all made equal in front of the TV screen.

As we know, television has changed significantly over the past decade, ending up producing cogent critiques even of that for which it had historically stood. The social forces at play in shaping the American class structure were always occulted in sitcoms, the very word “class” being a sort of national taboo. Shows like The Wire on the contrary dissected and detailed what its author David Simon described as the end of the American empire, exposing the material and ethical bankruptcy behind it. Myths were turned upside down, the very socio-economic actors at play in society exposed. Even the sacred institution of the American Family has not been spared. Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad deflowers the virginal hypocrisy of the American family as spat out from the jaws of a collapsing social body. The first season aired a few months prior the Wall St. crash and presciently anticipated and narrated the effects that the collapse would have on American society. The very premise of the show—a man starts producing and dealing meth in order to pay for his cancer treatment—would have been unthinkable a decade ago. But the over-optimistic and self-helping veneer of American society has started to peel off. Money for instance had never been an issue for the middle classes, even Michael Moore fondly remembers the good old days when his dad could buy a new car every three years (though he can’t seem able to connect the dots…). Especially on TV, the conditions upon which the status quo comfortably sat were never questioned. Anyone can make it and if you don’t, you’ve got none to blame but yourself; so the legend went.

All of a sudden, or actually, after decades of bottomless consumption and uncontrolled expansion, even the American family is struggling to make ends meet. Positing a plausible hypothesis as its incipit, Breaking Bad debunks the socio-fictional narrative that kept us dreaming for decades on end. The decent, respectable family man, the central figure around which most sitcoms orbited, occupies now the role that has been kindly reserved to Blacks, Latinos or White Trailer Trash in films and sitcoms alike. Revealingly enough, part of the debate around the series has verged on how can audiences, despite Walter White’s criminal activities, keep sympathizing with him. The answer is relatively simple: unlike the criminally-inclined minorities listed above, audiences can identify with Mr. White and know that he had no other choice. He is after all driven by the same noble purposes that animated countless American daddies before him: love for his family. Mr. White, apart from being unable to pay for his treatment, wants to hoard some money for his family in case the cancer gains the upper hand. Unlike black people who deals drugs because they can’t be bothered to get a job (or so years of film and television would have it…), he does it out of necessity. As far as identification figures on television go, Bryan Cranston’s character is a fairly challenging one: both loving father and ruthless criminal. Unlike Dexter, he is no Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; both sides of his persona are complementary to each other, one fueling the other organically. His “good” side is intrinsically feeding the “bad” side.

Paralleling the show’s remarkable writing, the daring moral complexity of Breaking Bad kept evolving with every season. Even when his cancer recedes Walter White keeps cooking meth, partly because of the circumstances that his new job implies and partly because he takes much pride in what he is so good at. Mr. White, we discover, was in fact left out from a very profitable business that he had helped create with his college friends. After an anonymous life of under-achievement, he is finally putting his skills at work turning thus from “loser” to “winner.” Walter’s descent from honest family man to diabolical trafficker is also a brilliant professional ascent that, had it not been in that particular line of business, would certainly be hailed as a success story. In the first episode of season one, when Walter White still teaches chemistry to an indifferent high school classroom and doubles as a car washer, one of his students pokes fun at him when Walter has to wash his car. By the end of the season that same student would be shaking with fear if he was to stumble upon his teacher’s new job position. Breaking Bad cracks the moral certainty of established roles by analogizing social categories that are conventionally thought to be separate. The hard-working family man and the criminal are in Gilligan’s show one and the same. Realistically unable to justify the law-abiding rhetoric that sitcoms have historically enacted, Breaking Bad stages the post-collapse American family. The very household of the Whites turn increasingly dark, both in terms of lighting and atmosphere, as the series progresses. Walter is kicked out by his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) when she finds out what he’s been up to, only for him to force his way back in through blackmail. Anna Gunn’s character is a crucial one in terms of the relativity of moral standards insofar as she is outraged and yet fundamentally quiescent in abetting his husband’s criminal enterprise. Where once love and trust ruled, now coercion and convenience have made their home. Yet again, Walter White’s initial intentions were very reasonable; it is the economic pressure he is under that dictates his behavior and turns him into the “first” middle class gangster in the history of television.

Above: Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life (1956).

Breaking Bad ratifies the end of the Spielbergian paternal hero and the middle-class-family-centric cinema the director of Jaws and Lincoln has re-affirmed in the wake of the counter-cultural experience. No longer a reassuring kernel of stability, the American family is now an ethical and economic liability where old roles are being rewritten. Walter White’s working, but also father-like, relation with Jesse—his former student with whom he starts cooking and dealing crystal meth—is symptomatic of the emerging family rules that Breaking Bad implicitly draws. While evidently sharing a fatherly bond that goes beyond their business deal, they are barred by contingencies from trusting one another. This “new” way of conceiving human relations slowly creeps into Walter’s family too and somehow permeates every relation amongst the series’ characters. The slimy lawyer Saul Goodman is perhaps the most genuine depiction ever conceived on television of American justice (whose off-screen credibility is shaky to say the least). A constitutional procurer that is simultaneously repugnant and deeply likable, Saul’s office is the epitome of take-away justice presided over by a flaccidly inflated statue of liberty. As far as sitcoms’ settings go, Breaking Bad’s choice is rather telling too. While most sitcoms have been filmed almost entirely indoors, in recreated households where the dynamics between family members were for the most part self-contained, Breaking Bad zooms out toward the external factors affecting family life. It seems an appropriate decision given the show’s underlying effect: disproving the essential “neutrality” of family life and its self-sufficient harmony. Far from being an idealized incarnation of American values, the Breaking Bad family is the litmus test for the decline of the Empire of Good, as Mitt Romney would confirm.

Though essentially informed by the current situation of crisis and mainstreaming cynicism, Breaking Bad has a predecessor of sort in cinema: Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life. Bearing coincidental similarities with the AMC series, Ray’s film tells the story of an ordinary man going through a rather extraordinary transformation at the hands of chemistry (an experimental medical drug to be precise). Ed Avery (James Mason) is, excuse the redundancy, a decent middle class family man who teaches at an elementary school and doubles as a phone operator in a taxi garage. Working hard (two jobs in fact) to keep his family happy and in line with the iconographic requirements of 50s melodrama, Ed suffers a rare disease which is cured with a new drug with peculiar side effects. While doing fine physically after the therapy begins, Ed literally turns into an hyper-conservative psycho with increasingly intransigent standards being applied to his poor wife and kid, both of whom start growing more and more scared of him. During a school meeting with parents, Ed goes on a metaphorical killing spree against the decadent children of permissiveness and liberalism (earning the plaudit of a parent who would like him to be the principal!). Taking the bible a bit too much to the letter, Ed almost kills his son (as Abraham almost did) only to be finally hospitalized. Possessing an unnerving and radical edge, Ray’s Bigger Than Life is to 50s melodrama what Breaking Bad is to traditional sitcoms. All certainties are broken, the alchemical equation of family life is not adding up and even the ostensible happy ending cannot conceal the void pulsing at the core of a society desperately trying to keep up with appearances. Season four had terminated with Mr. White proudly declaring “I won,” as he basked in the sneering glory of a major strategic victory. The beginning of season five saw him coming down from the rush of criminal success he had been high on, only for his secrets and problems to come home to roost. Walter’s initial assumption that by making more money he would have secured the stability of his family turned out to be a colossal “miscalculation” and the coming showdown between him and Hank— his brother-in-law, a DEA officer who has finally understood who the drug kingpin he's been looking for may bewill seal the Shakespearian parable of this grandiose modern epic. One out of which the representation of the American family will emerge transformed, substantially so.

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Celluloid Liberation Front is a multi-use(r) name, an "open reputation" informally adopted and shared by a desiring multitude of insurgent spect-actors. For reasons that remain unknown, the name was borrowed from a collective of anti-imperialist blind filmmakers from the Cayman Islands. @CLF_Project

Mac
Excellent piece, CLF.
Man, I love BIGGER THAN LIFE and BREAKING BAD. I like the comparisons. Still, this: “Breaking Bad ratifies the end of the Spielbergian paternal hero and the middle-class-family-centric cinema the director of Jaws and Lincoln has re-affirmed in the wake of the counter-cultural experience.” Really? To use Spielberg as shorthand here doesn’t seem quite apt. Even if his cinema is “middle-class-family-centric,” it has enough of ruptures and deviations from that norm—broken homes (E.T.) and even a father abandoning his family in the search for transcendence (CLOSE ENCOUNTERS) among others—that to do so is to rely on general sentiments about his cinema rather than the actual substance of his on-screen families. A bit of lazy pandering in an otherwise insightful piece.
Hi Anders, thanks for your kind words. I see what you mean and I agree with you when you say that my stance on Spielberg’s work is founded more on “general sentiments about his cinema” rather than case-specific analysis of how he actually deals with this subject. That is because I feel his cinema ultimately conveys this benevolent idea that the family, in spite of all the problems it may have, remains this fundamentally kind and loving center of American life. Now, I’m sure that can be the case but the point of my piece was to highlight how family life is a direct reflection and emanation of external conditions, be they social, racial, economic and so forth. In Spielberg on the contrary, I feel that this naive family-centric idealism doesn’t really take into account the factors influencing family life. It’s a self-contained universe of ordinary-looking, white middle class, family-men heroes. To sum it up: Friedkin’s “Killer Joe” is a good counterpoint to Spielberg’s well-meaning sympathy for the American family.
If this were the MUBI Forum page we would flesh this out: “….how family life is a direct reflection and emanation of external conditions…. this naive family-centric idealism doesn’t really take into account the factors influencing family life..” Naive family-centric idealism isn’t influencing the external conditions American life?

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