My Breaking Bad experience started with an accident, a humiliating and somewhat emasculating accident.
Terrified of impending middle-aged fatness, I had been jogging each day last summer. I am a high school teacher, which means I have my summers off, during which I’m ostensibly pursuing my writing career. However, as anyone who has ever cleared their calendar to work solely on writing realizes, this meant I spent most of my time standing in front of the mirror, pinching love handles and chin flab, and berating myself for my beer consumption. That’s when I came up with the idea to jog every day, another way to avoid writing.
With two weeks left in the summer—and fourteen pages drafted on a new novel I had set out to finish by the end of August—I went for a jog on a muggy morning, listening to the Iron Maiden playlist I put together in iTunes. A mile into my run, with “Hallowed Be Thy Name” rupturing my eardrums, I tripped on my own shoelace and came crashing down on the sidewalk. My hands, elbows and knees shredded and bleeding, I hobbled home with my right arm hanging limp by my side.
After two hours in the emergency room, I left with a fractured elbow, a cumbersome splint, an appointment with an orthopedist and, mercifully, an ass-load of Vicodin.
I conceded the fact that I would be spending the next week, drugged and sluggish, on the couch, so I wrote my literary agent—who is a wellspring of pop-culture knowledge—and asked her to recommend me a television series to watch on Netflix. Sarah suggestedBreaking Bad. Apparently, I was the only person in America who hadn’t seen the show.
With a broken elbow and a healthy dose of drugs, my literary ambitions were about to be replaced with the more noble goal of cooking methamphetamines.
Like I said, I teach high school for a living, and despite the media’s depictions of us licentious classroom predators, sleeping with all of our students in one big carnal carnival, being a high school teacher might actually be one of the most asexual professions. Not only are high school teachers second behind only parents as the un-coolest people in a culture of teenage cool, but we’re also a total drag on the students—assigning them work that sucks time they could spend texting or flirting or gathering at someone’s un-cool parents’ house to drink and smoke weed and fuck like bunnies.
So, obviously, from the pilot episode, I indentified—in a small way—with Walter White, the show’s main character and a high school chemistry teacher. Sure, I wasn’t smart enough to cook the perfect blue meth, and I didn’t have the stomach to dissolve human corpses in buckets of acid, but as an English guy, I understand the hyperbole. And as a husband and a father, I also understand the desire to provide for one’s family, regardless of consequences.
In short, I understood and empathized with Walt. I liked him.
Since becoming a Breaking Bad fan, it has become apparent to me that viewers are divided into one of two camps: Team Walt and Team Hank.
While D.E.A. agent Hank Schrader—who is unwittingly pursuing his brother-in-law Walt—is, admittedly, a strangely affable character, I side with Team Walt. However, the brilliance of Breaking Bad lies in the fact that each character is articulately drawn and genuinely conflicted. While it runs contrary to the philosophies of great American thinkers like George W. Bush, there aren’t any purely good or bad guys; there aren’t any black and white characters on Breaking Bad. Like the baffling world we inhabit outside of artifice, there are no absolutes. And while I really enjoy Hank’s colloquial one-liners—“I want Shania Twain to give me a tuggy. Guess what? It ain’t happening”—the show has pared down to a cat-and-mouse game between Walt and Hank, and we’re all left to take sides.
I understand that my decision to support Team Walt is the less popular option, but I’m still pulling for Walt to be the last man standing when the show finishes in the fall of 2013.
I also understand that all of the moralists will root for Hank, who is the enforcer of our civil codes, and there’s a moralist in all of us. Perhaps we’re raised to root for the cops, not the robbers; we’re taught from an early age that the laws are the laws, and if you choose to disobey them, you will be justly punished (may God take mercy on your sordid soul). And we’re taught that drugs are bad and you’re a bad person if you use them.
But this is a typical black-and-white-conservative-cop mentality.
Now, I cannot, in any sane sense, excuse Walt’s crimes and transgressions. Poisoning a child is plain villainous, and watching a young woman choke to death on her own vomit is wretchedly nefarious. And there’s the fact that Walt killed three people and wears blood on his own hands without any “Out, damned spot. Out, I say!” But there’s also something about Walt that appeals to middle-aged, married sad-sacks like me. In its basest sense, Walt lives out the private, archetypical escapism fantasies of married men everywhere.
It’s selfish, sure.
However, for those of us in the throws of the mundane, day-to-day drudgery of work and responsibility, there is a Heisenburg residing in all of us—an alter-ego and an id. And for guys like me—watching from the couch, knowing that tomorrow will be just like today—Walt is an existential hero.
In glimpses, Walt is the man we wish we could be: having sex with his smoke-show wife in the car outside a school board meeting; staring into the eyes of cold-blooded killers and not flinching. While we’re conscious of that fact that it is not real, this is also what good art does: it reflects small pieces of ourselves and allows us to explore those dark corners we hope we’ll never have to face in our own lives.
They didn’t put a cast on my arm. The fracture on my elbow was slight enough that I was able to avoid the humiliation of showing up on the first day of school, already deemed un-cool, with a cumbersome cast and a lame story. I now have full motion back in my elbow and I’m jogging again, more mindful of my shoelaces.
And while I haven’t started cooking meth or running a regional drug ring yet, I’m writing a few things, here and there. And despite my wife’s threats to divorce me if I go through with it, I’m considering shaving my head and picking up a Heisenburg hat for Halloween.
Team Walt, bitch!
Nathan Graziano lives in Manchester, New Hampshire. He is the author of three collections of poetry—Not So Profound (Green Bean Press, 2003), Teaching Metaphors(Sunnyoutside Press, 2007) and After the Honeymoon (Sunnyoutside Press, 2009)—a collection of short stories, Frostbite (GBP, 2002), and several chapbooks of fiction and poetry. He has an MFA in fiction writing from The University of New Hampshire and teaches high school. A chapbook of short prose pieces titled Hangover Breakfasts will be published by Bottle of Smoke Press this summer. For more information, visit his website at www.nathangraziano.com.