Sunday, August 17, 2014

Breaking Bad: "Fly"

Half-way through the series “Breaking Bad,” our story finds its way back to its core – the relationship between its two principal characters. Not for the first time or the last, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) are literally in a pit. They are in Gus Fring’s (Giancarlo Esposito) hi-tech meth lab, cooking product in what Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) will later say is a perfect set up. But even now, Walter is uneasy and unsatisfied, because, no matter how much money he makes, he is not in control. His vanity will not let him rest. This angst manifests itself in an unexpected way due to the appearance of …a fly.

As the episode begins, Walt is worried at first about missing product, with the hint that Jesse may be slipping some of their blue meth for himself. But that isn’t Walt’s only worry, as he is afraid the product is becoming contaminated.  Why? Because there is a fly in the lab.

Jessie worries that Walt’s been up to long, or that he’s been using the meth. He also worries that Walt’s cancer has gone to his head. “We make poison for people who don't care," argues Jesse, who works furtively to keep their current batch of meth that is halfway through the cook process on track. Walt orders Jesse to cease all cooking activities until the fly is caught, and smacks him with the swatter when Jesse continues anyway. The fly contamination must be eradicated, an exasperated Walt claims. "This fly is a major problem for us: It will ruin our batch, and we need to destroy it and every trace of it so we can cook. Failing that, we're dead. There's no more room for error, not with these people."

One is reminded, in a ridiculous way, of Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick. The whale is a living, multi-ton accusation that rises from the ocean to taunt the whaler with all of his failures. A lab for a scientist means control – not only of conditions, but variables, quality, and even outcomes. But this fly is a threat to that – small, mobile, and unpredictable. It represent uncleanliness, failure, disaster. And what is the fly? Guilt? Obsession?  Conscience? Sin? God?

Remember the very first scene of the show? Walter White, air mask on, stripped to his shorts, driving an RV down a desert highway with sirens blaring, barely three weeks into his criminal enterprise? He runs out of the RV clutching a gun and a video camera, and begins talking through what he thinks is a last statement to his family: 

“This is not an admission of guilt….there are going to be some…things… that you’ll come to learn about me in the next few days. I just want you to know that no matter how it may look, I only have you in my heart….Goodbye.” Then he walks up the roadway, and points the gun at the road ahead, ready to do whatever he has to.

This Walt, like the one in the lab, the one who has and will murder without hesitation, was always there. Such as when he gave his life savings to Jesse to buy an RV for their mobile meth lab, his only explanation being, “I am awake.” Awake to evil, in a weird negation of Paul’s call in Ephesians to “awaken sleeper” to Christ?

Or remember when Walt and Jesse had a drug dealer trapped in the basement, unsure what to do with him? Walter prepared a benefits/liabilities list of what the consequences of murder might be. One of his listed arguments against was “Judeo/Christian principles.” So Walter pays some kind of homage to these, at least for appearances’ sake, or for his own self-image. But he eventually kills the dealer, when he feels his own life is in jeopardy. Walt doesn’t seem to believe in the metaphysical, saying about the existence of the soul that “it’s all chemistry.” He will not admit guilt, but he knows he’s guilty, as he admits in the episode “Gliding Over All”: “If you believe that there is a hell…I don’t know if you’re into that… we’re already pretty much going there. I’m not going to lie down until I get there.” There is no hope of salvation.

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” Jesus says in Revelation, an often-quoted moment of Christ’s love and benevolence in this darkest of books. Is Walt quoting his own version of this during his most remembered speech on the show?

“Who are you talking to right now? Who is it you think you see? Do you know how much I make a year? I mean, even if I told you, you wouldn’t believe it. Do you know what would happen if I suddenly decided to stop going into work? A business big enough that it could be listed on the Nasdaq goes belly up. Disappears. It ceases to exist without me. No. You clearly don’t know who you are talking to. So let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and he gets shot and you think of me? No. I am the one who knocks!”

But we stray from the fly, who keeps taunting Walt and Jesse within the Superlab. Walt grows weary of the chase, and Jesse contrives to put him to sleep by spiking his coffee. It is only as Mr. White sinks into unconsciousness that we finally see within Walt, who says there’s “no end in sight.” But he isn’t speaking of the search for the fly, but of his own predicament. We realize that for some time, he has been wondering what the perfect moment for his death from cancer would have been. He realizes he has lived too long, and now, he has condemned himself so that when he dies, his family will not feel grief as much as relief. He has already put his wife through too much. He soon pinpoints that perfect moment as the night that Jesse’s girlfriend Jane died, when Walt gave Jesse his percentage of the profits.

Later that evening, Walt went to a bar, and found himself sitting next to Jane’s father. This confluence of events will eventually lead to Jane’s death (which Walt will restrain himself from preventing) and an air disaster in which hundreds will perish.

“The universe is random. It’s not inevitable. It’s simple chaos. It’s subatomic particles in endless, endless collision. That’s what science teaches us. What is this saying? What is it telling us when on the very night that this man’s daughter dies, it’s me who’s having a drink with him? How can that be random?... That was the moment. That night. I should have never have left home. Never gone to your house. Maybe things would have…I was at home watching TV. Some nature program about elephants. And Skyler and Holly were in the other room. I could hear them on the baby monitor. She was singing a lullaby. If I’d just lived right up to that moment and not one second more. That would have been perfect.“

Later on, when he is in police custody, Jesse will describe Walter White as “the devil.” “He’s smarter than you. He’s luckier than you,”  he says. But if Walt’s drugged incredulity at the happenstance of life comes back to us, we see him as human, frail, lost.

We often see Jesse that way, that he is often more human than Walt, as the older man slides further and further into the abyss of Heisenburg’s uncertain certainty. When the fly reappears, it is Jesse who carelessly puts two cabinets in place and perches a ladder on top of them, wailing away at the fly. He is rising further in the air, but leaving safety behind, risking, getting closer to the possibility of success but finding it just beyond his reach, with danger rising. Walt, sinking further, comes accidentally close to confessing his complicity in Jane’s death – he will save that for later with devastating effect. But he at last understands what his missing of that perfect moment means.  

Walt: Jesse, no.
Jesse: I’m so close.
Walt: Let it go. We need to cook.
Jesse: What about the contamination?
Walt: It’s all contaminated.  

William Blake’s poem, “The Fly,” begins with a fly brushing past his hand. The poet thinks on the similarities between himself and this simplest and most common creation, both products from the same hand, like the tiger and the lamb:

If thought is life
And strength and breath,
And the want
Of thought is death,

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die. 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 

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