I came to this show late. I've only watched the first season, and a couple of episodes in the second. I realize that the show's finale is only two episodes off, but I wanted to say a few things about it as it relates to the 'missing middle" post I put up a few days ago.
The story starts with a classic late-modern bourgeois guy who lives in his head--Walter White. He's a chemistry teacher at a high school in Albuquerque. In the pilot he is depicted as weak and ineffectual, and we seem him dramatically contrasted with his brother-in-law, Hank, who heads up the local DEA. Hank is a brash, macho loudmouth. He's annoying, but there are signs he's more than the stereotype he first appears to be. There's substance behind his bluster, he's good at what he does, and he's no jerk.
Walter's teenaged son, Walter Jr., has cerebral palsy. He's a nice kid who just wants to be a normal teenager. It appears he admires his uncle more than he does his father. At one point Junior calls Senior a wuss because he refuses to go through with his cancer treatment. Walter's wife Skyler is a strong, intelligent woman; she's she's rock-solid sensible. She's the Greek chorus in this drama representing uncritical acceptance of conventional norms and mores. She's what I would describe as a maternal instinctual type--her thinking is very predictable as governed by convention and by her maternal instinct to keep the people she loves safe.It's hard for her to imagine anybody living outside the zone of what is conventionally acceptable. She's not someone to whom you confide dark secrets. At some point she's going to get stretched, and it will be interesting to learn whether she will snap.
Walter is a wuss. He's all head, and he can't get it up. He has lived a life in which he risked nothing. He's the kind of person that FOX News likes to make fun of. While red/blue politics are not overt, at least so far, Hank is Hannity and Walter is the nerdy Colmes, and there's not question which of them has more social capital.
The story arc of the first season follows Walter for several months after he has learned he has an inoperable lung cancer that will killl him in 18 months. We learn that his insurance won't cover much of the cost of his treatment, that he fears bankrupting his family, that he won't accept the charity of rich friend who has offered to pay for it, and that his sense of his own self worth depends on his winning the prize for his family. Walter is clearly living in the breadwinner narrative about which I wrote in the last post. He learns he can do that by 'cooking' the purest, high-quality crystal meth that's available locally. But in making this choice, he must leave the safe harbor of civilization and enter the jungle, and the story is about his learning to survive there.
It's an adventure story in this basic sense, and the show poses the question right from the beginning: will he lose his soul? So far, despite his having killed two men, he has not, because he killed neither in cold blood. But foreshadowed is a day when he will.
And so the show interests me because I'm wondering where its writers are coming from and where they are going. If you're a fan up to date with the show, you probably already know. I fear that they will just go down the now tired nihilistic/Freudian path: civilization is emasculating; its laws and norms are arbitrary; real life is only available outside its safe boundaries. We are most alive when we are in touch with our animal instinctual self that makes its own rules. In other words, does the show embrace the fundamental nihilism of missing middle syndrome, i.e., that we are soulless talking animals, and that morality and decency are a fantasy for people who are living lifeless, alienated lives in the safe cocoon of civilization.
I am hoping that the writers are not going down that well-trod path, and are instead groping toward an understanding of 'soul' in a way similar to my groping for it--that it's not about either/or intellect or instinct, civilization or jungle, but about holding the two in tension--and where that tension is felt most intensely and painfully is where there is a space stretched open where one can grow a soul.
Hank is the Cal type in East of Eden, and (at this early stage in the series) strikes me as a guy who has been stretched and can be stretched even further. I'd be interested to see if his relationship with Walter stretches him, or whether he just reverts to the formulaic role as enforcer of the law. Walter is the Aron type, and his cancer death sentence has put him into a situation where the dark side of Being has shaken him out of his dormancy, cracked open his cocoon, and he has found himself confronted by the opportunity to hold the light and dark in tension, but the dramatic tension in the series lies in not knowing whether he'll go completely dark, become Crazy 8 or Tuco--or become something else, someone who has grown a soul.