Monday, July 9, 2012

Breaking Bad Season 5 Countdown

A while back Emily Nussbaum had a nice piece in the New Yorker on Game of Thrones that kind of summed up why I don't think I'll be watching it anytime soon. (Aside from the fact that, despite the best efforts of just about everyone I've ever dated and a bunch of other friends too, I just don't seem to have the fantasy gene.) She says that the show "is the latest entry in television’s most esteemed category: the sophisticated cable drama about a patriarchal subculture. This phenomenon launched with “The Sopranos,” but it now includes shows such as “Deadwood,” “Mad Men,” “Downton Abbey,” and “Big Love.”"  (Big Love turned from something very promising to a creepy defense of said patriarchal subculture, but that's another story). But she also talks about what the sexysexy cable sex looks like in this particular patriarchy: it looks a lot like something designed to prove Andrea Dworkin right.  When you make a point like this, a million blog comments start to auto-compose: it's a critique! It's showing what that world is like, not endorsing it, you stupid puritanical philistine! Since I don't plan to see the show, I don't really know or care, but what I do find interesting is that Nussbaum makes a point that if I recall my women's college days of yore, somewhere late in the last millenium, Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon used to make. It's kind of an obvious point but rarely made: pornography is not pure representation, constructed in the mind and enacted by robots. It (in the live action non-anime version), is actual people having sex.  Which of course is not an argument against it, if you support legal safe sex work, which I do, but it does mean that talking about it as just in terms of representation and "free speech" is a way of erasing that work. As Nussbaum reports:
It’s unsettling to recall that these are not merely pretty women; they are unknown actresses who must strip, front and back, then mimic graphic sex and sexual torture, a skill increasingly key to attaining employment on cable dramas. During the filming of the second season, an Irish actress walked off the set when her scene shifted to what she termed “soft porn.” Of course, not everyone strips: there are no truly explicit scenes of gay male sex, fewer lingering shots of male bodies, and the leading actresses stay mostly buttoned up. Artistically, “Game of Thrones” is in a different class from “House of Lies,” “Californication,” and “Entourage.” But it’s still part of another colorful patriarchal subculture, the one called Los Angeles.
So I was thinking about this and about whether there's anything behind this "patriarchal subcultures" thing, any reason why it would be the setting for so many of these shows. Long form cable using its form to maximum achievement is all about the construction of worlds, layered worlds and worlds within worlds. In all these cases you're constructing a world in order to show how its rules, power structures and hierarchies, work, in ways that resonate for our own world where these things may be harder to see. It can be a fantasy past, like Game of Thrones, the recent past, like Mad Men, or subcultures like The Sopranos.  Now The Wire took this further by starting with subcultures and then layering them on until you had a whole culture,  defamiliarized and then refamiliarized. (Or perhaps the dystopia of the near future, in the neoliberal world where we are all Baltimore, or at least 99% of us.)  There have been some interesting exceptions - Six Feet Under, who's characters live in that atomized L.A. L.A. writers seem to love to write about - beyond the family, they don't have much social context at all. And In Treatment, which I've just about given up trying to get people to watch, because no one has, but which I just found out was created and written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez's son, which is kind cool.

Anyways, it's six days until the start of the new season of Breaking Bad, and I'm wondering whether or not it fits into Nussbaum's category. It has a lot in common with The Sopranos, working the Dostoevsky thing about what is permitted for those not constrained by normal rules. With Tony S., he starts fallen and the whole show teases the possibility of redemption even though in retrospect it's clear there was never really that possibility. Breaking Bad seems to be about a decline, except that the decline is pretty much accomplished right away - as soon as that basement scene plays out, there's no going back. We realize right away that Walter is not so much a man fallen as a man freed to more completely be the asshole he always was.  Certainly this helps us see why there's never a real question of him stopping once he has enough money. It's all about ego, proving he's the smartest guy in the room, making sure he's daughter knows that he provided for her. We're firmly in The Sopranos/Mad Men world of status and hierarchy. But we're not in patriarchy, per say, except in the sense that all of contemporary culture still fits that mode. Which of course it does in certain ways. But we meet Walter in a world where status-seeking has been dissipated or sublimated beneath the haze of southwest sprawl. His old friend has achieved some post-alpha alpha success with his biomed company, and Walter is stuck as a teacher in a world where people are polite but quietly judge him as a failure - only the teenagers themselves are upfront about mocking him. While his alpha-crime career is beneath the surface, he's stuck in pissing contests of card games and drinking in front of the kids with his sort-of alpha brother-in-law, who in this mostly not-alpha world is mostly a comic figure. From the start, Walter was a wolf in sheep's clothing, and once the costume is off, he's pretty much a straight-up psychopath. Jesse, on the other hand, shows himself to be more and more sheep, which makes him the tragic one and quite possibly the show's real hero.

In short, Breaking Bad may not be a show about patriarchy, but it's definitely a show about masculinity. (Mad Men is both, of course, as well as being a much rarely thing - a show about femininity, in which femininity is interrogated as well as embodied.) There's a certain conservative streak, in that Walter is not trying to live up to some concept of manhood, like fellow asshole Pete Campbell. He just wants to dominate, and there's a certain "this is the true self every man would have if faced with dying" thing -  except that Jesse, in his oversized gangster clothes is there as a counterpoint. And, potentially much more radically, there is Walter Jr., who will never chase down drug dealers but admires some of his father's ruthlessness. I'm still figuring out predictions, but as for wishes: I want more Walter Jr. almost as much as I wanted more Carla.