THAT MIND-BENDING PHONE CALL ON LAST NIGHT’S “BREAKING BAD”
At the fan-response level, though, the scene also had two sides. There was the part that was directed at the Bad Fan who hates Skyler, and who has written entire posts on Reddit indistinguishable from what Walt said, and who now got his own language shoved back in his face, labelled “abuser-talk.” And there was the part that was designed to sucker the Prissy Progressive Fan (me) who was all too eager to see Skyler as a pure victim, not merely of abusive Walt, but also of the Bad Fan. Vince Gilligan, you cunning bastard, I am confused and delighted. In one way, this scene was “Breaking Bad” having it both ways; in another way, it was the best kind of text, evading the simple read, as emotionally labile as I felt an hour after watching it.
Why Viewers Need to Whitewash Walter White
Walter is a sad, misguided, good man. Walter is a hateful, vindictive monster. Neither statement excludes the other.
These contradictory emotions and readings are all present, all essential, all of a piece. People are more than one thing simultaneously, always. There are lies in truth and truths within lies, in life, and in art.
Breaking Bad gets this. The phone call scene totally gets this. That's what makes it art.
Walt is complicated. Walt is a mess. Walt is not easy to pigeonhole. But we do know that he has been, throughout the run of the series, a horrendously manipulative, dishonest, coldblooded, violent, destructive person, and now he's reaping the consequences of all the ill-advised or outright evil choices he has made.
It is possible to accept all these things and still root vicariously for Walter to outsmart his enemies. We root for Tom Ripley. We root for Michael Corleone. We root for a lot of characters who are, if you step back and take a good look at them, basically villains.
But as we root for them, hopefully we understand that what we're feeling, or should feel, is a mix of attraction and repulsion — and that when we bend over backwards in our interpretation of a show, to maximize attraction and minimize repulsion, we're making art dumber, and lying to ourselves about ourselves.