Breaking Bad’s Debt to the Simpsons Movie

Vincent Gilligan?!  Get over here right this instant, young man!  I need to have a word with you.  Hey, thanks for giving the world the greatest TV series I’ve ever seen.  Now I can throw away my television set.  There’s no way in hell anyone’ll ever be able to match it, at least not in my lifetime.

SPOILER ALERT:  If you haven’t watched Breaking Bad through to the end and intend to become a follower of the show, and if you haven’t seen the Simpsons Movie, please don’t read any further.  Both of them are worth your time. Priorities count.  You can always read this afterwards, not that its significance promises to endure that long.  Also, it’s not meant to be taken 100% seriously.  I don’t want Vince Gilligan to go all Heisenberg on my ass.

For those of you who are fans, do you miss Breaking Bad as much as I do?  I was suffering from separation anxiety from the program for a few weeks and started watching it again from the beginning.  I only got through the first season and dipped into the first part of the second one before being distracted by work-related duties.  But it’s worth doing so if you have a chance, just to see how much Walt has changed by the time he reaches the end.

It wasn’t until afterwards that I became aware of the parallels between the two works of art.  I’m also a major Simpsons fan, even though I haven’t been able to follow the show over the past several years due to my current habitat of Korea.  I’ve been told by my students that the Simpsons is presented to the public as a children’s show (the logic being that since it’s a cartoon, it must be, just like South Park and Family Guy).  It’s dubbed in Korean, so you don’t get to hear the original voices, which are one of the best things about the sitcom.  (Sad to lose the woman who did Mrs. Krabappel’s voice recently.  She did a yeoman’s–a yeowoman’s?–service.)

The thematic similarities don’t run so deep, although there are some startling parallels between the plots of the two stories.  Instead of cooking crystal meth, Homer befriends Spider Pig/Harry Plopper, creating a crisis when he dumps the feces of his porcine pal into the Springfield reservoir.  The Simpsons family is banished as a result, and they have to run for their lives from the torch-bearing, out-for-blood townsfolk.

Walter White contaminates Albuquerque and the greater American Southwest with the scourge of crystal meth, profiting handsomely in the process.  His actions lead to his family’s having to leave their home (in part to protect them from him, though Homer would never pose a threat to his own family, except accidentally; to be fair, Walt also adores his family, although not as much as he likes making crystal meth.  Hey, don’t knock it until you try it.  That, by the way, is meant as a joke.  I’m not endorsing either the production or use of a controlled substance, unless it happens to be caffeine.  Or alcohol.  Or–skip it).

Just as incorruptible goody-two-shoes neighbor Ned Flanders takes Bart under his wing after Homer wins a bet at his son’s expense (so that he has to go skateboarding naked through town, until he’s eventually apprehended by Chief Wiggum–“Stop in the name of American squeamishness!”–and handcuffed to a lamppost, only to be further humiliated by school bully Nelson Muntz, who points and laughs at him until he’s hoarse), incorruptible Hank, Walt’s brother-in-law and D.E.A. agent, takes Jesse under his wing after Walt’s meth-manufacturing partner figures out that “Mr. White” poisoned his girlfriend’s son with ricin in order to lure drug kingpin Gus Fring into a fatal trap.

After Walt’s falling out with his family, he banishes himself to New Hampshire, just as Homer drives the Simpsons family to Alaska before being abandoned by them for refusing to go rescue their fellow Springfieldianites from E.P.A. director Cargill’s imprisoning glass dome.  Homer lies down on a heart-shaped ice floe that breaks in two as the Carpenters’ “Close to You” plays in the background; Walt licks his wounds and injects his own cancer-treating drug in utter desolation.

Over a glass of whiskey at a neighborhood bar, just after being urged to die by his indignant son Walter, Jr., who thinks his father’s directly responsible for his uncle Hank’s death, Walt watches his former business partners, who’ve gone on to become millionaires themselves in a more legitimate fashion, on an overhead TV.  They tell talk show host Charlie Rose that Walt, now exposed as a murderous drug lord and menace to society, had nothing to do with their success apart from helping them come up with the name, Gray Matter(s?) (bullshit).  Walt’s feelings are clearly hurt, but more so, it appears, by something his ex-partner (and also ex-girlfriend says), about how the sweet old Walter White they knew and loved is gone, having been entirely replaced by the sinister criminal mastermind Heisenberg.

Just as Walt must set out to prove them wrong (and get even in the process), Homer encounters a shaman after whipping a pack of sled dogs into eventually attacking him in a display of instant karma.  The shaman feeds him a boiling elixir that has a hallucinogenic effect, so that Homer finds himself being swatted by anthropomorphic trees and having the parts of his body removed before being reassembled.

The shaman has told him he’s going to have an epiphany; sure enough, he does.  Despairing from the torment, he blurts out, “I don’t care about myself anymore!”

[Now he’s ready to go back and save the people of Springfield with some Steve McQueen (Great Escape)-inspired motorcycle-riding acrobatics.]

Walt has essentially the same revelation, although he never verbalizes it.  Bryan Cranston is a subtle enough actor to convey it by playing the character more quietly than before.  Once again, as at the start of the series, we really feel for him (at least I did).  He knows what he has to do, and he does it.

That’s as much as I have to say about the parallels, but I’d like to go on a bit further about Breaking Bad, not that the blogosphere isn’t already incredibly cluttered with chatter regarding the show.  

Come to think of it, I haven’t finished comparing the epiphanies.  Unlike Homer’s (after all, he’s a simpler fellow), Walt’s is drawn out over at least two episodes (“Ozymandias” and the New Hampshire one).  When he’s stuck on the Indian reservation, unwittingly rescued from arrest by the man who will simultaneously doom him to despair (Jack the neo-Nazi), Walt suddenly realizes the error of his ways and begs Jack not to murder Hank.  We see him collapse into inconsolable despondency when Jack pulls the trigger, the horror of what he, Walt, has done at last dawning on him.

This is the first part of his epiphany.  The second comes when his wife Skyler slashes his palm with a kitchen knife, protecting Walt, Jr. and herself from the man they think has killed her sister’s husband.  The third and final part comes when he hears what his ex says in the TV interview.

Bryan Cranston is a gifted actor who made Walt at least partly sympathetic throughout the series, even when he’d descended to his most loathsome and self-centered depths.  He had to lose everything and everyone before he could ascend phoenix-like as the avenging angel in the last episode (“Felina,” the name of the love interest addressed in the Marty Robbins song “El Paso” in the soundtrack).  He had to be the hero who saved Jesse before cashing in his chips.

The relationship between Walt and Jesse is perhaps the most poignant (and complicated) one in the show.  They both respect and detest each other, but there’s enough love between them to prevent them from going for the jugular and destroying each other completely.  Walt clearly feels guilty to see what’s become of his surrogate son (though he obviously had intended to hurt him badly when he confessed about letting ex-girlfriend Jane die), no longer bitter about having been ratted on to the late Hank.  Jesse, too, may sympathize with Walt, since the poor man is obviously dying–not only from cancer but from the even more pressing matter of a fresh–and inadvertently self-inflicted–bullet wound.

Gilligan really made you care about the characters and what happened to them.  He made the principal figures in the show ambiguous enough to make them feel more human (including Walt, Skyler, Jesse, Marie, Gus, Mike, and even Hank, who shows his dark side when he admits to his partner Steve Gomez that he considers Jesse expendable).

As for “El Paso,” the greatest love felt at the end appears to be Walt’s for Jesse.  Jesse is the son Walt never had.  Walter, Jr. is too pure, so he and Walt can never fully either understand or appreciate each other fully (remember that scene in the driveway in which they’re revving their car engines together, with the song “Bonfire” playing on the soundtrack?).  Unlike Jesse, Walt, Jr.–excuse me, Flynn–can never break bad.  Of course, Jesse is a good-hearted soul too; maybe he reminds Walt of how good a man he (Walt) could have been.

Paraphrasing the song, Jesse’s the one Walt takes the bullet for.  Remember that he leaves Skyler without even saying goodbye.  At least he gets to chat with Lydia and play with his chemistry set before lying down for a permanent nap as the camera dollies up in an homage to that bloody motel room scene towards the end of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.

Although I doubt Vince Gilligan’s upcoming project with Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul, can live up to Breaking Bad, I’d be curious to see how his surviving loved ones reacted to the news of Walt’s death.  Not that the finale didn’t provide a perfect ending to the series.

What would have been funny–if slightly out of character and inapproriately ridiculous–would have been if Walter, as soon as Hank got shot, reacted by slapping his forehead and crying, “D’oh!”



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