HBO’s The Night Of: This Ain’t No ‘Law & Order’

An extraordinary limited-run series recently concluded on HBO. The Night Of is a show about a murder and a trial, but it’s unlike any other crime drama on television in America for a multitude of reasons. This ain’t no Law & Order. It’s a show that exposes the utter darkness at the heart of America’s criminal justice system.

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The Night Of begins by introducing us to Nasir Khan, or Naz for short (Riz Ahmed), who is a college student in New York City, and a Muslim. We’re briefly introduced to his family, get a glimpse of his daily routine at school, and see that he’s a pretty typical young adult. He wants to fit in, he’s excited about being invited to a party, and he’s at the age where childhood has begun to transition into adulthood leading to an inevitable friction with his parents and their restrictions.

Naz’s friend, who was supposed to be his ride to the party, bails on him at the last minute. In a fateful decision, Naz takes his father’s taxicab without permission and heads off to the party anyway. He gets lost, and he doesn’t know how to turn off the cab’s “on duty” sign. When he pulls over to get his bearings a couple guys hop into the back seat thinking he’s a real cab driver. He kicks them out of the cab, but when a beautiful, mysterious young woman opens the door and sits down in the back seat he can’t bring himself to get rid of her as well.

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Naz is intrigued by Andrea, the mysterious passenger, and he soon forgets about the party he was trying to find. Instead, the two drive around for a while, stopping a few times before ending up back at her house. Andrea invites Naz inside. They do drugs, have sex, and a few hours later Naz wakes up and finds her stabbed to death in her bed. In a state of shock and panic he flees the scene, but is detained by police almost immediately afterward on suspicion of DUI, and is linked to the murder a few hours later.

What really makes The Night Of something special, what sets it apart from most other crime dramas and investigation shows, is the very deliberate pace it establishes from the outset, which allows for an in-depth look at the fine details of the American justice system that most other shows would casually gloss over or skip entirely. It takes its time, allowing the narrative to slowly unfold. If this were an episode of Law & Order, the first 45 minutes of Nasir Khan’s story presented in The Night Of would be condensed into a formulaic 90 second cold open, followed by practically omniscient, slick-talking detectives arriving on scene and immediately rushing into their routine as they go about solving the crime.

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The Night Of isn’t that sort of crime procedural, which are almost always told exclusively from the point of view of the police. It does explore a murder mystery, but it’s not really “about” solving the crime so much as it’s about the experience of being pushed through the legal system, told mostly from the perspective of the accused and his defense team as they face a seemingly hopeless battle. The Night Of is an in-depth analysis of the justice system in the United States, and the murder mystery is merely the device through which the show skewers the system.

As Naz passes through various stages of the legal system, Richard Price and Steve Zaillian, the creative force behind the series, linger on many seemingly unimportant things. We see how a police precinct is run in the middle of the night, and the boredom of suspects and witnesses waiting around to be questioned or booked. We see police officers who are already tired after pulling a double-shift being forced to work even later when all they want is to go home. We are shown in detail the process of an arrest. Not just the taking of fingerprints, but having your body inspected as an extension of the crime scene, being photographed head to toe, being questioned before legal representation has been arranged, waiting in holding cells, the process of being funneled straight to jail before you’re convicted of anything, the music being played in the cab of the prisoner transport vehicle which sounds muffled to the prisoners in the back, and the boredom of the prison bureaucracy as they ask their routine questions and stamp the same forms over and over without a second thought for the people being warehoused.

The dehumanizing process of being stripped of your dignity and tossed into a dark, cruel cage is shown in haunting detail. The fact that it’s depicted as just a matter of bureaucratic routine makes it all the more striking.

Most crime dramas, especially on television, focus almost exclusively on the investigators and prosecutors (in other words, the representatives of the state) who of course work earnestly to discover the truth and seek justice. The Night Of completely blows up this format in a variety of ways.

The vast majority of the show’s focus is on Naz’s experience as a suspect, prisoner, and defendant, as well on his lawyer’s efforts to uncover the truth about what happened on the night in question and to come up with a robust defense in a case that seems like a slam dunk for the prosecution. John Stone, the defense attorney who initially takes an interest in Naz and his case and fights for him until the end, is played by John Turturro, who turns in an instant classic performance. Amara Karan plays Chandra Kapoor, another young lawyer motivated by compassion for Naz.

Not only does The Night Of shift the focus away from the representatives of the state in a literal sense, in that the cops aren’t the protagonists, it also dares to break away from the ideological default in TV crime dramas, where the police and prosecution are shown to be well-meaning and genuinely interested in real justice. Rather, to the extent that the police and prosecution are featured, they are depicted as reflexively seeking a conviction, and doing whatever needs to be done to achieve that single-minded goal, rather than being primarily concerned with what is actually true and what is not. Naz is the only suspect considered by lead detective Sgt. Box and prosecutor Helen Weiss prior to the trial, simply because it seems like an easy win for the state, even though Naz’s lawyers are able to identify three other possible suspects through their own investigation (and a fourth is revealed later on).

The show also spends a great deal of time fleshing out Naz’s experience in prison, which is something that is almost always ignored on the average crime drama. Typically, the suspects are only shown in prison through the glass of the visitation room when the detectives need to ask them more questions. On The Night Of, however, the difficulties of adapting to life in prison are brought to the forefront.

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Because of the nature of the crime Naz is accused of, he quickly makes enemies behind bars and is subjected to a series of threats and attacks. It is likely he will be severely injured, and possible he will actually be killed unless he makes a deal with the devil, so to speak. The most powerful inmate in Naz’s cell block, Freddy (Michael Kenneth Williams), takes Naz under his wing and provides him with protection in exchange for helping to smuggle drugs into prison. In the process, Naz becomes addicted to drugs, gets several prison tattoos, and sinks deeper into the hopelessness of prison life in a variety of ways.

The show forces the audience to confront the harsh realities not only of prison, but of the criminal justice system as a whole. From the very beginning, even though defendants are supposed to have the presumption of innocence, it’s clear that the deck is heavily stacked against Naz in all sorts of ways. Virtually everyone involved assumes he is guilty, and simply having their son be accused of murder causes all sorts of harm to the Khan family. Naz’s father can’t get his cab back because the car is being held as evidence, and therefore can’t earn a living. His mother is fired from her job because her son is accused of murder. Naz’s parents have to sell their valuables and are forced to take low paying jobs in order to make ends meet. Because of this financial hardship inflicted upon them through no fault of their own, simply because their son is accused of a crime, they are unable to afford a lawyer.

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Even when a high-powered defense attorney agrees to take the case pro bono, she too assumes Naz is guilty and only tries to strike a plea bargain rather than actually defending her client to the best of her ability. When Naz insists on fighting the charges and maintains his innocence, she quits, and the Khan’s are forced to face financial ruin in order to pay for a defense for their son. It isn’t a coincidence that the most affordable option for the family would be for Naz to confess to the crime and beg for a lighter sentence. The system is fundamentally unfair to the poor, because having limited finances encourages defendants to strike plea deals strictly because it’s so expensive to go to trial with a competent defense team.

The idea that people are innocent until proven guilty is a nice concept in theory, but The Night Of reveals it to be an empty platitude. What good is the technical presumption of innocence if the practical reality for defendants and their families is the destruction of their lives regardless of the outcome of the legal process? It calls into question the very idea of freedom itself. Can a people truly be free if they live in a society where merely being accused of a crime is nearly as horrific and destructive as actually being convicted?

Most television crime dramas don’t invite this sort of contemplation. Most shows accept the system at face value, identify primarily with the perspective of the police, and the suspects are rarely well developed characters. Shows like Law & Order are primarily about the experience of the police and prosecutors rather than the experience of those who go through the system. The Night Of flips this dynamic on its head. It focuses on the details of the system in a way that allows for analysis and reflection on the kind of society we live in, it identifies primarily with the perspectives of the suspect and the defense, and it illuminates the experience of going through the legal system in a visceral, terrifying way.

Ultimately, the show articulates how the judicial system itself can actually create criminals. Even those who are acquitted don’t escape unscathed, as their lives can end up shattered almost as if they were convicted. The Night Of is a show about how the system grinds people up, and how everyone involved is just a cog in a massive machine, in a way that diffuses blame and accountability. Everyone just does their job, and no one in particular is at fault for the way the system chews people up and spits them out. In the end, we’re left with a profile of a truly horrific system, regardless of the outcome of Naz’s case.

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What makes Naz’s lawyer John Stone a hero, what distinguishes him from the other cogs in the machine, is that he makes a conscious decision to go to extraordinary lengths in pursuit of the truth on behalf of his client, to go beyond his established “place” in the system as a low rent lawyer. He refuses to settle and he doesn’t give up, even when others give up on him. Unlike everyone else, he doesn’t simply assume Naz is guilty from the start. In fact, he doesn’t even want to know if Naz is guilty or not. But he dedicates himself to the truth, investigates leads that the police ignored, puts himself into dangerous situations in pursuit of other suspects, even though it would have been easier to just let Nasir Khan get thrown to the wolves. No one would have blamed him.

In the age of mass incarceration in America, The Night Of is a profound achievement. Artistically it’s as good as anything on television. It perfects a visual aesthetic defined by slow, steady camera movement and an attention to detail through visual storytelling. But what makes the show so vitally important right now is its unflinching profile of a horrific and cruel criminal justice system, designed primarily to benefit those in power at the expense of those it oppresses, as well as at the expense of genuine justice existing in society.

Jesse Williams’ Speech at the 2016 BET Awards

On June 26, actor Jesse Williams took the stage at the 2016 BET Awards to accept BET’s Humanitarian Award. What followed was a bold and powerful speech which condemned the black oppression and exploitation the United States has thrived on since its inception. It was a brave act of defiance against the system in which he called on the oppressed and their allies to force an end to the oppression in this society, or to rise up and create a new society.

This is a courageous moment that deserves to be celebrated in its own right, but it is also important to view this speech in the context of the continued brutality faced by black people on a daily basis in America, the supposed “land of the free.” Just this week there have been two more high profile police murders of black people, and just 3 days prior to Williams’ speech the second cop tried for the murder of Freddie Gray was acquitted of all charges.

What is so powerful about Williams’ impassioned plea is that he doesn’t speak of a “broken system.” Rather, he recognizes that the system is functioning exactly as it was intended – that it was designed to oppress people of color for the benefit of a white elite – and he articulates the need to rise up against it. “A system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do.”

Please take a moment to watch Jesse Williams’ powerful acceptance speech. The full transcript is below.

 

Full Transcript:

Peace peace. Thank you, Debra. Thank you, BET. Thank you Nate Parker, Harry and Debbie Allen for participating in that.

Before we get into it, I just want to say I brought my parents out tonight. I just want to thank them for being here, for teaching me to focus on comprehension over career, and that they make sure I learn what the schools were afraid to teach us. And also thank my amazing wife for changing my life.

Now, this award – this is not for me. This is for the real organizers all over the country – the activists, the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents, the families, the teachers, the students that are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do.

It’s kind of basic mathematics – the more we learn about who we are and how we got here, the more we will mobilize.

Now, this is also in particular for the black women in particular who have spent their lifetimes dedicated to nurturing everyone before themselves. We can and will do better for you.

Now, what we’ve been doing is looking at the data and we know that police somehow manage to deescalate, disarm and not kill white people everyday. So what’s going to happen is we are going to have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function in ours.

Now… I got more y’all – yesterday would have been young Tamir Rice’s 14th birthday so I don’t want to hear anymore about how far we’ve come when paid public servants can pull a drive-by on 12 year old playing alone in the park in broad daylight, killing him on television and then going home to make a sandwich. Tell Rekia Boyd how it’s so much better than it is to live in 2012 than it is to live in 1612 or 1712. Tell that to Eric Garner. Tell that to Sandra Bland. Tell that to Dorian Hunt.

Now the thing is, though, all of us in here getting money – that alone isn’t gonna stop this. Alright, now dedicating our lives, dedicating our lives to getting money just to give it right back for someone’s brand on our body when we spent centuries praying with brands on our bodies, and now we pray to get paid for brands on our bodies.

There has been no war that we have not fought and died on the front lines of. There has been no job we haven’t done. There is no tax they haven’t leveed against us – and we’ve paid all of them. But freedom is somehow always conditional here. “You’re free,” they keep telling us. But she would have been alive if she hadn’t acted so… free.

Now, freedom is always coming in the hereafter, but you know what, though, the hereafter is a hustle. We want it now.

And let’s get a couple things straight, just a little sidenote – the burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander. That’s not our job, alright – stop with all that. If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression. If you have no interest, if you have no interest in equal rights for black people then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down.

We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, yo, and we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil – black gold, ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit. The thing is though… the thing is that just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.

Thank you.

Juan Pablo Reveals the True Nature of ‘The Bachelor’

Another season of ABC’s The Bachelor has ended, and while every year the network promotes its “reality” show as the “most dramatic” or the “most emotional” season yet, without a doubt, this season was the most honest. It’s not clear if ABC knew exactly what it was getting into when they cast Juan Pablo Galavis in the role of ‘The Bachelor,’ but what is clear is that this season exposed the ugly, backward nature of the show.

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After casting Juan Pablo, who was previously a contestant on The Bachelorette, ABC probably thought they would get credit for breaking barriers. Galavis, the single father and American born Venezuelan, is the first non-white person to star in the title role of The Bachelor, or The Bachelorette, for that matter. But what they might not have anticipated is the way Juan Pablo would shatter the illusory “fairy-tale” that the show is based upon through a series of controversies. Though ABC is probably happy to be cashing in the extra publicity surrounding this season’s turmoil, you have to wonder, did anyone bother to vet this guy?

Galavis was selected as ‘The Bachelor’ after becoming a “fan favorite” on the last season of The Bachelorette despite a small amount of screen time. But it wasn’t long after his season of The Bachelor started airing in January that Galavis started chipping away at his likability quotient, making homophobic remarks during an interview where he used the word “pervert” in reference to gay people and said that having a gay ‘Bachelor’ would set a bad example for children. He later apologized to GLAAD while blaming his comments on the fact that English is his second language. But looking at the full context, it’s clear this wasn’t a simple matter of his true feelings being lost in translation.

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Controversy also erupted from the show itself when Juan Pablo apparently had sex with one of the women in his harem well before the designated time producers deem extra-curricular activity socially appropriate. The next day Galavis “slut shamed” the woman, Clare, who ended up a finalist, scolding her for setting a bad example for his young daughter. He brought her to tears as he shifted the blame to her, as if he had nothing to do with their mutual act in the ocean.

Later, another woman on the show, Andi, made waves of another sort when she called out Juan Pablo for failing to take the time to actually get to know his suitors on a personal level. After spending a night in a “fantasy suite” with the ‘Bachelor,’ Andi revealed that Galavis didn’t ask her any personal questions and seemed only interested in name-dropping and telling superficial stories about himself. The next day she confronted him. “Do you have any idea what religion I practice? What are my political views?” she asked. Galavis admitted he had no idea, and at this point in the show Andi was one of only three remaining women after 24 others had already been sent packing. In theory, Juan Pablo should have known her pretty well by then, if only he had bothered to regard the women on the show as actual human beings.

Andi decided not to wait for Juan Pablo to eliminate her in the next ridiculous and degrading “rose ceremony.” She left on her own accord, making sure to explain to Galavis the “difference between being honest and being an asshole” on her way out.

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All this was just a build up to what was one of the most pathetic, yet revealing, nights of television in recent memory, when the ‘Bachelor’ Juan Pablo had to decide between his two remaining suitors, Nikki and Clare, followed by a live hour of analysis in front of a studio audience on March 10th.

Before making his final decision, ‘The Bachelor’ is allowed to go on one last fairy-tale style date with each remaining woman. But while on a helicopter ride with Clare, the same women he shamed and humiliated earlier in the season, when the cameras weren’t rolling, he took the opportunity to tell her he loved having sex with her even though he didn’t really know her very well. Stunned by his open misogyny, Clare fought back tears as she explained what happened during a side-interview.

That night, she demanded an explanation from Galavis, who seemed more concerned with why Clare didn’t give him a kiss the moment he walked through the door. After a lengthy exchange, Juan Pablo was able to appease Clare, convincing her that he respected her for more than just her physical appearance, even if his idea of complimenting her was also condescending in its own way. Given this reassurance in the final hour, she felt confident she would be the one chosen in the end and remained on the show for what she assumed would be a romantic proposal.

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But when she stepped into the designated proposal area and stood before ‘The Bachelor’ he rather casually told her that he “had to say goodbye,” as if she had meant virtually nothing to him, without the slightest regard for her feelings. He moved in for a final hug, but Clare put up both hands and blocked him, and as she stormed off camera, humiliated yet again, she told Juan Pablo that she wouldn’t want her children to have a father like him. A few moments later, Galavis callously muttered to himself, “I’m glad I didn’t pick her.” A woman demanding respect was simply too much for him to comprehend.

In the wake of Season 18 of The Bachelor, it seems clear that Juan Pablo Galavis is not only homophobic, he harbors a hatred of women, too. Throughout the season he treated the women on the show as disposable objects. Every time he had a private conversation with one of his suitors he would condescendingly speak in tone one might use to address a small child or a pet, while constantly touching their faces and tucking their hair behind their ears; a misogynist acting in a way he thinks women will interpret as romantic. But in reality, the thoughts, ideas, and opinions of women were insignificant to him, and the women who in any way challenged his assumed right as a man to walk all over them with impunity were either sent home or realized who they were dealing with and walked out. Justifiably so, Juan Pablo has been unofficially labeled the “most hated” ‘Bachelor’ in the show’s history by the fans.

But while it’s obvious that he is a homophobic, misogynistic pig, what’s important to recognize after all the controversy of this season is that Juan Pablo actually personifies the backward values The Bachelor has always embraced. The show is inherently misogynistic and promotes a truly unhealthy, unrealistic, and thoroughly reactionary view of romantic relationships and sex. Galavis might have been more crude and transparent, or, as he would say, “honest,” about what was going on than previous ‘Bachelors’, but his actions were right in line with what the show inherently is at its core.

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Take his homophobic comments, for example. Juan Pablo’s hate for homosexuals made headlines, and ABC was forced to issue a statement distancing the network from its ‘Bachelor,’ but Chris Harrison, the host of the show, actually agrees with Galavis. Though Harrison claims that he supports gay rights in principle, he doesn’t think having a gay ‘Bachelor’ would be a good marketing decision. To paraphrase, why mess with a profitable formula? It’s safe to assume that Harrison’s position is closely matched by his employer. The point here is that Juan Pablo’s widely condemned homophobia is just (to use his own word) a more “honest” version of the same core values upheld by The Bachelor‘s network, ABC.

Also, take a look at Juan Pablo’s apparent inability or unwillingness to see women as actual human beings with worthwhile thoughts and feelings. While not every ‘Bachelor’ has nakedly displayed this type of misogyny, The Bachelor is a “reality” show that’s as unrealistic as can be. The basic scenario is condescending and degrading, giving one man the licence to wade through a sea of women, narrowing down his potential mates during designated “rose ceremonies”. And instead of structuring the show so that each contestant has a fair and equal chance to build a relationship with the ‘Bachelor,’ the show intentionally forces the women to fight each other for “their time” with the show’s star. If the goal of the show is truly to develop a meaningful romantic relationship, why set it up in such a way that encourages petty in-fighting rather than allowing the potential couples the time to get to know each other as human beings?

And there’s the rub. The real objective is to reel in viewers with the contrived “drama,” even if that means undermining the supposed central purpose of the show. So again, while Galavis might have been more openly indifferent to the women selected to seduce him than most previous ‘Bachelor’s, in actuality, he was simply acting out the mentality encouraged by the inherently debasing structure of the show, like everyone else has throughout all 17 previous seasons. ABC might have cast Juan Pablo as “the villain,” but the show’s audience should realize that he was simply a personification of the values The Bachelor has always upheld and encouraged from the beginning. The only difference is that Galavis doesn’t bother to mask those reactionary values. He simply embodies them openly.

Now, critics of this analysis will undoubtedly point to ABC’s female-centered spin-off The Bachelorette as proof of the network’s innocence on the question of misogyny. But that show is also inherently problematic. While it’s about a woman deciding the fate of a pool of men on The Bachelorette, the men competing for the lone woman still reap this society’s benefits of manhood. Invariably for the ‘Bachelorette’ it’s a process of weeding out the men who aren’t there for the “right reasons,” discovering who’s attempting to cash in on quick fame rather than actually trying to develop a real relationship. On The Bachelor it’s always about a man with total power deciding which woman can fit into his already established identity, while The Bachelorette is always about the woman carefully deciding which man to concede her power to.

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Both versions of the show are sick and reinforce unhealthy gender stereotypes and relationship models. So while there might be a temptation to point to Juan Pablo as nothing more than a bad apple, an anomaly who somehow got his homophobia and misogyny past the show’s casting directors, if you look closely you can see that he is actually the perfect ambassador for the warped values The Bachelor has always stood for.

One positive that came through during this train wreck of a television season is that in several key moments the women on the show stood up for themselves, powerfully asserting the idea that they aren’t just sex objects to be tossed aside when a man decides he’s done with them. They turned the tables on Juan Pablo by reclaiming their power and dignity, openly rejecting his misogyny and demanding respect. Each time this happened Galavis did his best to play off the moment as if it was no big deal. But under that casual dismissal was a palpable anger that a woman dared to challenge his authority. By the end, the audience, too, had completely turned on their former “fan favorite.” Hopefully this will be a moment that illuminates the truth about the nature of The Bachelor and causes the show’s loyal audience to question what they’ve been watching. Or, better yet, to stop watching altogether.

There’s a Reason it’s Called *American* Horror Story

“I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.” — Malcolm X

There’s widespread consensus that television is currently experiencing a golden age of the serialized drama characterized by the literary format of the novel being applied to TV. The staggering list of high quality serialized television novels on the air right now includes Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, House of Cards, Mad Men, and The Walking Dead, just to name a few.

HBO’s mob drama The Sopranos, which began in 1999, is largely responsible for triggering this tsunami of high-quality serialized programming, which imported the artistic sensibility and production value of film to the small screen. Shows like Six Feet Under and Lost soon followed. AMC’s Breaking Bad, which ended last year, is perhaps the high water mark of this flood, representing a pinnacle of artistic achievement during this renaissance of the medium.

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But now that Breaking Bad is off the air, there’s one television drama that stands above the rest; fearlessly, creatively, and artistically redefining the possibilities and the limits of the medium. FX’s American Horror Story is unlike anything else on the air right now (or perhaps ever before), both in terms of its general concept and its ability to put forward a bold artistic vision, which includes powerful social commentary, all while being deliciously entertaining.

Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk created a unique format for a television series. Each season of American Horror Story is a self-contained mini-series, and a troupe of actors play different parts each year. This concept allows the show to explore new themes and subjects each season while retaining a core group of talented actors who thrive in a variety of roles.

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The focal point of the cast is the magnificent Jessica Lange, whose career has been reinvigorated by the three roles she’s played so far. In season 1, retroactively named “Murder House,” she played a conniving next door neighbor to a family who moves into a house that traps the souls of anyone who dies inside. In season 2, “Asylum,” she played a nun who oversees a horrifying mental hospital in the mid-1960s. In the latest season, “Coven,” she plays a witch bent on obtaining eternal life no matter the cost to the coven she leads.

The cast also includes Evan Peters, Lily Rabe, Frances Conroy, Sarah Paulson, Taissa Farmiga, Denis O’Hare, Zachary Quinto, Dylan McDermott, and Jamie Bewer, all of whom have all appeared in at least two of the three seasons. There have also been strong supporting roles by major actors such as Kathy Bates, Joseph Fiennes, James Cromwell, Angela Bassett, Connie Britton, Danny Huston, Chloe Sevigny, Kate Mara, Emma Roberts, and Gabourey Sidibe. Ryan Murphy has admitted that he’s had Academy Award winning actors practically beg him for parts on the show.

American Horror Story is a highly stylized drama. Virtually every shot is pushed to its artistic limit. The camera floats around the action and establishes a perpetual sense of unease by presenting awkward angles that bend and twist reality in a way that enhances the atmosphere of the show without being a distraction to the narrative or appearing cheesy. The show blends the real world with a spiritual realm, and brilliantly treats each with complete legitimacy. At any given moment you can’t be sure of what you’re seeing, or even if a character is dead or alive. And the hideously creepy opening title sequences, which perfectly set the tone for the show, are amazing achievements in their own right.

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The show is totally diabolical and unrelenting, and it’s not for the faint of heart. There have been Horror shows on television before, but none quite as jarring, visceral, and purely entertaining as this. It is also unique in its ability to incorporate deliberate social commentary into its narrative. It’s a show that definitely has something to say, which justifies the violence and gore during its descent into darkness. American Horror Story wants to shock, horrify, and entertain, but it also illuminates the repulsive underbelly of America that is all too often kept safely out of sight.

Each season, with a different setting and cast of characters, American Horror Story has new themes to explore. The first season, “Murder House,” seems to be about the dark side of American domestic life, the illusion of the American Dream, and the haunting of the past. It deals with infidelity and betrayal within families, and the struggle to maintain family cohesion through the inevitable harsh realities of life. It’s a horrific exploration of the “traditional family” and the Murder House setting allows for a bleak and morbid view of the idealized American household. Secrets don’t stay secret, the dead don’t stay dead, and the past always comes back to haunt you. Moving into the perfect big house is nothing but an attempt to avoid facing problems, and so much is sacrificed to maintain the appearance of a perfect family. “Murder House” seems to imply the question: is it worth it?

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“Asylum” takes on the treatment of the mentally ill in America and deals with religious based oppression, race relations, and discrimination against homosexuals, all of which are issues deeply embedded in America’s roots. The second season is an absolute television masterpiece that ends up in a totally different emotional place than where it begins due to its meticulously crafted story arc. There are characters you loathe at the start but find yourself rooting for toward the end, and vice versa, and all the plot lines are tied off in the most emotionally satisfying way possible. It’s a journey from darkness to the light in a way that is oddly uplifting because of the depth of the terror experienced along the way. “Aslyum” shows there can be hope and redemption, even for the most lost among us, as long as oppressive conventions are broken with and love for humanity is kept in your heart.

The third season, “Coven,” is perhaps the boldest, most over the top chapter of American Horror Story, and its critique of American society is the sharpest the series has offered so far. It follows a coven of witches who are under assault both from society at large as well as from a rival group of voodoo witches. American Horror Story has always been a female driven show, but the focus on the all-female coven brings themes of women’s oppression in society into focus. Zoe, the newest member of the coven, can kill men by having sex with them. Madison, another young witch, is raped early in the season, and she kills the men responsible with a flick of her wrist. These are the ultimate fears of a patriarchal society that wants to maintain ownership over women’s sexuality. “Coven” also explores America’s crime of slavery and its deeply entrenched and ongoing racial discrimination. In one moving scene, a black witch forces a racist serial killer to watch the mini-series Roots as punishment for her crimes.

American Horror Story tackles these issues head on, and the show definitely has a point of view. It’s a perfect demonstration of the way art can be utilized to offer pointed social commentary in a highly entertaining form. It’s a free-form, sometimes abstract show, but despite its avante garde presentation, or perhaps because of it, it clearly articulates a political worldview that condemns inequality, discrimination, and oppression of all kinds, while putting forward strong female characters who challenge a male-dominated world. The show’s social critiques are organically embedded into the narrative, which allows the audience to be horrified and repulsed by the fundamental ills of the system they live under. American Horror Story does not hesitate when forcing viewers to deal with brutal and uncomfortable truths.

In each season of American Horror Story real life characters are introduced. “Murder House” incorporates the famous Black Dahlia murder, as well as a sub-plot with a Columbine-like school shooting. “Asylum” imagines a grown up Anne Frank, and also deals with an ex-Nazi party member who performs sadistic medical experiments on human beings. “Coven” brings to life the true story of the New Orleans serial killer known as the Axeman, as well as Madame Delphine LaLaurie, a New Orleans socialite who tortured and murdered her slaves. These historical figures are woven into the fabric of the show and reinforce American Horror Story‘s underlying concept of exploring the deepest fears and horrors of American society.

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In this golden age of the television drama there’s a great show out there for everyone. If The Walking Dead or Falling Skies aren’t your thing, you might love Game of Thrones or House of Cards. However, because American Horror Story is unafraid to approach uncomfortable subjects in the most grotesque manner possible it’s obviously not a show for everyone, but it’s possibly the best and most important show on television today because it exposes the horrors at the roots of America through a unique artistic vision. It pries up the floorboards to examine the foundation upon which America is built, and it’s not afraid to reveal the ugly truth, while still holding on to the hope that people can be good. As Kathy Bates said in an interview with Collider, “That’s what I like about what Ryan [Murphy] does. There’s a reason why it’s called ‘American’ Horror Story.”

The show is uniquely American, both in form and in subject. Set in any other country it would be a wildly different show. From its inception America has been wrestling with fundamental contradictions; “founded by slave owners who wanted to be free,” as the late, great George Carlin was fond of pointing out. American Horror Story dives right into those contradictions and uproots them for all to see, creating an unnerving and terrifying experience in the most gratifying and entertaining way possible.

After Felina: Breaking Bad is a Balanced Chemical Equation

:::SPOILER ALERT:::

Last night, AMC’s cult hit turned cultural phenomenon Breaking Bad came to a close, and while the finales of previous great television shows such as Lost and The Sopranos failed to satisfy audiences creator Vince Gilligan was able to craft a measured, subtle, and nuanced final episode which tied up all major loose ends and provided emotional closure, without betraying the central themes that have carried the show through 5 seasons.

As Walter White states in the very first episode, chemistry is the study of change; growth decay, and transformation. And like a balanced chemical equation Breaking Bad took us through Walt’s transformation from middle class chemistry teacher to meth kingpin, honestly and meticulously, accounting for every detail, always getting the formula just right. It was this scientific, almost obsessive approach to quality storytelling that allowed Breaking Bad to become perhaps the most politically relevant show during this Golden Age of Television.

Just like Lost and The Sopranos before it, Breaking Bad has been put under the microscope and analyzed from all angles. Much has been said about Breaking Bad being a show that was designed with its ending in mind from the start, which is true, but that’s not the only reason it now stands above the other great dramas of the era. Breaking Bad succeeds where other shows fell short due mainly to the fact that it was an honest reflection of American society that never compromised or strayed from its vision. The end, when it came, wasn’t meant to shock or take the audience by surprise. It had a feeling of inevitability, derived from the momentum the show built from the beginning.

Vince Gilligan has said publicly that he doesn’t care much for politics and that he doesn’t give the subject much thought. Though generally vague about his personal political views, he’s stated that he considers himself more conservative than most of the entertainment industry. Yet Breaking Bad has emerged as a genuine progressive television series, clearly indicting the system of capitalism that rules over society, and the way it infects all aspects of life, including the way the “traditional” family unit reinforces greed and the exploitation of others.

All art puts forward social and political messages, even if making a political statement isn’t your primary objective. Perhaps Breaking Bad is simply greater than the sum of its parts. Even if Gilligan doesn’t consider himself a progressive, and even if members of his writing staff sometimes publicly misinterpret aspects of their own story during interviews, through their creative collaboration a piece of progressive art was born. This isn’t to say that Breaking Bad‘s progressive position is purely accidental. By crafting of a narrative about the nature of greed and the pursuit of power in a detailed, almost scientific way, developing characters honestly and realistically, always making sure the chemical equation was correct, Gilligan and his team were able to accurately reflect the horrors of the capitalist system, and the moral truth was allowed to shine through their work.

Breaking Bad is about a man who’s been beaten down, victimized by a capitalist way of life that champions a man’s ability to provide for a family, and his inability to live up to that standard despite being a kind, respectable man. He’s been conditioned to believe that he’s a failure, and when he’s diagnosed with cancer that will most likely end his life in rapid fashion, he sets out to reclaim his manhood, to prove to the society that he’s been victimized by that he can provide after all. While we empathize with Walter’s plight, his decision is ultimately a selfish one in that it’s designed primarily to satisfy himself. Even though his choice is rooted in legitimate pain caused by the system, he sets out to master that system for his own selfish pride.

The series takes us through Walt’s entry into the drug trade and through his transformation into a murderous monster as he’s corrupted by capitalism’s need to expand no matter the cost to others. Through the entire show he lies to his family (and to himself), but Breaking Bad always shows the audience Walt’s true motivation. His wife, Skyler, eventually finds out and attempts to resist. Defiantly she says, “Someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family,” but she, too, eventually succumbs to the corrupting influence of accumulated wealth. While she originally objected to Walt’s drug manufacturing on the grounds that it would bring danger to the family, ironically, maintaining the perfect image of the “traditional” family unit is what allowed her to ultimately give in and assist Walt with his criminal dealings, rather than turning him in.

By the time we approach the final episode, Walt’s pursuit of wealth and power, which had been negatively impacting society in ever expanding concentric circles for some time, which he was fine with, has finally damaged his own family, the very thing he always said he wanted to protect and provide for. His brother-in-law, the DEA agent Hank, has been killed by the very forces he unleashed. His son, Walt Jr., finally learns the truth about his father, and with his family in shambles and no where to turn Walt is forced to go into hiding. He takes refuge in an isolated New Hampshire cabin with virtually no contact with the outside world, which gives him time to reflect on what he’s done and who he has become. When we arrive at the finale, Walter White’s growth, decay, and transformation is complete, and the show has been the study of his change.

When “Felina,” the last episode of Breaking Bad, begins, Walter White has come to terms with the evil man he has become. While he may regret the bad things that have happened, it appears Walt has made peace with who he is and what he’s done. He’s not remorseful, he simply has no more need to lie to himself or anyone else, and he glides through the last days of his life completely at ease, his criminal instincts having become second nature. During his last conversation with Skyler he admits for the first time that he did it all for himself, not for the family. “I liked it,” he says. “I was good at it.” In this moment Gilligan is rubbing the truth in the faces of those who argue that Walt remains a good person.

Even Walt’s final plan, which he returns to Albuquerque to set in motion, is still mainly motivated by selfish pride, rather than any genuine altruism. He’s come back to find a backdoor channel through which to give his money to his son, and to eliminate the organization that stole his drug money and is still selling his signature blue meth. Walt Jr., who would rather be called Flynn, has completely rejected his father and doesn’t want any of his blood money. Walt forcing that money upon his son is more for his own peace of mind, so he can die knowing that he actually did provide for his family despite everything that went wrong. And getting rid of Jesse, Lydia, Todd, and the gang of neo-Nazis isn’t really about setting things right or getting any sort of justice, it’s about making sure that his product, the blue meth, dies with him. It’s an act of reclaiming ownership over what he considers to be his property, rather than trying to rid the streets of a toxic drug for any sort of humanitarian reasons. Even at the very end, Walt is still out for himself, trying to maintain his image and solidify his reputation.

While it’s unclear as to whether Walt goes to the neo-Nazi compound with the intention of killing Jesse, or to rescue him, ultimately Walt takes pity on him and spares his life once he sees him in chains, and Walt offers Jesse the chance to kill him once the Nazis have been dispatched. But even this isn’t really a genuine sacrifice. Walt knows he’s about to die anyway, and with nothing left to accomplish, offering himself up on a platter for Jesse is more about assuaging himself of guilt than helping Jesse recover from the terrible abuse Walt has put him through. To Jesse, it’s just one more way that Walt wants him to do his dirty work for him, just like he did with Gale Boetticher. This time, though, Jesse refuses to comply and tells Walt to do it himself.

This is Jesse’s moment of moral triumph. While many often mistakenly describe him as “weak,” in reality he is the only major character on the show who actually reverses course and rejects the status quo. While Breaking Bad is primarily about Walt’s transformation, Jesse has also undergone some major changes. His transition is in many ways opposite of Walt’s. While Walt became increasingly greedy and power hungry, Jesse ultimately went from wanting to make “fat stacks” of money by selling meth to rejecting the pursuit of money based on exploitation and violence. Given that Breaking Bad has been an allegory of capitalism from the very start, one could argue that Jesse’s reversal, representing the moral compass of the show, is a symbolic rejection of capitalism all-together.

Jesse eventually learns that Walt and his endless manipulation is the source of his pain and that Walt’s greed is a negative force on all of society, and he chooses to stand up to him. It can take a great deal of strength to confront a tormentor, especially a manipulative abuser like Walt, and Jesse summons the will to do just that, at great personal cost. But once he drives away from the neo-Nazi’s compound, simultaneously crying tears of sadness and joy, pain and relief, he’s free in a way that no other character on the show is. We get the sense that Jesse has actually learned something, both about himself and the world, and his future is a blank slate which will likely be very different than his past. He chose not to kill Walt. He’s grown and evolved and will no longer allow himself to be manipulated, which is an indication of strength, not weakness.

By contrast, what has Skyler learned? Has she learned a lesson about using her family as an excuse to become complicit in violence and exploitation for profit and security? It doesn’t appear so. She hates the damage that Walt did to her comfortable family, but she doesn’t seem to recognize her own role in the madness. By the end, she was advising Walt to kill more people to protect the family. “What’s one more?” she asked. Jesse’s evolution is much more righteous and the show rewards him with the chance to atone for his mistakes. Skyler will make a deal with the prosecutors and rest easy knowing that Walt won’t be around to threaten the family’s stability any more, and in doing so she will avoid accountability. But make no mistake, Skyler broke bad, too, though she will likely never admit her complicity, even to herself. Anything to protect the family.

Breaking Bad was a magnificent show, and it represents the very best the medium can achieve. It was cinematic in a way no other current show can match, other than possibly Game of Thrones, with an extremely high quality of cinematography, acting, writing, and directing all coming together in perfect measure, combined with an obsessive attention to detail, narrative, and theme. Because of this perfectly balanced equation Breaking Bad was able to avoid the pitfalls experienced by other great television dramas and end on its own terms, gracefully, while staying true to itself and satisfying the audience at the same time. Six Feet Under was able to pull off a similar feat, but Breaking Bad was able to elevate the medium in ways even Alan Ball’s brilliant show didn’t, by raising the technical aspects to the highest level possible, and crafting a completely absorbing drama that incorporated questions of morality as its central focus.

Gilligan, whatever his personal views may be, managed to guide the ship home in a way that was consistent with what the show has been from the beginning. It didn’t end with a lame “drugs are bad” message that upholds the war on drugs. And it also didn’t end with Hank, representing the establishment, ultimately prevailing. A lesser show might have had such an ending, perhaps showing Hank and the DEA leading Walt away in handcuffs to face justice in a court room. Thankfully, Breaking Bad is Breaking Bad, and its ending was consistent with the essence of what made the show great.

The final moments of Breaking Bad show Walter White, dying, but at peace with his monstrous deeds. He has nothing left to do. There’s no one left to lie to, manipulate, or kill. His work is done. While he waits to die he surveys the last lab used to create his infamous blue meth. He’s accepted who he became and embraced the pursuit of wealth and power as his true love. The Walter White in these last moments is the full expression capitalist-imperialism, rotted to the core and withering away. Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” provides the soundtrack as Walt admires the lab set-up. “Guess I got what I deserved…”

Walter White smears blood on a tank as he finally collapses and dies, alone in the dark with the chemistry he used to give himself value at the expense of thousands of others; both Walter White and Heisenberg laid bare and exposed with no more lies left to cover the truth. “Didn’t know you’d think that I’d forget or I’d regret the special love I had for you, my baby blue…”

The camera slowly rises and rotates, and if you look with the right kind of eyes you can see it, from the aerial view of Walter White’s lifeless body on the floor, an equals sign, formed by the tables upon which the lab equipment rests. Breaking Bad, down to the last shot of the series, balanced the equation.

 

 

Please see FedRev’s previous analysis of Breaking Bad

- “The Empire Business”: Breaking Bad, Capitalism, and the Family

- Breaking Bad: Hank Isn’t “The Good Guy”

Twerking for the Man: Fallout from the 2013 VMAs

During this year’s wild Video Music Awards on MTV, there was a brief interlude about a third of the way through the broadcast where comedian Kevin Hart talked about the show’s performances up to that point. His main contribution to the show was his surprise that Lady Gaga had such a big ass. He commented that he had been checking it out during Gaga’s show opening performance, which featured the performer going through multiple costume changes on stage, ultimately ending up in just a tiny thong and a seashell bra. As if that weren’t bad enough, Hart then went on to discuss the most controversial performance of the night: Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke’s rendition of Blurred Lines.

Though he was going for humorous effect, Hart stumbled onto a serious element of truth with his analysis of the duet. He said that Miley should probably get a pregnancy test after grinding on Thicke during the performance, and that other young girls should stay away from Thicke unless they want to end up on an Amber Alert. Given what had just transpired on stage, let alone the fact that women are still kidnapped, raped, and killed by men at a horrific rate, it definitely wasn’t funny.

But even though Hart’s critique of the performance was crude and inappropriate, at least he found the right target, Robin Thicke, unlike the mainstream media and social media universe. Following Cyrus’ performance, in which she brought “twerking” fully into the mainstream, Twitter exploded into a frenzy, setting a record for the most tweets per minute on a given subject at over 300,000, which is even more than the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, most of the Tweets and Facebook posts, as well as the reaction from the mainstream media focused almost exclusively on Cyrus. There was lots of “What was Miley thinking?” and “Should your daughter be watching Miley Cyrus?”, plus all sorts of extremely derogatory name-calling through social media.

Granted, while it is unfortunate that Miley Cyrus bought into this performance and allowed herself to be brought down to such a low level, the truly awful aspect of it was the way it illuminated the double standard women face under this system. Almost none of the negative reaction went toward Robin Thicke and the performance of his extremely misogynistic song “Blurred Lines,” a song that is all about pressuring women into sex. The chorus “you know you want it” (which is often the last thing a woman hears before she gets raped) repeats over and over. The song’s music video features topless women prancing around for men’s amusement, and during the VMAs Miley Cyrus essentially played that role. She stripped down into a skimpy two-piece outfit and twerked and grinded in front of Thicke.

It’s extremely telling that in our society a man can sing a song with lyrics that compare women to dogs and promotes a misinterpretation of “liberation” in order to pressure women into giving over their bodies for a man’s pleasure, and then when a woman actually does exactly what the man wants, strips down and dances and grinds for his pleasure, she’s instantly labeled a “bitch” or a “slut” or a “whore.” Meanwhile, the man who pressures women into a subservient, objectified role and benefits from the kind of behavior that Cyrus demonstrated doesn’t get criticized at all. It’s the male privilege under this system to exploit women sexually and skate away clean, while women must endure and defend themselves against the backlash that results from daring to be openly sexual. The Cyrus/Thicke performance has perfectly demonstrated the double-standard women face on a daily basis.

Again, it’s unfortunate that Cyrus participated in a performance that reduced her to nothing more than a sex object for a man’s pleasure, but to be clear, the villain here is the patriarchal system of male privilege that allows men to encourage the objectification and the exploitation of women, and then turns around and viciously attacks women who actually conform to those demands. “Don’t be such a prude,” followed by, “You’re such a filthy slut!” Under this system women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Miley Cyrus was damned because she did, taking all the backlash that should have been aimed at Robin Thicke.

However, while the 2013 VMAs will forever bare the black-eye of the Cyrus/Thicke performance which was controversial for all the wrong reasons, there were some positive moments from the broadcast.

Justin Timberlake cemented his status as the coolest human being alive with an epic greatest hits performance that featured a brief reunion with his boy-band N*Sync. Taylor Swift’s fantastic video for “I Knew You Were Trouble” won the award for Best Female Video, and Jason Collins, the first active athlete in a team sport to come out as gay, introduced a great performance of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s song “Same Love” which puts forward a powerful pro-gay message. And the show ended on a strong note with Katy Perry performing her hit “Roar” for the very first time.

It’s interesting to contrast Miley’s performance with Katy Perry’s. Cyrus is a huge star in her own right. She developed a massive following while performing as Disney’s Hannah Montana, and she successfully transitioned into a career under her own name. She is one of the wealthiest young people in the world with a media empire dwarfing that of her father’s, country singer Billy Ray Cyrus. And yet, all that wealth, power, and industry clout was meaningless on stage during the VMAs. Instead of taking her career to even new heights and solidifying herself as a powerful female mega-star, she took a back seat to the up and coming misogynist Robin Thicke. It was a degrading performance that in one stroke showed how good it is to be a man under this system, and how difficult and complicated it is to be a women.

Perry’s performance on the other hand was much closer to what Miley’s should have been. She was sexy without objectifying herself, dressed up as a boxer, and in an extremely well choreographed performance lit up the night under the Brooklyn Bridge with a display of raw female athleticism, power, and talent. She didn’t take a back seat to any man or play the part of the slut, she sang a good pop song on her own terms and ended a controversial award show on a generally positive note.

Colbert Report: “People Who Are Destroying America: Johnny Cummings”

Colbert Report – People Who Are Destroying America: Johnny Cummings

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Breaking Bad: Hank Isn’t “The Good Guy”

:::Please see my previous analysis of Breaking Bad before reading this follow-up:::

I’ve noticed a sentiment in the Breaking Bad community that Hank is considered “the good guy” by many viewers; or, at least, the goodest guy. I want to dispel that theory once and for all.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that Walt, at this stage in his transformation, is beyond the point of possible redemption. He’s too far gone, done too many horrific things, exploited too many people, and committed murder many times over, all in the selfish pursuit of wealth, power, and respect (His motivations are discussed at length in my previous piece). He truly has broken bad, never to return, and he’s well past the point where any moral observer should be able to root for him.

His most obvious foil on the show is Hank Schrader, his DEA agent his brother-in-law. It would be logical to assume that if we can’t root for Walt, then Hank, the agent trying to catch him, is who we should be pulling for. But that is not the case.

First of all, Hank is a hypocrite. While he makes his living busting people for using certain drugs, he’s totally comfortable smoking illegal Cuban cigars, brewing his own homemade beer, and serving as bartender at house parties, pouring everyone margaritas and doing shots of whiskey. His drugs are okay while other drugs aren’t.

Second of all, Hank is an officer of the Drug Enforcement Agency, which means that he is an agent of oppression. He’s a federal employee whose job it is to arrest people who produce, distribute, or use illegal drugs. Meanwhile, the government is in bed with the pharmaceutical companies, who push their legal yet just as potent, addictive, and dangerous drugs through the health care system. In essence, Hank’s job is to eliminate the corporate state’s competition.

And the police are in general an oppressive force designed first and foremost to protect the status quo and preserve the established order of society. In other words, their job is to safeguard the elite, and they oppress the masses in order to do so. The police are only necessary in our society because the system creates haves and have nots, and their job is to make sure the haves maintain their power over society. As a police officer Hank is part of the mechanism that enforces the class divide and fills the for-profit prison industrial complex with drug users, and everything he does is stained by that fact.

Finally, Hank has crossed the line too many times. Throughout the entire show he has bent the law, or flat out violated it, in order to pursue his leads. He breaks and enters without warrants, willfully ignores orders from his superiors, and engages suspects without documented proof, on more than one occasion outright assaulting people without cause. His beating of Jesse was brutal and unforgivable, and he should have been fired. The only reason he wasn’t arrested was because Jesse didn’t press charges, and it should be noted that Jesse would have pressed charges if it weren’t for Walt’s manipulation of the situation.

The point I’m trying to make is that Walt and Hank are almost equally bad. Both are prone to breaking the law and committing acts of brutal violence, the only difference is that Hank is sanctioned by the system and Walt is not. Walt is a renegade capitalist-imperialist who exists outside the law while Hank serves the established system of capitalist-imperialism. They are mirrors of each other, and we can’t root for one to prevail over the other.

There are many ways Breaking Bad could end, but the worst possible ending would be one in which Hank emerges as a triumphant victor over Walt. Though it might be gratifying to see Walt get what he deserves after escaping justice for so long, Hank shouldn’t be the one to give it to him, because ultimately that would represent the oppressive establishment preserving itself, ridding itself of Walt’s anomaly, and the current order of haves and have nots lives on.

So, if we can’t pull for Walt or Hank, who can we root for? In my opinion: Jesse. While Jesse, like Walt, has done many terrible things, he hasn’t yet lost his moral compass. He still knows right from wrong, and he is therefore redeemable. Plus, you have to consider that a lot of his wrongdoing is the direct result of Walt’s manipulation, and if left to his own devices Jesse would have remained a small-time meth cook scraping together a living, more interested in partying with his boys than building a drug empire.

Personally, I hope both Walt and Hank get what they deserve in one way or another, and I hope that it’s Jesse who ultimately gives it to them, since he has cause to hate them both, and he, unlike them, still has time to redeem himself.

“The Empire Business”: Breaking Bad, Capitalism, and the Family

“Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” – Edward Abbey

 

Last year on AMC’s Breaking Bad, during episode 506: “Buyout,” Walter White has a conversation with his partner in crime, Jesse Pinkman. Jesse is trying to convince Walt to retire from their illegal meth operation. They have an offer on the table to sell their supply of methylamine to a rival organization for $5-million each. It’s more money than either of them ever imagined they’d make when they began, and more than enough to comfortably set them up for life. Walt rejects Jesse’s plea to take the deal and drop out of the business by telling a story about his past, the content of which spells out Walt’s true motivation and illuminates the thesis of the show.

He explains that back in grad-school he co-founded a company with two friends, Gray Matter. Walt even came up with the name, but he took a buyout before it became profitable because of an affair with one of the other co-founders. The amount he took: $5,000. He tells Jesse that today the company is worth billions and that he looks up its value every week, knowing that he could have been immensely wealthy had he not sold his stake in the business. Walt scoffs at the measly $5-million buyout Jesse is advocating. “I’m in the empire business,” he proclaims.

Though it may have taken five seasons for Walt to clearly and honestly express his motivation to another character, the audience should have already had a pretty good idea of what motivates him. It’s amazing how many seeds of who Walter White would later become were planted in the very first episode.

At the beginning of the series, Walter White is an overqualified, middle-aged high school chemistry teacher. He has a teenage son with cerebral palsy, Walter Jr., and is in a relatively stable marriage with Skyler, who is pregnant with an unplanned baby. They live in a modest house, but are having trouble making ends meet. Their rusting water heater leaks and turns their water brown, Skyler lectures Walt about using the wrong credit card at Staples, the glove box in his car is broken and won’t stay shut, and in order to make some extra cash he works a part-time job at a car wash after school. Though hired to work the register, his boss forces him to wash cars outside, where he’s humiliated by one of his students (who drives a much more expensive car than Walt does). At home his sex life appears to be passionless; Skyler seems more involved in selling their household items on Ebay than sharing an intimate moment in the bedroom, and Walt has trouble getting “inspired” anyway. To make matters worse, Walt has a loudmouth, alpha-male brother-in-law, Hank, who has a flashy job as a DEA agent, which is infinitely more impressive to Walt Jr. than his gig as a chemistry teacher.

Right away, we can see that Walter is a 50 year old man whose life didn’t turn out how he envisioned. He feels beaten down, stretched thin, passed over, cheated, emasculated, exploited, unfulfilled, and even his great talent, chemistry, falls on the deaf ears of his students who couldn’t care less. And then the cancer hits.

But even before his diagnosis he felt like a failure, unable to adequately provide for his family, or, more specifically, to fulfill the role expected of a man in this society. Learning that his life will be unexpectedly cut short, coupled with the knowledge that he’s going to leave his family bankrupt, is the final slap in the face, the last humiliating insult life can dish out.

When Walt partners up with Jesse, one of his former students, to make meth, his stated motivation is his family. He says that before he dies he wants to be able to take care of his loved ones. Practical things, mostly. He wants Skyler to be able to pay off the mortgage, to cover college educations for his children, and medical bills for the whole family. At one point early on he even calculates an exact figure of how much money he needs to make in order to provide the essentials for his family over the next 20 years ($737-thousand), and then he’d quit selling drugs once he reaches that number.

Becoming a meth manufacturer is morally dubious, but even though the audience might disagree with his choice, given the state of Walt’s life, it’s understandable why he would make that decision. At first, anyway. After all, Walt is a victim of the capitalist system. He has been dealt a terrible set of circumstances in a world based on exploitation, and he is virtually powerless to change them by legitimate means. Though he’s still a member of the comparatively better off middle class, the anger he feels about having to scrounge for every dollar while being trapped in an monotonous cycle, his life passing by day by day without any joy or fulfillment, is legitimate, and it’s compounded by the importance placed on the “traditional” patriarchal family unit, as well the pressure and expectation put on men to provide for their families under the capitalist system. A man who can’t isn’t really a man, goes the thinking.

By the end of the first episode Walt has survived his first foray into the dangerous drug underworld, and while it was life threatening, terrifying, and violent, for the first time in years he feels invigorated. He goes home and sleeps with his wife. Skyler, surprised by his sudden sexual advance, asks, “Walt, is that you?!” as she gasps for breath and the credits roll.

And there it is. That’s really what it’s all about for Walt. While he may say that he just wants to support his family before he dies, what he really wants is to finally be a man, a real man, and to get all the privileges that go with that. His family is just the excuse he uses, the lie he tells himself to justify his actions. He wants to shed the image of the nerdy science teacher who can’t take care of his family. He wants authority and power. He wants respect. The tone is set for the rest of the series as Walt seeks revenge against the society that screwed him over, undervalued his worth, and overlooked his potential. From the moment of his diagnosis forward Walt will take what he wants and he will prove to any doubters that he’s man enough for anything, by any horrific means necessary.

Later on, when Walt and Skyler need to buy a business to launder their drug money, Walt is determined to purchase the very same car wash that wounded his pride. He refuses to let the previous owner keep his framed dollar on the wall, and out of spite Walt uses that dollar to buy a soda from the vending machine. It’s clear that Walt is more interested in getting revenge than providing for his family.

Though while Walter was right to feel angry and bitter about the unfortunate hand he’s been dealt, his mistake is that instead of channeling that frustration into exposing and tearing down an unjust system, a system that exploits and oppresses millions around the world, he goes about trying to place himself atop that system of exploitation. He doesn’t want out of the system of oppression, he wants in. He doesn’t care about the plight of other oppressed people, he only cares about his own misfortune, and as a result, while he is attempting to rebel against the capitalist system, he adopts that system’s own ideology, and thus dooms himself to failure. As he said, he’s in the “empire business.” He wants to conquer, to dominate, to bend the world to his will, and enrich himself without limit for the sake of obtaining power, everyone else be damned. His idea of revenge isn’t to bring down capitalism, he wants to become the ultimate capitalist, and in this way, his successful rebellion against the system is just as bad as failure.

The show, in effect, becomes an allegory of capitalist-imperialism, clearly indicting a system that allows a tiny minority to profit off the misery of the vast majority. As Walt delves deeper into the criminal underworld he increasingly sees people as expendable pawns, who he either manipulates to further his interests, or eliminates. Early on, Walt has great difficulty bringing himself to murder, but by the end of season 5, he barely gives it a second thought. Nothing can stand in the way of his growing empire, and being in a position of power numbs his empathy for other human beings.

Walt’s rise to power mirrors the classic capitalist model. In order to survive as a capitalist you must expand or face being overtaken by your competitors. If you don’t ruthlessly expand your business, someone else will, and you lose everything. Likewise, every time Walt is forced to make a choice between backing out or doubling down, he always doubles down. Every time he comes up against someone with more power than he does, instead of retreating he systematically destroys them and takes their place. First Krazy 8, then Tuco, Gus, and finally Mike, until only he is left holding the keys to the kingdom.

It’s also important to note that it’s always other people who pay for Walt’s crimes. He makes a huge profit off of the poor people addicted to his product, with absolutely no regard for the damage done to society. In fact, he thinks of drug addicts in the worst possible terms, as if they’re less than human, even though he’s more than willing to exploit them for his own gain. In his wake, thousands ruin their lives using meth, many people are murdered, and he’s even responsible for a major air disaster. The damage ripples through society while he profits and gains power. It’s a perfect allegory for the way wealth flows from the exploited masses to a tiny elite, and shows how under capitalism, if you’re willing to brutally exploit, oppress, and destroy other people you can achieve a great measure of what’s considered “success.” And Walt is very successful by that standard.

The family is also a major theme in Breaking Bad, and it can’t be overstated how important the concept of the “traditional” patriarchal family is to capitalism. It’s a model that by design teaches individuals to value the well-being of their relatives over those of everyone else in society. This may not seem like a big problem at first glance, but the net result is a society where everyone does what’s best for their family, even if it comes at the expense of everyone else. Society becomes about competition, rather than collaboration, and people often abandon their moral or political principles when faced with a choice that might negatively impact their family. It’s an institution that keeps the masses pacified as individuals become preoccupied with maintaining the well-being of their family unit, preventing the people from uniting to struggle for justice for all, relatives or not.

Walt frequently uses the concept of family as a justification for his actions. “When we do what we do for good reasons, there’s nothing to worry about, and what better reason is there than family?” Walt assures Skyler, who is struggling with the collateral damage inflicted upon her former boss, Ted Beneke. He’s paralyzed while trying to flee from a pair of goons Skyler dispatched to force him to pay off his debt to the IRS, preventing the government from catching on to the Whites’ illegal drug money. Skyler and Walt do what is best for their family, and the result is devastating to other people. Breaking Bad brings this issue to the forefront, and the fact that Walt is so frighteningly at peace with this justification should force the audience to call into question its own morality. How much damage would you be willing to inflict upon society in order to protect your loved ones?

Given the state of the world today, considering where the lines of battle are being drawn in society, it’s possible that Breaking Bad is currently the most politically relevant show on television. America’s capitalist-imperialist empire is beginning to rot from the inside, but before it crumbles the establishment will use all available options to maintain power, brutally suppressing the masses if necessary. Breaking Bad has clearly been an allegory for the moral vacancy of obtaining power through the capitalist system, and it shows the horrific consequences of going down that path. Is it worth it to enrich yourself if you destroy the world in the process? Walter White says ‘yes,’ and his example should be a blueprint for how not to think and for what not to do.

The problem with building an empire is that there’s no end point. There’s always someone else to conquer, more power to be gained. This is where Walt lives now. He built his capitalist empire with brutal violence, and enriched himself beyond his wildest dreams, but when is it enough power? When is it enough money? It’s worth noting that Walt does not stop producing meth after he surpasses his goal of $737-thousand.

When you’re on a mission to prove to the world how great, powerful, and manly you really are, there’s no logical stopping point, and you expand or die. You keep growing for the sake of growth because you have to, just like the cancer that resides inside Walt’s body, until it spreads too far, consumes all life, and kills its host from the inside. That’s what has happened to America. Breaking Bad might be the Moby Dick of this era, with Walter White as the new version of Captain Ahab, and Gray Matter, Walt’s long lost opportunity for wealth and power, as the illusive white whale, taunting him, luring him further into the void, and hastening his destruction.

The show is crafted with such care, and such attention to detail. The acting is impeccable, the cinematography unmatched, and the music completely absorbing. Bryan Cranston (Walter) and Aaron Paul (Jesse) are obviously the standout actors on the show, but the entire ensemble plays their parts with great nuance. Taken as a whole, Breaking Bad is a masterpiece unlike anything else on television, and it’s clearly more than just an entertaining story about a chemistry teacher turned drug lord, though it is that, too.

What it might lack in realism it more than makes up for in allegory. It’s telling us something about who we’ve become as a society. It’s warning us that next time, when we’re faced with a choice between taking a step back or doubling down on a misguided course of action, when we hear that voice inside our head, the lie we tell ourselves that rationalizes evil as long as we do it for a “good reason,” like protecting our families no matter the cost to others, we need to ignore that lie and take that step back. At some point the chain has to be broken and we need to put the greater good ahead of our own individual interests.

Walter White is more than just an isolated cautionary tale about drugs and violence. He represents something bigger. He symbolizes the attitude of America on the global stage and he wields its greatest weapon, capitalist-imperialism, to benefit himself, to give himself a sense of worth and pride, and he justifies his murderous greed by claiming he’s just doing it for the good of his family. That lie is the American way. Underneath that thinly veiled altruistic excuse is a naked desire to dominate others for the sake unfettered growth and power.

If you watch Breaking Bad carefully, you’ll notice that Walt is just itching for the chance to tell his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank that it’s actually him, the mild mannered chemistry teacher that everyone’s always overlooked and laughed at, who’s been behind the legendary blue meth all along. It’s that reckless desire for masculine pride that causes Walt’s empire to swell beyond control, and it’s what will cause his inevitable downfall, even if it’s everyone else who pays the price for his crimes.

There’s a brief but significant moment of note toward the end of the first episode. Walt is standing on a desolate road in the middle of the desert. Sirens are approaching and he believes he’s about to be caught. He pulls out a gun, puts it under his chin, and pulls the trigger. He hears the click, but no bullet is fired. The safety is on. He fumbles with the gun and accidentally fires a shot into the ground. After feeling the force of the gun in his hand he loses his nerve and goes on living. The sirens turn out to be firetrucks, not police, and Walt is relieved. In hindsight, knowing the monster he will later become, it’s hard not to think that the imaginary world of the show would have been a better place had the safety been off. But the great thing about art is that it can help us understand the real world. Walter White’s fictitious journey illuminates a very real and inconvenient truth about our society, and being deprived of his horrific transformation on Breaking Bad would be a major loss, not only culturally, but politically, because it demonstrates how deeply out of order our priorities are under capitalism.

:::Please see follow-up piece about Hank not being “the good guy”:::