Breaking Bad and Human Nature

[Note: the following post is intended for those who have seen “Breaking Bad.” It references characters and elements of the plot without necessarily explaining background information. It contains MAJOR SPOILERS. If you have not seen “Breaking Bad” but you plan to watch it, I would advise reading no further. Otherwise, enjoy!]

“Breaking Bad” is easily my favorite TV show and is the most well written show I’ve ever seen. Besides the stunning cinematography, complicated characters, and intriguing plot line, I appreciate “Breaking Bad” because it gives an accurate depiction of human nature. This picture is not always pretty – it actually is quite jarring, disturbing, and sobering. But it is realistic and offers many lessons for viewers to take away:

  1. Even the most normal, seemingly-moral individuals have the propensity for evil, given certain situations. “Breaking Bad” tells the story of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal cancer who begins making drugs in order to provide for his family. The writers go to extensive lengths to show just how law-abiding, and averse to violence Walter really is initially. When Walter’s DEA brother-in-law offers to let Walter hold his gun, Walter can barely handle it and looks obviously out of place. When Walter coerces high school dropout/druggy Jesse Pinkman to make meth with him, Jesse cannot believe that someone like Walter would ever do something like create and sell drugs. This example stands as a lesson for viewers that no individual, no matter how seemingly-moral, is beyond acting in terribly evil ways. All it took was a difficult life situation (being diagnosed with cancer) for Walter to justify this awful behavior. This leads right into the next lesson.
  2. The decline into habits of evil is often gradual and can involve a series of moral justifications. Walter decides to begin cooking meth by telling himself that when he dies, his family will need money to survive. While many people would have qualms with this decision, it could potentially be seen as at least somewhat moral. After all, taking care of one’s family is a good thing, and some might see that as the ultimate good in Walter’s situation. However, as the show progresses, Walter’s actions turn from “justifiable, but wrong” to “glaringly wrong.” Walter enters the drug industry with the idea that he can use his chemistry background to cook meth but not really get involved with the gritty, violent details of the drug industry. However, this fairytale is quickly crushed by the harsh realities of the inherent violence of professions in the drug industry. Once Jesse’s former partners attack Walter and try to get him to cook for them, Walter is forced to stand up for himself. He uses poisonous gas to kill one of the drug dealers but only incapacitates the other one. Walter takes this individual captive and wrestles with how to deal with him. Over a significant period of time, Walter goes back and forth between letting him free and killing him. At this point he has at least some sense of right and wrong and is bothered by having to take human life with his own hands. Ultimately, Walter discovers that this prisoner is planning to kill him and in a moment of self-preservation strangles his captive. This action is really the turning point, where, from then on, Walter freely kills, manipulates, and hurts people without much resignation. From making drugs to help his family to killing another to save himself, Walter demonstrates the ability justify almost any wrong action with his shifting, unsubstantial sense of morality.
  3. Justifications for evil often hide the true selfish motives. Walter begins his drug-creating life by telling himself that he is doing it for his family. And throughout almost the entirety of the show, he continues to tell himself (and others) this same thing, even when his actions clearly do not line up with this message. There are numerous points where Walter has accumulated unfathomable amounts of money and could easily stop cooking meth. But he continues which hints that he must be motivated by something other than provision of his family. The final episode makes it clear that Walter was motivated by pride and at some point began to cook meth because of the sense of purpose and power it gave him. During the final episode, tired of hearing his justifications for cooking meth and creating so much devastation, Walter’s wife says, “If I have to hear one more time that you did this for the family…” Walter interrupts and bluntly states the truth, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And… I was really… I was alive.” Somewhere along the way Walter began to cook meth because of the pride and sense of purpose this craft gave him, rather than merely provision for his family.
  4. Acceptance is not the proper response to realization of the depth of human depravity. Jesse Pinkman, Walter’s sidekick, has an awful life throughout the course of this show. He makes numerous bad decisions, but he is also heavily manipulated by Walter. In one instance Walter convinces Jesse to kill another man (Gale, for those who have seen the show) in order to save Walter and Jesse from being killed. Jesse follows Walter’s orders but becomes terribly bothered and haunted by his actions. After a significant period of isolation and depression, Jesse begins attending a twelve-step group, where the leader of the group preaches a message of self-acceptance, regardless of one’s behavior. After some time, Jesse gets fed up and blurts out, “So I should stop ‘judging’ and accept? So no matter what I do… hooray for me because I’m a great guy? It’s all good? No matter how many dogs I kill, I just, what, do an inventory and accept? I mean you back your truck over your own kid and you like accept? What a load of crap.” Jesse understands that we can’t deal with evil by just accepting it. These wrong decisions have significant consequences that must be dealt with, which leads to the next lesson.
  5. There are consequences for evil, which culminate in punishment. Throughout the show Walter works crazily to accumulate money, however, he can never seem to get enough. At every turn, something comes up to thwart his plans, mess up his operation, and take his money. And as he desperately strives to provide for his family, his relationship with his wife falls apart when she learns of his evil actions. Thus, the very thing he supposedly works for is gradually destroyed because of his actions. And despite Walter’s carefully laid plans, in the end everything falls apart. His wife and son hate him, his brother-in-law gets killed because of him, and ultimately he dies. There is more than just a “crime doesn’t pay” moral to this story. Walt’s decline into a lifestyle of evil culminates in complete and utter ruin.

“Breaking Bad” is a sobering show and is difficult to watch at times. However, it is a good reminder of the extent of the brokenness and depravity of human nature and the terrible consequences of sin. These realities can be easy to forget or gloss over and this show does an exemplary job of acting as a reminder to its viewers. For further reading about the theological/philosophical messages of “Breaking Bad,” I would HIGHLY recommend this article. (Note: for those who will watch this show based on my recommendation, please be warned that there are a handful of inappropriate scenes throughout the series which you would be wise to avoid.)

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Especially if you’ve seen “Breaking Bad,” I’d love to here what you have to say about. Even if you haven’t, feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email. Thanks for reading!

Clichés, Stereotypes, and Sameness

(Note: the following post is based on a paper that I wrote for my Digital Culture class in Summer 2015. I hope it will be of relevance and interest to you.)

In “Enlightenment as Mass Deception” Adorno and Horkheimer base their discussion of the culture industry on the fact that “culture today is infecting everything with sameness” (Adorno and Horkheimer 94). The need to classify what we consume has all but disappeared since all the media before us occurs “cyclically” and “the details [have] become interchangeable” (Adorno and Horkheimer 98). Since all media put out by the culture industry is fundamentally the same, “the appearance of competition and choice” is deception (Adorno and Horkheimer 97). As consumers, even this pretense of choice and classification is meaningless since the culture industry has thoroughly classified everything for us (Adorno and Horkheimer 98). Whether sameness displays itself through patterns of form or through the transposable nature of the details, the products of the culture industry are fundamentally the same.

Clichés are an artifact of the culture industry that demonstrate this sameness. While clichés could probably be defined more broadly, I understand them to be interchangeable phrases that the majority of the public will understand and appreciate in a given situation because of their constant use. When Adorno and Horkheimer discuss clichés, they talk about them in the context of the film industry where these “ready-made clichés” can be “used here and there as desired and always [be] completely defined by the purpose they serve within the schema” (Adorno and Horkheimer 98). These phrases perpetuate sameness because they have been clearly defined through repetition, and, regardless of the situation, these clichés always mean the same thing. When someone uses the phrase “in the nick of time,” you do not stop and say, “That’s an odd phrase I wonder what it means?” Rather, although the specific vocabulary is peculiar and does not really make sense, you understand it’s meaning, regardless of the context, because you have heard it so many times.

Stereotypes also prolong sameness but in a more multifaceted manner than mere phrases. Although this definition is far from exhaustive, I understand a stereotype to be a common understanding of what something is like or how it should operate without being critically analyzed. Adorno and Horkheimer make a somewhat startling claim when they say, “the bread on which the culture industry feeds humanity, remains the stone of stereotype” (Adorno and Horkheimer 119). When understood within the context of their argument about the culture industry’s goal of sameness, this statement is enlightening. The culture industry bases the achievement of their goals on the cyclical nature and immutability of these stereotypes. Memes would definitely fit this category of stereotypes because the picture dictates the way that we understand the words without much need for analysis. When we notice memes of Dwight Schrute or the Most Interesting Man in the World, we can immediately predict the tone of the meme and then merely insert the specific words into that context to understand them. Beyond memes, we also see these patterns and repetitions through stereotypical characters in movies and stereotypical melodies in popular music, which can be understood and appreciated without an analytical or questioning mindset. Adorno and Horkheimer state that “in a film, the outcome can invariably be predicted at the start” and “in light music the prepared ear can always guess the continuation after the first bars of a hit song and is gratified when it actually occurs” (Adorno and Horkheimer 98-99). The culture industry is able to get away this repetition of form and detail because we not only tolerate it, but we welcome it.

The culture industry is able to continue injecting production with sameness because sameness sells. Pop music melodies and chord progressions are recycled because they have been proven to generate revenue. For the culture industry it is dangerous and unprofitable to break these patterns. Where greatness and innovation push boundaries and distrust style, the culture industry has promoted a “withering of imagination and spontaneity” through the closely monitored creation and promotion of patterns of sameness (Adorno and Horkheimer 100). Although we may hope for innovation and originality, we help prolong these cycles by buying into them. We may complain about the predictability of movie plots, but we still see the movies and support the industry. Maybe deep down we enjoy the stability and sense of control that we achieve through predicting the outcomes of songs and movies that, in essence, we’ve seen or heard many times before?

 

For further reading, check out Adorno and Horkheimer’s book.

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Book Review: “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman

(Note: the following post is a paper that I wrote for my Digital Culture class in Summer 2015. Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman is one of my favorite books and has had an enormous amount of influence on me. Hence, you will likely see a handful of posts related to Postman’s book on here in the future. Hopefully, this post will entice you to read the book yourself; Postman expresses these ideas far better than I do.)

Neil Postman’s argument in Amusing Ourselves to Death is very systematic and intentional, starting with some basic premises about the television, moving to the history of communication in our culture, and ending with how the television affects different arenas of discourse. He clearly states his main arguments in the first chapter, which revolve around the idea that the changes from typography to television have “dramatically and irreversibly shifted the content and meaning of public discourse” (Postman 8). Because of this shift and because of the natural constraints of television as a medium, “all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment” (Postman 3). As a culture we are robbing ourselves of the ability to talk seriously about social issues.

In the second chapter Postman articulates that the television is a tool for entertainment and that as we use this medium as a tool for discussing news, religion, politics, and education, we remove the necessary solemnity from these discussions. To be clear, Postman does not oppose the television as a whole. He advocates the television as a source for entertainment but argues that entertainment and somber discourse should be separated. We cannot say that all forms of communication are equal because “the concept of truth is intimately linked to the biases of the forms of expression” (Postman 22). The written word, Postman says, is more appropriate for cultural conversation than the television, because “the epistemology created by the television is not only inferior to print-based epistemology but is dangerous and absurdist” (Postman 27). As he continues in this book, Postman articulates this idea further.

Postman explains America’s historical background of typographical communication in chapters three and four. He claims that, “America was as dominated by the printed word and an oratory based on the printed word as any society we know of,” (Postman 41) which created a “serious and rational public conversation, from we have been so dramatically separated” (Postman 43). Much of Postman’s argument is based on the idea that “words have very little to recommend them except as carriers of meaning” and they are serious by nature “because meaning demands to be understood” (Postman 50). As he continues, Postman clarifies this idea further, but he strongly believes that words provide us a unique ability to communicate in a way that pictures cannot match. This culture based on typography possessed public discourse “characterized by a coherent, orderly arrangement of facts and ideas” (Postman 51).

In chapter five Postman moves to show how the introduction of the telegraph and the photograph changed communication. The creation of the telegraph, he claims, “destroyed the prevailing definition of information, and in doing so gave a new meaning to public discourse” (Postman 65). The telegraph changed communication by flooding the world of communication with “irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence” through “context-free information” (Postman 65). By use of “sensational, fragmented, [and] impersonal” information, the telegraph displayed an ephemeral mode of communication where “facts push other facts into and then out of consciousness at speeds that neither permit nor require evaluation” (Postman 70). The introduction of the photograph further damaged our culture’s ability to carry on serious public conversation. Postman holds that language is “the medium we use to challenge, dispute, and cross-examine what comes into view, what is on the surface,” but photography “offers no assertions to refute, so it is not refutable” (Postman 73). The creation of the television built on the problems of the telegraph and the photograph “raising the interplay of image and instancy to an exquisite and dangerous perfection” (Postman 78).

Postman, in the sixth chapter, expands upon this critique of the television. He succinctly states that “television offers viewers a variety of subject matter, requires minimal skills to comprehend, it, and is largely aimed at emotional gratification” (Postman 86). Therefore, everything on television exhibits these biases, in spite of subject matter. In chapters seven through ten Postman goes to great lengths to develop this argument and point out specifically how the television damages our cultural ability to communicate about news, religion, politics, and education.

As I read this book for the first time, I honestly did not like what I read. It felt like an attack my way of living and the way I grew up. But Postman’s arguments are so well laid out that they are difficult to merely discount offhand and must be dealt with. The background information that Postman begins with sets the foundation for the rest of his argument by pointing out how certain mediums have different biases. His most compelling arguments, I would say, revolve around the impact of the television on the way we think, communicate, and view the world. I have witnessed and can affirm the decline of public discourse because of this lack of context, logic, and seriousness. We are more aware of world events, but we also take things a lot less seriously because of this constant immersion in information. We have a hard time putting together extended, complex arguments, because we are used to pieces of information being communicated in a quick, unrelated fashion.

My one critique of this book is that I wish Postman had lived longer and been able to edit it to include a section on the impact of the Internet. In this book I think Postman assumes the television will remain a prevalent form of technology for a long period of time, and fails to account for how technology will continue to change. The Internet is already beginning to displace the television as our primary form of communication and entertainment. I would argue that much of what Postman says about the television can be transcribed to the Internet, but it is not a perfect correlation. I did not grow up with cable TV, so I cannot relate to watching the television for new, politics, and religion. But I can understand going to the Internet as an authority on all of these things. I think the Internet offers more choice and variety than the television, but still suffers from many of the constraints of the visual basis and brief, irrelevant information.

The main piece of application that I would take from Amusing Ourselves to Death is that we need to be aware of the effects and biases of the television and other digital media. Many of these forms of technology have a place as entertainment, but struggle to accurately and winsomely convey ideas. Knowing that the television has its basis in entertainment, I think that we should be skeptical of the “serious” information portrayed on the screen. As a general rule it would be good for members of society to limit their digital media consumption, in order to break away from some of the addicting, destructive tendencies of these types of technology. It also would be beneficial to try to find other, typographically based forms of communication as a medium for more serious, complex discourse.

I do not think that we should throw technology away completely. Our digital culture has both strengths and weaknesses. In order to get the most out of our current technology, we need to be aware of these leanings, play to the strengths, and try to work around the weaknesses. It is paramount that we find a balance between overreacting about the woes of technology and praising its merits. This book is a great conversation starter and deals with a topic that most of us have never thought about. Due to Postman’s logical and compelling argument, this book should leave us, as inhabitants of this technological world, with much to consider.

 

For further reading, here’s a link to Postman’s  book.

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