Breaking Bad, season 1
It’s common for science fiction authors to go to great lengths to make their stories scientifically accurate – right up to the point where the story requires something that goes beyond science and a suspension of disbelief is necessary. Smart authors know that the reader’s road is paved that way. But if the story is rife with obvious inaccuracies, then the turning point often becomes the breaking point.
Something similar happens in pure dramatic tales; a character’s motivation is akin to scientific accuracy in an SF story. If their reasons for doing things make emotional sense all along, it’s easy to bridge the gap when they do that awful thing that doesn’t. The exception is the irrational character who almost never makes sense – but at least then they are consistently nonsensical.
For Christmas my son gave me the first season of the award-winning AMC series, Breaking Bad, and I just started watching it. This is some truly great storytelling – a horrifying premise, and first-rate writing and acting. The main character, Walter White, is a high school chemistry teacher in trouble. His son has cerebral palsy, and his young wife is pregnant, when he learns that he has terminal lung cancer. He needs money fast, and when he learns how much money can be made from cooking crystal meth, he seeks out an old student whom he has learned is part of that culture.
There are complications, not least that he lives in New Mexico, where a high school teacher’s HMO might not cover the kind of elite cancer treatment he needs. He will have to figure out how to cover up where the money comes from. Another problem is that he really has no idea how to interact with people in a very violent and suspicious drug culture, especially when they find out that his brother-in-law is a Drug Enforcement Agency cop.
Being a brilliant chemist, he produces the purest crystal meth anyone has ever seen. His brother-in-law, seeing a sample, tells his team; “We have a new kingpin in town.” White will become a DEA priority, while attracting the attention of dangerous competitors who couldn’t possibly make a product as good as his.
It isn’t clear why he is teaching high school instead of heading a corporate research department. Something went wrong, somewhere. His old grad-school friend has become super-wealthy; he can spend more on a party than White will need for all his cancer treatments. But when his friend offers to pay for the treatments, he refuses to accept. So he is allowing his wife to believe that his old friend is paying for the treatments, his old friend to believe that his insurance will cover it after all, while he gets the money himself by cooking crystal meth.
That’s a lot of lying and a lot of participation in a life-destroying industry for a guy who has any normal moral compass at all – and his life so far indicates that he does have one. Even when a distributor becomes a threat to his family, and his options pretty much dwindle down to 1) “killing the guy”, he agonizes over the decision. He just isn’t wired for moral nihilism. Or any practice at the Olympic levels of duplicity that will be needed.
In a less well-told story, you’d lose the signal here. It wouldn’t be believable. And it is quite a few shades darker than my usual fare. But this is some seriously addictive glass-grade drama, yo. I gots to smoke the whole bag myself – to find out how this otherwise good guy got there from here. And maybe watch season 2 when I’m done.