We are just behind the battlefront here at Halcyon Pond. North of us, winter is winning, with ice and snow. We hover just above the freezing point, hoping that the battle line doesn’t move south.
Last week’s deep freeze has left me listless, as though the pond’s ice crystals penetrated my heart. There is something about cold in the South that is different from that in the North. North, the cold is your winter companion—someone well known. Here in the South, it is as though a warm, dear friend has turned mean, sometimes even dangerous. It’s as though someone close to you has “broken bad”; and as in the TV series, that seems to create more fear than when danger stays where it’s supposed to be.
What is about Breaking Bad that has fascinated so many people? Once the plot line was established—a world-weary chemistry teacher, diagnosed with cancer, turns to cooking meth to make the money for treatment—and surprise wore off, it would have been easy to lose interest. But we didn’t. The audience was transfixed through the entire series. What was it that held us? One more program about violence and drug dealing should not have been that interesting.
It was the banality. Great stretches of the program were spent focusing on the banality of daily family life. Walt cooking breakfast for his son. The two sisters and their husbands having a cookout on the patio. These quiet family scenes, which are highly realistic, are contrasted with the comic-book extremes of the scenes we would normally consider windows into evil. Our moments with the cartel and the “real” drug dealers are stylized and taken over the top, making them seem less realistic.
It is the quotidian vignettes that make the arc of the story so terrifying. In other great programs like The Wire, the action is removed from most our worlds. We are fascinated because we are watching events in a world that most of us never interact with. Breaking Bad brought that terrifying world into our own homes. And, more frighteningly, into our own heads.
The proximity of evil in Breaking Bad fascinates us. It holds a special terror for us. It leads us down paths we don’t like to tread. Not just those that lead us to the knowledge that evil may lurk next door, in our quiet neighborhoods. More terrifying, it opens the door to questions of our own capacity for evil.
If Walter White, a gentle, loving family man, could break bad, then could we? What makes us different? But that’s for another day. For a day filled with sunshine, a reminder that we each have our personal power and the ability to choose our path.