Aug. 20, 1925: Claire Luce, a famous American dancer, donned the “famous feather costume of Mistinguett,” a famous French dancer, in Paris. Photo: The New York Times
The Philosophy of Breaking Bad: Spheres of Control
Roughly two weeks ago, I decided, on a whim, to watch the Breaking Bad pilot again to see how well they stuck to the original premise of the show. I ended up being sucked in, yet again, and re-watched all 54 episodes in quick succession. From a technical standpoint, the series should serve as a masterclass on how a TV series should be created and built up. It was thoroughly thought out before it was written and shot, it plays with your expectations of TV screen time, it drops clues several episodes ahead to subliminally prime you for the varied plot twists and turns and it strategically uses dark comedy to lighten the mood. Not to mention that the cinematography is innovative and the acting is superb. The show is seemingly as psychologically addictive as the blue meth that its protagonist peddles.
There’s a lot of depth to this show. Not only in the exquisiteness of its plotline, the seeming consistency in character traits even as they morph from one end of the spectrum to the other but also in its worldview—its perspective on how the world works and in its protagonist’s philosophy—how Walter White believes the world should work.
Breaking Bad can be analyzed on many levels. On the surface, it’s a show about the destructiveness of meth, a poisonous cancer to society. Walt’s cancer eats away at him the same way meth eats away at his family and community. Dig a little deeper and it’s a thesis on what chemistry is, the study of change. Take a series of elements, combine them in controlled and uncontrolled reactions and generate a new compound. Take two people, put them in controlled and uncontrolled situations and get a new type of relationship. But at its core, I believe the function of the series is to serve as a study on control. Each season is a different struggle for control as the axis tilts and the camera focuses on a different slice of the globe. BB’s fundamental worldview is that the world is chaotic and the illusion of being able to dominate it and control it is just that, an illusion. Walt’s philosophy is that control is won by careful planning that leads to the domination and vanquishing of the enemy.
There’s essentially two views on how we cope with nature: we try to co-exist with it in as peaceful a manner as possible or we try to dominate and subjugate it. Much of civilization has been focused on the latter task and not just on the domination and subjugation of natural resources and livestock but of its citizens as well. And so, as people, we are the products of the systems that create and manage us, all vying for control just as eagerly as the systems themselves.
Breaking Bad presents Walter as a person who has lost almost all control in his life and his vengeful quest to regain it. We can start by analyzing all the spheres of control that he’s lost:
- Existence — We can all choose when we die but nobody really gets to decide how long they live. The first episode presents us with Walt’s ultimate loss of control - the right to life - as he’s given the “death sentence” of stage 3A lung cancer.
- Wealth — Much of the show is bathed in green (until Season 5) from the title card onward since this is the story of Walt’s quest for money and the things he’s willing to do to get it. In the pilot, we can tell that his family was already financially struggling, with Walt having to work two jobs to support his family. The diagnosis only worsens that reality. At the beginning of Walt’s struggle, he sees wealth as a means of providing security, something that will ensure some element of control of his family’s future after he’s gone.
- Pride — Walt’s subjected to humiliation when he has to wash his students’ cars at his second job. His son, Walter Jr., looks up to his uncle more than he does to him. And isn’t naming your child after yourself some point of narcissistic pride as well? He loses that too when Jr. decides he wants to be called Flynn. Pride is essentially an exercise in reputation management. You’re proud when you can project the image you want to the world and you’re ashamed when you’re no longer able to.
- Power — Power is the ability to control and influence others. The workplace is portrayed as a common power structure in the series. Walt’s told to scrub cars even though he’s the cashier and told his boss, Bogdan, previously that he doesn’t want to do it. Walt also loses his power at the high school where he teaches, where he’s ultimately reprimanded and fired from his job by the principal. And, of course, this loss of power runs parallel to his experience at Gus Fring’s meth superlab.
But Walt’s a survivor, as we come to learn, and his defense against all this comes in the following forms:
- Discipline — Walt has the ability to control his own behavior and others, particularly Jesse, who previously didn’t care for his discipline, but is forced to bend to it under threat of blackmail.
- Proprietary Knowledge — His major advantage in the meth market is that he’s a trained scientist who’s done some very advanced chemical research. It also helps that his brother-in-law is a DEA agent since it gives him an informational advantage on who’s going to be busted next. Walt is able to leverage this into power but he’s only able to do so by keeping this information proprietary, which is why he sets out to kill Gale Boetticher and even hangs Jesse out to dry when he’s sent down to Mexico to show the cartel how the cook works.
- Persuasion — Persuasion is essentially an act of mind control. It’s the next best thing when raw power alone can’t get the job done. Walt’s primary tools of persuasion are blackmail, misdirection (a.k.a. lying) and a canny ability to call someone’s bluff by utilizing game theory to figure out what their options are. The key line of the series is, “If you could kill me, you would have already.”
- Determination — This is perhaps Walt’s greatest strength. Breaking Bad portrays determination as a variation of a person’s will to live, in its most literal sense.
Walt manages to conquer and vanquish his enemies and to regain all the spheres of control that he’s lost. He beats cancer into remission, he gets insanely wealthy, he becomes a meth kingpin with the mythical, mysterious name of “Heisenberg” and he wields his power with a deadly accuracy, culminating in the simultaneous execution of nine inmates. But the irony, of course, is that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. He ends up living as a tortured man, who must at some point come to terms with what he’s done after all the self-rationalization and lies have run their course. The journey affects the quality of the destination and life itself, as evidenced by Holly—the surprise pregnancy, is often a game of unintended consequences.
Defining a Loss
History, as the saying goes, is written by the victors. America loves a winner and losing something as big and public as a presidential election isn’t easy. For the Romney campaign, the impacts of their loss were felt in ways both big and small, including:
- Losing friends
Mitt Romney is losing roughly 850 Facebook friends every hour.
- The Secret Service disappearing overnight
As reported by GQ, the Secret Service detail that had been guarding the former governor since February 1st, when he was first deemed a plausible president, quickly dialed down their operations once election results came in and pulled out entirely the next morning. He had ridden in a 15-car motorcade to make his concession speech and was driven back in a one-car motorcade from that speech by his son.
- Cancelling the fireworks celebration
Mitt had an eight-minute fireworks display planned over the Boston Harbor that cost roughly $25K to put on.
- Campaign credit cards being cancelled immediately
The Romney campaign cancelled staff credit cards shortly after the concession speech and staff were surprised to find out that their cards didn’t work on their cab ride home.
- Scrapping the victory website
Romney’s president-elect site accidentally went live and had to be taken down.
- Angry donors
WaPo reports that at a private breakfast the morning after, many wealthy donors “privately unloaded on Romney’s senior staff, describing it as a junior varsity operation that failed to adequately insulate and defend Romney through a summer of relentless attacks from the Obama campaign over his business career and personal wealth.”
A candidate’s campaign team is just as important as the candidate itself. For anyone who’s interested in getting a peek into how presidential campaigns are run, I highly recommend two documentaries: The War Room, which goes behind the scenes on Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign from start to finish, and Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story, which profiles the outspoken Republican operative who got George H.W. Bush elected in 1988 even though he was trailing his Democratic challenger by 17 points in the polls four months from the election. A campaign team makes or breaks a candidate and when one of the teams inevitably loses, reasons are searched for and fingers are pointed. So where did the Romney campaign go wrong? Well, the press has been analyzing this and people close the campaign have been grumbling about a few things, including:
- Project ORCA
Our electoral college has essentially confined major elections to small margins in a minor number of swing states. As a result, slightly higher turnout for registered voters of either candidate’s party can make huge differences in the outcome of an election. To drive voter turnout, strike lists are used by campaigns on Election Day to keep track of who voted and who didn’t. These lists were traditionally printed out, marked up and sent back to campaign headquarters where other volunteers would call eligible voters up to make sure they head to the polls that day. Project ORCA was the Romney campaign’s secret tool that essentially digitized this entire process into mobile apps and PDF lists that volunteers could use to track voters. It was great in theory, but the system ended up crashing the morning of Election Day, which left many volunteers confused and frustrated. One such volunteer called it an unmitigated disaster.
The campaign jumped the gun on making Benghazi a campaign issue and was immediately criticized for politicizing a national tragedy. Romney regretted it but doubled down because he didn’t want to risk demoralizing his base.
The Romney campaign never had a good response to the notion that Romney made his money by firing people and cutting wages and benefits. More surprisingly, this has been an issue that’s been dogging him for 18 years now.
- Misguided assumptions
The Romney campaign was convinced that polls were oversampling Democrats and that they were actually ahead in states like Ohio when the polls showed Obama tied or ahead. They also over-projected their own turnout and assumed that there was no way Obama would win in a poor economy or mobilize the turnout that he had in 2008.
- The technology deficit
This is arguably one of the best advantages an 21st-century incumbent can build against his/her opponent. The Obama tech and data team had been in place for years while the Romney campaign didn’t really assemble theirs until the primaries were over. This led to a huge tech gap. TIME wrote an interesting piece on the Obama data team.
Elections are, at their core, popularity contests and campaigning is an exercise in the art of persuasion. As this election cycle closes, both parties will start strategizing about their next moves. It’s a game of chess as much as it is one of policy. After all, we don’t directly dictate the policy of the country but we do end up selecting people who we think will make the right decisions for us. And going up for re-election is the only thing that keeps them in check once they’re in office.
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Britain’s Court of Appeal on Thursday upheld the country’s High Court judgment that, despite some similarities, Samsung’s Galaxy tablet did not infringe Apple’s designs, in part because its products were “not as cool”.
Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.
I miss New York.
Found: Garfield without Garfield
I was a pretty big Garfield fan as a kid. Garfield and Friends was a core part of my Saturday morning cartoon lineup along with Looney Tunes. Jon Arbuckle has always been more of a comic prop but this iteration of the strip finally does him justice and presents him as a hilarious neurotic.
It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission.