Loving Breaking Bad

So, what does that title mean? Whatever it means, it captures the curve of Walter White from good to bad, from teacher to killer in some elusive way. I’m in the middle of a marathon catch up, starting season 4 and watching Walter and Hank swap positions as tough guy, Walter and Jesse become “family” more than he is with Walt Jr., watching Skyler drift further into this dark underworld, for, like Walk, very good but perhaps ultimately poisonous reasons. It all has feel of an epic Russian novel, with a denser, tighter trajectory than The Wire or Mad Men as characters actually evolve and chanage in significant ways. To see Walter get a handgun, conceal it, drive to Gus’s house, and, before leaving his car for what he imagines will be a fatal confrontation, put on his black hat and run his fingers along the rim captures perfectly the Jekyll/Hyde transformation that he knowingly enacts, with greater and greater ease. Are we all Walter Whites? Is that part of the appeal?
More later, when I’ve caught up to the finale.

Obama’s Fatal Error

Let’s go back to the beginning of it all, 2008, when a newly elected President Obama arrrived on a promise of change and the nation had seen enough lying, deception and outright criminality by leaders who rewrote what words like “torture” meant to suit their ends. A fraudulent, completely unnecessary war gave Al Qaeda a new recruiting ground (it didn’t exist in Iraq before the U.S. invasion) and a poorly executed, half-baked effort to capture Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan floundered and morphed into another hopeless attempt to win hearts and minds by having soldiers storm through villages and prop up a corrupt regime.

But it all did yield profits for the defense industry and lots of prisoners who got shuffled off into black sites and Guantanamo where torture was the name of the game.

What if Obama did then what many urged? What if he ordered a formal investigation into whether crimes against humanity had occurred during the Bush administration? No one would expect Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Gonzales and the other decision makers to serve jail time or perhaps even to stand trial but if there had been a finding that Yes, indeed: crimes against humanity occurred and these were the ones responsible, a new, clear, honorable moral tone would have begun to take hold. And even if the charges led to a trial, President Obama could use, properly, his right to pardon as a way to avoid what could become a political football and an international embarrassment. The shame could be left at the feet of the perpetrators.

Such action would have confirmed President Obama’s desire for change, his determination to set a new course, his vision of a future that remained true to the great American values of due process and the rule of law.

Instead Obama has slowly and it seems inexorably drifted into complicity with what we thought he’d change: prolonged, grinding wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for far longer than necessary to dismantle the core elements of Al Qaeda housed there; continued coddling of the corrupt regime in Pakistan that clearly and well nigh openly shielded Bin Laden and droves of other terrorists; efforts to compromise with those Senator Reid has finally identified, correctly, as “Banana Republicans”–extremists who seek to overthrow the Constitutional division of powers and nullify existing law by refusing to respect either their opponents, the Constitution or the vast numbers of us who need, want and value government services from the National Parks and air controllers to the FDA and Medicare; continued and expand the use of drone aircraft attacks against presumed terrorists despite vivid evidence of killing civilians as well; continued to rely on Depleted Uranium as a key element of shells even though these shells virtually vaporize, creating micro-particles that indiscriminately ravage the lungs and distort the DNA of those nearby, including U.S. troops, and despite a hypocritical aversion to chemical weapons if used by adversaries; hanging onto the economic advisors who sat on their butts as we slid into a totally avoidable economic crisis (who, in Larry Summers and others, in fact helped engineer it by promoting the legislation that allowed for the reckless practices that led to the overinflated balloons of bad, very bad, debt, that burst; giving in on aspects of the initial Affordable Health Care Act in order to placate the radical right but with painful consequences for the millions of us who were counting on the government to modernize the 1930s legislation that began to weave an indispensable safety net under the bloody arena of the so-called free market.

Taking the moral high road from the very start would have made all this folly stand out for the folly it is because it would have been clearly and cleanly repudiated.

We’d be in a very different place today and those who got us here would know full well that we know who’s responsible for attempting to plunge this country into the dark world of terrorism, greed and mindless conduct that has, instead, become all too rampant and all too familiar.

Thanks for Sharing

This film gets a lot more right than wrong. It’s not the first to portray 12 step programs and their members but it’s a solid if somewhat conventional effort. It lacks the visceral punch of Bill W, a documentary on the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, and the humor of I Am a Sex Addict, a tongue in cheek “confession” by Caveh Zahedi, the filmmaker, of his sex addiction.
Thanks follows a small set of characters, most notably Adam (perhaps a symbolic name, for the ‘after the fall’ phase of the story), who has five years of freedom from his addictive behavior (compulsive masturbation, casual one night stands, prostitutes–all of which leave him feeling empty and unfulfilled). As his mentor, Mike (Tim Robbins), notes, his sobriety has been predicated on abstinence rather than a deeper, more intimate relation. Phoebe (Gwyneth Paltrow) then comes along to provide the chance for intimacy. Adam, (Mark Ruffalo) climbs into this new role of genuine engagement with another person a bit awkwardly but with growing excitement at what it offers. His sobriety is put the test, however, when Phoebe learns more about Adam than Adam’s been ready to admit. Given that the film tries to cover a lifetime struggle against addictive behavior in some 100 minutes, the crisis lets us see how for him, and for other characters, descent to the dark side is a (futile) escape from painful feelings and the fear of loss.
Adam’s not the only one to face a crisis and falter. His mentor has never had the courage to face his grown, drug addicted son and offer amends for the harm his own drunken ways caused as the boy grew up. Robbins is superb at acting the senior mentor, the wise man of the group who has, nonetheless, his own unacknowledged shadow. Fear reigns among the addicted: fear of intimacy most of all but compounded by fear of rejection, fear of abandonment, fear of feelinig unworthy, inadequate and incompetent. Feelings are a swampland and the addiction a route out. But a route, that as with other addictions, has its own dark miasmic underbelly.
Thanks gets much of this right, including the stories of the other characters that have similar arcs of compulsion, fear and steps toward a budding sense of intimacy. It’s right, though, inm the way melodramas are right: it runs through the anticipated emotional spectrum, throws in supportive but forgetable music, and allows to see how the characters pull themselves together without ever feeling we are at grave risk for entering a dark, forbidding world. A lightness of cinematic being provides a comforting reassurance.
And then there’s also a bit of dissonance. Gwyneth Paltrow is one of my least favorite actresses. I confess. She never seems to inhabit roles but rather to display how she would present them if only she could, in fact, inhabit them. Here she is supposed to be an assertive, humorous, compulsive, hyper-vigilant vegan and dedicated triathlete who also loves sexual role play. That these traits are not commonly found in any one person to the side, Paltrow is no more convincing as an athlete than as a seductress. Adam is clearly grateful to discover someone, anyone, can actually accept and love him although even he has a moment of lucidity when he realizes she’s addicted to her own drugs (borderline anorexia and feats of endurance) of choice, with even less control over them than Adam himself. If only Paltrow made this addictive side belieavable, or anything else about her character, Adam’s attraction would then take on denser, more dangerous connotations, but that will have to await the remake with Kate Winslett.