Saturday, September 28, 2013

FTT Off Topic: Breaking Unlikable

Dangerous Hat
Not sports, move on, but very spoiler free.

In my Facebook feed, there's a post from a friend of mine, a writer, and a guy who worked next to me at a job over 15 years ago. As is what happens in this age, we've stayed in tangential touch, and the point I'm bringing up is that, after wading through two seasons of "Breaking Bad" on the advice of others, he's giving up. Just doesn't like it, not because the subject matter is too dark or he doesn't have time for it or can't swing long story arcs, but just because he doesn't care what happens to the characters. Too unlikable.

Now, I don't much care what shows you like or don't like; such is the blessing of age, in that I don't really care if *anyone* likes what I like, or even what they prefer, for the most part. Watch what you want; makes no difference to me. But the reason that's cited? That, I'm going to fire on.

First point: the likability of characters is kind of like whether a song has a good hook in it. It's basic, primal, and seems pretty necessary... but if you can get past that need, a lot more opens up to you. Stuff that wears better on more listens, or challenges you on different levels, and even better, gives you that tingly smug sense of listening harder than other people. It also bears up over time better, since it's not just the hook; think Tom Waits instead of Tom Petty. (Not that there's anything wrong with Petty; it's just that not as many people cover him.)  And no one ever, or, at least, no one ever with a column of note, gave "Arrested Development" grief over how all of those characters were unlikable. Looking at the cultural landscape of things now, it seems more like everyone came around to their way of thinking.

Second point: "Breaking Bad" doesn't work on whether or not you like the characters. It works, and dear Lord in heaven how it does work, when you start wondering what you would do in the same situation. And as you get deeper and deeper into the series, you realize that the great transformation of central character Walter White from mild-mannered loser high school chemistry teacher to staggeringly successful drug kingpin was, well, there all along. Walter was always a monster; it's just that he grew teeth. And that is the fascination, the crux, the nut of it all. It's not that Walter degenerates. It's that all of us don't.

More days than not, I go to the gym. I do it to stay in shape, to make sure that I'm around as long as possible and as able as possible, because I'm too cheap to buy bigger clothes and because I keep a spreadsheet, and not having that spreadsheet filled is more agonizing than the physical pain. And for a long time now, two to three months, I've been stuck at 90 miles a month, 150 / 180 on the machines, 6 sets of 25 crunches on the abs, and 45 pounds on the dumb bells. Fine level, strong level, works out to four hours a week or so of effort, with my brain and my body arguing back and forth. And it's not getting any better, or easier, and I'm 44 years old. It might not ever get better or easier again. But still I go.

More weekends than not, I golf. I don't hit the driver more than 250 at the most, my 5-iron taps out at 150, my wedges are not exact and I don't putt like a champion. Add it all up, and I'm pretty maxed out to break 100, and that's on an easy course. My game has gotten better in the last few months, mostly because with age, I've accepted my limits better, focused more after bad holes, and just try to play bogey golf, rather than delude myself into thinking that I'm any kind of threat to par. It's a fine level, I have fun. But I wish I was better, and if I really want to do damage to myself, I engage in the kind of thinking that says I'll never, say, break 90.

And then there's poker. I've cashed in a casino tournament, done well in cash games, and had some solid streaks at the home game. I can do some things. But the higher maths are not immediate in me, I'm not good at tables that are above my comfort level, and any good player is going to leave with all of my money, assuming I don't run into some big heat hands. It's a fine level. I have fun. You get the point, and the pattern.

Walter White, and to a significant but lesser and consistent echo, just about everyone in the whole "Bad" universe, struggles with this. That's what makes them real, even if the show's plot gets a bit too hyper-charged for reality, and the signature montages play games with the linear passage of time to tell the tale. What generally keeps us in line, as a society, is a quilt of factors: embarrassment, class, religious faith, setting an example to children, and so on, and so on.  But if you add enough heat to the solution, chemistry takes over. Stress causes transformation. For good or for ill.

The monster that is Walter was there as a teacher, when he went through the motions and auto-passed and auto-judged children like Jesse Pinkman. It was there in his remorse-filled fake bacon, his Aztec crap car, his neutral colors and his utter belief that his challenged child and unequal spouse would remember him only for the medical debts that he'd leave behind. It was there in the mean hatred for his old start-up where he wasn't the genius, the true star. And it's been in full flower ever since.

The genius of the show is that we all have these awful impulses, these reptilian thought patterns, these individual impulses where we believe that we are capable of not just acting and deciding for ourselves, but for others. The question is whether we can rise above them, tell ourselves a story that gives us any outs at all, and overcome it in a way that leads to growth.

When the only true, cold, logical and mathematical answer is, well, no. Degrade, deteriorate, decay, and make room for the next.

So, um, yeah, the characters are unlikable. I suppose. But that's also really not the point. What is the point, really, is that any art that can make you think this deeply has value, has merit, has greatness.

And even more than that, the fact that this thing has come through to full fruition, has gone all the way to the close without losing its edge or dulling its impact?

Well, that's a final argument about degrade, decay, et al, too. Because what was made is shining, true, great and, like all worthwhile creative work, immortal in its own way.

And if that's not likable...

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