Kelly Cresap on A Love-Hate Guide to
Q: What are Breaking Bad’s
claims to distinction? Why is it considered
the “best show ever”?
A: Location photography is like what you find in movies; music and
sound design are superb and original; acting, directing, editing--all
are well above the industry standard for TV. In particular I think of
the writing. The writer’s room kept upping the ante on themselves. They
created plot problems without knowing the answers ahead of time, and
knocked themselves out to find what would work. Plus, unlike other
standard-setting series—The Sopranos,
The Wire, Mad Men—Breaking Bad
kept getting better, and finished on a high note.
Q: Why intervene in the Breaking Bad
discussion? Why not just say “best
show ever” and move on?
A: Partly because of the show’s “best-ever” status. I think many people
who resist the series feel intimidated by its fans and awards and
reputation. This creates a blind spot. The show has downsides people
are avoiding. I felt a need to shift the conversation to include, among
other things, social fallout. I recall a bookstore clerk I met up with
at a Barnes & Noble. First she helped me determine that the store
had no books about the series on hand. Then she set professional
decorum aside to say that she despises Breaking Bad sight unseen, as
the mother of a kid with a drug problem. Her work-station was just a
few feet from a big display rack with toy figurines from the show. That
exchange has stayed with me. It troubles me that people who resist the
series are treated as if they’re uncool.
Q: Tell me about “love-hate” as a response.
A: Breaking Bad is a
crazy-alive show, calling for more than mere fan
worship. I’m not asking people to get out a magnifying glass to look
for flaws. I’m asking them to be as alert to their own responses as the
show is to its plot points. On Breaking
Bad one thing flips into its
opposite without warning. That kind of flexibility is needed from
viewers as well. The show’s asking us to get to a higher level of
cognitive dissonance. I make that happen in the book by treating some
aspects of the show—its sex appeal, its ethical stance, its politics—in
both the “Love” and “Hate” chapters.
Q: The main character in this series, Walter White, is a high-school
chemistry teacher who contracts cancer, and chooses to cook crystal
meth so as to provide for his family after he’s gone. Why should people
get to know him? What do they get wrong about him?
A: No character in TV has ever been this complex. There’s value in
delving into someone who’s such a mass of contradictions. For starters,
he’s at once a cynic and an altruist: he’s making and selling a drug
that he knows is destructive and addictive; and he’s doing it to
provide for his family after he’s gone.
Vince Gilligan’s “Mr. Chips to Scarface” description served as the
show’s pitch line; now it keeps us from seeing Walt fully. The trouble
is, he won’t sit still. He’ll spring up from whatever couch you put him
on. Try to measure how manipulative he’s being in a given scene—like
when he’s working over Jesse--and you eventually enter a kind of
vortex. Judging by fan reactions, some people still seem to be in that
vortex. My response is twofold: go deep into the character, and then
Q: What is the 19th-century poet Walt Whitman doing in the series? What
do you mean that “Breaking Bad”
sets up a tug-of-war between Whitman
and the main character, Walter White?
A: The book Leaves of Grass
plays a key role in the series: a poem is
read aloud in its entirety, and Walt’s copy of the book works its way
out through the plot. Standing back from the plot specifics, I detect
in the show a philosophical tug-of-war between Walt the national bard
and Walt the drug kingpin. Walt Whitman sounded his “barbaric yawp”
over the roofs of the world, in “Song of Myself”—like an early form of
Scream therapy. He raised his voice in defiance against the forces of
the day, such as Puritanism, repression, groupthink. When Walter White
sounds his barbaric yawp it’s more about mayhem and egomania. This got
me to thinking about the Transcendentalist movement and what became of
it. Whitman and his cohort wanted you to soar to the heights; Walter
White wants to shoot you down like a useless buzzard. But that barbaric
yawp connects them.
Radio interview: Kelly Cresap talks about his new book at
MyNDTALK. Listen here
"A Love-Hate Guide to 'Breaking Bad'" from Amazon