Author Interview

Author Kelly Cresap on A Love-Hate Guide to ‘Breaking Bad’

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 MenBreaking 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 unfriend him.

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.

Kelly Cresap, Ph.D.

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