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On the finale of Breaking Bad

by rickblaineusa

Spoilers below.

When your first (or second) thought is “Was that all a dream?” you should probably spend more time thinking and less time writing, especially when the work you’re responding to isn’t garbage. And while you’re doing that thinking, you should examine why your own expectations, biases, and desires have led you to reject what is on the page for something that’s not.

That is what Emily Nussbaum and Norm MacDonald and anyone else should have done before flicking out their thoughts that “Felina,” Breaking Bad’s final episode, was all “Walt’s fantasy.” Or, if you think instant reactions are both useful and necessary, then each should have by now written pieces explaining how their knee-jerk responses were, at heart, silliness.

The “Walt’s fantasy” version goes like this: Walt gets into the Volvo; he can’t hotwire it; the cops arrive at the bar; he leans back and says some prayer. At that point, the reality ends, and Walt’s fantasy begins. In the fantasy, he finds the key, goes to NM, and does all his deeds. There’s no reason to deconstruct what comes afterward scene-by-scene to explain why it wasn’t a fantasy. But it is worth diving into the course and themes of the show to figure out why anyone would gravitate to that theory, and explain why they’ve missed the point of both.

Point 1: Everything in the finale was too clean and perfect. This is not just a criticism of the fantasy mongers; it’s virtually ubiquitous. It’s equally hilarious. A comment like that leads to an important question: “Did you watch any of the show?” Like, say, “Face Off,” in which Huell manages to pick Jesse’s pocket, Walt manages to sneak Brock just the right about of derived-from-a-plant poison, then deceive Jesse, then rig a bomb with enough precision to kill three people. Or, “Dead Freight,” in which Walt manages to steal 1,000 gallons of precursor from a train, kill the only witness, dispose of his body, and never have anyone find out about either. Or, “Live Free or Die,” wherein a giant magnet is used to fry Gus’s laptop. Or, “A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal,” where Walt and Jesse steal the first barrel of precursor from a facility with only one security guard and apparently no other security measures. Or, “Gliding Over All”‘s prison killings, where everyone got slaughtered in a totally absurd and impossible manner. Or “Crazy Handful of Nothin,” Walt’s first big scene as Heisenberg when he bombs Tuco’s office with mercury fulminate, which manages to explode the windows but not injure him or blow his eardrums out. Or, “Caballo Sin Nombre,” with Walt avoiding imminent death from the twins’ hatchets. Didn’t everyone trade nods and smiles when Jesse tells Hank that Mr. White, among other things, is “luckier than you”?

Suddenly, in the last episode, every utterly implausible and lucky outcome is mocked and maligned—to the point where the implausibility leads to the “Walt’s fantasy” theory. It’s baffling. You might as well roll things all the way back to the pilot, and argue that the entire show took place as a fantasy in the split second before the gun went off in his mouth, with the first image of the fantasy being the gun not going off. Implausibility is a hallmark of the show. Nothing in the finale was remotely as implausible as the prison killings, or the train heist, or the magnet. Seriously, how many movies have you seen where cars get hotwired? A dozen? Two dozen?

But wait: it’s not just that the plan worked, it’s that it worked without repercussions, so the complaint goes. The train heist led to a boy’s death; the magnet led to the bank account numbers being discovered; Gus’s murder led (sort of) to Jesse turning on Walt. To that, I ask: What did the prison murders lead to other than a ton of money for Walt? How did the precursor theft in the first season go wrong? The idea that something always comes back to bite Walt in his improbable plans isn’t true. In fact, throughout the show, most of the fallout rains down on those close to him, not on Walt himself.

But more importantly: Walt’s plans in Felina didn’t exactly work. His first—making Gretchen and Elliot set up a trust for Flynn—was as long a longshot as they come. Those two people are very smart, with very smart people who can, and will, advise them that Walt was lying. That money was in the DEA’s hands before Walt was dead on the lab floor. His second—using the coordinates to help Skylar avoid prosecution—is equally dubious. Her fate will hardly be improved by finding those bodies. His third—poisoning Lydia—was flawless, to be sure. We’ll give him that. It also wasn’t that difficult a plan (even though I’ve heard people describe getting the ricin into the stevia as most complicated maneuver since Bruce Willis blew up that asteroid). That plan was also signaled at least ten times over 15 episodes. [Fantasy theorists: Did Walt know that Todd brought Lydia tea in the lab, or that Lydia ordered tea but settled for hot water with lemon in her first meeting with Mike?] His fourth—killing the Aryans—led to him taking a bullet and bleeding to death, and not recovering his money, which was his stated goal to Saul at the start of “Granite State.” Sure, he killed those guys, and Jesse strangled Todd, and Walt executed Jack. Yes, implausible in the world we live in. But not the slightest bit implausible in the world of Breaking Bad.

And he got shot. We don’t know how Walt wanted to die, or whether he was planning to just stand there and get mowed down like everyone else before he saw Jesse, ending it all with a suicide run. The Walt we’ve all come to know and love, though, must have wanted to look upon his destruction, rather than die in the midst of it. He’s a man who loves control and power, which the bullet to the side robbed him of in his final minutes. So to call what Walt did in “Felina” so unrealistic and flawless as to only be fantasy is to ignore the 57 episodes before the finale, and ignore the suffering still endured in “Felina” despite Walt’s meticulous planning.

Point 2: Walt was redeemed after spending the whole show turning into a monster. To this I say: WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT??? This take is baffling. Let’s consider the things that Walt decided to do on his last day on earth, keeping in mind the problems that remained for his family. First, he does the whole thing with Gretchen and Elliot, which served not to get Flynn any money and instead to grease Walt’s ego and let him get a final jab at the two people who fueled so much of his rage. Next, he buys a machine gun and retrieves the ricin. Then, he rigs the stevia packet with the ricin. Then, he poisons Lydia and sets up the meeting with Jack so that he can unload the M-61. Then he goes to the middle of the desert to rig the M-61, after buying the necessary parts. Then he says goodbye to Skyler and Holly and sees his son for the last time. Then he goes out and kills the Aryans.

So, Walt chooses for this day to be his last one alive, which is, in itself, a very ugly decision. Then he decides to spend it killing people for no reason except revenge.

[Stop reading now if you believe that Walt had to kill them to keep Skyler and the family safe. It’s a legitimate, however weak, argument. If Walt ever believed that he needed to kill Lydia, Todd, Jack, and the rest of the crew to protect his family he never would have disappeared to NH. Nothing happened between deciding to go HDThoreau and coming back to NM that changed anything on that front. And he ricined Lydia before he knew about Todd’s scare tactics. And Walt decided to kill Jack because Jack killed Hank and stole his money before he went to NH. Walt was moments away from turning himself in before Charlie Rose’s penetrating questioning roused him into action, and nothing revealed in that interview related to his family. On top of that, Todd already decided that he wouldn’t kill Skyler, and she doesn’t know anything anyway. Uncle Jack kept Walter alive, after all, when killing him along with Hank and Gomez made all the sense in the world. So, as stated, it’s a colorable but wrong argument, and if you ascribe to it, the rest of this essay won’t be persuasive.]

Simmer on that for a moment. Walt decides to (1) go on an apparent suicide mission that is not designed or intended to protect his family, and (2) spend his freely chosen last day on earth preparing for that suicide mission, rather than with his family. What were his other options? He could have turned himself in, and begged to have his family kept safe. This course would have protected Skyler from further prosecution, and protected his family from Jack. [There’s a decent argument that Walt could have traded a lot of information for reduced sentencing too. He didn’t kill Hank or Gomez; he didn’t organize the prison killings; and he’s now in custody. Information about Jack and Todd and that operation would have been enormously valuable.] It would have also shown that Walt actually regretted the choices he had made. It would have also given him the chance to communicate with his son and daughter, even if only in one direction, and even if only briefly. But that’s not what he did.

Instead of telling Skyler, “I liked it. I was good at it. And I was alive” and then continuing to do the things that he liked, was good at, and made him feel alive, he could have done the right thing. But the right thing—coming clean and facing the consequences of his actions—isn’t part of Walter White’s world. So he did what he did instead. And in doing so, confirmed that he is the monster he always was: an out-and-out narcissist who can’t see beyond his own reflection, a point nicely underscored in the flashforward with the ricin, in the bulletholed car in Ozymanidas, and in the last shot in the lab.

In the course of it, he saved Jesse, but there’s no reason to think that was his intention. [I encourage anyone making that claim to re-watch the scene with Skinny Pete and Badger. When Walt says “Jesse” after Skinny Pete says the blue is better than ever, Walt is furious. There is not the slightest hint in that scene that he thinks Jesse is enslaved. Then, when Walt sees Jesse enchained, he is surprised and crushed. Walt’s gambit about Jesse was a ploy to save Walt’s life, not Jesse’s. It just turned out that he did both.] Walt’s split-second decision to spare Jesse while killing the Aryans is a nice gesture by a man who is about to execute his plan and offering some humanity to the person whose life he destroyed and whose death he ordered. But it wasn’t redemptive.

Then, with everyone dead and his life slipping away, Walt taunts Lydia, tosses the phone, and walks to the lab. He looks upon his works, and then upon himself, and dies. He seems satisfied with that end to his life, and by extension, with the two years that have rained hell upon his family and strangers, all sparked when Walt realized that he could cook up the best fucking meth the world had ever seen. I would argue that he is actually satisfied. He’s a narcissistic monster who believes in his own solipsistic mind that he got the $9M to his son, that he gave Jesse and Skyler their freedom, and that his name would live on. He did the job he set out to do. We, as the people who watched him unleash this monster for 55 episodes, should understand that his plans will fail and that the name that will live on is that of a ruthless murderer who left a stream of dead bodies and destroyed lives in his wake. And that even at the last moments of his life, he never recognized the carnage he had wrought, let alone acknowledging, admitting, or apologizing for it.

That’s not redemption.

And maybe that’s why people are unsatisfied with the ending. They aren’t recognizing the differences between Walt redeeming himself in his own fucked-up mind, and him redeeming himself in the eyes of the other characters in the show. He did the first, which viewers reflexively felt as redeeming himself in their eyes. But Walt should only be redeemed in the audience’s eyes if he is redeemed in Marie’s or Flynn’s or Skyler’s or Jesse’s. And he wasn’t. So that tension had viewers wondering if it was a fantasy, and poking holes into the plot machinations, and claiming that Vince Gilligan changed his mind about Walt—all of which overlooked how Walt’s final decisions were perfectly in line with his trajectory throughout the show.

I should admit now that I desperately wanted Walt to be redeemed somehow. To turn himself in and help the DEA take down Uncle Jack and Todd, saving Jesse in the process. Or to find out definitively that Todd was torturing Jesse, and go back and save him. Or to just stay in NH and spend his time writing apology letters to his family and Jesse and then die. To do anything that showed growth instead of decay. But that’s not how Walt went out. Not at all.

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On a single cause, and the scientifc method

by rickblaineusa

Summary of what follows: Obesity can be caused by 20+ different things, and it’s not useful to spend time hunting down the sole cause—because it doesn’t exist. Researchers should instead be searching for plausible explanations for obesity, with corresponding practical lifestyle advice for avoiding it.

There are certain words that emerge in conversations about pop culture or politics or art that make my mind go blank. Ontological is one. Solipsistic used to be another, until I became quite fond of it—sprinkling it like weed killer whenever possible. Reductionist is another, until I realized that it perfectly captures the world of obesity research, nutrition advice, and modern medical research in general.

  • Reductionism: (1) explanation of complex life-science processes and phenomena in terms of the laws of physics and chemistry; also : a theory or doctrine that complete reductionism is possible; (2) a procedure or theory that reduces complex data and phenomena to simple terms.

Let me offer my working understanding of the word in the context of obesity:

  • Obesity research and thinking is reductionist and epitomizes reductionism because it proceeds from the premise that obesity could have, or does have, a single cause.

This TED Talk is a good example: Peter Attia on Obesity, Diabetes, and Insulin Resistance

Dr. Attia and I are generally on the same page. His work and approach, most importantly, are humane and sensitive to the realities of the lives of people who struggle with obesity. And he has devoted himself to understanding the obesity epidemic and helping those same people.

Where we split ways is the idea that there could be one solution (or even two or three or four or five)  to the problem. He offers his hypothesis, careful to couch it in the language of uncertainty:

  • Now, my hypothesis, because everybody always asks me, is this. If you ask yourself, what’s a cell trying to protect itself from when it becomes insulin resistant, the answer probably isn’t too much food. It’s more likely too much glucose: blood sugar. Now, we know that refined grains and starches elevate your blood sugar in the short run, and there’s even reason to believe that sugar may lead to insulin resistance directly. So if you put these physiological processes to work, I’d hypothesize that it might be our increased intake of refined grains, sugars and starches that’s driving this epidemic of obesity and diabetes, but through insulin resistance, you see, and not necessarily through just overeating and under-exercising.*

And then he adds that he’s surrounded himself with a Lincoln-esque ‘Team of Rivals’ to tackle obesity:

  • We’ve recruited a team of scientific rivals, the best and brightest who all have different hypotheses for what’s at the heart of this epidemic. Some think it’s too many calories consumed. Others think it’s too much dietary fat. Others think it’s too many refined grains and starches.

It’s that question—“what’s at the heart of this epidemic”—that turns my stomach. It represents the reflexive need of obesity researchers to reduce the obesity epidemic to a single cause. This drive isn’t unique to obesity researchers; it is no doubt endemically human, part of our pattern-recognition bias.

But not all humans have spent years having the idea of the scientific method pounded into their brains. The scientific method: a brilliant conception and history-changing practice that has as its foundation the idea that phenomena can be explained by systematically eliminating all other explanations. It’s a method that is ready-made for physics and chemistry. It’s useful, but less so, with more complex systems.

And the human body and the modern living environment in the United States present the most complex of complex systems. Here is an off-the-top-of-my-head twelve list of things which could be contributing to the obesity epidemic:

  1. Lack of sleep / disrupted circadian rhythms.
  2. Omega-6 overload from food supply full of industrial seed oils / corresponding lack of Omega 3s.
  3. Lack of sufficient sunlight / outdoor activity.
  4. Lack of movement / exercise; overabundance of sedentary activities.
  5. Disregulated gut bacteria, brought on by overuse of antibiotics and/or bad or insufficient diet.
  6. Lack of micronutrients.
  7. Too much processed-sugar consumption.
  8. Overstressed / overstimulated lives.
  9. Non-communal living / separation from family and friends.
  10. Lack of dietary fiber.
  11. Environmental toxicities and pollution.
  12. Inhumane and toxic farming practices leading to poisonous and micronutrient-deficient food.
  13. Eating too much brought on by a widespread and unprecedented loss of willpower.

(From what I can tell, Dr. Attia is a welcome respite from the usual parroting of the first three words of No. 13 as the explanation of the phenomenon.) That is a partial list. There are easily another 20 plausible explanations for the obesity epidemic, with their own cadre of researchers and writers providing the evidence for why that particular phenomena is the true cause.

Of course, using the scientific method, you could systematically eliminate each of those phenomena as the “heart of this epidemic.” There must be lots of people who aren’t obese despite sleeping 4 hours a day and working from 8 pm to 4 am, or who have never seen (let alone eaten) a coldwater, fatty fish while consuming peanut butter like it’s air, or never exercise or otherwise move around. Doesn’t that disprove everything on that list? Yes: if you are looking for a sole cause and using the scientific method as your guiding principle. In that case, the list is almost meaningless because nothing on there can ever be ‘proven’ to contribute to obesity.

If, instead, you resist the urge to reduce obesity to a single, or even a few, causes, then this list and longer ones can be incredibly helpful. And that is where I would like to see the research go: Towards finding plausible explanations for why an individual may accumulate body fat and corresponding practical lifestyle choices that an individual can make to address those explanations. This approach would recognize that humans are infinitely complex and variations among humans similarly infinite—meaning there can be no “heart” of the obesity epidemic.

But I don’t think we are starting from nowhere.

*Here’s my take on Dr. Attia’s hypothesis: It’s incomplete. Grains, starches, and sugars may contribute to obesity, but only in the context of many other factors. It also varies from individual to individual. Enough anecdotal reports and common sense has me believing that some humans just don’t function that well on a high-carb diet.

Walter White is The Big Bad Wolf

by rickblaineusa

The Chicken Man’s fate was similar.

Last night’s premiere of s.5 of Breaking Bad featured Larry Hankin as a junk-yard dealer. Coincidentally, in the mid-80s, Mr. Hankin also dealt junk to the Big Bad Wolf:

(The Hulu clip won’t work in some browsers, so you can also see it here on YouTube at 9:00.)

There’s no way that Vince Gilligan didn’t know about Mr. Man. Breaking Bad is outrageously smart and clever, but this might be the most deeply embedded joke it’s played so far. If you didn’t know before: Walter White is now the Big Bad Wolf. (And the Big Bad Wolf is Jeff Goldblum.)

-RB