Breaking Bad’s resemblance to The Pearl

Vince Gilligan’s TV show Breaking Bad evokes John Steinbeck’s novella The Pearl. Both feature protagonists striving for wealth for the sake of their family, whilst imperilling their families through their reckless quest for status and significance.

Friday, 4 October 2013

WARNING: This article contains major spoilers about Breaking Bad and The Pearl. Only read this if you have finished watching Breaking Bad.

The Atlantic recently ran a piece asking, ‘Which great literary work explains Breaking Bad best?’ They listed eight suggestions including Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens and Conrad. Unfortunately they missed out John Steinbeck despite the fact that many facets of Breaking Bad echo Steinbeck’s novella The Pearl.

Breaking Bad tells the story of 50 year old high-school chemistry teacher Walter White who, when diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, turns to making and selling the drug methamphetamine (crystal meth) to provide for his family after he dies. He becomes a formidable figure in the criminal underworld, going by the name of Heisenberg, and struggles to hold together his double lives as he descends into hell.

The Pearl narrates the tale of a poor pearl diver called Kino who finds a great pearl and believes his family’s life will be transformed forever. However, having something that everyone else wants proves to be a curse as well as a blessing. Kino’s determination to hold on to the pearl at all costs leads him and his family down a dark and dangerous path.

The Pearl, like Breaking Bad, portrays a man striving for wealth for the sake of his family, while imperiling their safety through his determination to hold fast to his ambition. At root, both stories force us to question what we truly value in life. What is wealth? Do riches come from money or from relationships? What does it mean to be a good man, a good father? Both are morality tales, inviting us to assess the judgement of the protagonists.

Both stories begin with the protagonists needing a doctor. In The Pearl, Kino’s baby son is stung by a scorpion and he appeals to a doctor for help but is turned away for having no money. In Breaking Bad, Walter is diagnosed with cancer and fears the expense of his medical bills could cripple his family, while his death will leave him unable to provide for their future. He already works an extra job at a car wash, on top of his teaching day job, and he is stretched to the limit. Both men realise that they need money to secure the health of their family.

Kino and Walt start from a good place wanting reasonable things. When Kino finds the pearl, he first dreams of marrying his partner Juana and sending their son to school. When Walt decides to start cooking crystal meth, he reasons that he needs enough money to pay his medical bills and send his children to college. Gilligan and Steinbeck seem to be examining the American Dream and finding it wanting. What happens when such basic aspirations are thwarted? When the average American family can’t afford decent healthcare or a good education for their children?

Yet from the outset, alongside these pure desires, another vision appears to both men which connotes the selfish darker side of their aspirations. Kino imagines himself holding a rifle. In the pilot for Breaking Bad, Walt has a gun in his pants. When we get to the final season, there is a flash-forward to Walt with a huge gun in the boot of his car. The spectre of violence is omnipresent and foreboding from the very start, as soon as they embark on their journeys.

Both Kino and Walt feel somewhat cheated by their lives and embrace their opportunity to challenge their place in society; Kino when he determines to get a good price for the pearl, Walt when he decides to cook crystal meth. Steinbeck and Gilligan acknowledge the dangers and thrills accompanying such ambition. The American Dream promises social mobility in a system that rewards individual merit, but in reality existing wealth and power structures are often ruthlessly maintained. In The Pearl, Kino’s brother Juan Tomas, warns, “You have defied not the pearl buyers, but the whole structure, the whole way of life, and I am afraid for you... It is new ground you are walking on, you do not know the way.” In Breaking Bad, criminal old-timer Mike spells it out to Walt, saying, “We had a good thing, you stupid son of a bitch .... You could have shut your mouth and cooked and made as much money as you would have ever needed. But no, you just had to blow it up. You and your pride and your ego, you just had to be the man. If you’d done your job, known your place, we’d all be fine right now.”

Both Kino and Walt are on a quest for status, respect and significance in a society that too often equates social worth with the amount of money you possess. Breaking Bad’s finale makes it crystal clear that Walt has ultimately acted for himself and not his family. His persistent mantra throughout the series was that whatever he did, he did it for his family. Gilligan indicates that this isn’t true early on, when he provides the perfect deus es machina moment: Walt’s former business partners offer to pay for his cancer treatment. Walt refuses to accept this solution to his dilemma, disgusted by the idea of charity, and chooses instead to pursue his criminal path. This decision serves only his pride, not his family. In the last episode he finally admits to his wife Skyler, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. I was alive”. Through his alter-ego Heisenberg, Walt enjoys a power, significance and potency that he’d never before experienced. Bryan Cranston said that he made a purposeful decision to play Walt with his shoulders slumped, as if beaten down by life, until he became Heisenberg, whereby he finally stands upright for the first time. Steinbeck undermines Kino’s same justifications about acting for his family with a more brutal poetic judgement: Kino’s pursuit of a good price for his pearl, regardless of the risks, sees his son wind up shot through the head.

The self-conscious masculinity of Steinbeck’s characters is reflected in Walter White. A significant part of Walt’s endeavour seems to be about fulfilling his own ideas about what it means to ‘be a man’. In the pilot, when Walt first erupts in the car wash because his boss asks him to wipe down cars on the forecourt, he shouts “Fuck you Bogdan” and aggressively grabs his balls saying “Wipe down this”. The first time we see him in bed with his wife, Walt receives a disinterested hand job from Skyler, while by the end of the same episode he is so pumped up and hard from his exhilarating adventures in the desert, that he penetrates his wife decisively and we are left with her shocked expression as she asks “Walt, is that you?” From there on in, much of Walt’s folly stems from his misguided desire to figuratively wave his dick around to demonstrate his manliness and power. This manifests itself most pathetically at a family party where he goads his teenage son into drinking so much liquor that Walt Jr throws up into the swimming pool in front of everyone. Kino is constantly telling his wife “I am a man” and Steinbeck writes that this “meant certain things to Juana. It meant that he was half insane and half god. It meant that Kino would drive his strength against the mountain and plunge his strength against the sea. Juana in her woman’s soul, knew that the mountain would stand while the man broke himself; that the sea would surge while he drowned in it.”

Juana and Skyler both try to reason with their husbands and implore them to give up their dangerous pursuits. Steinbeck balances Kino’s masculinity with Juana’s femininity, observing, “Sometimes the quality of woman, the reason, the caution, the sense of preservation, could cut through Kino’s manness and save them all.” Skyler puts the same instinct even more succinctly when she tells Walt, “Someone’s got to protect this family from the man who protects this family.”

Yet both women end up implicated in their husbands’ choices further down the line. Once Juana sees that Kino has killed a man, she knows that their old life is gone forever and grasps that there is nothing left to do but save themselves. Similarly, once Skyler understands how deeply involved Walt is in the criminal underworld, she becomes complicit by laundering the money. Later on, she even comes to echo Lady Macbeth urging on her husband, suggesting that he could kill Jesse with her momentous question, “What’s one more?”

Both stories interrogate greed and go right to the heart of capitalist society by asking how much is enough? Breaking Bad leaves us with some indelible imagery with which to meditate upon that question: We see Walt put his money on the barbeque grill and Jesse throw bundles of it randomly out of his car window. When Skyler shows Walt the enormous pile of cash that has amassed at the car wash, Walt acknowledges that he can now stop cooking meth as he has already acquired more money than his family could ever spend. Later we see his £80 million stash buried in the desert dug up and stolen by a group whose leader charitably throws Walt a barrel back, chiding his men “What’s with all the greed?” Kino refuses the money offered by the pearl dealers even though they’re offering more money than he has ever had in his life because he fears they are operating as a cartel and cheating him of the object’s true value.

There are things that money can’t buy. In his reckless pursuit of wealth, Walt loses the love of his family. In the penultimate episode he ends up exiled in a cabin in snow-covered New Hampshire, desperately offering his fixer £10,000 to keep him company for two hours, only to be callously offered an hour for the price, and miserably accepting. His family don’t want his money. This tragedy is most heartbreakingly expressed in Walt’s phone call to Walt Jr when he tries to explain how he can smuggle him the drug money. Walt Jr wants to hear from his father, but it is his dad - not the money - that he yearns for, and he is distraught that his Dad has not called to apologise, explain or make amends for his actions, but remains hellbent on passing on the money. This makes Walt irredeemable to Walt Jr, who tells his father that he’d rather he just died. Kino also failed to see that the most useful role that he could play for his family would be loving and protecting them, and after his son dies he throws the pearl back into the sea.

I expected Breaking Bad to end in similar terms to The Pearl - I thought Walt’s kids were going to die. But Gilligan didn’t prove predictable. Steinbeck’s ending sees Juana and Kino return to their village side by side, carrying their dead baby. Kino has lost his son, paid a great price, and the redeeming slither of hope comes in the bond, and new equality, that he shares with his wife. Kino’s enterprise doesn’t pay off, signifying a failure of the American Dream. Yet where Steinbeck left Kino throwing away his once-precious pearl, Gilligan has Walt perish in his meth-lab, caressing the lab equipment, dying Lord of the Rings style with his ‘precious’. In Breaking Bad, in a curious way, Walt’s enterprise does pay; he accomplishes a way to get his money to his family and he dies satisfied, more Heisenberg than Mr White. Heisenberg embodies a warped version of the triumphant American Dream. He built his drug empire with his own freewill and ingenuity, and he is the self-made man leaving a legacy to his family. To the end Walt remains proud and insistent that he “earned his money”. In the way that the audience find themselves rooting for Walt, against all the odds and all of his evil acts, we can perhaps see why the dream is so seductive still.

Breaking Bad is as complex and conflicting as our troubled relationship with the American Dream. Walt accomplishes his ambition at great social cost, both to his fractured family and to society. The series exposes the dark qualities that make a person rise highest in a dog-eat-dog capitalist system. Successful qualities are often psychopathic qualities; competition favours the ruthless who act without moral restraint. Nice Mr White got nowhere, nasty Heisenberg reigns supreme.

Yet, despite their divergent endings, both Gilligan and Steinbeck deliver narratively satisfying conclusions that leave open complex social questions and conundrums. In The Pearl, despite Kino’s terrible losses, we don’t necessarily conclude that he was wrong to aspire to a better life for his family or fight for a fairer share of the world’s wealth. In Breaking Bad, while we may be happy that Walter White reached his own catharsis, we can see that his family paid a terrible price and he was only lucky that they didn’t die. Hopefully people will debate the morality of both of these tales - Breaking Bad and The Pearl - for many years to come. The fact that people are looking for literary comparisons to Breaking Bad shows that Vince Gilligan has surely earned his place in the ranks of the greats.