Having seduced abromeds
into marathoning Breaking Bad
in its entirety, I was delighted when she challenged me for meta around the subject of "Breaking Bad
: Greek Tragedy? Shakespearean? Or WHAT?"
Now, I am a pedantic German who knows her Lessing who knew his Aristotle. Tragedy, as defined by the master of Greek meta: a tale wherein the main character is brought down by a combination of external circumstance and his/her own flaws. Which isn't how the word is mostly used today by the media - wherein "tragedy" usually means "calamity which befalls innocent people" - or in in pop culture understanding, where the hero of a tragedy is usually supposed to be character not only sympathetic but upstanding, with the flawed variety referred to as antiheroes. (Which would have been confusing to the Greeks, because their heroes, well, if they don't get mad and slaughter their families, or kill family members without any madness involved and instead good old fashioned revenge, they let their wives die for them, or cheat their comrades in arms out of armour and life, or, well, you get the picture. Mind you, I'm always a bit bewildered that Aristotle picked Sophocles' Oedipus
, out of all Greek tragedies, as an example for a perfect combination of circumstance and internal flaws, because I can't see that. Oedipus, for a Greek hero, is actually among the more upstanding characters. His one genuine flaw is his hot temper and it contributes to his fate in as much as it's the cause why he gets into an argument with a stranger on the street which ends in him killing the stranger. This is not a habit with him, and he certainly didn't know that the stranger in question was actually his biological father. Otherwise, Oedipus' tragedy is all triggered by external circumstance and because the gods truly have it in for him. First his father gets the prophecy that Oedipus will one day kill his father and marry his mother and promptly has the baby exposed. (If that had not happened, nothing else would have.) Then Oedipus, when grown up after the usual myth elements of kind shepherds and friendly childless couples in adoption mode, , hears the same prophecy, naturally assumes this means his adopted parents, the only ones he knows, and leaves them in horror, determined to stay away so that he never, ever can fulfill that prophecy. (Oedipus, out of all the Greek mythological characters, did not have an Oedipus complex.) Cue stranger on the road, later encounter with the sphinx and marrying the widowed queen of Thebes, where he spends some happy years as a ruler with sons and daughters before the plague strikes and the whole truth is discovered. In conclusion: there is a reason why a French version of this is called The Infernal Machinery. Not nearly enough of these events are caused by Oedipus himself because of his own flaws. But then, a catastrophe out of all proportion as a net result is very Greek.
The problem with defining something as "Shakespearean tragedy" is that Will S. himself by no means wrote all his tragedies following the same rules or categories. Romeo and Juliet
, until Mercutio gets killed, might just as well be a comedy. The Merchant of Venice
, which is supposed to be a comedy, almost never gets performed as one today, and that's not all due to the Holocaust having happened; even in the nineteenth century, Shylock was often called a tragic character caught in the wrong type of play. King Lear
, otoh, admirably qualifies as far as Lear himself is concerned - his flaws lead directly to his fate, and this is more or less true of Gloucester as well - but what about Cordelia, and the Fool? Whose tragedy is Julius Caesar
anyway - Brutus', Caesar's, Antony's? And while we're talking history: the two dramas about ursurpers, Richard III
, have main characters who are heroes in the traditional dramatic sense (main characters), but not in the modern pop culture one. Shakespeare's Richard III laughs at all the current popular villains and their fans because he did that "ruthless villain charms audience by being smarter and more eloquent than anyone else, gets UST scene with good person and seduces same" centuries ago. Ditto Macbeth with the whole "character starts out heroic, gets darker and darker, is, however, capable of intense affection towards partner" arc. However, both Richard and the Macbeths live in a dramatic universe where their very act of ursurpation means they cannot
, in the end, remain successful. Their eventual failure isn't solely due to inherent character flaws, bad planning or the efforts of their antagonists, who in another drama would be the protagonists: it is pre-ordained because their assumption of power goes directly against the divine right of kingship.
You can see why I'm hesitant to call Breaking Bad
either Greek or Shakespearean, though it certainly has elements of both. One sense in which people today use the term "Shakesperean" is to signify dramatic events on an epic scale and the mixture of humor into the bloodshed instead of unrelentic gloom and doom. (My teacher, back when I was an impressionable teenager, used Shakespeare to illustrate what "comic relief" means in classic drama, because who else? This description certainly fits Breaking Bad
, but it is awfully general.
Let me draw another show in. The Wire
has its share of personal tragedies - has it ever! - and several of these certainly come about by a mixture of circumstance and personal flaws, but most of all it strikes me as a tragedy of systems. In fact, the very point of the show, hammered in again and again, in season after season, is that every single system that gets focused on is so inherently corrupted and destructive that failure of the individuals sooner or later is inevitable. The Game, to quote one character, is rigged. For everyone - criminals, cops, teachers, students, politicians, the media. The Wire
is far more Shakesperean in that sense, only with reverse trajectory. Richard III and Macbeth cannot stay on top because they are ursurpers and live in a dramatic world where ursurpation is against nature and ALWAYS gets punished; the various attempts at reform in The Wire
cannot prevail for long because all the systems are too inherently destructive. You can, at best, help some individuals and salvage a few friendships, and even that is by no means granted; you cannot beat the system you're in.
In Breaking Bad
, the only system which doesn't work is the health care one - which is an initial plot point, granted, and then one in mid season 3 -; but capitalism itself works, and so does criminal enterprise. So, for that matter, does the police. Walter White goes from nobody in two ill paid jobs to drug kingpin by a combination of lucky (well, for him, not for anyone else) circumstance, hard work and skills. Jesse Pinkman goes from small time crook and (bad) meth cook to brilliant meth cook and multiple millionaire. Hank Schrader has his share of set backs, but he steadily rises through the DEA ranks because of, again, hard work and smarts. Of course, none of these career highs are the end of the show, but the fact of the matter remains: there is no system in the Breaking Bad verse that inherently is set up to bring you down. Not even the American health care system, sucking as it does; it's important that as of episode 4 in the first season, Walter White gets presented with an alternative to his meth producing scheme. He gets offered not only enough money to pay for all medical expenses he and his family will have in the course of his cancer treatment but also a job opportunity that would end his need to teach chemistry to apathetic students who don't care. He could do the chemistry he loves, legally, and without hurting anyone. All he has to do is swallow his pride, as the offer comes from his former partners whom he still feels betrayed by. But Walt, displaying for the first time in full force that all time favourite attribute of Greek heroes, hubris
, is not capable of this and rather chooses crime. ( From here on, it gets spoilerly for the rest of Breaking Bad, so newbies beware! )