Breaking Bad in Stromboli

Breaking Bad in StromboliI walked down to meet Susan on Hawthorne late afternoon but arrived early and when I passed Nick’s and noticed baseball on the screen I ducked in to wait at the bar for a text asking my whereabouts. I ordered a glass of milk and a coffee chaser and the bartender asked me if this was my first visit to Nick’s. The game was in the 8th inning, a 3 to 3 tie, the Dodgers against the Cubs out spring training in sunny Arizona. A group of young folk occupied the north end of the bar, but I alone watched the game. The tables were all empty. The balls were breaking late, bad, away. The Cubs scored in the bottom of the 8th on a sacrifice fly to take the lead 4 to 3, and the Dodgers in the top of the 9th could not break away. My first taste this year of spring training TV was bad for a Dodger fan. I like the Cubs, too, and hope they do better than last year’s cellar close. Edging the Dodgers 4 to 3 yesterday marked the Cubs first win in seven games this spring training season. It’s still early, but the Cubs are off to a bad start. Cub fans are a forgiving bunch. Dodger fans live in baseball paradise at Elysian Park. But baseball and paradise broke bad some time ago, came the summers of our discontent, baseball breaking away.

One of modern baseball’s design problems, as McLuhan explained, is that it’s a poor fit for television. Baseball is not pixel friendly. McLuhan saw how vaudeville moved to radio and radio to television, where there will never be enough channels, the need for distraction being what it is, even though all channels do the same thing and distract in the same way. But he did not foresee vaudeville being rekindled by Lady Gaga and Madonna in the Super Bowl arena where the camera is now a drone following the collective unconscious eye of the audience. Meantime, the living room remains the electronic middle class mosh pit. The form of television is its art; the channel hardly matters.

Yet some said that “Breaking Bad” was television finally or finely elevated to art. The art of the installment, the fix, waiting for the next episode, the episodic adventure induced by Walter who like Fagin in Dickens’s “Oliver Twist” lives and thrives in a world of children. Is breaking bad an occupational hazard of teaching resulting from classroom isolation from the real world? Or “Breaking Bad” might have been titled “Death of a Teacher,” Walter White the Willy Loman who lives on TV fantasy to avoid the existential question imposed by being crushed beneath the wheels of contemporary financial, job, metaphysical, and medical malaise. We interrupt this post to bring you a full disclosure: I never saw a single “Breaking Bad” episode when the series was running. I did read a few reviews. I recently watched the first three episodes, borrowed from the library. I was thinking I might try to see the whole thing through, to its conclusion, and angle a post off it. But I don’t want to watch any more “Breaking Bad” episodes. Predicament may harden the romantic heart in all of us.

For one thing, the premise of “Breaking Bad” seems algorithmic. A high school Chemistry teacher with experience and talent gets an existential kick in the butt when he discovers he has terminal cancer. He sees an opportunity in the two years he has left to make some quick money as a meth chef and improbably takes to a life of violent drug associated street crime. Various critical reviews suggest something philosophical going on. His street name is Heisenberg, and it’s probably true that nowhere in contemporary life are things more uncertain than out on the street, certainly not in the living room, watching television. So the existential predicament is the close proximity to death, not to be confused with the close proximity of television. But everyone dies and knows they will; why wait any time at all to break bad and kill the TV? Most people break indifferent. No life is longer than the one spent in moiling drudgery.

Then I watched Roberto Rossellini’s “Stromboli” (1950). Essentially, Ingrid Bergman’s Karin’s existential predicament is similar to Walter White’s, though even more absurd, because she’s saved but ironically condemned to live in a place and with a man she believes she’s entirely unsuited for, which comes with the surprise of the epiphany. The island of Stromboli is a Mediterranean volcano. Life is harsh. Karin was expecting something a bit more pleasant, romantic, colorful. Life on Stromboli is inescapable sun or impervious shadow. The people on Stromboli live under the constant threat of volcanic eruption. Their values are kept immutable by the impossibility of change. Unlike the Mario by the end of “Il Postino,” Karin can’t see any beauty on her island or in the fishing life. It doesn’t take her long to realize she must break bad. But Karin breaks bad differently from Walter. She frantically climbs the volcano that Walter pedantically runs from.

Note: No commas were mistreated in the writing of this post.