Lawlessness in Popular Culture

Late 20th-Century Western art has been generally awful, because its goal has been influencing our culture and society, rather than describing and critiquing it. It’s possible to make great art and great propaganda at the same time, but it’s hard.

Consider this common trope of action and superhero movies:

– Bad guy commits unspeakably evil acts

– Good guy thwarts bad guy, and has his gun drawn down on him, is holding his hand as he teeters over the edge of a cliff, or otherwise has the ability to kill him

– Good guy lets the bad guy live, because he ‘doesn’t have it in him’

There are exceptions, but the general rule in popular films is: Good guys don’t kill anyone, ever, unless they absolutely have to. (A common follow-up after the hero Doesn’t Have it In Him is that the bad guy pulls out a hidden gun, and forces the good guy to act in self-defense). In contemporary fiction, the forces of law and order must rely on a strictly self-limited set of tools.

Anyways. I digress. I’ve written more about the moral backwardness of Hollywood here. Today let’s talk about TV. Specifically, Dexter and Breaking Bad. Each is made by the sort-of non-mainstream HBO, and each has a dedicated following of fans. Personally, I’m a card-carrying Dexter fanboy, and while I’m only three episodes into Breaking Bad, I highly recommend it.

The interesting common theme in both of these shows is this: Our current system of laws and morals are broken.

 

Consider Dexter, a show about a serial killer who reconciles his lust for blood with his desire to be a good person by only murdering bad men. Fortunately, he works in the Miami police department, and so it frequently presented with situations like this:

Police Officer at Dexter’s Station: “Damnit! We know Martinez killed those ten people, but he got off on a technicality!” (Or evidence wasn’t admissible, or he was let off by a jury of retards, or fell through one of the many loopholes through which our legal system lets criminals walk the streets.)

So Dexter pulls up the file of someone he knows to be evil, but whom the police have allowed to go free, and then kills him. This strikes me (and probably most viewers) as a good thing. Dexter is killing bad guys! Hence, he is a good guy. Whether it means to or not, the show highlights how ridiculous it is that America, for all its wealth, power, prisons and police department budgets, is unable to shoot, hang and imprison real criminals.

Although it does seem to have plenty of resources left over to chase after pot smokers, sex tourists, speeders, and anyone who ‘hates’ homosexuals enough to quote Bible verses at them. Meanwhile, I’d rather walk through a slum in Khartoum than Detroit after dark.

 

Breaking Bad is the story of a soft middle-aged man, Walter, the quintessential beta, as we might say in this corner of the blogosphere, who turns to cooking meth when he learns he has lung cancer, so he’ll have money to leave to his family after he dies.

Now, what’s the interesting part of this story? Is it that our drug laws are all kinds of fucked up?

Well, that’s part of it. The main character’s brother-in-law is a zealously anti-drug DEA agent, and I expect his character to be used to poke fun at the war on drugs. But no, Breaking Bad does not strike me as a show about how harmless recreational drugs are, relative to the resources and moral opprobrium we spend condemning them. If it were, perhaps the writers would have the main character growing pot – if there’s a case to be made for criminalizing any one drug, meth is probably it.

Here’s something interesting about Breaking Bad. Walter a is chemistry teacher. He used to do some heavy research, so presumably he is a reasonably well-paid teacher. He and his wife have one son, and they live in the relatively inexpensive Albuquerque, New Mexico. And yet, we are frequently reminded that the family is struggling financially. Walter works nights at a car wash. They have bare bones health insurance. They’re behind on all their bills, despite living what seems to be a fairly modest life.

Walter is timid, shy, submissive, and lives his life with the singular mission of not stepping on anyone’s toes, ever. But, when he learns that he is about to leave his disabled son and pregnant wife to fend off the world by themselves, he decides to do whatever is necessary to provide for them. Fuck morality. Fuck the law. Fuck a lifetime of being a good, obedient little boy. the survival of Hank’s family has been threatened, and there is nothing he won’t do to protect them.

At one point, Hank is considering whether to kill a rival drug dealer he has locked up in a basement. He makes a pros and cons list. In the cons column, he puts down a litany of bullet points about morality, Christian values, his ability to live with himself, and so on. In the pros column, he has one thing – the survival of his family.

So what’s the point here?

Americans are getting squeezed today. Real Americans that is, not just those on TV. The middle class is suffering, and according my crystal ball, they’ve barely gotten a taste of what’s to come. What if the present trends in the land of the free and the home of the brave continue? How will America’s chemistry teachers, middle managers, lawyers, public servants, small business owners, firemen and soldiers react, when they’re forced to choose between committing evil acts, and letting their families go hungry?

Civilization is fragile. Morality is a luxury that can only be enjoyed in the best of circumstances.Dexter and Breaking Bad constitute good art, because they quietly ask the real questions of our time, while the rest of the media screams at us about transforming robots, celebrity gossip and Super Tuesday.