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'Breaking Bad,' 'Granite State,' Walter White, Robert Forster/Robert Frost
And now, friends, welcome to my second-to-last post on "Breaking Bad," tied to Sunday's "Granite State," and as my few faithful know, I've pretty much stayed away from plot analysis in these to concentrate on themes -- what "Bad" is trying to tell us about Walter White, but also what it's trying to tell us about US.
I've done earlier posts (and stories) on: transformation, chemistry, cars, the art of poison, Shakespeare-in-the-desert, Shelley vs. Yeats, "The Sopranos," and today: America.
Don't worry -- hardly any spoilers in this post if you have not yet seen Sunday, except this one spoiler -- Walter has been relocated to a cabin deep in the New Hampshire wilderness, brought there by a rawboned lean-cowboy type, played by the great character actor, Robert Forster.
But why New Hampshire? To my post!
I tend to think "Bad" resonates for so many because it tracks so many of the themes of modern American cinema and literature, from Steinbeck to Elmore Leonard -- that depth of isolation and aloneness, of failure, of economic personal failure in a time of plenty, of remaking oneself, of adapting, of changing, of becoming something that you never thought remotely possible (the stuff of great comic books, too) and in the end, the tragic consequences of that psychic journey from selfhood.
It's a zero-based world ruled by zero-sum logic, this world of "Bad," stripped bare of God and morality and history. This is a world where the choices one makes are the choices that will command your fate -- and for Walter White, his fate is of the damned, in an isolated darkened cabin in the New Hampshire woods.
"Breaking Bad" is about the "American dream" gone terribly bad, of course, but it's also about the ties that bind -- of family and community and how one individual action ripples outward, toward the whole. You are alone -- but you are not alone.
And genres need to be attached here -- and even though "Bad" is a show that has peculiarly resisted pigeonholing, it clearly belongs to that great American tradition of the gangster flick, which probably began way back with "The Public Enemy." It's the genre of immigrants, of coming to a strange land, and remaking this world in their own image. The gangster pushed aside the cowboy, much as the urban world at the turn of the last century pushed aside the great west. The great American city was where personal history was being rewritten, not the west, and in gangster flicks, it was to be rewritten in blood.
Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in America" takes us pretty far down this road, but just to fast forward, so does "The Sopranos."
This last season of "Breaking Bad" has been one long tip of the hat to its predecessor -- an homage to (arguably) TV's greatest series, which also explored all the themes that "Bad" has explored.
Last week's "Bad" -- "Ozymandias" -- for example, was the bookend to "Soprano's" third to last, "The Second Coming." Sunday's "Granite State" evokes -- purposely -- the sixth episode of "Sopranos'" sixth season, "Live Free or Die," when Vito Spatafore went to New Hampshire to go into hiding after he's discovered to be a homosexual. (Vito ran, but he could not hide.)
But why New Hampshire -- as opposed to say New York or Ohio or pick-a-state? Because based on motto, geography and character, New Hampshire has carved out of its granite self a specific image that contributes profoundly to America's own self image -- of splendid isolation, and self-dependence, with fealty to none.
It's impossible to go to New Hampshire in pop culture without getting down to some poetry -- and since "Bad" brought up "Ozymandias," it's fair game to bring up Robert Frost here. Frost wrote a very famous poem, published in the early '20s about that splendid isolation of New Hampshire, not then his home state (he was living in Vermont -- but as he himself pointed out, same difference).
It was called "New Hampshire" and much as gangster flicks used the word "America" ironically -- "The Sopranos" final go-to-black episode was entitled "Made in America" -- so Frost soaked his beloved state in irony.
Jazz age America, he obliquely observed, was roaring, full of hucksterism and get-rich schemes. It was the land of boosterism and bull.
But not dear old New Hampshire.
Just specimens is all New Hampshire has/ One each of everything as in a showcase/ Which naturally she doesn't care to sell....
Apples? New Hampshire has them, but unsprayed,/ With no suspicion in stern end or blossom end /Of vitriol or arsenate of lead,/ And so not good for anything but cider./ Her unpruned grapes are flung like lariats/ Far up the birches out of reach of man....
Where I was living then, New Hampshire offered /The nearest boundary to escape across....
Here's a bit more...
I knew a man who failing as a farmer /Burned down his farmhouse for the fire insurance, /And spent the proceeds on a telescope /To satisfy a lifelong curiosity/ About our place among the infinities./ And how was that for otherworldliness?
And so "Breaking Bad" brings Walter White to New Hampshire. He won't remain here -- back in New Mexico next week, loaded with iron for the final showdown, but a little bit of this isolated, strange, beautiful, inscrutable state will always be with him and his classic TV series.
Naturally, death stalks him from there as well, for how can you leave New Hampshire without those other lines from Frost:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep,/ And miles to go before I sleep, /And miles to go before I sleep.