Wednesday, January 29, 2014

I Think We Need to Chew Our Brain-Food

I have a suspicion. An inkling, you might call it. The shadow of an idea.

I am wondering if Breaking Bad is more morally acceptable than The Little Mermaid.

Everyone in the show is bald, so no need for dinglehoppers.
In case you've been imprisoned in some distant pit for the last five years, Breaking Bad is the extremely distressing story of mild-mannered everyman, Walter White, who has the single worst midlife crisis in human history. He's laughably overqualified for his job as a disrespected high school chemistry teacher. He's working an extra job at a car wash so his family can afford to eat. His teenage son has cerebral palsy and his wife is surprise-pregnant. And, on his fiftieth birthday, he finds out he has cancer.

He really cannot catch a break.

Faced with his impending death, and certain that his family will be destitute without him to support them, he decides to make them a nest egg. Something substantial. He wants both his kids to go to college. He wants his wife to be able to live. He wants for his life not to have been a failure, and to do that he needs lots of money in a very short time.

So, as anyone would, he starts manufacturing drugs. Crystal meth, to be specific. The 61 episodes chronicle his steady descent into villainy. He engineers robberies, psychologically tortures a handful of folks, and intentionally kills/arranges the deaths of about twenty people. (He's also kind of connected to the deaths of like 170 other people, but somewhat more tenuously.)

And now for something completely different.
The Little Mermaid, on the other hand, is the extremely saccharine tale of a girl with a dream. Ariel wants to be where the people be. She wants to be different than she is. She wants to give up her life as an undersea princess to oversea princess? To trade in her current life in exchange for love, in any case; she's got a serious case of the twitterpatings, and Prince Eric is just hunk enough to make her long for life on the ground.

Her father forbids it, though, probably because you can't marry a man you just met especially if you're not even the same species. Never one to take orders from fuddy-duddies, Ariel seeks out another solution: Ursula, creepy, be-cleavaged witch-queen of the sea. In exchange for her voice, Ariel receives legs and the opportunity to be a real human if she can just make Eric kiss her. She's not able to talk to him at all, but hey, that never stopped the Victorian women. (Hey-o!)

After the climactic battle, in which Ursula gets impaled with a bowsprit, Ariel's father apologizes for trying to stifle her love and she and Eric get hitched, so it's convenient she got to keep her legs.

Now here's what I'm thinking. I think—I wonder, really—if Breaking Bad is the more moral of the two. And I won't even need to dig into the Little Mermaid's subtext about how the path to true love is to shut up and let him kiss you.

Sit in your shame, Ariel. You are an embarrassment to feminism.
The thing about stories is they always have an underlying rule. English teachers might call it a theme, philosophers might call it a worldview, other folks could call it a moral—in any case, there's something the storyteller believes is true, and it's the rule that guides everything in the story. It often decides the winner; if you acknowledge and live by the Rule, you survive. If you transgress the Rule, you're probably the villain, and the story's universe might actually arrange for you to get killed.

The one basic rule in Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire, for instance, is "Adapt or die." Anyone who cannot adapt, dies. (The Rule might actually be "Don't be beloved by the audience or you will be slaughtered"—the jury's still out since the story's unfinished. For further entertainment, try this video of reactions to a particularly wham-tastic episode.)

This is all over once you start looking for it. The fundamental rule in Harry Potter is that "Love is the strongest magic of all." That's why Harry's the main character rather than Hermione; he has great love. Hermione and Dumbledore and Snape and Voldemort are all vastly cleverer than Harry is, but they're not the hero.

The Lord of the Rings? "Even the smallest of us can make a difference," as well as "Evil always corrupts." The Incredibles? "Strength through unity." The Dark Knight? "People are not like the Joker." ("You die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain" seems like a contender, except that the movie goes out of its way to disprove it—Batman stays the hero, even though he's maligned, while Harvey Dent dies the villain.)

How does this relate to Breaking Bad vs. The Little Mermaid? I'll tell you how. It's because Breaking Bad and The Little Mermaid are, loosely speaking, the same story: same drive, same protagonists, same conflict—only they have different endings and therefore different Rules. And one of them is peddling lies.

Imagine my surprise when "Breaking Bad Little Mermaid" actually returned results on Google's image search.
Both feature a protagonist who will do anything for the one(s) they love. Both protagonists give up something (or lots of somethings) in order to accomplish their goal. And both characters give an epic "Screw you!" to the establishment, seeking to be something they aren't. (A human in Ariel's case, a success in Walter's.)

But most uniquely: both characters are extraordinarily, prodigiously, mind-bogglingly selfish.

This might seem a contradiction in terms, since I said just a few sentences ago they would do anything for those they love, and love is polemically opposed to selfishness. You're right—the better way to say it is that they feel love for certain people, but their love is mostly guided by their self-interest. Ariel tries to show her love for Eric through deceiving him, as well as proving that she can do the thing she wants; Walter tries to show his love for his family through illegal moneymaking, desperate to prove to himself that he isn't a failure. They're both "loving" the objects of their affection, but in selfish ways.

At the end, the stories depart from each other. Ariel lives happily ever after, having gotten her prince and her father's apology. But Walter White's ending [SPOILER] is neither happy nor ever after; he's abandoned, alone and unloved, amongst his crowning achievements: an overblown chemistry set and millions of dollars' worth of illegal methamphetamine.

The Rule of The Little Mermaid? "Lie to your father, follow your impulses, and indulge your selfish desires: everything will turn out alright in the end."

The Rule of Breaking Bad? "Be sure your sin will find you out." It's a story about the consequences of pride. Walter White gets everything he ever chased. His name is known in every American household. He's fabulously wealthy. He's proven himself, over and over and over again, to be the very cleverest person he knows.

But his family is destroyed. His secrets are uncovered. He's ruined everything he ever touched.

He's failed.

The beard was a rousing success, though.
When I was young, my parents refused to let me watch The Little Mermaid. It wasn't because of her questionable dress sense (clamshells?); it was because they understood the thing about stories. That we consume them, and everything in them. That their Rules are always baked inside them, sometimes too deep to recognize consciously but always, always there. That stories are the most effective teacher, because they can teach us without our permission.

Stories are sneaky. Art in general is sneaky. That's half the reason why English class is required in high school. We need to be able to chew what our brain is swallowing. Art isn't meant to be a passive practice; it's an invitation to come and explore things, to listen to what someone thinks the Rule is and decide whether it's true or not.

It certainly shouldn't be an excuse to turn ourselves off for two hours. Anything becomes an opiate if you treat it the right way—we're masters at becoming numb. But what a boring life it is when we're just fat and lazy brains, gorged on food we never even tasted.

What do you think? Is the story of Walter White, narcissistic maniac, a more moral tale than that of Princess Ariel? Is a story's worldview less important than its content, or more? Sound off in the comments.

For more thinking on the subject of worldview in movies, check out this magnificent article from Christianity Today's chief film critic.

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