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.


  1. Dan Hennessy says:

    We watched all episodes of Breaking Bad , also after the airing dates . Yeah , it’s tragi-farce , I guess , as you note . But , can it be elevated to ” literature ” ? Maybe I missed the pitch . Maybe it’s a form of lit-softball , rather than hardball , with a few different rules ?


    1. Joe Linker says:

      Susan watched all of Season One. I’m breaking bad by continuing to blog. The first few episodes I did watch – I was thinking Coen brothers for TV. I’m not saying “Breaking Bad” is not literature. The problem with literature is the many attempts to have it “elevated.” Television is eye level. There are many good examples of successful farce (Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”; “Noises Off”). Farce is a comedy of errors, the difference between farce and satire being satire usually has a point. But what’s the point of having a point? That’s the point of farce. Here are two reviews in which Emily Nussbaum reinterprets the “Breaking Bad” denouement. And here, where she says, “Don’t be mad, readers: as the Internet people say, YMMV, and very likely does.” YMMV = Your mileage may vary. Yes, you won’t get the same mileage with TV that you will with a book. Is anyone still arguing that? What’s the point? The book, the printing press, McLuhan argued, created the individual; television restored the community. Maybe I’m stuck in the 50’s, listening to jazz records rather than watching TV, which has become too much work.


  2. johndockus says:

    I’m a big hockey fan myself. For on-line, live streaming games, there is now a camera mounted on the chief on-ice referee. There are aerial cams above each goaltender. This sort of strategic planting of cameras, for more angles and viewpoints into a game, is happening now in all sports. The instant replay. Slow-motion for getting a call right. The controversy in baseball of usage of the slow-motion instant replay during a game to get a call right, because the game is already long, and for fear of disrupting the flow of the game. Camera-use has become surgical in its precision. There are line-judges in tennis, real human beings, but now technology can determine by a hair if the ball is “in” or “out”, or has hit the line. It brings one to contemplation in other ways of the Surveillance Camera world we’re now living in. Sport has spilled out into the streets, and even into the bedroom. Crime on some level is sport now too. We can watch the instant replay and feel like we’re referees, or judges. It’s the age of the armchair philosopher and the couch quarterback. Indeed the way of seeing now has become radically transformed, to where it’s not even realized by many. It feels like one big cosmic anal probe to me, the snake going in. We can see all the stuff which goes undigested, every detail, and observe the polyps too.

    P.S. You mentioned the Cubs. My roots go back to the South Side of Chicago, where my Lithuanian forbears settled – the stockyards of Sinclair Lewis’ The Jungle – though I’ve lived here in San Francisco for some time. I’ve always been a White Sox fan.


    1. Joe Linker says:

      I’m not sure about hockey, but in baseball, football, there seems something less exact about plays than the hair of a ball, where a ref. spots the ball in football for example, where a ball (and when) crosses the plate in baseball. The camera exercises no judgment, but then there’s the camera operator, but now the drones and fixed positions. I’m thinking I’ll listen to more games this summer on the radio.


  3. Enjoyable outpour. This para cracked me up :) … One of modern baseball’s design problems, as McLuhan explained, is that it’s a poor fit for television. Baseball is not pixel friendly …
    And this … She frantically climbs the volcano that Walter pedantically runs from …


    1. Joe Linker says:

      Baseball (MLB) is making some subtle but significant changes this year to speed up the game. The growing length of the games is in part a problem created by television (the instant replay, for example, and the time needs of commercials, but also by the TV audience, which can never hold all the pixels at once so are always in a rush to move on). “Roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer,” as Nat King Cole sang: “You’ll wish that summer could always be here.” But no,

      Turning and turning in the widening gyre
      The pitcher cannot hear the catcher;
      Balls fall short; Short cannot hold;
      Mere anarchy is loosed upon the game.”

      And that is one of the problems with “Breaking Bad.” Literature is reduced to tragi-farce. Satire and irony hold hope; farce acknowledges errors occur for no reason. Demonic winter springs from tragic fall. Television! What a sport. “Put me in, Coach!”

      Liked by 1 person

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