Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Disability in Breaking Bad

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It's a very rare thing where a television show or film handles disability in a way I cannot fault. It's also much easier to blog about what's wrong with something, than what's right, but here, I have to do it.

There are very many things to recommend Breaking Bad (at least in its first two seasons), an American television series charting the moral downfall of a indebted high school chemistry teacher, Walt, who is diagnosed with lung cancer. Wishing to leave his family something after his death, he decides to team up with a former student in the manufacture of Crystal Meth.

Walt's teenage son, Walter Junior, has Cerebral Palsy. The character is played by a gorgeous young man called R J Mitte who is not just cute, but proper teenage heart-throb material who has apparently been romantically linked with Miley Cyrus. And guess what? The guy actually has CP. He crips it up a wee bit, but his performance completely outshines attempts by the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis or those young men from Inside I'm Dancing to portray the condition. It's so realistic! It's almost as good as S. Robert Morgan's impression of being both blind and black as Butchie in The Wire. .

Walter Junior's CP is not entirely incidental to plot. When the senior Walt describes the dire situation his family is in, he does mention his son with Cerebral Palsy. When Walter Junior is mocked by young men in a clothes shop, Walt's response demonstrates his hidden capacity for aggression in protection of his family. But otherwise, his family attempt to ignore or even downplay his condition. At one point, his uncle explains the boy's crutches as being for a football injury. During a driving lesson, Walt senior pressures him into using one foot for the clutch and brake pedals, leading an exasperated Walter Junior to explain, "My legs just don't work that way."

However, the CP is incidental to character. Walter Junior is a loving but gently rebellious teenager. In fact, regardless of disability, this is an unusually realistic portrayal of the kind of teenage boys I grew up around - neither the non-communicative, sexually-frustrated creature, teetering on the edge of criminal aggression, nor the sweet, responsible and ever reliable young man of parents' dreams. Walter Junior tries to buy alcohol under age and rejects his father's name in preference for the handle Flynn, but he loves his parents, eventually setting up a website to raise money for his father's cancer treatment.

As I mentioned before, Walt (played by Bryan Cranston - the dad from Malcolm in the Middle) has lung cancer. I have no idea how realistically the cancer itself is portrayed - knowing the wide variety of ways and severity cancer manifests itself, I'm guessing it would fit someone's experience, although so far, he just coughs a lot when he gets upset. What I do know is the reactions of family and friends to his cancer are powerfully realistic - the way that a person who had received a diagnosis can be several steps of reasoning ahead of those who love him, with a completely different gauge of what might be worth gambling or sacrificing in the hope of more time or an improvement in health. The way that, depending on what decisions someone makes about treatment, they may be hailed as a hero or condemned as a coward - and often in the space of the same conversation.

Walt is not a sympathetic character. His family will be poorer once he dies, but you're not sure that they're going to be worse off in any other respects. Walt's motives for cooking meth are changeable and inconsistent and he allows his wife to worry about his absences and suspicious behaviour. Most of all, I think, Walt's response to his illness is one of cold constructive anger and that's something you rarely see in drama. You see sick people having a tantrum about it, but that's not really them, and it's entirely forgivable. You see sick people becoming bitter about their illness and pushing everyone away. But you don't often see sick people sustaining anger about their illness and using that anger constructively.

I'm not especially pleased with this post. I've hardly told you a thing about Breaking Bad, which is a fantastic show and one which I partly regret having begun to watch before I could access every season right up to the end. However, it's so rare that a show handles disability so well, on top of everything else, that it is worth singing its praises.


Peter F said...

Yes! Agree that the treatment of Walt J's CP is excellent (i.e. comes in and out of background/foreground as a disability in real life does).

There's more disability stuff to come in later seasons! :-)

starrlife said...

I think the post did a great job! I know it's a great series but it is so close in subject and despair to myjob I find I tend to avoid it. His character, the cold rage and selfishness is extremely unappealing..... Son is adorable and perfect pitch.

Andrea S. said...

Have you ever watched the show, "Switched at Birth"? I don't know if that plays where you are -- it is a US show--it has had only one season so far. It is about two teen girls who discover at age 16 that they were switched at birth. And one of them just happens to be deaf (due to meningitis). And there are several other characters in the show who are deaf, including the boyfriend of one of the girls and his parents, etc. Speaking as a deaf person, I can say this show is doing really well in relation to all this: all the deaf characters are played by actors who are themselves deaf or hard of hearing (including one deaf Mom played by Marlee Matlin). The deaf characters are a mix of positive traits and some less attractive traits--just like the hearing characters.

I've no idea who is on their script writing team, but this must either include people themselves involved with the Deaf community or else they are consulting with deaf people very very closely because there are lines and scenes that I don't think we would have seen written by random clueless hearing people.

For example, in one episode, a deaf school plays basketball against a hearing school, and there are deaf people who drive in from hundreds of miles away, deaf people who have nothing to do with the school who are rooting for the deaf team--which is just the sort of thing that would happen in real life, but probably most hearing people wouldn't realize that and wouldn't think to write that sort of thing into the script.

There's also a nice scene in the episode in which the deaf daughter explains to her biological dad that she isn't just playing for her school, she feels an obligation to all those deaf people coming to the game to play well (including at least one little deaf girl whose Mom brought to the game so she could see deaf teen role models). Which is just what a deaf teen would have felt in that situation--a sense that she's now representing the entire deaf community in the game. Because these kinds of situations do often get infused with that kind of symbolism in the Deaf community--there's a sense that here is a chance to show the hearing world what Deaf people can do if given a chance.

I "heart" switched at birth in part because I keep seeing bits and pieces of myself and my own experiences on the screen in a way that almost never, never happens anywhere else. And what's especially cool is that there are multiple deaf characters: All have characteristics that I don't necessarily relate to (I'm not a teen any more, for example!), but all have other characteristics that I do relate to. So I'm able to see bits and pieces of my reality reflected across multiple characters, not just one. Which, never happened for me before this show. And, I never even realized this (because I didn't realize it was possible) until I started watching this show.

I'm not saying that I never relate to hearing characters, because I do, frequently (who else is there to relate to in the vast majority of television, movies, and books?) But. At certain levels. It still isn't the same. There are just entire dimensions of my daily existence that I never, never see in fiction ... with the exception of Switched at Birth.

Oh, you know that Bechdel test where you look for movies that have two (named) women characters. Who talk with each other. About something other than a man? ( Switch out the word "woman" for the word "deaf". And many of the episodes of "Switched at Birth" would pass it. I know there must be other mainstream programs, movies, books, etc. in which this happens (substituting the word "disabled" for "deaf") but can't think of any.

I haven't watched (or even heard of) "Breaking Bad", I'll have to track that down and check it out.

The Goldfish said...

Thanks for your comments.

Peter - Thank you - I'm really looking forward to that. :-)

Starrlife - I can totally understand how it could be too close to home. I think if I knew anyone even slightly like that, it would be unbearable.

Andrea - thanks for telling me all about Switched at Birth - that sounds really good and I will try and seek it out on DVD over here.

I know what you mean about the disability Bechdel test - it's so rare that any two disabled people converse on film or television, and even rarer when it's not about disability.

Bridget said...

I know this comment comes almost 2 years after you wrote the original blog post but I'll do it anyway.

I'm actually planning on writing a dissertation for university on disability in Breaking Bad. While I LOVE Walt "Flynn" Jr's character, I also find the other 2 characters with disability equally fascinating.
First, Hector Salamanca is interesting not so much for his disability but how others respond to his disability. In season 2, when we meet Tío at Tuco's house, Walt & Jessie countinually underestimate his mental acuity. Ironically, it's Hank (whom I would argue was the character with the least tact) who was the 1 who was always aware of how Tío was playing the DEA.
Finally, Hank in seasons 3 & 4 sustains what I assume is an incomplete SCI due to a gunshot & is in a wheelchair (albeit temporarily). As someone who has a bit of experience with SCI (& an incomplete one at that) I was floored at how much was talked about.

It's rare to see a show/ movie that is about something completely different to have multiple, substantial characters with disability & characters that are not objects of pity or sympathy.

Yeah, Breaking Bad! Yeah, Science!