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.