Because I grew up in the relatively innocent 1940s and 50s in America, I knew a lot about good and bad, mostly through “good guys” and “bad guys” from shows on radio or TV. I wasn’t old enough to know what it was that “bad girls” did that made them “bad.” Evil was something I heard about.
The Nazis were evil, I knew, because of their extermination of the Jews, but even though I was Jewish, I had no relatives that I knew of who had been in, or never got out of, the death camps. So the evils of the Nazis were abstract, or at least distant, something that happened in Germany, or Europe, “over there.”
I grew up, until I was 15, in the South – Atlanta, Miami Beach, Richmond, VA – and because my parents were progressives, deeply invested in the civil rights movement, I followed and supported the campaign for civil rights and equal opportunities for all races very closely. But the Black people I knew best, my back fence neighbors in the suburbs of Richmond, were successful. Their 40 acre farm behind our suburban development, which was one of a cluster of 16 that had come with a mule to a Lambert ancestor about 80 years earlier, had corn fields, pigs and chickens, and even a few acres of deep woods. For me it was Disney World before Disney had moved beyond Mickey Mouse, a wonderful place.
They had the first TV set in our neighborhood, and I used to go to their house every Thursday night to watch Wrestling from Hollywood with the Lambert children more or less my age, Benjamin III, Elisabeth, Leonard, Albert and Johnny. Mr. and Mrs. Lambert were featured in Holiday Magazine as “the caterers” to the FFV, the First Families of Virginia, which meant they hung out with the richest White folks in town, and probably earned more than my social worker dad and nursery school teacher mother.
I knew that it was “bad,” unfair, that I could walk 2 blocks to a brand new elementary school, while they were bused for an hour and a half each way, to a 3 room school house in the woods of Goochland County, and it hurt me, that they had to sit in the back of the Richmond city bus into town. But I could sit with them, so it didn’t seem that bad.
The Richmond newspapers, which I rarely read beyond the comics and sports pages, were full of “ugliness.” The afternoon paper, the News-Leader featured regular racist rants from James J. Kilpatrick, who was later to tone himself down to “cute” and “curmudgeonly conservative,” for his 60 Minutes mini-debates with liberal Shana Alexander. But to me, who left town and region 2 years after my Bar Mitzvah, he seemed merely “stupid,” just another “bad guy.”
The evil he enabled and supported was way off-stage to me, and the existing anachronistic remnants of the Ku Klux Klan neither marched nor burned near my front lawn.
The other example of “bad” behavior in my youth was Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his “anti-Communist” companions. My family knew several people, more very liberal Democrats than anti-American Communists, although some had flirted with or briefly joined the Party back in the 30s, who were had been driven out of South Florida by JFK’s smarmy pal George Smathers, but they were either far away in Mexico, or settled, to all outward appearances to a 10 year old, happily in Connecticut. What it might mean to have been tossed from your law practice and have to support your family as a chicken farmer was beyond my understanding. Like the Lamberts, the Fursts had been treated badly; their situation was unfair, but evil? … Like victims of the Nazis, or as I was just becoming aware, Stalin? No, not to well-sheltered me.
As for McCarthy himself, Walt Kelly in my beloved Pogo had already reduced him to a comic character, “Wiley Polecat,” I believe, and soon my hero and lifetime model Edward R. Murrow had him on the run, a visibly pathetic, blustering drunk, too de-clawed to rate as frighteningly “evil.”
I was just past 50 when true evil, cruel, blood-thirsty, gratuitous well beyond selfish self-interest evil, smacked me in the face in Bosnia. On my first day in-country, I walked through a village called Kozarac, in which the Serb residents had carefully, like the Jews of plague-ridden Egypt, marked their homes to inoculate them against the Angel of Death. There were two kinds of houses on the silent, farm-field-surrounded streets of Kozarac, immaculate white stucco-walled, red-roofed homes with the red-white-blue tricolor of Serbia stenciled near the front door, and soot-stained, roofless husks, emptied of people, with no markings but a red X. This was horrible enough for an American who had been blessed never to know warfare on his home grounds, but then I noticed something that put the lie to the label “civil war,” which had been put on the Bosnian conflict. These were not houses that had been overrun by invading troops against desperate defenders. There were no entrance wounds, no sign of shells penetrating these houses all but identical to the intact Serb domiciles next door. Window glass was almost entirely outside. These were homes which had imploded, with roofs that had collapsed after grenades had been tossed inside and fire had surged up from them. These buildings were literally defenseless after their inhabitants had fled and had been wantonly destroyed to make sure their Muslim or Croat residents had nothing to come back to. Evil.
I only cried once in Bosnia, briefly in our car, hours after an aged Jew, a Holocaust survivor who had come to Bosnia on a fact-finding mission with Elie Wiesel, defended the Serbs because “they had always been good to their Jews,” and their victims were Muslims. There was no point mentioning to him the Serbs’ Catholic Croat victims because during World War 2, 50 years before, the Croats had brought their home-grown Nazis to power, and mass-killed and incarcerated, as well as Serb and Muslim civilians, many Jews.
Aside from that brief moment, I kept a stoic, professional front, reporting factually on concentration camps and death camps (one of “our” witnesses became the first person called to testify against the first Serb camp guard at the Omarska death camp to be convicted by the Hague War Crimes Tribunal), on drunken snipers wedged into their mountain “nests,” who fired on unarmed civilians, -- men, women and children,-- in Sarajevo in the valley below. I was polite and civil interviewing mass murderers like Radovan Karadzic and Slobodan Milosevic, pressing them as I might any other miscreant politician. But I didn’t cry again even surrounded by the consequences of evil in Bosnia, in Rwanda, in the occupied West Bank.
Then, one day, outside a quiet village in South Sudan, just hours after being serenaded by hungry children about to be given one of their 2 daily meals at a “feeding station” outside the town of Rumbek, I wandered into the remains of a church, which had been bombed about a year before by the Sudanese Air Force. It, too, was roofless, and whatever broken glass that might have been blown out of its windows had long been picked over, just as any relics of its former religious use had been taken away by some looter or former congregant. All that was left were a few red-brick walls overgrown with leafy foliage and the sounds of birds and a few wandering cattle. Evil had again triumphed, ruining a harmless structure, driving to flight innocent people, and nothing was left behind but the sounds of peace and quiet and abandonment. I cried for 20 minutes, no sobs, just streams of weak, pained tears, running down my face until someone from my team, their video recording of the feeding station, the feeding, the children, and, from the outside, enough of the ruined church to show what it was, called me back to work. As far as I can remember, I never again cried on the job, not in Kosovo, Iraq, or Afghanistan.
When I was young and a student of literature, I devoured the masterworks of the day, the theatre of the absurd, the theater of cruelty, black humor, dark drama. I read or watched for pleasure revelations of man’s inhumanity to man, some blessedly stylized, some painfully realistic.
No longer. A few years of witnessing the absurd reality of cruelty, the dark truth of power unlimited by conscience, of the thin membrane that hardly keeps mankind from inhuman acts has altered my aesthetic.
I no longer want to see re-enactments of evil actions. I can no longer stomach depictions of cruelty. For me, these can no longer be entertainment, and, frankly, I don’t feel like I need to be enlightened as to people’s capacity to mistreat other people. Been there. Seen that. Like the smart reformed junkie who shuns places where he once scored dope, I hide from my all too susceptible “kindling” of tears.
So, I don’t watch Breaking Bad, which most folks hereabouts think the greatest thing ever to happen to Albuquerque.
‘Querqueans love the show. They love buying “Blue Rock” sweets from the Candy Lady in Old Town, and Blue Meth bath salts, even taking classes at a local spa on how to “cook” what they rush to tell you are “real bath salts, not the street drug they call ‘bath salts.’”
Yes, some people who work on the show’s local production units, or run bike shops or drive limos which offer “Breaking Bad Tours,” have made a living from this, while others simply revel in ticking off the local landmarks, Lotaburger, the Crossroads Motel, the Octopus Car Wash, where crucial TV scenes have unfolded. A local brewery proudly offers Walter’s White Lie Pale Ale and Heisenberg’s Dark Ale commemorating the bad and worse sides of Breaking Bad’s central character, and the most heard local cliché is the proud declaration that Albuquerque itself “has become a character in the series.”
No, people here do not delude themselves about the darkness and ugliness of the show. Like me, they embrace the city’s modest virtues, and accept its social and economic deficits. They say Breaking Bad shows the “grittiness” of the city and that scenes like a young girl dying on screen, choking on her vomit following her overdose virtuously de-glamorize drug abuse.
One philosophy professor from the University of New Mexico told the Albuquerque Journal the series has shown Albuquerque as “a starkly beautiful and hauntingly dangerous backdrop.” He seems to me to be in denial. To me, the show uses a very realistic portrait of a poor and unlovely city (surrounded, it is true, by stark beauty and more than its share of criminal, frequently meth-stoked danger), and fills it with the things we love to think we hate to see, but can’t stop watching. As a local psychotherapist puts it, “People make choices and they spiral down. It’s the kind of thing that fascinates some of us.”
An even more detached view comes from another UNM academic, an emeritus professor of psychology, who cites the Classic Roman playwright Terence, “Nothing human is alien to me,” adding, “We are all born psychopaths. There is something about the dark side that makes us want to go there.”
Not me. Not voluntarily.
Still, the Breaking Bad production unit gave several bundles of old clothes once used as costumes on the show to 2 charitable thrift shops, which sold them for a few thousand dollars – Albuquerque is a poor city – which went to support some all too busy homeless shelters. And this weekend, more props from the show will be auctioned off to benefit Goodwill Industries. This is part of a genuine two-way street of engagement and affection. Weekly last season viewing parties draw hundreds of Albuquerque fans each Sunday to a different watering hole for shared excitement, and a recent Breaking Bad marathon at the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church held dozens of folks over for mass after the last show. My wife joins friends for an at-home viewing every week.
Breaking Bad has meant money and jobs for hundreds of Albuquerque residents. The town has enjoyed the visiting celebrities, and the celebrities like stars Bryan Cranston and Anna Gunn have enjoyed the town, finding in their temporary residence, favorite restaurants and bars and – like me – the Triple-A Baseball Isotopes. One lesser actor, Steven Michael Quezada (Steve Gomez in the show), himself a local, used his brief Breaking Bad celebrity to help him win, unopposed, a seat on the city school board.
As the show producers’ billboard wittily said – “Thank you, Albuquerque. We had great chemistry.”
And Sony Pictures and AMC hope the formula still works, because after Walter and Skyler White, Jesse Pinkman, Hank, Mike, Gus, and Lydia are disposed of, probably cruelly and violently, they plan to start shooting a “prequel,” Better Call Saul, built around Breaking Bad’s every-evil-character’s attorney Saul Goodman.
I wish it and all its Albuquerque fans well. I won’t be watching.