This blog is still on summer vacation, but when I resume next week, it will be with a new focus on the intersection between the social behavior and the performing arts. To kick off this new emphasis, here is a piece from my personal blog on the portrayal of people with disabilities in "Breaking Bad," the fifth season of which premieres tonight:
When most television shows decide to do a very special episode, the guy in the wheelchair gets to impart life lessons.
When "Breaking Bad" does a very special episode, the guy in the wheelchair imparts death. Grand-Guignol-style death, climaxing in one of the most shocking scenes ever to jolt this horror fan to the edge of her seat.
Throughout season four, drug kingpin, entrepreneur, and philanthropist Gustavo Fring has been portrayed as near-superhuman, a man of awesome psychological and physical resilience, a man whose discipline, resolve, and reserve make Captain Picard look like a Chevy Chase character. With cameras everywhere and plans within plans, Gus Fring is in control.
Until his ancient enemy Hector Salamanca, trapped in a wheelchair in the dismal "Casa Tranquila," takes a last draw on his oxygen tank, stares into Fring's eyes as his own fill with tears, and taps his finger -- the only part of his body he can move voluntarily -- on his call bell. Over and over, until the bomb beneath his chair is triggered, and Hector and Gus make their final bad break together.
Hector's suicide bombing is his most shocking use of power, but not his only one. To lure Gus to Casa Tranquila, Hector sets up a meeting with the DEA. Gus is to think Hector is turning state's evidence, but once the DEA meeting is set up, Hector's nurse brings out his letterboard so that he can spell out his message to the agents clustered around the table. She reads each letter aloud, clearly and slowly, and Hector rings his bell when she hits the correct one. Her voice begins to shake with anger and humiliation as he forces her to spell out "S - U - C - K - M - Y - " before the agents stop her. When he begins again with "F - U -" she is nearly in tears.
People who want power will find a way to get it.
That's one special lesson "Breaking Bad" has to teach us: Everyone wants power. Control of the story. A seat on the hospital board. Money. Information. A bitchin' car. Influence. An orderly, well-labeled mineral collection. Clues. A shoplifted tiara.
People with disabilities aren't immune to the drive for power. They just might have to break a different way in order to get it.
Hector's power lies in the capacity of the neglected and disabled elderly to shame, to embarrass the decent. It also lies in his capacity to bring out the sadism of the indecent. Gus, the most disciplined of men, cannot resist the chance to torment the man he believes is helpless. Gus gets about three seconds to absorb the life lesson that this was a mistake before the right side of his face is blown off.
Hector's is not the only broken body on "Breaking Bad." The series begins when chemistry teacher Walter White is diagnosed with lung cancer. TV-land tends to be populated by strong, beautiful bodies, bodies that eagerly bend themselves to seduce, to run, to work. On "Breaking Bad," bodies often don't help. Bodies get pregnant accidentally. Bodies get injured. Bodies become addicted. Every major character on "Breaking Bad" has been betrayed by their body or brain at this point. Walt's cancer. Skyler's unplanned pregnancy. Marie's mental illness. Jesse's addiction. Hank's PTSD and spinal injury. Walt Jr.'s cerebral palsy.
Unlike the others, Walt Jr. was born with his disability. It doesn't represent waning power, the way Hank's paralysis or Skyler's fading sex appeal does. Perhaps because of this, Walt Jr. comes across as one of the least neurotic characters on the show, the one most comfortable in his skin. Disability is relative; Walt Jr. has never known a life without his wrist canes. They don't diminish his mojo -- having to drive a PT Cruiser, Skyler's idea of a hip hoopty for a 16-year-old male, takes care of that job. Even so, Walt Jr. reacts to the less-than-ideal birthday present with resigned grace. Walt Jr. can absorb an insult to his dignity better than any other man in the show, certainly better than his father can.
With his halting speech and matinee-idol features, Walt Jr. is kind of a Woobie. Is there anything a fan of "Breaking Bad" dreads more than the look in Walt's anime-huge brown eyes should he ever realize the truth about his father? And yet, after four grueling seasons, it's hard to believe that the child of two people as smart as Walter and Skyler White hasn't begun to smell something rotten. We all seek power, we all seek control. Walt Jr. accepts his imperfect body. But he is unwilling to accept the hints that his family might be disrupted and corrupted. For the world to make sense to Walt Jr., his father must be a decent man. For his father to be a decent man, Walt Jr. must learn to rely more heavily on his powers of rationalization than on his powers of observation.
This is what gets people killed in the world of "Breaking Bad." This may be the only true disability there is: willfully chosen blindness.
Which brings us to Hank Schrader. Originally portrayed as a blowhard and something of a bully, Hank's abilities as a detective reach their peak when he is shot through the spine and forced into a bad-tempered convalescence. Walt Jr. was born with cerebral palsy, and Hector Salamanca's near-paralysis was acquired over a long lifetime. Hank was brought down suddenly, in midlife, and wastes much energy on such pointless exercises in power as verbally abusing his wife and obsessing over a mineral collection. The Heisenberg case gives him reason to focus. When he goes to the DEA to present his findings, he takes care to use his cane rather than a walker -- he'll give away as little of his injury as he can. And yet, when he is ready to make his most theatrical pitch, to sell his former colleagues on the notion that Gustavo Fring, apparent friend of law enforcement, is in fact the man they are looking for -- he uses that cane to point to the picture of Fring on the wall. Four prongs, nailing his story down. Without that cane, and the injury that necessitated it, Hank never would have seen the truth.
I don't ever recall seeing an hour of television with three prominently featured characters with disabilities, in which the story itself was not about disability. "Breaking Bad" violates realism in many ways, but it is profoundly realistic in this: that disability is not a metaphor or a trope. It's something that happens to people. Many people. Most. There are a lot of injured, sick, disabled characters on "Breaking Bad" because there are a lot of injured, sick, disabled people in the world. You can analyze the different ways disability plays out in the show's themes of power and self-delusion, as I have. You can parse the semiotics of the cane versus the wheelchair, of the deep themes of mobility (physical, geographic, social) that gird the show.
Or, you can simply enjoy the novelty of seeing people with disabilities portrayed. As people. With disabilities. And rivalries, and egos, and loved ones, and memories, and secrets.
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