Sunday, October 11, 2015

Walter White's family sculpture

I'm not much for TV, but "Breaking Bad" is that rare show which grabbed me from the get-go and never loosened its grip. 

For the first time in my life, watching a single episode in a sitting wasn't enough. It was an addiction: when one episode ended, I felt a strong urge—sometimes an overwhelming urgeto watch the next one, and usually did. I cut myself off at three episodes per viewing, but only because of the late hour (I watched "Breaking Bad" exclusively at night). Left to my own devices, I could have binge-watched it straight through.

It followed that when I was tasked with creating a fictional family sculpture for a family therapy class, I chose the domain of Walter White. Below are two family sculptures with explanations of how the positioning, body language, and expressions of the characters in the images reflect their roles/status on "Breaking Bad." The narrative is written from the point of view of a hypothetical therapist (not in the actual show) who interacts with Walter following his arrest in the final episode.

Allow me to explain the circumstances under which Walter White (“Walt”) came to create
Walter White, before he became
a meth manufacturer
the Photoshopped family sculpture that appears just under this preface. 

It all started when Walt, a high school science teacher, found out he had terminal lung cancer, roughly two years before I met him. Worried about his family’s long-term financial health and desperate to make as much money as he could before he passed on, Walt went on a meth lab bust with Hank—a DEA agent who happened to be his brother-in-law—to learn what he could about this potentially lucrative drug. At the bust, Walt saw Jesse, a former student of his, escaping out the second-story window of the meth house. 

Walt later contacted Jesse and they started cooking and selling meth so that Walt could, in his words, “support my family.” This decision created a number of negative, unintended consequences, including many deaths. 

Saul, a lawyer, was brought in to help Walt and Jesse with business logistics and fallout. Mike, a professional fixer, kept Walt and Jesse out of trouble. Walt’s wife, Skyler, refused to sleep with him after she found out what he was doing, but chose not to tell their son (Walt Jr.) what was going on, for fear of how disappointed he would be that his father (and personal hero) was in the meth business.

At the time Walt was arrested by the authorities
—two years after his meth journey beganJesse was going into hiding, Mike and Hank were dead, and Walt had completely alienated two of his four surviving family members (Walt Jr. and Hank's widow Marie, Skyler's sister), who now knew what he had been up to. His baby daughter Holly was too young to have a fully formed opinion about her father. 

Walt was incarcerated after his surprising recovery from multiple gunshot wounds. While Walt was awaiting trial, his cancer hit stage 4. As the prison therapist, I was tasked with trying to arrange a final family reconciliation. To get a sense of what I was dealing with, I had Walt do a sculpture, then interviewed Skyler, Marie, Walt Jr., and Saul, after which I created a second (in my opinion, more objective) family sculpture.

Walter White’s family sculpture

At first, Walt was resistant to doing this exercise. He wasn’t remotely interested in consciousness-raising ("What’s the point?” he said. "I'm dying."). But Walt dug in once I convinced him it was necessary, Photoshopping together the artistic sculpture above, which captures the state of his extended family a few months before the arrest, when Mike and Hank were still alive.

The first thing I noticed is that Walt placed himself front and center. From what family members told me, Walt was a kind, gentle man (one of the interviewees called him a "milquetoast") until his time in the meth business toughened him up and made him feel like a kingpin, thus in this sculpture Walt has the dead-eyed, hard stare of the ruthless businessman, rather than the soft smile of the loving father.

Walt put Jesse just off of his right shoulder, while his real son, Walt Jr., is way off in the background with a long face, confused about what is happening around him. In fact, Walt’s whole family is disengaged in the sculpture. Skyler, by keeping quiet about Walt's business ventures, was an enabler; thinking it the least-worst option under the circumstances, she reluctantly accepted what Walt was doing and even helped him launder drug money. For that reason, she is closest to Walt, trying to look the camera head-on, as she sees herself as a problem-solver and a realist, yet she is not close to him in the way married couples often are. Hank, a highly determined man who spent two years trying to find the big new meth dealer in Albuquerque, looks on suspiciously. Just behind Hank is his wife, Marie, a generally weak person who was caught up in a maelstrom of events she didn’t understand, and thus is the furthest back.

It’s telling that Walt included his business associates in the sculpture and gave them the same spatial significance as his family members; during the time depicted in his family sculpture, Walt was married to the business. His partner in crime, Jesse, is at an angle; Jesse has some moral qualms about the meth trade, but it’s all he knows and if he’s going to do it, he’s going to do it right—thus his game face. Mike, on the far left of the frame, is the most relaxed person in the drawing (“I got this,” he seems to say), having the only smile in the bunch, his hands crossed in front of him. He stands straight, facing the camera directly (“I am who I am”). Saul is way in the background, between Mike and Jesse. His slight backward lean and pull of the tie reflect a lawyerly cockiness, but true to his risk-averse nature, he is way in the background, where he likes to be.

Walt’s newborn, Holly, does not appear in Walt’s family sculpture. This is ironic because Holly’s imminent birth was the primary motivation for Walt's decision to go into meth manufacturing. In just two years, Walt had become so comfortable with his role, and the top dog status it afforded, that the role was playing him: no amount of money could convince him to stop his dangerous business, and he had forgotten why he'd become involved with meth in the first place (to support his family).

My sculpture of the extended White Family
Once Walt had done his family sculpture, and I'd questioned him about it at length, I contacted his wife Skyler, who favored a reconciliation before Walt’s cancer took his life. She was more than willing to talk and filled me in on everything that had happened in the two years since Walt had received his cancer diagnosis (everything she was aware of, anyway).

It took effort, but after some prodding I was able to convince Walt Jr. and Marie to come in for separate interviews. Despite my attempts to coax them to focus on the present, neither agreed to an eleventh-hour reconciliation with Walt, as they felt more betrayed by his actions and cover up than Skyler, the only family member to whom he had confided long before his arrest. Walt Jr. spoke for both of them when he said, “My dad wasn’t the man I thought he was.”

Seeking an outsider’s perspective, I called Saul, who had just returned to his law practice after being in hiding. Saul ignored my messages for a few weeks, so I went to his office. Once I had signed an airtight non-disclosure form, he filled me in on things—business issues in particular—that Walt’s family didn’t know about.

Based on all of these interviews, I created a second family sculpture (above) which I feel more accurately portrays the broader dynamic of the extended White family as it existed a few weeks before Walt's arrest.

As with Walt’s family sculpture, I included his close business associates, and gave them as much visual space and relevance as his family members. Again, I put Walt in the center, as he was my client, but I didn't give him the prominence that he accorded himself in the first sculpture; his image is no bigger than many of the others. Marie and Skyler told me that Walt, even at the end, was not the macho bad-ass he thought he was, but was still an essentially insecure man who was overcompensating for feelings of personal failure that stemmed from his having sold off his brilliant scientific patents for peanuts before they made his former business partners millionaires, leaving him to become (in his mind) a “lowly” high school science teacher.

Walt’s sculpture correctly reflected the bifurcation of work and family, so I put his family on the left and business associates on the right. Again, Jesse is just off of Walt’s shoulder. Despite frequent tensions rooted in deep personality conflicts, Saul told me that Walt and Jesse were a unit and that Walt seemed closer to Jesse than he was to his own son; Jesse was a surrogate son of sorts who was estranged from his parents.

Jesse maintains his game face, as Saul told me that Jesse was “a serious kid who didn’t laugh much.” Saul again stands sideways, not revealing all of his motives, hands in a cat’s cradle as if he is scheming, something he is very good at. Lydia, a meth distributor who was always in a hurry, has a hand on her hip, as if she’s ready to go any second, and is furthest away from Walt, since he had no personal connection to her. Todd, who Walt cooked with just before his arrest, is furthest back and smaller than the others, hands in his pockets, to indicate his lack of confidence due to being a high school dropout from a family of convicts who provided little love or direction when he was growing up. Walt did not include Lydia or Todd in his sculpture, as he held them in low regard, status-wise, but it’s clear to me from what I’ve learned that they played prominent roles in his business.

Family members appear to Walt’s left. I’ve left out Walt's daughter Holly because the world Walt had created by this point was a grim, adult place far beyond an infant’s comprehension. I’ve made Skyler and Hank larger than Walt Jr. and Marie because they had stronger personalities and more active connections to Walt’s drug business, with Hank hot on Walt’s tail as he tried to find out who was manufacturing the blue meth that was selling like hotcakes in Albuquerque.

You may have noticed that no one is smiling in my family sculpture. Though he was in denial about it up to the day of his death, Walt’s recklessness sent deadly ripples through these peoples’ lives. Unlike Walt’s sculpture, my sculpture does not hold everyone together like a team photo, but presents a series of fractured stills showing the way the White family—including Walt’s business family—was broken apart by his decision to pursue methamphetamine manufacturing.