Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Anna Gunn and the Underside of the American Psyche

Anna Gunn is the female lead in the riveting AMC series “Breaking Bad.” In an August 23 editorial piece in the New York Times, she writes:

“My character, to judge from the popularity of Web sites and Facebook pages devoted to hating her, has become a flash point for many people’s feelings about strong, nonsubmissive, ill-treated women. As the hatred of Skyler blurred into loathing for me as a person, I saw glimpses of an anger that, at first, simply bewildered me.

For those unfamiliar with the show: Skyler is the wife of Walter White, a high-school chemistry teacher who, after learning he has lung cancer, begins cooking and selling methamphetamine to leave a nest egg for Skyler, their teenage son and their unborn daughter. After his prognosis improves, however, Walter continues in the drug trade — with considerable success — descending deeper and deeper into a life of crime.”

Apparently the hate even began to transfer from her character to Ms. Gunn herself, reaching the point where she has had to hire protection.

Ms. Gunn’s troubles suggest a deeper look at the series as an American cultural phenomenon. To some extent people far more qualified than me have already done this. For example, the book “Difficult Men,” by Brett Martin, explores the creative process of the producers, writers, directors and actors behind such excellent programs as “The Wire,” “The Sopranos,” and “Breaking Bad” itself.

After decades of crassly intelligence-insulting sitcoms (perhaps it was P.T. Barnum who said “nobody ever got poor underestimating the intelligence of the American public”), “Breaking Bad” and friends have presented us with something more akin to a serial novel by Dickens, a form of popular entertainment published in 19th century newspapers that enabled people who could not afford to buy a book all at once to pay for it over time. 

In their efforts to surprise and move us, the creators of “Breaking Bad” have learned from such forms, including repeated use of cliffhangers as each season has ended. They have made something that not only surpasses most feature films in quality, but also allows the characters to inhabit our heads and hearts at a new level of intensity, because we have had time to get to know them. “Breaking Bad” has become a potent cultural “meme,” as Richard Dawkins would call it, a meme that does what art ought to do and what “high art” and “high culture” today often fail to do: connect with something deep in us, challenge us, stimulate us to want more complexity not less.

Beyond the superb writing and plotting of the show, the ensemble acting is a huge part of its success. All the major characters are well projected by the various actors, working off each other and the crackling scripts they are given. But for me Skyler White, the Anna Gunn character, anchors the whole ensemble.  Imagine the challenge of having to gradually modulate your character’s responses—literally across years of acting—to the reality that someone you loved, perhaps on some level still love, has turned into an unfathomably manipulative monster.

Skyler especially stands in for us in our reaction to Walt’s descent into evil. She displays about the widest range of human response as I’ve ever seen in a character—toughness, obduracy, courage, ambivalence, rationalization, confusion, helplessness, panic, and on and on. Bryan Cranston is equally wonderful of course as Walter White, but through playing off Gunn’s amazing emotional range he gets handed greater depth and interest on a plate.

Ironically, it is a testament to Anna Gunn’s acting chops that her character has elicited such a Neanderthal (sorry, this insults Neanderthals) reaction from people. That such hateful comments on Facebook have bled across from Skyler White to Gunn herself suggests that what threatens the threatened men out there is not ultimately the power of the character but the power of the actor herself.

It may not be pretty to consider what Gunn’s experience indicates about the American male psyche as it tries to wrestle with the need to grow up and accept the equality of the sexes, but what a great testament to the power of art, the writer’s art and the actor’s art, that this program has gotten as deeply under our skin as it has, even under the skin of the hate-filled.

As the final program of the “Breaking Bad” series nears, very few in the audience will still think highly of Walter White, but we remain fascinated, because we identify, if only a little, with the Shakespearean temptation to evil that Bryan Cranston has embodied so effectively.

It is a psychological commonplace that a discrete culture like ours, insofar as we are still a homogenous culture (and if we are, it is now our entertainment that tells us we are), tends to project evil outward, onto some distant “other,” quickly losing the necessary subtle admissions by which we can keep ourselves grounded and humane—such as that we are all, without exception, capable of good and evil.

These shows remind us in a healthy way that America is not all dewy, self-righteous innocence. “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad” have at least one theme in common: the fascination of raw evil rearing up out of the midst of the ordinary suburbs where many of us live. Both Tony Soprano and Walter White touch and often devastate the lives of decent people around them.

When we do project evil outward, distinctions necessary to a sensible grip on reality tend to get blurred, such as:


In the larger picture, might this same capacity for blurred thinking have anything to do with the fact that the United States was attacked on 9-11 by nineteen extremists, fifteen from Saudi Arabia, one from Egypt, two from the United Arab Emirates, and one from Lebanon—and then we declared war on Iraq?

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