Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Walter and Me


What Joan calls with a slight edge my “empire,” and I more accurately call my “library” or “the press room” is an ample book-walled space, about thirty feet square, that does not even try to disguise it origins as a garage.  There are two doors at its southeast corner.  One opens into the kitchen and beyond that into the “real” house, the other into the laundry room; both the kitchen and the laundry are our own major renovations of about a decade ago.  I never was one of those hermetically sealed scholars, and I usually keep those doors open.  I like feeling in touch with the real life of the domestic establishment.  So I have become accustomed to kitchen sounds from one doorway, and from the other the deep-throated pulsings of the washing machine, and the higher-pitched swish of the spin dryer.  Except that not infrequently the dryer’s swish is interrupted by randomly spaced, atonal metallic clatter.  I then get up from my great thoughts, walk over to the dryer, stop its motion temporarily, and remove from among the half-dried undies a quarter, well circulated at high speed, or maybe a couple of hot pennies.  This is an experience that puts flesh on the bones of the concept of the “coin wash”.
            This phenomenon, naturally, reminds me that about ten days ago Anna Gunn published an odd op-ed essay in the NYT.   Ms. Gunn is a television star, currently famous for her major role as Skyler White in the blockbuster serial Breaking Bad. This is an artistic work of considerable genius about a cancer-stricken high-school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, Walter White, whose response to the adversity of cancer is to become the methamphetamine kingpin of the Sun Belt.  The bluish crystals of his manufacture are apparently to die for, and quite a few people do.  Talk about “better things for better living through chemistry.”  Yes, I know…I didn’t believe it either until earlier in the summer I binged my way through all the early episodes free on Netflix.  Just believe me, it’s brilliant.  Think “Portrait of Dorian Gray” by way of Doctor Faustus or All the King’s Men.

            Anna Gunn’s fictional character, the chemist’s wife, is one of very few people who know about her husband’s mind-boggling criminality, and certainly the only one to call him on it—which she does sometimes vehemently, but also intermittently.  In her op-ed essay, Ms. Gunn reports her astonishment at the discovery that thousands of viewers of Breaking Bad hate Skyler White, and that the hatred for her fictional persona sometimes seems to extend to her factual person.

 vox populi

            Ms. Gunn’s animadversions on this phenomenon might well win her a high grade in a Women’s Studies course, but I don’t find them very convincing.  The consistent aim of American popular culture, after all, is to demolish whatever thin barriers may still separate fantasy from reality, and Breaking Bad seems to have achieved this goal early on.  The online “hate boards” that alarm her are actually monuments to her remarkable powers as an actress.  She brilliantly simulates a forceful and complex woman thrown into a grotesque situation in which her stress not infrequently surfaces.  If Ms. Gunn can land a comparable gig in a series about Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale, or Little Orphan Annie, she’ll be overwhelmed by “love boards.”

            But the truth is that Skyler White is by no means unequivocally lovable.  Her own hands are not clean, even if her car is.  For Skyler, too, can find piles of money a turn-on.  In Breaking Bad she has intermittently cooperated with her husband’s plan to set her up in a car-washing business that can help rehabilitate the sordid C-notes distantly deriving from the pawned plunder or welfare checks of meth addicts all over the Land of Enchantment and beyond.  (It is typical of the cerebral wit of the people who write the show that the vehicle for criminal money laundering should be a Car Wash!) 

 The Whites in marital conference: ablution without absolution

            Say what you will about Walter White.  I’ll grant you that he is a ruthless gangster, a fraud, a liar, and a killer, and that the use of the product of his manufacture may be harmful to your teeth.  But cut the man a little slack.  It is no easy thing being married to a money launderer.  Believe me, I know.  For the spin-dried dimes are only the beginning.  Hundred dollar bills are not as common in my corner of New Jersey as they appear to be in Albuquerque, but I not infrequently find a desiccated single plastered against the dryer drum, along with the occasional plastic card (credit, subway, driver’s license, whatever).  Fortunately these tend not to crumble into confetti, to show up as white specks among the meth-blue fibers on the lint screen, as irreplaceable bibliographic notes and used Kleenex tissues are  wont to do.

            Perhaps only a man can understand the function of a shirt pocket, which since time memorial has found its station on the left breast.  There are dozens of quotidian chores, many of which must be done in a hurry, that practically guarantee that at any moment in the day there is a forty percent chance there will be some legal tender in a shirt pocket.  Joan takes the view—superficially plausible--that I should empty my pockets more carefully, when all the while the real problem is the too frequent lavation of garments that could easily get by for three or four weeks on their own.  Or perhaps the solution is a pocketless T-shirt?