Breaking Bad was a well-regarded television series about a middle-aged high school science teacher who becomes a drug lord after a terminal cancer diagnosis and a chance encounter with a former student, who he finds is now a petty dealer. The two, pointedly named White and Pinkman, boomer and millennial, share in common only whiteness and squandered potential as they team up to put the underemployed science teacher’s uncommon skills as a chemist to use producing high quality crystal meth.
Two themes prevail, first the well-worn trope nice guy goes alpha by going outlaw and, the means by which our beta breaks out, reason and logic prevail. Vulnerable and unskilled in violence while navigating the world of cholo gangs, Mexican drug cartels and outlaw bikers, protagonist Walter White repeatedly turns to inventiveness and ingenuity to prevail over his crueler enemies in a theme reminiscent of what Edgar Allen Poe called “tales of raciocination“: stories of individuals solving problems through the application of acquired knowledge. The film The Edge addresses the theme directly. The pair’s tragedy plays out in the tacky dullscape of post-white American decline, with New Mexico excelling in the role.
One storyline ends thus: the pair, who’ve found themselves first working for and then falling on the bad side of a more powerful drug lord–mixed race, black, vaguely Hispanic, of indeterminate nationality, emotionless and refined, a globalist cypher played by Giancarlo Esposito–who originally hired them to produce for him their market-dominant signature meth recipe. Esposito has captured them and has them tied to chairs in their meth lab.
Why shouldn’t I kill you, he asks. Because we’re the only ones with the know-how to produce the product you need, White says. Our international man of mystery then brings forward his loyal Mexican henchman, until now a silent assistant, who demonstrates the white guys’ procedure for them step-by-step. As obvious as the symbolism is here, I’d be willing to bet few good liberals among the show’s fawning critics got it.
Breaking Bad was a lament of white decline and celebration of white virtue that just made it past the censorious class by indulging their long-cultivated reverence for the anti-hero; to get them to cheer for the White Guy the author made the white guy a drug dealer and killer. Somewhere someone caught on and felt betrayed–here they thought they’d been innocently cheering on criminality, when it was whiteness the whole time!
While the density of critics must be presumed, it’s hard to imagine Bryan Cranston, who won raves for this brilliant portrayal of white rage and toxic masculinity, doesn’t see it. Perhaps that’s why he feels he needs to atone, er, “learn“:
“I’m 65 years old now, and I need to learn, I need to change.”
The words tumble with intensity out of actor Bryan Cranston’s mouth. He sits beside an unlighted fire pit in his backyard on a recent windy morning. Chimes ring mournfully in the breeze, and small white blossoms from a tree twist and twirl their way to a soft landing in the nearby pool.
Cranston is telling me why he chose to step away from an offer to direct a show at L.A.’s Geffen Playhouse and how that decision led him to take the role of Charles Nichols in the theater’s West Coast premiere of “Power of Sail,” written by Paul Grellong and directed by Weyni Mengesha, running through March 20.
As Nichols, Cranston plays an aging, highly respected Harvard professor who faces intense backlash for inviting a white nationalist and Holocaust denier named Carver to speak at his annual symposium. As student protests intensify, Nichols presses forward, claiming his intention is to give Carver and his repugnant ideas a thorough dressing down in a debate.
Two people named Grellong and Mengesha are lecturing Americans about the dangers of free speech, using respected actors as their marionettes (not that I expect the Geffen Playhouse need worry about crowds):
An avowed “free-speech absolutist,” Nichols says, “The answer to hate speech is more speech.”
“Power of Sail” had its world premiere in 2019 at the Warehouse Theatre in Greenville, S.C., but Cranston believes the play gained resonance in the wake of the pandemic and the social and racial justice uprisings following the murder of George Floyd.
As those occurrences shook the world, they also transformed Cranston, who says in these troubling years he came face to face with his own “white blindness” and privilege. It was necessary work for a man tasked with playing a character whose white privilege prevents him from seeing the very real harm caused by his actions until it is much too late.
I don’t know if Cranston can see it coming–if his “blindness” extends to actual reality or not–but if they should eventually come for Breaking Bad in their ongoing revision and cancelling of pre-woke works deemed problematic–virtually everything pre-racial-reckoning; and if they come to the same conclusions I have above, Cranston will be seen as just what he describes above: guilty of having caused real “harm” by acting out his “white privilege.” Whether he understands or not–but I suspect he does–his handing himself over to play the carnival geek for woke kitschmeisters is cheap insurance against personal and professional devastation later. Cheap for him; the cumulative effect of countless talented but mediocre people like Bryan Cranston abandoning art to pitch propaganda is very expensive indeed for the rest of us.
Cranston was set to direct a perfectly awful sounding play about an Englishman foiling a KKK plot, but likely saw the white savior genre as untenable post-reckoning; if things had stopped there we could say at least the present madness spared us that. Alas:
So he stepped aside, telling Shakman, “If you find a play that you need an old white guy to act in, then maybe I can be available for that.”
Cranston also stipulated that he wanted to be a part of “something that changes the conversation.” In his estimation, the measure of success in theater is always “Does the conversation continue after the play is over?”
For Cranston, “Power of Sail” meets that criterion with its pointed critique of America’s devotion to the primacy of free speech.
The play asks if there should be limits to free speech, and if so, why? It tests the boundaries of the free speech ideal by examining the traditional arbiters of that speech — those who get to decide whose voice is lifted and whose voice is quashed. It suggests the existence of a moral compass in an age when truth is often called relative by special-interest groups opposed to it.
Brandon Scott, who plays the Black academic Baxter Forrest in “Power of Sail,” tries to stop Nichols from hosting Carver at the symposium while citing 20th century philosopher Karl Popper’s “paradox of tolerance.” Popper’s idea is that if a society — in pursuit of tolerance without limits — tolerates the intolerant, the latter will eventually destroy that society.
Cranston is taken with the theory and leans forward in his chair while discussing it.
“There need to be barriers, there need to be guard rails,” he says. “If someone wants to say the Holocaust was a hoax, which is against history … to give a person space to amplify that speech is not tolerance. It’s abusive.”
Cranston and White are emblematic of a generation and its vanity. On television Walter White threw off his beta chains to die like a man; in reality Cranston draws the chains around him to live like a slave.