walter white, jennifer blood, and anti-heroic family values

In case you've been hiding under a rock for the last 5 years: Breaking Bad is the story of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a brilliant and underemployed high school chemistry teacher that learns he has terminal lung cancer. In a desperate attempt to provide long-term financial security for his family (wife, teenaged son with cerebral palsy, newborn baby daughter), he puts his chemistry background to work by cooking methamphetamine--the extreme profitability of which he learns about from his brother-in-law, a DEA agent.

The arc of the series bends not--as MLK would have it--towards justice, so much as towards the utter corruption of Walter, the feeding of his long-held resentments, and the destruction he visits on everyone around him, including the family that his love for supposedly put him on this path to begin with. By the end of of the fourth season, Walter has (spoiler alert!) committed murder and made hundreds of millions of dollars, and has no intention of stopping, even though his cancer has been in remission for nearly a year.

Less well known is the comic book Jennifer Blood, created by Garth Ennis (famous for a lot stuff, but mostly Preacher) which follows the story of Jen Fellows, a suburban housewife by day and brutal vigilante at night. The initial story arc (issues 1-6) by Ennis constitute a solid entry into the "hot badass chick dishes out righteous revenge" genre (see also: Kill Bill, Dollhouse, La Femme Nikita, et al.), in which Jen systematically murders her four uncles, gangsters who conspired a decade earlier to murder her father, leading to the suicide of her mother. It'd make a great movie with a Hollywood ending, in the right hands.

But it's what happens from issue 7 on that makes the story really interesting.

Unlike Kill Bill, in which the Bride (spoiler alert!) succeeds in killing everyone on her list, is happily reunited with her daughter (who gleefully hops into the car with the woman who just murdered the only parent she has ever known), and drives off into the sunset (Hollywood ending!), Jennifer Blood actually deals with the aftermath of the violence to which Jen has dedicated her adult life. Even though she has disposed of her (considerable) arsenal, and considered her "mission" complete, it turns out that one does not simply stop drugging her husband and children to venture out into the night on a murderous rampage cold turkey. When she feels her marriage threatened by her husband's ex-girlfriend moving in down the street--all the more so when it is revealed that she and her husband are swingers and they've invited Jen's husband to join them--Jen does what any devoted spouse would: she stabs the husband to death, ties up the wife, and sets her (and the house) on fire.

Believe it or not, it actually gets worse from there.

The thread running through both stories is that the nominal protagonist justifies the evil that they do with a willingness to do "anything to protect [their] family." It would be easy to dismiss both Walter and Jen as simply being much more selfishly motivated than either is willing to admit. When asked by his partner whether he is in the meth business or the money business, Walter replies that he "is in the empire business". A long way from a meek chemistry teacher, indeed. For her part, Jen's violence creates problems for herself that the only way she can see to solve is with more violence...with ultimately devastating results. But really, I think there is more at work here than obvious morality plays.

One could argue that there is a subversive undercurrent to these kinds of stories: not that a noble impulse to protect one's family is warped by...something...but that the absolute nature of that devotion is, in and of itself, quite dangerous. At the beginning, Walter simply wants to provide for his family. But he is not stealing bread to feed his starving children. He is manufacturing a dangerous drug to maintain a very cushy upper-middle class lifestyle that includes a pool, a nice house, new cars, and full tuition to (presumably) the universities of his children's choosing. (That's nice and all, but there is such a thing as financial aid...) His obligation is not to his family's well-being, but their comfort. For her part, Jen is so devoted to her dead parents (whom we meet through her childish eyes in flashbacks) that she is oblivious to the fact that her father was every bit the violent psychopath that his brothers are, and that she has become. To avenge him is to merely add a few more tributaries to the family's river of blood. There is no balancing of the moral scales.

Are Vince GIlligan and Al Ewing (who took over from Ennis after #6) trying to tell us that family is overrated? I doubt that either would put it quite that way. But it is difficult to refute the notion that the Whites and the Fellows would probably have been a lot better off with a somewhat less devoted patriarch/matriarch, respectively.

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