Last fall, I became obsessed with AMC’s show Breaking Bad. It was like developing a crush. Slow at first, then a headlong swoon. I found myself sidling out of social events earlier than usual, claiming that I needed to get some sleep. But instead of sleeping, I’d flop myself on the sofa and watch Walter White, the conflicted main character, cook meth in a trailer parked somewhere in the endless New Mexico desert. I’d watch episode after episode, each one as acidic and delicious as the strawberries I popped in mouth, cold and wet from the refrigerator.
For those of you who haven’t followed Breaking Bad religiously, here’s what you need to know: Walter White is a high school chemistry teacher with a sweet wife, a disabled son, and a baby on the way. There’s not much money. He works at the car wash after school to make extra. He’s a little fed up. And then he gets diagnosed with advanced lung cancer, which will cost thousands and thousands of dollars to successfully treat (the good doctor is outside his HMO). So what does he do? He’s an excellent chemist; he decides to cook the best crystal meth New Mexico has ever seen, with the help of his former slacker student turned drug dealer, Jesse Pinkman—all while hiding these underground dealings from his wife and kids, not to mention his drug enforcement brother-in-law Hank. As you might expect, it’s wonderfully suspenseful, occasionally gory, and darkly funny.
But what hooks me is the beauty of the cinematography and the odd, haunting soundtrack. It’s a macabre show, always flirting with doom and death; and, at the same time, it’s the most beautiful paean to Life—with all its horror and terror and rare, weird beauty—that I’ve ever seen. Last fall, as I watched the show constantly, just thinking about Breaking Bad made my heart go a little haywire, as if my sixth-grade crush was looking straight at me during the after-school dance, the disco ball glinting.
I remember the morning after my boyfriend, Chris, and I first kissed. I was standing at work, ringing someone up at the cash register, the secret of our rendezvous blooming wildly inside my chest. I skipped breakfast that morning; food seemed redundant. Any sorrow or fear or grief that I’d carried with me since childhood felt unreal, and unimportant, and very small, so small I believed it had flown away for good. As I worked, I felt ridiculously, astoundingly happy. A bursting yellow balloon. This was what I was born for. To kiss this other person under the July sun!
Watching Breaking Bad felt similar. Something like falling in love. And I shouldn’t describe what I did with Breaking Bad as merely watching. “Streaming” is the more apt word. I let it wash over me, the watery blue light of the laptop illuminating my living room, my rapt face. Next episode, next episode. Click, click. The characters walked in and out of my dreams. I found myself streaming episodes in the middle of the day, late at night, before getting out of bed, as I ate lunch, after I wrote a tough email: just fifteen minutes, just twenty-five. Okay, thirty minutes. Fine.
Ostensibly, falling in love has a lot to do with the other person. That is, with the person you’re falling in love with. But isn’t it far more self-serving than that? When I met Chris, I felt like I had discovered some secret part of myself that was hidden to me until he picked me up in his green Jeep.
Early on in our romance, I spent an evening at his apartment. My nose was recently pierced: a silver stud surrounded by shocked, red skin. I was supposed to soak my nose in salt water twice a day, so I sat at his table with my nose in a bowl of lukewarm water, as he put water on for pasta, dumped marinara sauce in a pot. In the background, an early Cat Power album. I suppose it is possible that someday I will be happier than I was at that moment, sitting there in the soft lamplight. I’d like to think so. Because sitting at his table, nose in a bowl of water, I felt like all my Swiss cheese holes—gaping, irregular—were finally filled in for good.
They weren’t, as I discovered when I later found myself angry or lonely or grief-stricken or scared. Really scared. Wasn’t the thumping love I had for this man going to protect me from all that?
Years went by. Five of them. I’m still in love with Chris, and I’m my happiest when he sits right next to me. “Come closer,” is what he always says, pulling my chair nearer to his. But, I’ve learned—like most of us learn, at some point—that falling in love with someone wonderful doesn’t do away with all the stuff you’d rather not deal with. It’s still there, festering, with its rotten teeth and its soggy bouquet—waiting for you to reach out and claim it as yours.
So I guess that’s why I’m re-watching Breaking Bad this summer, late into the night. It’s not as titillating or exciting this time around; I know what’s coming, I know how bad, and how good, it’s going to get. But I like watching Walter White try to figure out a way to live, even as Fear sits on his doorstep, tapping its foot, checking its watch.