NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
This past August, sports blogs were littered with articles drawing parallels between different aspects of the athletic world and the television program Breaking Bad. Most of this was inspired by columnists secretly bored silly with baseball trying to stay awake until the start of football season. Yet when your lens is a show as lustrous as Breaking Bad—in my opinion, the most searing triumph in US popular culture since The Godfather II—such comparisons supply more than mental masturbation but actual illumination.
I felt it myself following a weekend of decoding the NFL’s pitiless settlement of the class action concussion lawsuit of 4,500 former players and then, taking a break from the legalese, hearing a particularly poignant lament on Sunday’s episode from Breaking Bad’s star-crossed Jesse Pinkman. But before we go there, some background for the six non–Breaking Bad viewers who are still reading this column.
Breaking Bad is superficially about Walter White, cancer-stricken chemistry teacher, who becomes Heisenberg, crystal-meth kingpin. Show creator Vince Gilligan said famously that the concept of the show was “how Mr. Chips becomes Scarface.” But I always saw it as the story of a man—Walter White—coming to grips with the fact that being a good teacher and caring dad is something that while in theory we are supposed to respect, actually gets you nowhere in twenty-first-century America. (Like The Godfather, The Sopranos and the best organized crime fiction, Breaking Bad constantly acts as an allegory of life in the USA.)
Walt, liberated by cancer and prodded by both ego and financial stress creates a different life for himself where being feared and getting paid brings greater satisfaction than teaching ever could. This is an American arc so unique to television yet so familiar to the real world, it has the capacity to bring clarity to what we might otherwise not see.
I felt a new clarity about my recent coverage of the NFL during the show’s most recent episode, titled “Rabid Dog.” It was in a line uttered by the most tortured of Walter White’s many victims of emotional abuse, Jesse Pinkman. Despite Walt’s many missteps, comical tomfoolery and inability to get into a physical confrontation without looking like his face was tenderized, Jesse has imbued Walt, his abuser, with near-supernatural powers. He says to the DEA, “Mr. White? He’s the Devil. He is smarter than you. He is luckier than you. Whatever you think is supposed to happen, I’m telling you, the exact reverse opposite is going to happen.”