I'm not signed up with this topic or anything, but it's meta so I'm cross-posting it here hoping it might be of interest. I've been thinking about Breaking Bad and the way it handles disability. There's probably discussions of this somewhere that I just haven't seen, I've read so many things about how Glee handles its disabled characters (in the usual Glee way, which means it's a mess), but the character of Walter Jr. is never brought up. I've kept spoilers vague and to a minimum, and I'm hoping it might make sense even if you don't watch the show.

I think general you see more differently-abled people on cable shows, maybe because they tend towards more realistic and therefore imperfect universes. A character like Richard doesn't stand out on Boardwalk Empire the way he would on a glossier, prettier network (and, okay, set in an era where they have plastic surgery) show. Likewise back in the 80s Geri Jewell's turn as Blair's cousin Geri was almost always about teaching the kids about dealing with disabled people, while her character on Deadwood barely stood out for having CP (a condition that had not yet been defined at that time).

Still, neither of these characters are simply there to make the world diverse. They support the themes of their shows as much as all the other characters do. And I think it's particular interesting what Walt Jr. brings to Breaking Bad.

Because BB so often deals with the whole concept of "being a man" in terms of being macho and therefore physically dominant. That's not unusual in a show about the drug trade where physical intimidation is always part of the game. Even characters who don't look immediately intimidating are and have to be. On the other side of the coin, Walt's brother Hank is a DEA agent who cultivates a loud, brash persona. When he bests a violent criminal he takes the bragging rights he's given by the story--desperately hiding the depression and horror the incident actually inspires in him.

Perhaps because of those themes, physical trauma comes up often on the show. There's Hector, the former cartel enforcer frozen by a stroke, furiously looking for a way to kill with one finger. There's Walter White himself, whose story begins with a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer that starts him breaking bad. Hank later has an injury of his own.

And throughout, there's Walt Jr. (aka Flynn but that seemed to be a phase so I'll stick with Junior). Junior's disability has never been mentioned by name on the show, but he has cerebral palsy. It's been explicitly brought up 3 times that I remember. Early on Junior gets frustrated at his father refusing cancer treatment, saying that if he (Junior) hasn't "given up" after "all this" (gestures vaguely to his body and crutches) why has Walt? In a later scene, Junior questions his uncle about why he's refusing to leave the hospital when he's been given the okay. Hank grumpily replies that if he can't yet walk he belongs in a hospital. Junior points out that he needs crutches to walk--does that mean he should be in the hospital?

In both scenes Junior is frustrated at the attitude of the other man, but not personally hurt or offended. Hank's line, especially, is a pretty insensitive thing to say to someone who himself has presumably used a wheelchair in the past. But Junior isn't angry. Not just because he understands his uncle's upset, but because he's not sensitive about the issue. He's the one man on the show who lacks the fear that drives so many of the others, the fear of being judged on physical weakness.

Junior's understanding of strength and weakness is unique in his universe. It's not entirely because he's disabled, as if it's a side effect of having CP. CP doesn't define Junior as a character, but it's part of his character and you can't help but notice that whenever he happens to say something about strength or weakness it turns out he admires exactly the opposite of what's valued in the crime world. He agrees with his Uncle Hank's feeling that it's wrong that "everyone knows" the names of the gangsters when the agents who bring them down are the heroes of the story. In season one he praises his father for being a "decent" man who "always does the right thing." Even by then he's wrong, of course, but he's also clearly sincere. The very things Walt rejected in himself are the things his son admired about him. Because BB tends to be very specific with characters there's no implication that Junior's attitude is representative of kids with CP. But it is part of how Junior relates to his CP.

There is one more scene where Junior's disability is focused on, one that I think validates this kind of pov. Out clothes shopping with his parents Junior struggles in a tiny dressing room to try on a pair of jeans. Without the chair or wall space to leverage himself up, he has to call his mother in to help him. He obviously doesn't like asking his mother for help, but it's necessary and he does it. Back outside a group of teenagers mock him about his "big boy pants" in what they'd probably describe as a "retard voice." Junior ignores them while Walt, newly empowered at breaking the rules, kicks some ass.

The scene seems important to me not because Junior is "good" by ignoring the boys, but because it's a reminder (the only one in the show) that this is something he'd no doubt have dealt with before. He can't beat up the bullies or physically intimidate them. No doubt he's learned insulting them would only make things worse. It's just something he's learned to live with. As Jesse Pinkman says in another ep, "Getting the shit kicked out of you — not that you get used to it — but you do kind of get used to it." He might not like assholes teasing him, but it doesn't affect the way he sees himself. That's no small thing in a universe where people live in fear of showing weakness.

So Junior, due to a combination of his own personality and experiences, has a completely different relationship to needing help and being seen as weak. In most scenes he's a very average teenager who wants to be independent same as anyone else and might do stupid things to prove himself tough, but he knows that sometimes everyone needs help.

In season 4. Junior goes to Walt's apartment, worried because he hasn't heard from him, and finds him a complete mess. He's been in a fight and taken painkillers and booze to sleep. As Junior helps him to bed, a disoriented Walt has a rare breakdown, admitting he's made mistakes, asking for forgiveness and crying.

The next morning, a mortified Walt talks to Junior about the death of his father from Huntington's when Walt was a child. He says his whole life people told him stories about the man his father was and he pretended that was who he saw when he thought of his father. But for him his father was defined by the one memory he had of the man, dying in a hospital bed, smelling of disinfectant, twisted up, his breath rattling "like an empty spray paint can."

It's one of the only personal revelations I remember Walt ever making. It's clearly an important memory, and it's about his terror of a man "empty" as he dies. That sight of naked weakness has haunted him his whole life. He's sharing it with Junior because he's terrified Junior's memory of him after he dies will be the way he was the night before, weak, lost, unsure. But Junior responds that remembering Walt that way wouldn't be bad at all. That what would be bad would be remembering him the way he's been the past year (i.e., during the time of the show) because "at least last night you were...you were real, y'know?" Walt's repulsed by the truth, Junior's repulsed by the mask.

That's not a line I would buy coming from every teenager. It's common, I think, to be terrified at the sight of authority figures suddenly being vulnerable. But I believe it from Junior because in a subtle way it's always been part of his character. He's patient with the men in his life's fear of weakness, but it's always been foreign to him. In this scene, finally, he articulates why. Pain, weakness, vulnerability are real. They're part of life. There are worse things. Walt's run so desperately from the weakness that made his father empty, and the result is that his son sees him as…empty. Just in a different way.

In an interview, once, cast members were asked how they related to their characters, if at all. RJ Mitte, who plays Junior, said he related to Junior’s disability and described a whole backstory that Junior would have based on his condition and his own history: body casts, wheelchairs, hours of different therapies, crutches. He triumphantly pointed out that Junior helps Walt to bed using only one crutch, a sign of progress Junior's obviously making. Cerebral palsy, he explained, is a really painful disease that feels like "like a Charlie Horse in your whole body 24/7."

Pain is part of Junior's life, iow. It's not a sign of failure or a character flaw, it's just real. Both Walt and Hank at first "give up" in Junior's eyes when they become physically compromised. Walt rejects treatment and Hank rejects therapy. No wonder Junior can't relate to their attitude. They're convinced they can't fight because their bodies are compromised. Junior informs them: That is the fight.

Anyway, this just seemed like an interesting piece of an interesting show. It suddenly reminds me, actually, of a line where one of Hank's friends asks him to consult on an investigation while he's home recuperating from his injury. Hank, still depressed, snarks something like, "What am I, Ironside?" Which seems relevant in a discussion about disability on a TV show, that Hank's first tentative change of attitude is the moment he references a TV cop hero who uses a wheelchair.
snowynight: Kino in a suit with brown background (Default)

From: [personal profile] snowynight

Very interesting. I haven't watched the show, but I find Junior as you describe is a fantastic character.
wendelah1: (season 8 Mulder)

From: [personal profile] wendelah1

This is a good analysis of all three characters.
terajk: Death the Kid, fists in the air and grinning triumphantly. TEXT: WIN (death the kid: win!)

From: [personal profile] terajk

I'm not familiar with Breaking Bad (though it sounds like I should be), but I really loved your analysis--how Junior considers needing help, pain and weakness just a part of life while other characters are afraid of those things.

waltzmatildah: (greys: alex in the corner)

From: [personal profile] waltzmatildah

I was pointed in this direction by a fellow BB fan, and I'm so glad I was. This is such an interesting insight!! And I'm so pleased that I've read it! BB is my favourite show ever in the history of time, but I must admit to not being overly enamoured by the character of Walt Jnr. I will clarify this though by saying my lack of investment in him is driven by the fact that, most of the time, he seems simply to show up and whine about something or eat some food!! Haha! But this meta has added a new layer to his contribution as a character on this show and, I guess, as the antithesis of the rest of the [male] cast.

I mod a couple of bb focussed comms on LJ and I was wondering if you'd mind if I liked to this meta in one of them? [profile] breakingbad_art. There is not nearly enough meta out there for this show! Anyway, let me know! Otherwise, if you're on LJ, feel free to link it there yourself!

From: [identity profile] communicator.livejournal.com

This is terrific. I think it shows how strong Breaking Bad is that you can analyse it along so many different dimensions to meaningful effect.
hungryhippo11: by nuv0le_rapide (AP Suited Up)

From: [personal profile] hungryhippo11

This is an excellent analysis. I couldn't agree more with your thoughts on Walt Jnr, and how he acts as a counterpoint to Walt and Hank in relation to their perspectives of masculinity and 'strength'. I've always liked his character. While Jnr clearly takes a back seat to Walt and his criminal bumblings, there are times (like in that part of season 4 you mentioned) where he lends a sobering reality to ego-related proceedings, and in his own way, shows that--age and maturity notwithstanding--he is much stronger (in a psychological sense) than Walt or Hank.

If only guys who watch the show would notice some of this sub textual stuff. While they, for the most part, cheer on either Hank or Walt's (or Jesse's) badassery, a lot don't seem to realize how the show keeps trying to poke holes in those masculine stereotypes.

Making mention of Jesse, who, as you've said, also seems to understand what it is to be bullied and beaten up, I'd love for him to meet Jnr, just to compare notes on Walt :D
hungryhippo11: by nuv0le_rapide (Jesse Sleeping)

From: [personal profile] hungryhippo11

Very much so. I actually loved The Sopranos because it was breaking down the gangster stereotypes as well. The Tony defenders are now Walt defenders I guess.


sistermagpie: Classic magpie (Default)

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