Recently, I wrote about Michael Douglas’s character in “Falling Down,” William Foster. Foster was a middle-class engineer who had followed all the rules throughout his life, but, just as he was on the verge of middle age, the world changes (the end of the Cold War) and his job becomes obsolete. His wife has left him, he is unemployed, and everything he worked for has slipped through his fingers. The American Dream that he had felt was promised to him did not materialize, and he felt cheated and cast aside. One hot day, he snaps and goes on a rampage.
I noted that the film, released 30 years ago, said a lot more than people realized at the time about the emotional state of the American middle class. The film came out, by the way, right at the same time as the Los Angeles riots, which divided not only the city but the country. There was a lot of anger under the surface - middle class and poor, black and white alike were frustrated by the dissolution of the American Dream, perhaps made even worse by the fact the “bad guys” (Soviets) had fallen and everyone was supposed to live happily ever after.
1993 was the year of the Waco standoff, which a lot of middle-and-working-class white folks, then and now, pointed to as proof you can’t trust the government. Perhaps people were starting to conclude you can’t even trust your vision of America.
Fifteen years later, we were introduced to a 21st century version of William Foster. On “Breaking Bad,” we met Walter White (Brian Cranston.) On the day after his 50th birthday, White learns he has terminal cancer. He is a high-school chemistry teacher whose insurance won’t pay his medical bills. In fact, he is already having to demean himself by have a part-time job washing cars, where the younger managers treat him like dirt. But it didn’t have to be that way - in his youth, he’d been a brilliant chemist whose research helped establish a company that White and his best friend ran. White’s girlfriend left him for the best friend, and, in his depression, Walter had sold out his share for a mere $5,000. Now the company was worth many millions - and he was washing cars and dealing with arrogant students.
His American Dream had become a nightmare.
We know what happened. He partnered with an ex-student who was now a meth dealer and started using his superior skills to create high-quality meth… to pay his medical bills and make sure he had something to leave his family.
Once he made that decision, we all knew he was doomed - but we could understand his feelings. Like the guy in “Falling Down,” we sympathized with him. In one of the most memorable images in the series, Walter is standing in the desert in his underwear pointing a gun at the rival meth dealers who attack him and his partner Jesse. He is screaming in desperation. The underwear highlights how vulnerable and exposed Walter feels.
Interestingly, both Walter White and William Foster have an encounter with an annoying fly. The fly is a symbol, too - of how each man yearns desperately to gain control over the mundane irritations of his life, irritations that take away his peace.
The American Dream, when deferred, sometimes explodes - so said Langston Hughes. He was talking about Black America and the fact that all the promises made to them never materialized. White and Foster represent a middle-class America of recent decades who had no reason to ever DOUBT their dreams would come true - but they didn’t. This, too, can lead to a slow-burning fuse of rage.
I think we have seen that rage these last few years. Taking the time to look from a different perspective can at least give us a handle on where that rage comes from, even if we oppose it.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.
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