In recent weeks I’ve talked about “Falling Down,” “Breaking Bad,” and the American Dream. I’ve done this in context of getting a finger on the pulse of middle-class America the last couple of decades and to have some empathy for such folks which might lead to at least a little understanding of what has been going on. It is easy to look at the violence, the rage, the frustration, the sense of betrayal displayed by people across the political aisle and simply write it off as them being foolish, thuggish, backward, or evil. Make no mistake, some of them are evil, to some extent - I’m looking at you, Gus Fring and the neo-Nazis in “Breaking Bad.” I suppose it depends on the extent to which they go and their willingness to harm others or deprive them of their rights. We know that Michael Douglas’s character in “Falling Down” was not as evil as other characters believed him to be - at the end, he was armed only with his child’s water gun - and, if you watched “Breaking Bad,” you know that Walter White was capable of great evil. But the point of my examining these programs is to see what set them down that road of rage.
And the opposite is true.
I’ve always said that “Breaking Bad” has the exact same plot as “The Godfather” - but in reverse. What they have in common is a relatable protagonist who turns - gradually - to crime and violence, justifying it as the only way to protect their family. Michael Corleone and Walter White each viewed themselves as moral men, but each of them discovered they were very, very good at being bad - and relished it. In both cases, they lost everything they were trying to protect.
But their family trajectories were different. Michael Corleone’s dad, Don Vito “The Godfather” Corleone, had come to America from Sicily with nothing. He was a member of a despised immigrant group. He turned to crime and violence to carve a place for his family, and his greatest dream was to, one day, build his family up to “respectability.”
A very similar situation is described in the fourth season of “Fargo,” which is actually set in Kansas City. The opening montage of the first episode shows how, in the 1920s, the Jewish gangs were wiped out by the Irish gangs, who were then wiped out by the Italian gangs in the 1930s, who were then challenged in the 1940s by an African-American gang led by that season’s star, Chris Rock. Each immigrant group tried to claw their way up to the top and to respectability - except the black gang, who realized (in Rock’s words) that they would always be on the bottom, and all the other groups were trying to prove they were better and be accepted into society. Yet Rock and his gang kept trying to succeed and be accepted.
They were all trying to gain admittance into the American Dream. And, to varying degrees, some of them did.
But the protagonists of “Falling Down” and “Breaking Bad” weren’t trying to ACHIEVE the American Dream; they had been brought up believing it was theirs for the taking but, due to changing circumstances in the country, were starting to feel it slipping away from them. It was their promised birthright. If you work hard and play by the rules, you will be more successful than your parents - that was how America works. They had been cheated. And they weren’t going to sit still for it. They were going to take action.
There was a feeling in the air, in 2016. There was a lot of anger and frustration with the status quo. I think Bernie Sanders would’ve done much better against Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton did - because people a both ends of the spectrum were disgusted by the establishment and were ready to tear things down.
--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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