CNN’s “The Nineties”: Empty nostalgia for a decade we should let die

CNN delves into a decade of pat neoliberalism and hollow spectacle and, unsurprisingly, comes up with nothing

CNN’s “The Nineties”: Empty nostalgia for a decade we should let die
The Nineties (Credit: CNN)

To anyone who came of age in the 1990s, the current cultural ascent of fidget spinners is likely to induce an acute pang of recognition — equal parts wistful nostalgia, anxiety and woozy terror. The ‘90s were, as any certified “Nineties Kid” can attest, a decade marked by a succession of asinine schoolyard fads.

One can imagine an alternative timeline of the decade that marks time not by year, but the chronology of crazes: the Year of the Beanie Baby, the Year of the Tamagotchi, the Years of the Snap-Bracelet, the Macarena, the Baggy Starter Jacket, the Painstakingly Layered “The Rachel” Hairdo, and so on. What’s most remarkable about our culture’s whirring fidget spinner fetish is that it didn’t happen sooner; that this peak fad didn’t emerge from among the long, rolling sierra of hollow amusements that defined the 1990s.

Surveying the current pop-culture landscape, one gets the sense that the ‘90s— with all its flash-in-the-pan fads and cooked-up crazes — never ended. On TV, “The Simpsons” endures into its 28th season, while David Lynch and Mark Frost’s oddball ABC drama “Twin Peaks” enjoys a highly successful, and artistically fruitful, premium-cable revival. The Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles, Transformers and Treasure Trolls have graduated from small-screen Saturday morning silliness to blockbuster entertainments.

Elsewhere, the “normcore”/“dadcore”/“lazycore” fashion of singers like Mac DeMarco has made it OK (even haute) to dress up like a “Home Improvement”-era Jonathan Taylor Thomas. And Nintendo recently announced its latest money-printing scheme, in the form of the forthcoming SNES Classic Mini: a handheld throwback video game platform chock-full of nostalgia-baiting Console Wars standbys like “Donkey Kong Country,” “F-Zero” and “StarFox.” Content mills like BuzzFeed, Upworthy and their ilk bolster their bottom line churning out lists and quizzes reminding you that, yes, the show “Rugrats” existed.

To quote a nostalgic ’97-vintage hit single, which was itself a throwback to ‘60s jazz-pop, it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.

It’s natural to languish for the past: to trip down memory lane, get all dewy-eyed about the past, pine for the purity of the long-trampled gardens of innocence, and go full Proust on the bric-a-brac of youth that manages to impress itself on the soft, still-maturing amber of the adolescent mind, even if that stuff was total crap like Moon Shoes or a Street Shark or Totally Hair Barbie doll or a bucket of Nickelodeon-brand goo called “Gak.” The 1990s, however, offered a particularly potent nostalgia trap, something revealed watching CNN’s new TV documentary miniseries “event,” fittingly called “The Nineties.”

A follow-up to CNN’s previous history-of-a-decade events (“The Sixties,” “The Seventies” and “The Eighties”) and co-produced by Tom Hanks, the series provides some valuable insight into the nature of ’90s nostalgia. The two-part series opener, called “The One About TV,” threads the needle, examining the ways in which television of the era shifted the standards of cultural acceptability, be it in Andy Sipowicz’s expletive-laden racism, Homer Simpson’s casual stranglings of his misfit son or the highbrow, Noel Coward-in-primetime farces of “Frasier.”

To believe CNN’s procession of talking heads, damn near every TV show to debut after midnight on Jan. 1, 1990, was “revolutionary.” “The Simpsons” was revolutionary for the way it hated TV. “Twin Peaks” was revolutionary for the way it subverted it. “Seinfeld” ignored (or subtracted, into its famous “Show About Nothing” ethic) the conventions of the sitcom. “Frasier” elevated them. “Will & Grace,” “Ellen” and “The Real World” bravely depicted gay America. Ditto “Arsenio,” “Fresh Prince” and “In Living Color” in representing black America. “OZ” was revolutionary for its violence. “The Sopranos” was revolutionary in how it got you to root for the bad guy. “Friends” was revolutionary because it showed the day-to-day lives of, well, some friends. If the line of argumentation developed by “The Nineties” is to be believed, the TV game was being changed so frequently that it was becoming impossible to keep up with the rules.

Despite seeming argumentatively fallacious (if everything is subversive or game-changing, then, one might argue, nothing is), and further debasing the concept of revolution itself, such an argument cuts to the heart of ‘90s nostalgia. In pop culture, it was an era of seeming possibility, where it became OK to talk about masturbation (in one of “Seinfeld’s” more famous episodes) or even anal sex (as on “Sex & the City”), where “Twin Peaks” and “The Sopranos” spoke to the rot at the core of American life. “The Nineties” paints a flattering, borderline obsequious portrait of Gen-X ’90s kids as too hip, savvy and highly educated to be suckered in by the gleam and obvious propaganda that seemed to define “The Eighties.” (The ’90s kid finds a generational motto in the tagline offered by Fox’s conspiratorial cult sci-fi show “The X-Files”: trust no one.)

What “The Nineties” misses — very deliberately, one imagines — is the guiding cynicism of such revolutions in television. Far from being powered by a kind of radical politics of inclusivity, TV was (and remains) guided by its ability to deliver certain demographics to advertisers. In the 1990s, these demographics splintered, becoming more specialized. Likewise, entertainment streams split. The bully “mean girls” watched “90210,” the bullied watched “My So-Called Life,” and the kids bullied by the bullied watched “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Then on Thursday night, everyone watched “Seinfeld.”

This parade of prime-time cultural revolutions betrayed the actual guiding political attitude of the decade: stasis. The second episode of “The Nineties” turns to the scandal-plagued political life of Bill Clinton. “A new season of American renewal has begun!” beams Clinton, thumb pressed characteristically over a loosely clenched fist, early in the episode. For the Democrats, Bill Clinton seemed like a new hope: charming, charismatic, hip, appearing in sunglasses on Arsenio to blow his saxophone. But like so many of TV’s mock-insurgencies, the Clinton presidency was a coup in terms of aesthetics, and little else.

Beyond his sundry accusations of impropriety  (Whitewater, the Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky sex scandals, etc.), Clinton supported the death penalty, “three strikes” sentencing, NAFTA, “don’t ask, don’t tell” and countless other policies that alienated him from his party’s left-progressive wing. Clinton embodied the emerging neoliberal ethic: cozying up to big banks and supporting laissez-faire economic policies that further destabilized the American working and middle classes, while largely avoiding the jingoist militarism, nationalism and family values moralism of ‘80s Reaganomics. Clinton’s American renewal was little more than face-lift.

“The Simpsons,” naturally, nailed this devil-you-know distinction in a 1996 Halloween episode, which saw the bodies of Bill Clinton and then-presidential rival Bob Dole inhabited by slithering extraterrestrials. Indistinguishable in terms of tone and policy, the body snatching alien candidates beguiled the easily duped electorate with nonsensical stump speeches about moving “forward, not backward; upward, not forward; and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom.”

A 1992 book by the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama summed up the ’90s’ neoliberal approach to politics. In “The End of History and the Last Man,” Fukuyama posited that the collapse of the Soviet Union following the Cold War had resolved any grand ideological and historical conflicts in world politics. Liberal democracy and capitalism had won the day. Free market democracy was humanity’s final form. History — or at least the concept of history as a process of sociological evolution and conflict between competing political systems — had run its course.

Following the publication of “The End of History,” Fukuyama became an institutional poli-sci Svengali (John Gray at the New Statesman dubbed him the “court philosopher of global capitalism”), with his ideas holding significant major sway in political circles. The 1990s in America, and during the Clinton presidency, in particular, were a self-styled realization of the “end of history.” In the wake of the Cold War and collapse of the Berlin Wall, the president’s position was largely functionary: enable the smooth functioning of markets, and the free flow of capital. Such was the horizon of political thought.

Fukuyama’s book has been subjected to thorough criticism for its shortsightedness — not least of all for the way in which its central argument only serves to consolidate and naturalize the authority of the neoliberal elite. More concretely, 9/11 and its aftermath are often cited as signals of the “revenge of history,” which introduces new, complicated clashes of world-historical ideologies.

Though it’s often touted for its triumphalism, as a cheerleading handbook for the success of Westernized global capitalism, Fukuyama’s end of history theory is suffused with a certain melancholy. There’s one passage, often overlooked, which speaks to the general content and character of the ’90s (and “The Nineties”). “The end of history will be a very sad times,” he writes. “In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come.”

Our fresh new millennium has been marked, in political terms, by cultural clashes between decadent Western liberalism and militant Islamism (both sides bolstering their positions with the hollow rhetoric of religious zealotry), the abject failure of both the Democratic and Republican parties, the reappearance of white supremacist and ethno-nationalist thinking, the thorough criticism of neoliberalism, and the rise of a new progressive-left (signaled by the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders), alongside a similarly invigorated form of moderatism referred to as “the extreme centre.” Amid such wild vicissitudes, the placid neoliberal creep of Fukuyama’s “post-history” feels downright quaint.

This is the sort of modern nostalgia that CNN’s “The Nineties” taps into: a melancholy for the relative stability of a decade that was meant to mark the end of history itself. Not only did things seem even-keeled, but everything (a haircut, a GameBoy game about tiny Japanese cartoon monsters, a sitcom episode about waiting for a table) seemed radical, revolutionary and, somehow, deeply profound. We are, perhaps invariably, prone to feeling elegiac for even the hollowness of A Decade About Nothing. It’s particularly because the 1990s abide in our politicians, our ideologies, our prime-time entertainments, blockbusters movies and even, yes, in our faddish toys, designed to ease our fidgety anxiety about the muddled present, and keep us twirling, twirling back into memory of a simpler, stupider past.

John Semley lives and works in Toronto. He is a books columnist at the Globe & Mail newspaper and the author of “This Is A Book About The Kids In The Hall” (ECW Press).

Amelia Earhart May Have Survived Crash-Landing, Newly Discovered Photo Suggests

Image: A photo discovered in the National Archives shows a woman who resembles Amelia Earhart on a dock in the Marshall Islands
A photo discovered in the National Archives shows a woman who resembles Amelia Earhart on a dock in the Marshall Islands. National Archives

A newly discovered photograph suggests legendary aviator Amelia Earhart, who vanished 80 years ago on a round-the-world flight, survived a crash-landing in the Marshall Islands.

The photo, found in a long-forgotten file in the National Archives, shows a woman who resembles Earhart and a man who appears to be her navigator, Fred Noonan, on a dock. The discovery is featured in a new History channel special, “Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence,” that airs Sunday.

Independent analysts told History the photo appears legitimate and undoctored. Shawn Henry, former executive assistant director for the FBI and an NBC News analyst, has studied the photo and feels confident it shows the famed pilot and her navigator.

Amelia Earhart mystery may have new clue in never-before-seen photo

“When you pull out, and when you see the analysis that’s been done, I think it leaves no doubt to the viewers that that’s Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan,” Henry told NBC News.

Earhart was last heard from on July 2, 1937, as she attempted to become the first woman pilot to circumnavigate the globe. She was declared dead two years later after the U.S. concluded she had crashed somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, and her remains were never found.

Amelia Earhart
Amelia Earhart sits in her Electra plane cabin at the airport in Burbank, California, on May 20, 1937. Albert Bresnik / Paragon Agency via AP

But investigators believe they have found evidence Earhart and Noonan were blown off course but survived the ordeal. The investigative team behind the History special believes the photo may have been taken by someone who was spying for the U.S. on Japanese military activity in the Pacific.

Les Kinney, a retired government investigator who has spent 15 years looking for Earhart clues, said the photo “clearly indicates that Earhart was captured by the Japanese.”

Japanese authorities told NBC News they have no record of Earhart being in their custody.

RelatedThe Search Is Still On for Amelia Earhart 80 Years After She Disappeared

The photo, marked “Jaluit Atoll” and believed to have been taken in 1937, shows a short-haired woman — potentially Earhart — on a dock with her back to the camera. (She’s wearing pants, something for which Earhart was known.) She sits near a standing man who looks like Noonan — down to the hairline.

“The hairline is the most distinctive characteristic,” said Ken Gibson, a facial recognition expert who studied the image. “It’s a very sharp receding hairline. The nose is very prominent.”

Gibson added: “It’s my feeling that this is very convincing evidence that this is probably Noonan.”

A newly discovered photo shows a woman who resembles Amelia Earhart and a man who appears to be her navigator, Fred Noonan. National Archives

The photo shows a Japanese ship, Koshu, towing a barge with something that appears to be 38-feet-long — the same length as Earhart’s plane.

For decades, locals have claimed they saw Earhart’s plane crash before she and Noonan were taken away. Native schoolkids insisted they saw Earhart in captivity. The story was even documented in postage stamps issued in the 1980s.

“We believe that the Koshu took her to Saipan [in the Mariana Islands], and that she died there under the custody of the Japanese,” said Gary Tarpinian, the executive producer of the History special.

“We don’t know how she died,” Tarpinian said. “We don’t know when.”

It is not clear if the U.S. government knew who was in the photo. If it was taken by a spy, the U.S. may not have wanted to compromise that person by revealing the image.

Season Three of Better Call Saul: Objection! Relevance!

By Ed Hightower
1 July 2017

A show honestly exploring the ins and outs of the legal profession, particularly those of its younger members, could hardly fail to win an audience. Who are these people who, after four years of undergraduate study, take the Law School Aptitude Test (LSAT), apply to the best law schools they might expect admission to, then study the official rules of social and economic life for three more years; study for a comprehensive licensing exam (the bar exam or simply “the bar”), and then finally earn the right to represent clients in court and with it, a chance to repay their massive student loans?

What motivates such students? Hope of riches? The fight to protect the innocent, or to compensate victims of official wrongdoing? What are their struggles? Do they have a family or personal life? How do they sharpen their skills, get along with their opponents and judges, and their employers?

Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn

Better Call Saul is the prequel to Breaking Bad, a hit drama about financially struggling high school chemistry teacher Walter White (Brian Cranston) who turns his life upside down when he begins to manufacture the highly addictive drug methamphetamine. Walter White employs the crooked, flamboyant attorney Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) to handle legal problems and otherwise assist in directing the operations of a drug cartel.

In Breaking Bad, Odenkirk masterfully portrays the life-like Saul Goodman—born Jimmy McGill, he changed his name to a Jewish one to entice prospective clients who prefer a lawyer who is, in his words, “a pipe-smoking member of the tribe [of Israel].” Throughout the show, Goodman spouts such gems as, “Remember, there’s no honor among thieves, except for us,” and “I once convinced a woman I was Kevin Costner.” His comic relief is welcome, and his thwarting of the law enforcement agencies encircling White earns sympathy, even for a lawyer bending the rules to assist a meth dealer.

To the credit of Better Call Saul’s creators, Seasons One and Two told a story about Jimmy McGill the young go-getter who takes correspondence courses in law while working in the mail room at his brother Charles’ enormous law firm, Hamlin Hamlin McGill. Certain scenes in these prior seasons rang true. One montage stands out, showing Jimmy making the paces defending indigent clients day in and day out for the lawyer’s equivalent of minimum wage, as he endears himself to the courthouse power brokers: the sheriffs’ deputies, prosecuting attorneys and, most importantly, the clerks.

Jimmy’s eagerness for success convincingly takes the viewer through a number of problems that most all lawyers encounter, including clients with unrealistic expectations. One woman insists that her husband, who embezzled $1 million from the local government, should serve no jail time and get to keep the money. Another wants to pay Jimmy to help him secede from the United States, and to pay him in money that he himself has printed. And an elderly woman wants to describe each and every figurine she has and ensure that her last will and testament spells out who will receive each one…and she only has $20 to pay him.

Even at its best Saul was always at least half cop drama, however.

To that end, a miserable character who ultimately becomes Saul’s private investigator plays a role that earns at least as much screen time as the ostensible protagonist himself does. The ex-cop-turned-crook Mike Ehrmantraut faces hackneyed moral dilemmas as he tries to support his daughter-in-law and granddaughter. As background to the story, his son was killed by fellow police officers when he refused to conspire with them to deal in confiscated contraband.

In Season Three, the cameras virtually caress Ehrmantraut as he uses high-powered rifles, GPS tracking devices, and otherwise plays cat-and-mouse games in furtherance of various crimes. One scene of him tracking and being tracked by up-and-coming meth kingpin Gus Fring carries on for what seems like hours. This clever tough guy with a family to protect largely aims at the viewer’s simplest instincts.

Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut

As the season wears on, the practice of law falls off the map almost entirely when Jimmy suffers a suspension of his law license. (The disciplinary process is very well done, both dramatically and cinematically.) Episodes that concern Jimmy’s venture into advertising are unwatchable. One gets the sense that the creators have run out of anything meaningful to say.

Worse still, they undermine what was left of Jimmy as a character supposedly torn between vice and virtue. In order to procure his fees in a lucrative civil case, Jimmy connives to destroy an elderly client’s quiet, peaceful life without a second thought. Prior relations with that client portrayed Jimmy as genuinely empathetic to this woman, and eager to get justice for her. To watch the backstabbing is to witness not character development, but rewriting. It is as lazy as it is unconvincing.

In this and many other instances, the creators of Better Call Saul flirt with the old prejudices against attorneys, espoused most consciously by the extreme right and other advocates of big business.

Reality, and history too, diverge from this gross oversimplification and irresponsible misrepresentation. A list of historical figures that knew their way around the courtroom would include Lincoln, Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, Darrow, Kafka, Robespierre and Lenin. There is not a charlatan or self-seeker among them.

In contrast to Jimmy’s derangement, drug kingpin Gus Fring presents as a model employer at the money laundering front he operates. When a rival cartel terrorizes Fring’s employees, he makes a nauseating speech afterwards about not backing down, not in the United States, where good people have nothing to fear etc.—and he gives them overtime and paid counseling should they need it. Nice fellow!

One wants to point out to the show’s creators that if the front business—a fried chicken restaurant—is so successful, why don’t the kingpins just sell fast food?

Greed, in short, seems to be their answer to everything, a supra-historical character flaw, almost an original sin in the case of Jimmy McGill.

Better Call Saul will appear on AMC for a fourth season. One imagines that little light will be shed on the practice of law, or the social relations it is rooted in, or much of anything else, saving most screen time for cops and robbers. The latter can be seen on virtually any other channel too, of course.



The Reichstag Fire Next Time

The coming crackdown

When each day brings more news than we are used to seeing in a week, and the kind of news that only the most catastrophic imagination can accommodate, we find ourselves talking about the Reichstag fire. Time feels both accelerated and slowed down, and so we imagine that we have been talking about the fire for years. It is the new president’s new clothes: invisible, yet always present in our perception of him.

The Reichstag fire, it goes almost without saying, will be a terrorist attack, and it will mark our sudden, obvious, and irreversible descent into autocracy. Here is what it looks like: On a sunny morning you turn on the television as you make coffee, or the speaker in your shower streams the news, or the radio comes on when you turn the ignition key in your car. The voices of the newscasters are familiar, but their pitch is altered, and they speak with a peculiar haste. Something horrible has happened—it is not yet clear what—and thousands are dead, and more are expected to die. You hear the word “terror.” You feel it.

Illustrations by Lincoln Agnew. Source photographs: Adolf Hitler © Hulton Archive/Getty Images; crowd saluting Hitler © Visual Studies Workshop/Getty Images

You reach for your cell phone, but the circuits are busy, and will be for hours—it will take you the rest of the day to check in with your loved ones. They are safe, but changed. And so are you. So are all of us. Tragedy has cast its shadow over every space where you encounter strangers: the subway, your child’s school, your lunch spot. People are quieter, less frivolous, yet they are not subdued. They share a sense of purpose that is greater than their fear. They are experiencing something they’d only read about: War has come to their land. Everyone is a patriot now.

You used to scoff at that word, or argue that dissent was the highest form of patriotism. But now you find that the word expresses what you are. Now is not the moment for dissent. A couple of public intellectuals insist that it is, and you feel embarrassed for them. They quickly fade from the scene, and this serves to underscore an unprecedented sort of unity.

Nowhere is this unity more evident than in Washington. Bills are passed unanimously. These laws give new powers to the president and his security apparatus. The president, unpopular and widely considered incompetent before the attack, now steps up to direct the war effort. His demeanor—which some used to deride as primitive—is well suited for this new black-and-white era. His administration institutes sweeping surveillance to ferret out enemies at home, and wages one war and then another abroad.

American public life is profoundly transformed. The press becomes uncritical of the government. There is no outright censorship; correspondents are part of the effort now, as they were during the Second World War. American casualties pile up, the foreign carnage is enormous and unmeasured, but there is scant domestic resistance. Only at the margins of politics and the media do some people question the usefulness and legality of the war effort.

The government pushes the limits further, cutting off access to the judiciary for those deemed the enemy. The president is no longer unpopular, and he can impose his will on Washington and the country. The country is in a forever war, a state of exception that has taken away many American freedoms, some of which were ceded voluntarily.

That is what we talk about when we talk about the Reichstag fire, and it has already happened. Like sad versions of the characters in The Wizard of Oz, who set off in search of traits they already possess, we are living in fear of an event that will catapult us into a terrifying future, when the event has already occurred—and has given us our terrifying present.

The actual fire in the Reichstag—the German parliament building—burned on the evening of February 27, 1933. Adolf Hitler had been appointed chancellor four weeks earlier, and already he had begun placing restrictions on the press and expanding the powers of the police. Yet it is the fire, rather than Hitler’s toxic first steps, that is remembered as the event after which things were never the same, in Germany or in the world.

Hitler capitalized on the fire by taking an uncompromising militant stand: “There will be no mercy now. Anyone standing in our way will be cut down.” This, in turn, probably boosted his popularity, paving the way for a victory for the Nazi Party in parliamentary elections a week later.

Hitler immediately began cracking down on the political opposition. The day after the fire, the government issued a decree allowing the police to detain people without charges, on the grounds of prevention. Activists were rounded up by his paramilitary forces, the SA and the SS, and placed in camps. Less than a month later, the parliament passed an “enabling act,” creating rule by decree and establishing a state of emergency that lasted as long as the Nazis were in power.

Anschluss—the annexation of Austria—was still five years away, and the start of the Second World War six and a half, but the Reichstag fire was used to create a state of exception, as Carl Schmitt, Hitler’s favorite legal scholar, called it. In Schmitt’s terms, a state of exception arises when an emergency, a singular event, shakes up the accepted order of things. This is when the sovereign steps forward and institutes new, extralegal rules. The emergency enables a quantum leap: The sovereign has to have enough power to declare a state of exception, and then by that declaration he acquires far great­er, unchecked power. That is what makes the change irreversible, and the state of exception permanent.

Every galvanizing event of the past eighty years has been compared to the Reichstag fire. On December 1, 1934, Sergei Kirov, the head of the Communist Party in Leningrad, was murdered by a lone gunman. The killer, Leonid Nikolaev, was arrested and executed, but the assassination is remembered as the pretext for creating a state of exception in Russia. Show trials and mass arrests followed, swelling the gulag with people accused of being traitors, spies, and terrorist plotters. To handle the volume, the Kremlin created troikas—three-person panels that doled out a sentence without reviewing the case, much less hearing from the defense.

More recently, Vladimir Putin has relied on a succession of catastrophic events to create irreversible exceptions. In 1999, a series of apartment bombings in Moscow and cities in southern Russia killed hundreds. This allowed Putin to proclaim that he could summarily execute those deemed “terrorists” and became a pretext for a new war in Chechnya. In 2002, the three-day siege of a Moscow theater served as a demonstration of the principle of summary execution: Russian law enforcement pumped the theater full of sleeping gas, entered the building, and shot the hostage-takers as they lay unconscious. The Kremlin also used the theater siege as a pretext to ban the already cowed media from covering anti-terrorist operations. Two years later, more than three hundred people, most of them children, died following an attack at a school in Beslan, in southern Russia. Putin used this catastrophic event to cancel the elections of local governors, effectively abolishing the country’s federal structure.

The thinking that transforms tragedy into crackdown is not foreign to the United States. During the crisis that followed the Alien and Sedition Acts at the turn of the nineteenth century, the ruling Federalists and the opposition Republicans accused each other of treason and a fatal lack of vigilance, of being Jacobin puppets. The courts, stacked with Federalist appointees, wasted no time shutting down opposition newspapers.

Half a century later, Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, the right not to be imprisoned without civilian judicial review. He did this to be able to indefinitely hold rebels whom he judged a danger to the Union—but whom, he said, “the courts, acting on ordinary rules, would discharge.” It wasn’t until 1866 that the Supreme Court ruled the practice unconstitutional.

By the next major war, the First World War, speech perceived as critical of or detrimental to the American war effort was punished with prison sentences as long as ten years. Historian Geoffrey Stone has called Woodrow Wilson’s Sedition Act of 1918 “the most repressive legislation in American history.” Thousands of people were arrested—many without a warrant—and 249 anarchist and communist activists were deported to Soviet Russia. It wasn’t until later that Supreme Court Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Louis Brandeis started on a dissenting streak that ultimately restored and clarified free-speech protections.

The Second World War brought another presidential assault on the Constitution: the internment of more than a hundred thousand Americans of Japanese descent. Then came the ­McCarthy era, when the government took up spying on the enemy within and accusations of treason, whether or not they were supported by evidence, ruined life after life. The next generation of Americans lived through the secrecy, deceit, and paranoia of the Vietnam War years, which culminated in a president who had his opponents prosecuted and wiretapped. For Americans in the twentieth century a state of exception came close to being the rule.

Not all the periods of exception are remembered as repressive: In State of Exception, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben notes that Franklin Roosevelt invoked emergency powers for the passage of the New Deal in 1933, arguing that economic catastrophe warranted “broad Executive power to wage war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” Writing in 2005, Agamben drew a narrative line from the state of exception in Europe following the First World War to that in America following 9/11.

As long as war is raging, political consensus supports the crackdowns. Legal scholar Stephen Holmes calls this wisdom “the intuitive claim that grave emergencies require discretionary authority to act outside and against inherited rules and standard operating procedures.” There is no proof that such a response is effective—and there is even copious evidence that it leads to abuse of power and damage to society—but the temptation to both seize and cede power in the face of fear proves irresistible time after time.

Source photographs: Donald Trump © JB Lacroix/WireImage; Vladimir Putin © Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images; Barack Obama © Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images; George W. Bush © Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images; protest © Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto/Getty Images; drone © Erik Simonsen/Getty Images

The war that began in 2001 is unlike other wars: The enemy is not a nation or an army but a tactic, one that has existed for millennia. This war cannot be won, because a tactic cannot be eradicated. A war that cannot be won cannot end, and so it has not. Nor have the liberties surrendered by Americans in response to 9/11 been restored. Under President Obama, the war on terror morphed into the more grammatically sensible war on terrorism. The Patriot Act became the Freedom Act. The use of torture appears to have been largely discontinued, but the camp at Guantánamo Bay continues its shameful existence—with a reduced number of inmates, though numbers are never a good measure of liberty. Millions of Americans who voted in the last election have lived with the war on terror for as long as they can remember.

In his farewell address in Chicago, Obama could claim only that he had “worked to put the fight against terrorism on a firmer legal footing. That’s why we’ve ended torture, worked to close Gitmo, reformed our laws governing surveillance to protect privacy and civil liberties. That’s why I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans,” he said, interrupted by cheers before continuing, “who are just as patriotic as we are.” Over the course of more than fifteen years, the essential premise—that the United States is at war, and that the Other in this war is Muslims—has remained unchanged. Trump claims that Muslim Americans celebrated 9/11, while Obama says that they are just as patriotic as we are; that they are not us is one of the few things the two men agree on.

The current state of exception rests in part on the national state of emergency, which George W. Bush declared three days after the September 11 attacks, which he renewed every year of his presidency, and which Obama also renewed every September of his. The president’s ability to impose and renew a state of emergency is technically limited by the 1976 National Emergencies Act, which requires Congress to vote on the state of emergency within six months of the day it is imposed. But such a vote has never occurred—even though the act has been invoked at least fifty-three times. In practice, the president wields unilateral power over emergencies.

The National Emergencies Act can be invoked for disasters beyond an actual war—Obama declared a national emergency in anticipation of the swine flu epidemic in 2009—but it invariably represents both an outsized reaction to a perceived threat and a journey outside what we maintain is normal national and social conduct. At any given time in the past decade, roughly thirty simulta­neous states of emergency have been in effect. Dozens of executive orders, and numerous other directives and regulations, have stemmed from these states of emergency—all of them creating powers that would be impossible in the increasingly illusory normal state of things. A state of emergency allows the president to unilaterally seize control of the media, food supplies, and commercial vessels, for instance. The fact that Bush and Obama did not utilize some of the more extreme possibilities of the state of emergency testifies only to their restraint, not to the legal limitations. At the same time, we know less and less about the powers the government has exercised; since 2001, an ever-increasing number of these emergency powers have been classified.

The state of exception also rests on the Authorization for Use of Military Force, which was passed by Congress three days after the attacks in 2001. It gives the president sweeping power to

use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations, or persons.

The law, passed with a single dissenting vote, remains in force as the nation enters its fourth post-9/11 presidential term.

Today, when it is said that a terrorist attack is sure to happen, it is assumed that the attack will be carried out in the name of the Islamic State. The premise of inevitability is notable—one would think that such acts of terror occurred in the United States on a regular basis. Since September 11, 2001, however, there have been eleven attacks ostensibly driven by jihadist ideology; they have claimed a total of ninety-five lives. “The death toll has been quite similar to other forms of political—and even non-political—violence Americans face today,” a recent report from the New America foundation summarized. The report referred only to domestic terrorism and mass shooting incidents, but many more Americans have died at the hands of the state: In the first four months of this year, the use of deadly force by police claimed three times as many lives. These killings, extrajudicial by definition, are a symptom of the state of exception, which has turned the police into a military force. As a nation we insist on being united in fear of the one-in-millions chance of a particular kind of violence. That we seem so certain of the outlines of the Reichstag fire to come reveals the fact that it has already occurred.

Among the victims of the sixteen-year-old state of exception are hundreds of individuals identified, prosecuted, and sentenced under emergency rules. Since the war on terror began, the United States has prosecuted an average of forty terrorism cases per year, about half of them on the basis of informant operations. Convictions that result from such cases—and convictions result almost without fail, usually as the result of a plea bargain—fetch higher sentences because of something known as the terrorism adjustment in federal sentencing guidelines. The adjustment went into effect following the World Trade Center bombing of 1993 but was used most widely after 9/11. This was a law passed by Congress, yet it created an exceptional category of crime that could not be addressed by normal law. One example is the prosecution of two Iraqi refugees who were tried in Bowling Green, Kentucky, for allegedly intending to help insurgent fighters battling U.S. forces back home. The men were convicted of terrorism, even though the accusation against them—that they aided fighters confronting an army—doesn’t fit standard definitions of terrorism. They were sentenced to life in prison, in the case of a man arrested at the age of twenty-three, and forty years behind bars, for the one who cooperated with the prosecution. This was the case that Trump aide Kellyanne Conway presumably had in mind when she conjured the memory of the Bowling Green Massacre—something that never happened but, according to the logic the country has applied over the past decade and a half, could have happened.

A key characteristic of the most frightening regimes of the past hundred years is mobilization. This is what distinguishes the merely authoritarian regimes from the totalitarian ones. Authoritarians prefer their subjects passive, tending to their private lives while the authoritarian and his cronies amass wealth and power. The totalitarian wants people out in the square; he craves their adulation and devotion, their willingness to fight and die for him. Mobilization was just as important an element of Hitler’s 1933 consolidation of power as his crackdown. Victory rallies, national holidays, and parades demonstrated, even forced, the unity of a nation. In Germans into Nazis, historian Peter Fritzsche makes no mention of the Reichstag fire but devotes a chapter to the May Day parade of 1933, a daylong, citywide spectacle “carefully choreographed to .?.?. demonstrate the national sense of purpose that was now said to animate the German people.”

To totalitarianism watchers, Trump’s campaign rallies, which segued into his victory rallies, including his “America First” inauguration, have looked familiar and perhaps more worrisome than an imaginary future fire. To historians of the twenty-first century, however, they will likely look like logical steps from the years of war rhetoric that preceded them, not quantum leaps. A nation can be mobilized only if it knows its enemy and believes in its own peril.

It is not clear how many Germans attended that May Day parade because the spirit moved them and how many were compelled by fear or force. Four and a half decades later, in “The Power of the Powerless,” the Czech dissident Václav Havel described an individual who “lives within a lie,” the lie of the official ideology, without consciously accepting or rejecting it. Totalitarianism robs a person of the very ability to form an opinion.

Fear has a way of catapulting citizens into the inside of a lie. Following the apartment-building bombings of 1999, Russians huddled together, forming neighborhood patrols, eyeing strangers and neighbors alike with suspicion, and then threw their support behind the recently appointed prime minister, Vladimir Putin. In one of his first public statements, the unknown, gray little politician promised to hunt down terrorists and “rub them out in the outhouse,” rhetorically trampling the foundations of the justice system.

Americans, too, have finely honed instincts for banding together in the face of an attack. Within hours of the September 11 attacks, 150 members of Congress gathered on the Capitol steps and sang “God Bless America.” Some of them held hands. The strongest country on the planet was making a spectacle of fear and resolve. The following day, a train traveling between Boston and New York was stopped because passengers had been alarmed by the presence of a Sikh man; he was removed. Two days later, enabling legislation—bills on war powers and the state of emergency—were passed.

Trump does not have to declare war—this has already been done—or even proffer an assessment of the danger. But he has already shown that he can deftly use the coercive power of the state of being at war—this is, possibly, the only political tool of which the president has instinctive mastery. During his first address to a joint session of Congress, Trump orchestrated more than two minutes of applause for the widow of a fallen Navy SEAL. It was 125 seconds of naked cynicism that left no one in the audience any choice but to stand and applaud. The following day Breit­bart falsely claimed that several top Democrats had refused to do so. This was a preview of the coercion by national unity that we talk about when we talk about the Reichs­tag fire, but it was also reminiscent of the early weeks and months following 9/11, when Bill Maher and Susan Sontag were shamed for breaking rhetorical ranks.

In Russia, it took many years for Putin to consolidate power, and it wasn’t until 2012 that his regime assumed its current retro-totalitarian character. Over the years, the use of terrorist attacks to justify successive crackdowns has grown familiar and gradually transformed the country’s thinking. The lack of logical connections between events and their ostensible consequences, along with the general degradation of the judicial system and law enforcement, eroded all trust in the government—to the extent that every time a terrorist attack occurred, many Russians assumed that the government, no matter what it said, was behind it. When a bomb went off in the St. Petersburg Metro in April, killing fourteen people, journalists and Russia watchers instantly assumed that the Kremlin had organized the attack in order to detract attention from or to stifle emergent anti-corruption protests.

Over the years many Russians, including me, have come to believe that the apartment-building bombings in Moscow and elsewhere were organized and carried out by the FSB, the intelligence agency, in order to shore up Putin’s power grab. There has never been a transparent and satisfying investigation of the blasts, but the available evidence stacks up in favor of this theory.

When we talk about the Reichstag fire, we speak not only about an event that precipitates a state of exception and launches coercive national mobilization but also of a conspiracy. Many Germans were certain that the Reichs­tag fire was set by the Nazis themselves. So much evidence supported this theory that for decades after the Second World War a Nazi conspiracy was the historians’ consensus. During the same period, it was generally accepted that the Kirov murder was a secret-police assassination. But when all the available information on the Kirov murder was excavated in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was no proof to back up the conspiracy theory: It is now believed that Kirov was killed by his assistant’s jealous husband. In the 1960s, reporting cast doubt on the theory that the Nazis burned down the Reichstag, but in the 1990s, a new wave of evidence suggested they may have been involved after all. Historians continue to debate the issue. (A young Dutch Communist was apprehended at the scene, tried, and sentenced to death by beheading.) It is certainly too early to exonerate Putin and the FSB for the apartment bombings, but the Russian autocrat may eventually be proved to have simply seized an opportunity, as he has done many times since. For now, though, we do not know enough, and this paucity of information, too, is one of the signs of an autocracy.

Autocracies thrive on and engender fear, ignorance, and—their combined product—conspiracy theory. Writing in his diary in January 1934, the linguist Victor Klemperer assessed a genre of joke. “Conversations in heaven are popular. The best one: Hitler to Moses: But you can tell me in confidence, Herr Moses. Is it not true that you set the bush on fire yourself?” The joke shows Hitler and the satirist sharing a conspiratorial worldview: The person telling the joke believes that the führer set the Reichs­tag fire and also that Hitler sees the world through the lens of his own deception. Everyone is both a conspirator and a conspiracy theorist.

The September 11 attacks, like all unimaginable events, spawned conspiracy theories. Trutherism spread far and wide; its younger cousin, birtherism, grabbed hold of a smaller but more vocal constituency. By the time Trump was elected president, America was living through an epidemic of conspiracy thinking. Some were convinced that Hillary Clinton ran a child-sex ring from a pizza shop in Washington; others that every recently dead Russian man was connected to Trump’s election victory. No one now seems to believe that most things are what they seem: usually, a mess.

When we talk about the Reichs­tag fire, we talk about the consequences of a catastrophic event. But in our case, these consequences—a legal state of exception, a sense of living under siege, popular mobilization, and an epidemic of conspiracy thinking—are already in place. Indeed, they are the preconditions of our current predicament. Trump used the conspiracy thinking and the siege mentality to get himself elected. Once president, he used the state of exception to begin lobbing missiles, dropping bombs—nothing less than the so-called Mother of All Bombs. Mobilization, the popular sense of being together in constant battle, ensured that Trump’s first forays into war looked good on TV. At the same time, Trump overestimated the power given to him by the siege mentality. When he attempted to ban Muslims from entering the United States, for example, he encountered great popular and institutional resistance.

Here lies our best hope for reversing the effects of the next Reichs­tag fire: American civil society is strong—far stronger, paradoxically, than it was before the election. And something remains of what Hannah Arendt observed in a letter from 1946:

People here feel themselves responsible for public life to an extent I have never seen in any European country. For example, when all Americans of Japanese descent were locked up willy-nilly in concentration camps at the beginning of the war, a genuine storm of protest that can still be felt today went through the country.

What struck Arendt was the spontaneous and active expression of solidarity on the part of ordinary Americans who “declared that if something like that could happen, they no longer felt safe themselves.”

The comparison to contemporary protests may not be entirely straightforward. Leading arguments rested on the impossibility of religious discrimination; popular protest relied on a general sense of injustice and the rational argument that banning the entry of people from seven majority-Muslim countries would do little to protect Americans from terrorism. But by pointing to the ineffectiveness of the proposed ban, some of these arguments unwittingly reinforced the idea that Americans can make themselves safer by shutting out some part of the world.

Most recent protests share a fundamental flaw: They project the assumption that things were fine until America inexplicably elected Trump. The women’s marches, the immigrants’ marches, the scientists’ marches, the protests in defense of the Affordable Care Act and freedom of speech, and the earliest of the protests, which simply expressed outraged disbelief at the results of the election, all serve the purpose of staking out the current norms and vowing to defend them. It’s hard to argue with the urge; all indications are that the current norms are far preferable to the reality of the near and distant future. Yet most of the protests live within a lie—the fiction that the threats of the Trump presidency are not only grave but also new. His war against the national press is a grotesque blowup of many years’ worth of growing regimentation of access, concentration of power, and government opacity. Trump’s war on immigrants builds on the mass deportations of the Obama years, which were themselves built on the siege mentality of the Bush years. Trump’s casual bomb-throwing is enabled by the forever war begun nearly sixteen years ago.

To confront the threat we face, it is not enough to advance the rational argument that an American has a lesser chance of dying in a terrorist attack carried out by a refugee than of being struck by lightning. Nor is it enough to focus on the grave injustice of tarnishing immigrants as potential criminals and Muslim refugees as potential terrorists. It is most certainly not enough to revel in the beauty, intelligence, and wit of the many people who have come out to protest Trump’s attacks on humanity and its planet. There is, in fact, no room for self-congratulation in the actions we need to take.

To be worthy of the lofty name “resistance,” the opposition to Trump must aim to break the country’s post-9/11 trajectory. It must question the very premise of the war on terror, challenge the very fact of a perpetual state of emergency, and confront not only the Trump presidency but the legacy of the Bush and Obama Administrations. Organizations such as the A.C.L.U. have been doing this for years. The Trump presidency has not only, paradoxically, brought the group millions of dollars, it has also, potentially, rallied millions of people to the cause. Now is the time to stop waiting for the Reichs­tag fire and start battling the consequences of the one we already had—Trump and the legal and public conditions that are enabling his presidency.



Fascism for liberals: “RoboCop” at 30 and the problem with prescience

Lauded for its clear vision of the future, “RoboCop” just gave the plutocratic philanthrocapitalists of today cover

Fascism for liberals: “RoboCop” at 30 and the problem with prescience
Peter Weller as RoboCop in “RoboCop”(Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios)

We have become obsessed with prescience. Or rather, a kind of reverse-prescience that sees old books (from Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” to Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” to Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism” and Radiohead’s “OK Computer”) invested with a new vitality. These works, and their authors, are hailed for their farsightedness and acute judiciousness, for their ability to “speak to our troubled times.” But more often than not, it’s a case of too little, way too late.

Reading the Stalinist parable “Nineteen Eighty-Four” to make sense of Trumpism feels about as useful as scanning the instructions on a bottle of bear spray while your torso’s already half-digested by a savage Kodiak. Still, we laud the old works and the old masters for their seeming ability to forecast the present, even if they do so in hazy, generalizing terms. The esteemed quality of prescience thus reveals itself as conservative, keeping us fixed on the past, lost in our fantasies of foregone foresight. Damn, if only we could have seen it coming back then.

Few pop-cultural objects carry this burden of prescience like “RoboCop,” Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi satire/Detroit dystopia/Christian allegory, which turns 30 this summer. Set in a near-future Motor City beset by corporate greed, with slums being rebuilt as privatized skyscraper communities and public services seized by profiteering private contractors, much of “RoboCop’s” critical legacy hinges on its seemingly spooky ability to predict the future: from the militarization of American police forces, to the collapse (and rebirth) of Detroit, to the way in which politics has become increasingly beholden to private money.

Never mind that all these things were already happening when “RoboCop” was released theatrically at the ass-end of the Reagan administration. What matters is how the film is regarded as effectively anticipating what’s happening now. Problem is: claims of the film’s prescience aren’t just overstated. They’re fundamentally incorrect. And if we’re to believe — as many seem to — that “RoboCop’s” near future is meant to be our present, then we must reckon with one of its greatest oversights: its depiction of business-suited capitalists as crass, corporatist, unfeeling heels. What “RoboCop” got wrong was its depiction of the bad guys — of those greedy corporate profiteers looking to razz Detroit’s crumbling ghettos, quarterback private police militias and trap the hearts and minds of good, honest, working men inside hulking robotic exoskeletons.


On the commentary track bundled with Criterion’s now out-of-print 1998 home video release of “RoboCop,” producer Jon Davison summed up the movie’s message. He called it “fascism for liberals.” As Davison puts it: “The picture is extremely violent, but it has a nice, tongue-in-cheek, we’re-just-kiddin’ quality.” Indeed, “RoboCop,” like many of Dutch expat Paul Verhoeven’s other films (“The Fourth Man,” “Starship Troopers,” “Basic Instinct,” “Showgirls,” even the recent “Elle”) function through this sort of deeply embedded irony; this “we’re-just-kiddin’ quality.” The sex, the violence, the way they flirt with ideological reprehensibility — Verhoeven’s films are calibrated to invite reaction, even disgust. And yet that’s never the end in itself.

When a heavy artillery “urban pacification” tank shoots up a boardroom meeting early in “RoboCop,” in one of the film’s most legendarily over-the-top sequences, the joke isn’t the display of gore itself, but rather the reaction. When the scowling CEO of Omni Consumer Products (referred to with mock-affection as “The Old Man,” and played by Dan O’Herlihy) witnesses the wanton display of machine-on-man violence and mutters to sniveling underling Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), “I’m very disappointed in you,” that’s the joke — a critique of the corporate world’s utter disdain for human life, packaged in a parody of Reagan-era paternalist condescension. This, presumably, is what Davison is talking about. “RoboCop” offers visions of violence, of top-down, totalitarian corporate control, and the crumbling of the American Dream itself that proves fundamentally comforting in its cheekiness and ironic distance. Yes, the world it depicts is bad. But we know it’s bad. And that’s good.

Yet this idea — fascism for liberals — runs even deeper into the movie’s DNA. What its capitalist parody doesn’t anticipate is the current entanglements of corporatism and politics. While the ascent of celebrity capitalist Donald Trump may play like something out of a direct-to-video “RoboCop” sequel, the film fails to address the more pressing threat of smiling, do-gooder philanthrocapitalists: guys like Michael Bloomberg or Mark Zuckerberg who increasingly set the agendas of American (and global) politics, while retaining the image of selfless saviors. These are the people who, increasingly, represent the corporatization of everyday life, albeit in a way that “RoboCop”-style corporate villainy can’t account for.

When Donald Trump announced that America would be backing out of the Paris Climate Agreement, ex-NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg promised to pick up the tab with his private money. Likewise, before Amazon’s Jeff Bezos announced he was buying the Whole Foods supermarket chain last week — a move that boosted Bezos’s stock while sapping that of competitors like Wal-Mart and Target — he canvassed Twitter for ideas on charities to which he could donate money. This is the face of modern consumerist capitalism: lead with a benign-seeming charitable gesture, follow through with a massive, bottom line-boosting buyout.

The fundamental weakness of ’’80s-era, “RoboCop”-ian businessman bad guys is their conspicuousness. They are vulgar and cruel, they divulge their scheming master plans in Bond villain-style monologues, and mainline cocaine and throw their henchmen out of moving vehicles. They are obviously (too obviously, maybe) villainous. They are unabashedly wolfish and competitive. This is not meant as a dig at “RoboCop” itself, which is a perfect film. Rather, it’s a critique of the automated reaction to praising the film for its farsightedness in a way that seems blinkered and myopic, even from the perspective of today.

Because today, things are altogether different. The billionaire super-capitalists seeking to monopolize the experience of daily life tend to appear not as smirking super-villains with spindly fingers steepled together as if it say “I’m scheming.” Rather, they’re the “good guys.” They donate money to charity (while exploiting tax loopholes), they care about the environment and schools and LGBTQ rights and the health and wellbeing of the Democratic Party. Some even want to go to Mars. They orbit around politics without seeming overtly political. (The obvious exception in this glad-handing rogues gallery is Bloomberg, though his move from mayor of America’s largest city back to private citizen and super-rich guy tends to be regarded as just that, a return or a retirement from political life.) And this seeming isolation from the sphere of politics is their greatest strength.


In 1831, French bureaucrats dispatched Alexis de Tocqueville to America to study the national prison system. He skipped the prisons, surveying instead the whole broad expanse of American society. The resulting study, “Democracy in America,” is an exhaustive account of life and liberty and the then-fledgling republic.

One thing that struck de Tocqueville was the cleaving of church and state. Unlike France, where the Bourbon Restoration had reinstated privileges of nobility granted to the clergy that had been largely stripped during the Revolution, and where the Catholic Church was state religion, America’s deep religiosity existed outside (or alongside) the political realm. “In America,” de Tocqueville observed, “the clergy never hold public office and are not politically active. While the power of religion seems diminished without an alliance with political power, it is actually stronger.” Where “the political sphere is constantly in a state of flux and is always changing according to public opinion,” religion provides a stabler “common morality.”

De Tocqueville’s observations on the American clergy’s power were explicitly translated to the political-social realm by economist Friedrich Hayek and other so-called “Austrian School” economists. As Linsey McGoey writes in her 2015 critique of philanthropy “No Such Thing as a Free Gift,” these economists “grasped the that in order to wield lasting power it was important to make sure their efforts appeared as non-political as possible. Unfailingly, whenever confronted with a choice between overt political engagement and more surreptitious political lobbying, Hayek would recommend the second strategy.” This sense of standing outside the muck and mire of politics itself, of living above the fray, grants billionaire corporatists inordinate power in the public imagination (to wit: during his presidential campaign, Donald Trump successfully spun his lack of experience in politics into a virtue, and similarly framed his inordinate wealth as a mark of his incorruptibility).

Capitalism, or even just gauzier ideas of “business” and “the market,” provide their own contemporary “common morality” (or they appear to, anyway). This is the ultimate liberal fantasy: that all we need to solve massive social problems is more money, that the way to fight against billionaires is with different kind of billionaires. And this is not even to say that Bloomberg, Zuckerberg, Bezos, Bill Gates, Carlos Slim et al. are necessarily bad or evil. But this altruism and aloofness is the essence of their menace. They use wealth, power and influence that results in a net negative of the democratic experiment. While appearing benevolent, they set the agenda, all without the consultation of the broader public (save for the occasional Twitter poll). They consolidate their power and restrict possibilities, delimiting democracy and wrangling into a plutocracy of smirking good Samaritans. This is the sort of stuff that never frighten liberals, who are happy to see their vested interests fortified in the hands of those who think just like them.

And this, perhaps, is why I reserve a certain fondness for director Fred Dekker’s often-mocked 1993 sequel “RoboCop 3.” There, the film’s namesake robotic constable functions not as a metalloid Christ cleansing the temple of American industry from conspicuously chicanerous capitalists, but as a hero of the disenfranchised. He’s an android golem, fighting on behalf of a ragtag revolutionary army of down-and-out Detroiters and pensionless public servants against the encroachment of corporate control (both domestic and foreign) and the steamrolling of Old Detroit. 

Despite the film’s arch-cartoonishness and family-friendly feel (it pares back the blood and gore for scenes of Robo battling Japanese ninja androids and whooshing around in a jetpack), “RoboCop 3” has little in the way of the original’s beloved “tongue-in-cheek, we’re-just-kiddin’ quality.” It’s fueled by a more intersectional, revolutionary energy, in which everyday people band together to defend their retirement funds and stand up for their communities. It’s the sort of story that might actually trouble institutional liberals and do-gooder philanthrocapitalists, one in which a legitimate #Resistance rises up and asserts itself, with or without the help of a reprogrammed robotic police officer. It’s a message that, one might hope, will one day too be trumped up and over-hyped as acute and totally visionary.

Or maybe the better hope is to forgo the backward-looking fetish for prescience altogether, to turn away from Oceania and Gilead and Delta City and cast a caustic eye on the present, to ferret out the culture that will seem ahead of its time well down the line, and to see what’s coming — right now.

Four years later, “Breaking Bad” remains the boldest indictment of modern American capitalism in TV history

The show’s visual style is the greatest-ever rebuke to the gory hold neoliberalism has over our minds and bodies

Spoiler alert: This essay reveals major plot points in “Breaking Bad.” If you still haven’t watched the show, maybe you should go do it right now. 

Gliding o’er all, through all,
Through Nature, Time, and Space,
As a ship on the waters advancing,
The voyage of the soul — not life alone,
Death, many deaths I’ll sing.
— Walt Whitman

It’s not plot, it’s the visual style that matters.

Much of the critical attention paid to “Breaking Bad” — to my mind, not only the greatest television show but arguably the most sustained accomplishment in the history of the cinematic medium — remains centered on the shallower dimensions of character and plot. Now that enough time has passed since the end of the series, we should be able to have greater appreciation for the show’s artistic accomplishments, which elevate it beyond any competition for the best of the best.

“Breaking Bad” is not just the chronicle of an individual’s breakdown, but a global map of modern Western civilization: from its roots in a Lockean/Newtonian liberalism founded in empiricism and hands-on innovation all the way to its contemporary denouement in an abstract capitalism of runaway corporations unresponsive to human ideals. The series unflaggingly maintains the highest cinematographic standards — at the level of a Buñuel, Godard or Antonioni — for not just a couple of hours but for more than 60 hours. In doing so, it translates the abstract chronicle of the rise and fall of empire, and of the various classes of people who are part of it, into visual material that will outlast its moment.

Admittedly, “Breaking Bad” does not exploit alienation effects — the full range of high modernist techniques — to the extent that Vince Gilligan’s crew (particularly director of photography Michael Slovis and production designer Mark Freeborn) were undoubtedly capable of. Though there are occasional glimpses into how much farther the creators could have gone, usually they choose a light hand. This makes the techniques they did use all the more effective, absorbing the default Hollywood narrative style with more conviction.

The primary means by which “Breaking Bad” distinguishes itself is repetition: It is the method that pressures the visual aura to become uncontainable, lending space and time extra-worldly dimensions. Repetition in “Breaking Bad” is not just a stylistic tic, a shortcut to conventional foreshadowing or retrospection, but the marker of a philosophical continuum among all the different lifestyles possible under capitalism.

Each season concerns itself with a dominant mode of capitalism; the motifs, colors, sounds and the whole organization of the visual field emphasize the qualities of that particular mode. There is a season-by-season progression from bourgeois professionalism and petty entrepreneurship to medium-scale enterprise to multinational enterprise and monopoly capitalism, all the way to the final brutal form of empire ending in self-destruction.

Along with progression in the modes of economic organization, there is progression in the psychology of the individuals carried along by the unstoppable waves. It entirely misses the point to analyze Walt (Bryan Cranston) or Jesse (Aaron Paul) or Skyler (Anna Gunn) in terms of good or evil, or conformity to the norms of society that realist art traffics in. The only way to understand these characters is as functionaries within the evolving modes of capitalism. Again, it is repetition — foreshortening or expanding as necessary — that keeps us always in two minds about the unfolding reality. Good and evil have little to do with it.

No other American visual production has been this smart about defamiliarizing ordinary locales in which we conduct our daily business. The White home at 308 Negra Arroyo Lane leads in this defamiliarization by uncanny repetition, but every other location functions similarly: the Schrader home at the end of a cul-de-sac at a higher elevation; the various labs (from Walt’s high-school chemistry lab to the early makeshift one in the RV to Gus Fring’s elaborate setup underneath the industrial laundry to the one in the Nazi compound); the DEA office; the hospitals and clinics, the desert (where various sub-rosa activities take place, from mass killings by foreign intruders to the manufacture of meth and the burial of money to Western-style shootouts and train heists); and even the hardware store, the site not only for home improvement but for procurement of the materials of drug production and corpse disposal.

Every place of activity — from a car to an office to a physician’s consulting room to a fast-food restaurant — appears and reappears in shifting guises, never having the same look, redefined each time by lighting and color and sound, to give us no single privileged site from which to exert our own morality over the narrative. The meaning of each location is caught up in its vanishing moment of existential reality; therefore, the only place of safe observation is the formal aesthetic, that is to say, to put ourselves in the shoes of the creators. Capitalism’s physical realities are offered in so much plenitude that our only choice is to extract ourselves from its seductions and retreat to a formalist posture.

Let me look at a couple of episodes to put some bones on my argument about “Breaking Bad’s” devastating critique of neoliberal capitalism functioning through highly stylized cinematographic techniques.

Season 2, Episode 10: “Over” (written by Moira Walley-Beckett, directed by Phil Abraham)

Sometimes the episode teasers are flash-forwards, consistent through a season, with variations providing partial information. In season 2, it is the falling of the plane over Albuquerque, with parts and bodies landing on the White residence. This particular cold open is in black and white, like the other times the flash-forward occurs this season, in episodes 1, 4 and 13.

White is the dominant color in this episode. We are used to seeing Walt and Jesse dress in yellow hazmat suits with masks on when they cook meth, but here NTSB workers are salvaging evidence from the swimming pool in white hazmat suits. In a later season Skyler will feign drowning herself in the pool, and later in this episode Walt Jr. will throw up in the pool when Walt makes him drink too much. The show is teaching us to see this quintessential suburban space as a locus of dramatic intensification (at the end of season 4, after killing Fring, Walt will sit alone by the pool, contemplating his total victory).

The plastic packages and boxes of evidence will recur in a different form at the beginning of season 5, when Walt engineers a plot to destroy the evidence captured from Gus Fring at Albuquerque police headquarters. The fuchsia hair of the drowned teddy bear is the only color that stands out in the black-and-white tableau, with the one eye popping out ominously. In characteristic fashion, the pink teddy bear appears at different times throughout the series (and also has echoes in the colors of the masks Walt and Jesse wear), as does the missing eye of the teddy bear Walt finds and saves.

Each season of “Breaking Bad” breaks toward an apocalyptic ending (from Tuco and Fring’s deaths to the finale with Uncle Jack’s gang of Nazis), but in the second season, one of attempted domesticity — for Walt and Skyler (after Walt’s cancer goes into remission), for Jesse and Jane (as they try to conquer their own addictions) and for Hank and Marie (as she works through her neuroses) — the confrontation is not with some malevolent external force but Walt’s own growing comfort with violence. This particularly means seeing Jane die, which leads in a convoluted manner to the plane exploding above his neighborhood. In a literal visualization of the chaos effect, Walt invites the world to crash over his head when he makes the choice to let Jane die in Jesse’s bed.

As the rescue workers collect the evidence from the pool, at first it looks — because of distortion and superimposition — as if they were walking upside-down underwater. We quickly realize that we’re seeing their reflections in the pool. The exterior of the White home always appears different. Its relationship to neighboring houses and the street is perpetually redefined: The texture and color and lighting reinterpret the house each time, based on the relationships within the White family or Walt’s state of mind. As we zoom out over the driveway, we see that glass has been shattered; it turns out to be the windshield of Walt’s Aztek. Two body bags are duly marked and laid out next to the car. Since we don’t yet know about the airplane crash, we wonder if these might be Walt and Jesse’s bodies — or any other pair of bodies from the show. Whether or not Walt and Jesse end up precisely like this, we sense that they are already marked men.

The teaser has set the opposition against the “live” action to unfold before us, inviting us to step into the philosophical abyss of death. The rescue workers are performing the same authorized rituals on behalf of industrialized death — the dominant characteristic of capitalism — that Walt, in his own hazmat suit, performs at great risk. The White residence is most white (capitalism = whiteness) in the moment when bodies are being salvaged. “Breaking Bad” feels most alive when capitalism is being acted out violently, rather than the veneer of domesticity of the middle seasons, suggesting that it is in capitalist domesticity that we are least energized. Walt is strongest against cancer at his most ruthless. Hence the constant urge, when Walt has a chance to rest, to keep running to the hardware store to fix the water heater or to take care of the “rot” underneath the floors.

Much of today’s great art seems to be in conversation with Daniel Defoe’s individualist/empiricist philosophy in “Robinson Crusoe.” “Breaking Bad” constantly discovers ways to overturn the narrative incongruity of an individual’s development aside from society, something Defoe made literal by setting his novel on a remote island. “Breaking Bad” represents the stage where the human mind has been completely absorbed by capitalism’s logic, and forays into romanticism cannot but be absurd appendages to the overwhelming movement of capitalist destruction.

“Breaking Bad’s” frequent fish-eye views — humans witnessed through the bottom of objects used in industrial or domestic processes — abrogate the primacy of the human gaze. Skyler becomes distant toward Walt because of his penchant for secrecy, yet makes silly advances toward Ted Beneke, who represents an earlier phase of American capitalism, the manufacturing base of a hundred years ago.

The first shot after the prologue is a closeup of Walt’s weatherbeaten hand; the possibility of working with one’s hands is often a focus of “Breaking Bad.” On Walt’s first day of rest, the bedroom is illuminated by morning sunlight (how different from when the Salamanca twins wait for Walt to emerge from the shower to kill him!), but there is no real option to rest, as we see in the next scene, when Walt meets Jesse at a nondescript restaurant to tell him the good news about his remission.

Walt’s uncertainty is suggested by the wandering camera, the bland blue walls (hazy compared to the assertive blue that will emerge in the final season) and the lack of an identity for the restaurant, or even faux-friendliness, unlike Pollos Hermanos. The only bright color is the red chairs. The camera rotates during the entire scene, taking the men in from multiple directions, never settling for long on one angle. The scene begins and ends with a view of Jesse and Walt occupying the right half of the screen, while the left half is taken up by a plant standing in a dark closet. That there can be no stable point in communication is conveyed by the horizontal lines that always seem to be angling up or down.

The next scene continues this inner quandary. At the party thrown to celebrate the good news about Walt’s health, unlike the party in the pilot episode when Walt was physically embosomed (flabby but wanted) by friends and family, Walt stands very much apart, and reluctantly offers a short, nihilistic speech. This apartness continues at the pool, where he sits away from the crowd, in a corner with Hank and Walt. Jr., and encourages Walt Jr. to drink shot after shot of tequila. We notice more bushes and branches behind where they are sitting than at other times, and what appear to be mythological symbols on the walls.

Meanwhile, at Jesse’s apartment, his attempted domesticity with Jane is the mirror image of Walt’s own handyman efforts. The red plates and red ketchup stand out against a background of white furnishings. Later, as Jesse seeks emotional certitude with Jane, the floor, cabinets and blinds are bathed in white. When Jane’s dad visits unexpectedly and breaks into their domestic bliss, the shot of the back of the duplex highlights the division — Jesse’s side and Jane’s side — despite the nostalgic bath of Southwestern adobe colors. At the front door the hanging plants frame the visitor in deceptive calm. When Jesse leaves, disappointed by Jane’s refusal to acknowledge their relationship, his red car stands out as he hurries past the red stop sign. When he returns home, anxious, his apartment is dominated by red and rust chairs and furnishings. Jane makes her apology by drawing “Apology Girl,” in black and white, of course.

The show persistently brings up nostalgia for the era when masculinity had its place in the culture, only to nullify it. Beneke’s attempt to keep the family manufacturing business alive evokes this, though unlike Walt and his urge to provide for his family (an ideal the show deconstructs when, for example, Fring coaxes Walt out of retirement by arguing, in the later “Green Light” episode, “What does a man do, Walter? A man provides for his family”), Beneke can only resort to accounting tricks.

As with every location — Walt and Jesse’s homes, the DEA office, Saul Goodman’s office, Los Pollos Hermanos, the industrial laundry, the car wash — each variant shot of the Beneke headquarters suggests new interpretations. We see it in the surrounding industrial milieu, not particularly bleak but removed from the life of the city, despite the up-to-date office interior; this mode of capitalism is obsolete. The lunchroom calls up similar nostalgia, as Skyler and Ted pursue an old-fashioned office flirtation. The episodes involving domesticity and nostalgia tend to have little extra-diegetic sound. The quietness of industrial-age America contrasts with the loudness at the end of the episode when Walt warns a pair of low-life competitors (downscale versions of himself and Jesse?) to “stay out of my territory” — to the aggressive tune of DLZ’s “TV on the Road.”

Walt putters around in the heater room (a “lab” for the handyman?) with rusty liquid on the floor foreshadowing Victor’s blood in the superlab when Fring kills him, or the floor of the same lab when Walt kills Fring’s employees after doing away with him. On Walt’s first visit to the building supply store, rows of white heaters (the same shape as barrels, of course) are on display. The camera expertly brings objects to our attention rather than the people around them. The distancing toward the hardware store is at one with the interrogation of nostalgia toward golden-age suburbia, which sways even Jesse for a while. The re-envisioning of ordinary American venues seems to me “Breaking Bad’s” greatest stylistic accomplishment, which the show does without venturing into extreme experimentation. For example, the shot of the White residence framed by the discarded heater at the curb in front subtly devalues suburban quietude.

On his next visit to the building supply store, when Walt leaves we see his car framed in a wide shot, the texture of the scene corresponding to the wide view of the Beneke headquarters earlier, and also the texture when Jesse leaves the duplex. Walt converts his basement into a lab of sorts, once he discovers “rot” while fixing the heater; fixing one mechanical problem only leads to discovering another, in an endless chain. When we see Walt Jr. staring at the hole underground while Walt lies prone on his back, it foreshadows the later “Crawl Space” episode, which is the last chance Walt will have to make a clean getaway — except he can’t because Skyler has blown the $600,000 to bail out Ted from the IRS. It also foreshadows the final shot of the concluding episode when we are shown Walt’s prone body from high above, after he has (lovingly) caressed the Nazis’ lab equipment.

Walt Jr.’s look at his father resembles the way we view someone we have just buried, though there is no room in capitalism to allow for such prolonged glances of curiosity. Capitalism promises to eradicate all the cancers, keeping people busy doing that and nothing else. Hence, Walt tells his son, “[I have to] just cut it [fruiting bodies, fungus] out and start fresh,” which makes Walt Jr. wonder, “Is the whole house going to collapse?”

The buzz of Walt’s saw transitions seamlessly into that of the vacuum cleaner at Beneke’s, where a different kind of rot (Ted’s IRS shenanigans) is what Skyler will try to cut out to give the company a fresh start. When Skyler lets Ted clasp his hand over hers, it is over white account ledgers (which can’t be balanced in the old economy), even as Ted counsels her about her marital situation, saying, “Being that rock takes everything you’ve got.” Here, as so often, the dialogue is an ironic counterpoint to the visual field, a continuous verbal montage interrogating our ways of understanding reality.

The connections with the cold open now become more explicit. Walt is dressed in the same white hazmat suit as the rescue workers once he gets serious about taking out the rot. The mise-en-scène of the breakfast table is visualized umpteen different ways, this time with prominent white mugs and salt shakers, as Walt tells Skyler he can’t go to work because “Skyler, there’s rot!” Walt is in remission, after having almost lost his life, yet Skyler can’t wait for him to get to work: Breakfast is a ritual denial before we start each day.

We overhear news about the housing market collapse, then cut to the Beneke building’s external surroundings, presented more bleakly now. Earlier, when we saw Skyler with Ted shortly after Walt’s restaurant rendezvous with Jesse, the railing leading to Skyler’s office seemed unstable, the lines echoing those of the restaurant. Now, as Skyler is more certain, the horizontal lines of the railing appear steady and a single stem with white flowers again dominates Skyler’s office. Walt, on the other side of town, is busy underground, accompanied by red rags (and plenty of rusted horizontal pipes).

Walt’s next visit to the hardware store is dominated by bunches of white containers of “KILZ,” which is labeled “white pigmented, odorless.” The textual signifiers throughout the series seethe in the visible trappings of a culture (perhaps the only one in the world) that gives everything away at every moment. The public address system queries: “Why can’t the grass always be greener on your side?” The shopping carts are red, the sale signs are in red, and there are red containers and red caps over bottles of chemicals. When Walt encounters the ruffian trying to get meth supplies, at first he is solicitous. He might have continued helping him out, but his cowardliness incites Walt’s manliness. Framed by the red, white and blue flag over the checkout counter, he decides on his course of action. At night the hardware store’s parking lot has turned ominous, as Walt issues his aforementioned warning to his competitors. No house can exist without an extended “territory” going along with it; the myth of privacy is foundationless, and there is no choice but to exert power (of some kind) within a given territory.

Season 5, Episode 8: “Gliding Over All” (written by Moira Walley-Beckett, directed by Michelle MacLaren)

In the teaser, the fly — which we remember from the earlier eponymous episode, where Walt was driven to a frenzy in the superlab from fear of contamination — now appears because of the proximity of Mike’s corpse in the car trunk. Bodies are substitutable and keep finding themselves in similar predicaments: In season 2, Walt and Jesse were locked in the trunk of Tuco Salamanca’s car, on their way to Mexico. Now Walt has just killed Mike Ehrmantraut, and awaits Todd’s return after the disposal of Mike’s car in the usual manner: Cars are flattened into pancakes, computers are rendered useless with magnet attacks and bodies are always being dissolved in barrels of acid. As Todd views Walt from behind, a large white safe is illuminated. The Vamonos Pest Control office recalls others (such as Chow’s, or Fring’s in the back of Pollos Hermanos) where capitalism’s dirty work bubbles up: No safe can store the Faustian knowledge Walter White possesses.

We are not given much time to focus on the fly, or the disposal of Mike’s body, because season 5 is the culmination of the speed, mercuriality and inhumanity of multinational globalization, the visual style capturing it all. There is a fleeting glimpse of the chart Walt had been studying when Todd arrives; it is one describing various species of flies. A fly is not just a fly, it belongs to a classification system, which is the job of science to elaborate. The full meaning of the fly episode, this recurrence suggests, is not meant to be understood. The fly is not necessarily a symbol for anything; our very existence in capitalism, our very pursuit of “scientific” knowledge, is the problem. “Breaking Bad” wants to take us beyond death to existence as the unsolvable worry. Mike’s corpse is disposed in a white plastic barrel, as we’re reminded that not long ago he was the enforcer; thus, all the enforcers in capitalism with inflated ideas about their own importance are going to be dissolved, including at last the very system of enforcement.

The first episode of season 5 establishes the textural overtones from which it never varies. Locations like Madrigal’s headquarters in Germany, or the café Lydia likes to frequent to make her deals, are the epitome of post-postmodern insensateness, dominated by a cool blue and background noise associated with gentrification. With season 5 we enter the notion that there is no normal in neoliberalism, so Todd (the old-style Nazi) fits in well with the modus operandi of abstract multinational corporations.

Walt’s house will soon be the scene of attempted destruction (like the Schrader home), and when the overhead shot offers a view of his bald head and body as he takes a shower, we are invited to think of the “showers” at Nazi concentration camps. We notice that Walt has left Gale Boetticher’s inscribed copy of “Leaves of Grass” in the bathroom, but it would be a mistake to think of Walt’s hubris causing Hank to discover his identity by way of Whitman; the visual style should have persuaded us by now that no possibility of assigning guilt or credit exists.

When Walt meets Lydia at the café for the first time, the contrast with Pollos Hermanos’ bright ambience (the Southwestern fast-food décor amid which the old-fashioned meth empire flourishes) couldn’t be starker. These are the venues where neoliberal destruction, on a planetary scale defying imagination, is silently plotted. The café is dominated by vertical lines and columns, and its particular shade of blue is a continuation from the season-opening “Madrigal” episode. Lydia’s enticement of Walt has more meaning in the pacified setting. After Lydia brags about moving millions of metric tons, the view expands and we see the complete figures of the patrons, after having glimpsed mostly partial images of them: Our entire bodies are dedicated to the abstract movement of finance, that’s the whole picture.

The café architecture has emptied modernism of its electric charge; it is the sort of open structure that goes back to Milan’s Galleria but has no humanist quality. The vertical lines appear more prominent as Walt makes up his mind. When he’s thinking of delivering the ricin to Lydia, we hear soft piano music, but it grows louder as Lydia writes down the names of the nine doomed men in prison, and the two shake hands over their deal. In one of this episode’s numerous allusions to earlier events (to make the point that neoliberalism is the summation of all the forms of capitalism that have gone before), Lydia echoes Tuco’s exact words when she says, “We’re going to make a lot of money together,” just as Walt echoes Mike’s words when he says, “Learn to take yes for an answer.” The scene ends with an ever-widening shot, and we get the largest view yet of the entire restaurant, including the counter at the other end.

Walt meets the Nazis to plot the prison murders in chilly darkness in a motel room. He concentrates on the mass-produced painting on the wall (as with the music at Lydia’s café, both respectable and sordid locations share the deadness of “art”). “Breaking Bad” insists that the emotional highs in our civilization occur when we engage in various competitive, violent or selfish games; it is not art but violence (think of the excitement of the train heist) that turns us childlike, even if it means murdering actual children. Walt, like everyone else on the show, is most robust, for example, in the climactic episodes of each season, when capitalism’s murderous game is most intense.

This emotional intensity comes across in Walt’s concentration on the picture, while the Nazis sprawled next to him are reflected in the mirror next to the picture. So we have a sideways view of Walt, and the picture he’s staring at, next to the reflection of the Nazis. The underwhelming color is camouflage green, as Walt wonders aloud how the pictures get distributed. The camera’s gaze bestows bleak heroism upon the murderer who notes things that are not so much distractions as iterations of the industrialized processes that reduce us to ciphers.

There is a time-lapse shot of the Motel Hacienda, followed by the calm of the Albuquerque prison’s barbed wire. As Walt expects news of the murders within the designated two-minute window, his house is shown in the richest brown hues we’ve seen so far. The objects are sharply defined in deep focus, and we notice (Oriental) screens; we’ve never seen his home look so classy, so old-world, with richly textured bookcases. Walt’s expensive watch — with the same blue face as Lydia’s blouses, and with red hands and white hours — ticks away during the prison murders montage. The montage, like the meth cooking or distribution montages, is accompanied by Nat King Cole’s “Pick Yourself Up,” suggesting the light energy when we, in our own ways, commit everyday murderous deeds. Afterwards, like Walt’s home, Hank’s home has also never looked so classic and sturdy — with rich wood and marble, sturdy bookshelves and cabinets; this only heightens the total loss of purpose Hank is feeling at the moment.

Later in the episode, when Walt visits Jesse to finally give him his share of the profits, we see Jesse’s house as bereft of the solidity of Walt and Hank’s house (though his spirit is stronger). The focus in Jesse’s living room is the futon. Jesse has never wavered from his small-business mentality (in the end he even has to undergo a period of slavery); he doesn’t have others’ ambitions. (Walt: “I’m in the empire business.”) In Jesse’s house, devoid of furnishings, the two are able to let loose and reminisce about their improvisatory history with the unreliable 1980s Fleetwood Bounder RV that served as their mobile lab early on. We are invited to consider that Walt’s exit from the drug trade might have provoked a downward health spiral, rather than the other way around; the question is never explicitly answered, because one of the metaphysical dilemmas of capitalism is that we never know such answers.

Walt depositing the bag of money at Jesse’s home is to metaphorically recall him to death. We watch the Walt-Jesse interaction in Jesse’s living room from high above (the death POV, if you will), whereas when Walt interacts with Lydia, for example, we see them at eye level, in conventional medium shots. Walt and Jesse’s relationship, with the father figure attempting to raise his student’s ambitions, is different. As always on “Breaking Bad,” there is continuity between all the realms of life, without any of the artificial separations protecting the lie that capitalism is not ruining us at every moment.

When Walt lifts his head after bending down to take a drink in Hank’s living room, the jump cut reveals him merrily being the meth producer again. The montage that follows, with the song “Crystal Blue Persuasion” at last making its appearance, is a highly sped-up integration of production, distribution and finance in global business, every act occurring almost simultaneously. The montages in “Breaking Bad” are excellent instances of making the passage of time a conundrum, fatally altering space and vice versa; this is the quality of film that distinguishes it from other art forms.

In this particular montage, the desert is at a remote distance, miniaturized as though its threats were suddenly manageable — or so global capitalism would like us to think. While Saul has a leisurely drink, we realize that at last everything in this global network Walt has plugged into is efficient. Walt on his own is shown from above, while the money being stacked by him and Todd is usually seen from a low angle. Skyler’s blue blouse and red cup, along with a view of her legs, transition to a view of Lydia, also wearing a blue blouse (the same cornflower blue top in which she will take the ricin in the final episode) and drinking from a red cup. The cut from Skyler to Lydia in the montage makes us ask: Who is Walt’s crucial relationship with, Skyler or Lydia? The car-wash office has been transformed into a moneymaking operation that exceeds its actual potential, the aspiration of every business. An aerial view of suburban sprawl shows us house after house on each block draped with the Vamonos tent, cover for meth-making; this shot continues until we reach the very edge of the desert.

Exiting the montage, Holly is shown taking her first steps on Hank’s lush blue rug, suggesting that she will grow up implicated in the same web. When Louis calls Walt Jr., we’re back to nostalgia for the heyday of the American middle class, with leisure opportunities for each family member. Marie and Skyler engage in the same layers of family deception, offered as confession, that Hank and Walt engaged in earlier in the same setting; again, it’s repetition that keeps collapsing the artificial boundaries of respectability. Marie, as is her wont, engages in therapy talk, telling Skyler that she worries they’re “enabling” her, and that it’s time to “repair the family.”

My worry with “Breaking Bad” was always whether it would succumb to the valorization of the family — a staple of reactionary American filmmaking for at least 50 years — but this never happens, because family is fatally caught up in the financial dynamics that ruin every sphere of life. To the extent that “Breaking Bad” is a relentless attack on capitalism, it mounts the same kind of attack on the psychological structures that support the modern nuclear family, the base of capitalism.

To show Walt that their family has been preserved for good, Skyler takes him to the storage unit with all their money. The bright blue hues in the storage facility are more metallic, more disturbing, but it’s the same blue of Madrigal and of gentrified postmodern capitalism. Walt’s $80 million is covered with bed sheets; the money is literalized as the bed one lies in, a form of eroticism, when Skyler asks, “How much is enough?” The next scene after the preposterous stack of money (on which Huell and Kuby will soon lie, as though on a bed) is Walt lying on the MRI bed. Again, Walt is seen from above, an intimation of God or death seeing us, and true also of the folklore of so-called near-death experiences. Here is modern medicine (a subset of capitalism) observing Walt’s prone body, as in the crawl space when his sole offspring watches him.

The escalating physical crisis for Walt is reinforced by a typical time-lapse montage of Albuquerque, as we go to the final scene, where Hank at last discovers Walt’s true identity. The yard is dominated by earth tones, as Holly is being pushed around in a blue and red cart by Walt Jr. This is Walt and Skyler’s last attempt to return to earth; in this scene there are more rocks strewn around the yard than we’ve ever noticed before. The pool — which looked enormous when Skyler was feigning to drown in it or when Hank and Walt fought over Walt Jr. — looks tiny now, the smallest it has appeared; the corresponding psychological attempt is to get past the issues that remain submerged, to miniaturize them.

Likewise, the family chatter over the everyday uses of science is of a different quality (the sound is very muted) than in the past. As Hank enters the master bathroom, where he will make his devastating discovery, it appears larger, calmer and more spacious than ever before, in all its lavender glory. This is another deception against what is about to happen, yet another way to creatively imagine the same locale.

“Breaking Bad” will stand the test of time in the way of the greatest art

The short Walt Whitman poem which serves as my epigraph, and is the source of the title of the episode above, might as well be “Breaking Bad’s” aesthetic philosophy compressed to a nugget: The cinematic style “glides over all” (looks from a massively detached point of view at the whole of the neoliberal economy), making us see nature, space and time, and the dimensions of death we all have to face, in a new way.

“Breaking Bad” was a historic show because it took the biggest strides toward the “cinematization” of American television. When critics focus on character development in a realistic vein, they miss nearly everything that is unique about the show. Character in “Breaking Bad” is interesting to the extent that it is developed through visual style, for example, in the way teasers compress time in an open-ended commentary on a season’s (as yet unknowable) thematics. The show makes a mockery of the neoliberal myth of changing one’s reality by changing one’s body; that’s one meaning of Walt assuming the Heisenberg persona and altering his physical appearance accordingly. In the Walter/Heisenberg dichotomy we have a parody of social media reinvention, as is true also of Marie’s assumed identities. We seek to redefine time and space by denying mortality, fantasies capitalism feeds in order to keep its real ventures going without opposition.

What takes place off-screen in “Breaking Bad” is so vast that it defeats a critic trying to fit the show within any given genre. It is not merely a rehash of various genres, but it reaches for a meta-narrative that absorbs each of the genres it encounters: That’s what “Breaking Bad’s” visual technique is always trying to accomplish, from the desert scenes (rewriting the classic Western and the spaghetti Western) to reimagining the inherent melodrama of the suburban setting. It is the malleable character of people that gives places reality: Thus we see the White residence 16 years earlier, when they are considering buying it, empty of character and unrecognizable; the same unrecognizability pervades in the scenes at the end when the house has been taken away.

“Breaking Bad” imagines how it is to inhabit a place when the economy seeks to define you in particular ways: Does your self-definition follow from that, or is there something internal that cannot be absorbed in the economy? That’s the source of Walt’s endless anger, the artificial separation between legitimate and illegitimate occupations, legal and illegal ways of making money and acquiring power. Gray Matter Technologies and similar outfits can peddle legal pharmaceuticals to the tune of billions of dollars, whereas there are strict rations to health care, even for Hank when he is injured, beyond which the neoliberal economy won’t go.

Corresponding to forms of permissible and impermissible power are public spaces versus hidden spaces, a constant preoccupation for the show: The heater closet and the crawl space evoke subterranean nightmares we must heed. When liberal democracy was getting started, novels imagined science as a savior; now science is amoral, fatally implicated in empire and domination, a facilitator of new waves of fascism. In this economy of amorality, a would-be small entrepreneur such as Jesse (like his friends Badger or Skinny Pete) has little chance; Jesse is kicked out of his home by his own mother, and at a low point in his life seeks shelter for the night in his and Walt’s RV. Which raises the question whether Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz of Gray Matter Technologies have freedom under neoliberalism or are just as disposable as the insecure small businessman. Are they too fatally reliant on constant PR — just as is the DEA, just as is Walt’s high school, just as are Beneke and Goodman?

“Breaking Bad” is not a popular culture reflection on crime and punishment. Neoliberal crime is sophisticated, but the show’s tension consists in visualizing remnants of pre-neoliberal production, distribution and finance — storage rooms full of cash, car washes for money laundering! — uneasily meshing with neoliberalism’s abstract sphere. The visual style never veers from keeping this tension in sight, and the variations within repetition make us realize the gaps, which are really hypocrisies, in the narrative we tell ourselves about the economy in which we all think we have a rightful place. Had Walt (and Saul and Skyler and Mike) not had to deal with piles of cash, the crime would have remained forever undetected.

Detection itself is a paranoid impulse, when crimes of far greater magnitude (involving trillions of dollars and implicating the health of all living species) are not even recognized, let alone punished. “Breaking Bad” deconstructs criminality, and therefore also liberal bourgeois virtue, because if the definition of crime is overturned then so is the meaning of the virtues that support legal ventures. We are all (neoliberal) entrepreneurs now, even Skyler with her car wash, with all that this implies. The solution to any crisis, under neoliberalism, is to become an entrepreneur and sell yourself. The DEA is parasitic, facilitating the credible monopoly of legalized addictions, while prosecuting those operating outside the arbitrary monopolies.

One of the questions neoliberalism presses on us most urgently is that of masculinity in an economy that has no use for any of the definitions of masculinity that went with the rise of liberalism and industrialization. “Breaking Bad’s” stylistic innovations let us think critically about the crisis of masculinity (which also means the crisis of feminism), one of whose final manifestations (as we’ve seen repeatedly in the past century and as is unfolding again) is Nazism. Neoliberalism disposes human bodies as callously as Walt does in barrels of hydrofluoric acid. Science always bails out Walt — even Jesse, his once-inept pupil, begins to have total faith in Mr. White’s ability to get them out of any scrape through some scientific improvisation — including in the final episode. “Breaking Bad” suggests that the scope for this kind of individualist science has been extinguished, professionalized big science having removed scientific capability from the grasp of anybody not seeking to make monopolistic profits. Scientific rationality (formerly an aspect of masculinity), in the way that we collectively endorse it now, is the only inescapable trap, which has merged into neoliberal domination today.

In this context, it is naive to study Walt’s morality from a bourgeois realist point of view (like Hank talking about “chasing monsters”), when neoliberalism compels a fetishization of the family that removes it from liberal democratic concerns. The protection of the family at all costs (from neoliberal ravages) is the clue neoliberalism has already given us, and has always kept in plain view, as the means to our own self-destruction. It is playing with these evident clues, in plain sight, that constitutes “Breaking Bad’s” stylistic innovation: The savagery we think we see so often, as in the prison-murders montage, is the rule neoliberalism wants us to epitomize as the definition of crime.

All of “Breaking Bad’s” visual inventions have one aim: To show that there is no single turning point in neoliberalization, that it is a continuous and endless process. So for critics to wonder about this or that juncture, such as the hardware parking lot scene, as the inflection point where Walter “breaks bad,” is futile. We are not proper Heisenbergians (able to think post-philosophically, post-morally, post-democratically) because our minds are not wired that way. “Breaking Bad’s” visual style superimposes our primitive brain (which seeks comfort in small affections) over the abstractions of contemporary economic life, creating constant moral openings where we can see the duality of things and therefore interpret our conundrum. All of us have doubles, or we wouldn’t be neoliberal subjects; all the characters in “Breaking Bad” — Gus as the DEA supporter and meth kingpin of the Southwest, as much as Jesse’s little brother or Wendy the drug addict — visually represent this merger. Time and space must collapse to uphold our mythology of unity, and “Breaking Bad” does this over and over again so that we may justify our (realist) ethics to ourselves.

Anis Shivani is at work on a novel called “Abruzzi, 1936.” His most recent books are “Karachi Raj: A Novel,” “Whatever Speaks on Behalf of Hashish: Poems” and “Soraya: Sonnets.” “Literary Writing in the Twenty-First Century: Conversations” comes out in April 2017.

“American Gods” answers our prayers for a show worthy of worship

Divine drama: Bryan Fuller and Michael Green combine their talents to bring Neil Gaiman’s deity-driven story roaring to life

Divine drama: "American Gods" answers our prayers for a show worthy of worship
American Gods(Credit: Starz)

Take a moment to appreciate the spiritual symmetry Starz’s “American Gods” brings to the next eight Sunday nights. Millions will greet each of those mornings with ceremonial worship and prayer, and a share of those same people, as well as others who are less religious, will end the day watching this drama — a show that questions whether faith gains us anything in the end.

For there’s no question in “American Gods” as to whether deities exist. They walk among us and have done so for centuries, sharing many of the same urges and frustrations as humans do. What the gods are not, however, are interventionists. Pray all you want; odds are they’re not listening. But be careful because the ones who answer may not give the pious the deliverance sought.

“American Gods,” premiering Sunday at 9 p.m., represents Neil Gaiman’s contemporary take on pantheons merging and colliding, something genre fiction writers played with on page and screen many times over. Readers familiar with Gaiman’s “Sandman” comic books will recognize the insouciant humor and a similarly fluid sense of time and reality in Bryan Fuller and Michael Green’s television adaptation.

The otherworldly travelers in “American Gods” are immigrants who arrive alongside their human believers but whose relationship with the faithful tends toward the parasitic as opposed to the symbiotic. In an opening scene set in the distant past, Vikings are marooned on an unfriendly North American shore and maim themselves to gain favor from Odin, the All-Father, whose bestowal of a piddly breeze is not commensurate with the stunning orgy of bloodshed that precedes it.

If Odin’s boys could only see him now! Traveling as Mr. Wednesday, the battered and rumpled old god (played sublimely by Ian McShane) merrily, lazily slides into the life of recently released convict Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle). Shadow finds out as he’s released that his wife Laura (Emily Browning) has died unexpectedly, a terrible stroke of fate that brings him into Wednesday’s orbit.

Wednesday cons his way into first class by pretending to be senile and harmless, and Shadow, in a stroke of luck, is bumped up when his seat is double booked. Whether this was actually coincidence or the downward-trending god’s will is the first of many small mysteries “American Gods” sprinkles throughout its initial episodes — and probably the least important.

Mr. Wednesday is up front about who he is: a liar, cheater, swindler, hustler. A few drinks later Mr. Wednesday persuades Shadow to become his paid bodyguard, a job assured to come with a lot of perks as well as a high probability of a violent death. For Wednesday is gathering an army of old deities to take on the New Gods, a coalition of uncaring beings led by Mr. World (Crispin Glover), which includes the bratty Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) and the seductive Media (Gillian Anderson).

While the Norse god can count on some truly potent allies, including a tall and pugilistic leprechaun named Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) and Czernobog (Peter Stormare), a bloodthirsty Slavic lord of darkness, latter-day humanity’s obsession with material gain and convenience has decided tilted the odds against Mr. Wednesday’s team.

Now capricious creatures of faded glory, these formerly supreme beings have been forgotten, pushed into musty, small spaces and wrapped in dingy, plain clothes. Survival has transformed them from masters over the elements and protectors of humanity into con artists, thugs and killers. Yet they personify timelessness; regardless of the actor playing them, these beings do not seem recognizably young or ancient. Their places of worship may be velvety scarlet dens of supplication or a bank of screens at a big-box store; their altars are dreamscapes of temptation, threats and teeth that catch men by the throat.

“American Gods” takes place at the nexus of classic myth and modern techromancy, archetype and prototype, and wrestles with concepts no less than the churning of an unconcerned and enthralling cosmos.

Gaiman’s new gods, like the old ones, are manifestations of modern beliefs. And what do we believe in these days? The material and the measurable — fame, convenience, wealth. The new gods promise the kind of immortality that can accessed by a search engine, with none of the nonsense about souls or angels or never-ending bliss in union with the infinite.

But the infinite is dazzling, no question. Transitional sequences within each episode convey the wonder of the universe through wide shots of color-saturated natural vistas and skies streaked with carpets of stars. The show’s cinematography and digital imagery emphasize the juxtaposition of the natural world against the synthetic, reality versus the realm of the unreal, impressing upon the viewer how inconsequential man happens to be in the vastness of time and space. It also invites the viewer to see an extra level of magic within floating tufts of dandelion seed.

The drama provides an ideal canvas for Fuller and Green to unleash their creative and collaborative powers. The conscientious visual style that Fuller honed on “Hannibal” achieves riotous new heights of sensuality in this series. Green, a DC Comics veteran whose television credits include serving as an executive producer on “Heroes,” aids in harmonizing the story’s surfeit of histories and personalities into an intelligible and spellbinding structure.

Combining their strengths, Fuller and Green have taken a story long believed to be untamable and channeled its powers into a delirious odyssey that takes its time with character development without putting too much drag on the tale’s velocity.

It doesn’t take long for Shadow and Wednesday’s road trip to become a Technicolor debate about the nature of belief and the power of faith. Mr. Wednesday needs both to continue to exist. Shadow Moon, as his name implies, is a guardian of the threshold between the mortal and the eternal. He believes in nothing. Yet the oddity he witnesses at Wednesday’s side gives him pause.

Fuller and Green co-wrote five of the first season’s eight episodes, and their scripts gives the show’s superlative cast a buffet of opportunities to chew the scenery. Orlando Jones’ introduction as Mr. Nancy is marked by a blazing monologue evocative of Alec Baldwin’s epic “Glengarry Glen Ross” speech and it’s chockablock with just as many cold assurances.

McShane ascends to his usual level of brilliance, but Whittle’s Shadow wields a seductive, brooding charm that stands up to the “Deadwood” star well enough. And their partnership gives credence to the idea that the gods could be a little insane.

But Fuller and Green accentuate the comedic side of these gods and goddesses much more than their cruelty (the exception being Yetide Badaki’s divinely concupiscent Bilquis) which imbues “American Gods” with a cheeky flair. And if the performances by the likes of Jones, Stormare, Schreiber and Cloris Leachman seem outsized, that’s proportional to the beings they play.

So numerous are the number of gods that we don’t even meet them all in the first four episodes. Those who are introduced, however, are fascinating enough to purchase the viewers’ patience with the relatively leisurely speed that “American Gods” travels through the plot. It takes time to construct a world worthy of worship.