distinctly American

Everything is rightfully about Coronavirus now, but I find myself looking over the present moment’s shoulder, more concerned about pandemics and other catastrophes to come than this one. The scariest thing is that my country keeps proving itself so childish in the way we handle big things. Our system prides itself on having breathing room to take reckless risks; people have such faith in checks and balances, believing an invisible good will beneath it all has to eventually break through.

Wisdom comes through unlikely places, and last night a little came through for me while watching Better Call Saul, a show based on a side character in Breaking Bad.– less brutal, but with the similar themes. Walter White was a okay guy until given pressure and opportunity to reveal otherwise; Saul seems helplessly shady, falling into the arms of baser instincts over and over again.

But we still root for him. Which is so… American.

I think we root for his dancing on the edge. Life has dealt him a raw deal, and he’s making art of it. We could celebrate him as a crazy wisdom character, alchemizing suffering, even while aware every second that we’re watching a tragedy unfold.

I loved this episode… seeing just how adeptly and shamelessly he wielded his rage against a giant force, delighted as he pulled one rabbit after another out of his proverbial hat. Because that’s where the difference between the two characters (Walter White/Saul Goodman) reveals itself most strongly. Talent appears in service to something for both characters, but perhaps Saul’s pain, therefore his motive, is more pure.

I find characters like that endearing.

But is my whole country also locked in to this kind of tragedy unfolding? Might we use such works as a peek at the script? This pandemic, as horrible as it is (and it is, which is hard to feel when buffered by our creature comforts and internet), seems to be a warning shot.

So many in my country have a romantic sensibility of the pioneering West as a vast open land where individuality can flourish, and bad taste too, if it chooses. In a vast open land, territorial conflicts are handled by just the people involved; people who look each other in the eye, pushing each other left or right over time. Who has time to micromanage the social dynamics in the village next door?

Someone who sees the world that way could indeed vote for what a Donald Trump appeared and sometimes appears to be. They might see themselves as the man Saul seems to be standing up for against the impenetrable interests whittling away at their lives, using whatever ridiculous antics it takes.

But in the end, Saul doesn’t really care about that man. The character is just on his own side. His pain doesn’t carry some grand transformative vision.

I think that is the end of the story, tragic though it may be.


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