Breaking Bad and the Adjustment Period

After over a year of waiting, Breaking Bad finally returned to television last week and I for one am excited. Unlike long-time fans, I’ve just gotten into the show, so at least I haven’t been biting my nails for the last year over what the outcome of the cliffhanger ending would be.

There’s a lot to talk about with the season opener; I have a more topical review up at Global Comment in which I wax rhapsodic over lighting and camera angles (yes really) but there was a particular scene I wanted to delve into in more depth, because it was brief, but very key, and also played an important role in the history of the show and its handling of social issues. This is not a television show setting out to send very special lessons to viewers, which is one reason its handling of topics like disability is so successful, and this season, we’re going to have a big disability storyline on our hands, as we were reminded in ‘Box Cutter.’

It’s the scene with Marie and Hank Schrader where he’s in bed and she charges in, demanding to know how his therapy appointment went. He grows increasingly uncomfortable as she talks, keeping up a steady stream of chipper, rapidfire narrative that sounds more like she’s talking to herself than anyone else. She’s edgy and nervous and uncomfortable and it’s apparent from the minute she walks into the room that she is uncomfortable around her husband, specifically. Being around him, and his body, makes her edgy.

He’s terse, irritable. He doesn’t want to talk about how physical therapy went. She asks what he was looking at on the laptop and he tells her he’s looking at minerals. She’s still flighty, anxious, fluttering around the room to fluff pillows unnecessarily to feel like she’s doing something, and eventually it transpires that he needs to use the bathroom.

‘Number one or number two,’ she says, again, trying to look cheerful and upbeat.

‘Number two,’ he says, with a sort of shamed, defeated expression as she briskly rounds up the bedpan and helps him position it. As she pulls his pants down and he stares at the wall, she blathers on about the mineral.

‘It’s pretty,’ she says. His expression says ‘I really need to take a shit and you want to talk about minerals?’

He pulls himself into position and she slips away to let him do his business. End scene. And, for viewers, a very important setting scene; we’re seeing Hank after the shooting, Hank in recovery, Hank at home. We’re not quite sure what is going to happen with Hank and where they are going to take his character, although I have high hopes, because Breaking Bad seems the most willing to actually do its homework with disability, and to try and do a good job with it. Whether this is a temporary disability, or a permanent one, right now, we are seeing Hank in a very vulnerable place.

Hank is in the adjustment period. Acquired disabilities can bring up some strong emotions as people transition between different bodily states, identities, beliefs about their own worth and value. As a DEA agent, Hank’s led a very active, dynamic life. He’s used to using his body in very specific ways that aren’t possible for him right now, and he is obviously struggling with it. This particular scene was very well played; many people said they felt uncomfortable watching it and we were supposed to feel uncomfortable.

We are uncomfortable in solidarity with Hank, who is clearly trying to navigate this new situation and to, yes, adjust to the changes he’s experiencing, to his new body, to a radically different life than the one he knows. We are also uncomfortable for Marie, who doesn’t really know what to do with herself here. She’s trying to fit into this caregiver role while navigating all these other things. She wants to pretend that everything is ok, that everything will be ok, and she’s waking up to the realisation that ‘normal’ isn’t always what you expected, and ‘ok’ can look like a lot of different things.

The ways that people deal with the adjustment period are immensely variable, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it’s handled here. One of the problems with limited depictions of disability on television is that any appearance is taken as an authoritative one, which puts shows like Breaking Bad in a tough position because their decisions for characters may be mistaken by viewers and critics as definitive statements on disability (and other topics).

If Hank is depressed, which he appears to be, that’s clearly because of the character, not because the writers and creators think that disability is depressing, or even that the adjustment period is depressing for all people, although depression is not uncommon. What they’re depicting here is true to many lived experiences, and I hope that their record of careful research and thoughtful handling of disability carries through, and that Hank’s journey continues to be true to the actual experiences of people who share that disability, or who have experienced similar injuries.

This is not a scene where disability is used as a tool or a commentary. It’s something that has happened to a character, and now everyone has to adjust to it, and see where they fit in the new paradigm. There are going to be a lot of complex emotions surrounding Hank’s injury and the way in which different characters respond to it and it is clearly going to be a part of this season. Maybe not the most important part, maybe not a dominating storyline, but it’s obviously going to play a role; Breaking Bad is not going to hide Hank in the house until he magically wakes up fully recovered, I don’t think. I don’t think that’s their style.