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Satan, Walter White, and Yertle the Turtle

turtleheapIn case you somehow did not read it as a child, Yertle the Turtle is a morality tale by the learned Dr. Seuss, designed to moderate the overweening ambitions of power-hungry five-year-olds through the example of a despotic turtle. When Yertle, king of the pond, tries to expand his domain by piling his subjects one atop the other to form an ever-higher throne and vantage point, his ambitions are thwarted by one heroically feckless little turtle at the bottom of the heap who cannot refrain from belching violently.

The lesson obviously should be never to use faulty materials when you are building your living throne, or at least to respect the laws of physics enough to try to create a stable equilibrium.

The lesson obviously should be never to use faulty materials when you are building your living throne, or at least to respect the laws of physics enough to try to create a stable equilibrium. I remember feeling sure as I turned the penultimate page that I would find an improved pyramidal design with that pathetic runt Mack sticking his head out somewhere on the edge where he couldn’t do too much harm. Instead I was shocked to learn that the experience of tumbling a mile down into a murky pond amidst a terrible terrapin downpour had crushed Yertle’s spirit and left him an impotent “King of the Mud.” What a horrible story.

I understood the moral point, and I knew that Yertle was a bad dude, but I still felt cheated. And Yertle is not the only villain/anti-hero I felt this way about as a child. I definitely saw the Care Bears as irritating obstacles in Beastly’s path to the crown in “The Great Race.” And I was constantly disappointed that Dr. Claw despite all his promises never got that incompetent Gadget the next time.

I don’t think it’s just me. The problem of bad guys whose story is so compelling you want them to win is an old one in literature, at least as old as Milton’s Paradise Lost. As many have observed, it’s hard to read the first book of that poem and not feel that Satan is destined to lead his fallen troops out of their infernal state. His acts are decisive and impressive and seem to argue that his present suffering is just a temporary setback. Here he is rising from the pool of fire into which God has cast him:

Forthwith upright he rears from off the Pool
His mighty stature; on each hand the flames
Driv’n backward slope thir pointing spires, and roll’d
In billows, leave i’ th’ midst a horrid Vale.

Awesome.

Because the poem starts out with this kind of dynamic description of Satan struggling against the woes he suffers at the hands of the Almighty, readers tend to see the character God as a problem for Satan rather than as the moral center of the universe. (Those readers don’t understand the poem but I’ll tell you about that another time.)

(Breaking Bad **SPOILERS** a-comin’, if you’re not caught up)

So it should be no surprise that even after Walter White poisons one child, dissolves another in acid, and orders 10 prison inmates stabbed, choked, bludgeoned, and/or set on fire by white supremacists, many viewers still want him to win the day. This is just the way stories work: you’re introduced to a character who has a problem, and you want this problem to be solved. The great stories are the ones that work that desire around into something unexpected. Paradise Lost does that. Does Breaking Bad? I hope so.

If the show were to stop now without the approaching epic smorgasbord of consequences, it would be an unmitigated moral disaster. Everything is wrong. Walter and Jesse have taken out one “problem dog” after another without having to pay for it, and while we can easily judge that they deserve to be cut down, we can’t want the protagonist’s story to end. And we can’t get behind Skyler, who by her merits should be the most likable character on the show, because she has been the main force of resistance to Walter White’s progress throughout the series.

Any time Walter makes a sensible, moral decision, it threatens to dismantle the premise of the show. So you really don’t want him to do that.

I’m not talking about “sympathizing” with Walter White. I don’t like him. I’m talking about wanting the story to go on. Any time Walter makes a sensible, moral decision, it threatens to dismantle the premise of the show. So you really don’t want him to do that. And you hate anyone who suggests that he should.

But this dynamic is about to unravel. Walter’s decision to quit the meth empire business brings the anti-heroic odyssey of Heisenberg to an anti-climax, but  the story’s inertia doesn’t depend on Walter’s will to power anymore. All the remaining loose ends (Walter’s agreements with Declan and the unhinged Lydia, and Hank’s lavatorial revelation) guarantee that Walter is not out. I think, I hope we are about to meet a new Walter White, one who does not believe he can mend the destruction of his family with a plate of pancakes — a Walter White reintroduced to a moral plane — pitted against a torrent of consequences. Because if you think you can build a mile-high stack of turtles, climb off, and walk away, you’re in for a big, green, crashing, tumbling surprise.

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The Grackle is a production of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Imagine Dallas Literary Arts, Inc.