The Wild West in living color
What if the last great Western was a television show, and what if the last chapter in that last picture show were an epilogue in the form of a movie?
And what if that Western’s protagonist weren’t an upright but put-upon rancher, or a gunslinging dentist from Georgia or even a chemistry teacher-turned-drug lord but his much-abused, morally confused henchman — the most, or perhaps only, somewhat sympathetic character in the whole criminal enterprise?
Despite having lived the vast majority of my adult life in the Mountain West — Colorado and Lake Tahoe — I never would have identified myself as a fan of Westerns until I did just that in a film class I took in 2011. It’s not like my dad didn’t try with the oaters: He loved “Bonanza,” even though it would later come up in one of my classes as a positive example of touchy-feely representation and inclusivity (and later as somewhere I actually lived close to — Tortilla Flats in Kings Beach, California).
My dad told me something frequently when I was younger: “I don’t deal in what-ifs.” And that’s probably what appealed to him about Westerns: The men were men, good guys and bad both wearing color-coded hats as they faced off with matching six-shooters at high noon in the Old West.
It’s really not much of a what-if: “Breaking Bad,” the best modern Western, ditched those black and white Stetsons for one non-color-coordinated porkpie.
Before I started watching Westerns on purpose, I thought of them as maybe too black-and-white, cowboys and Indians. And that was a weird idea growing up in Blacksburg, Virginia, where we had some Indians, sure, but not many Native Americans and still fewer cowboys. I didn’t see the Wild West as a land of relativism, what one of my other favorite movie characters would later describe as “moral flexibility.”
“Breaking Bad” broke the mold. But much earlier, in the VHS days, one of the movies I watched repeatedly was “Raising Arizona,” its madcap mix of action and humor — and, yes, its setting — growing on me as I was growing up. Another Coen brothers Western, “No Country for Old Men,” reinforced this idea 20 years later.
In between was “Unforgiven,” the first “real” Western — albeit a postmodern one — I paid attention to. Clint Eastwood’s film contemplated the genre itself while removing much of the allure around the endemic violence and cranking up the complexity of the antihero at its center. I still haven’t seen anything quite like the grimy, dour “Unforgiven” (maybe “The Wire,” which repurposes one of its best quotes) but I did see a direct through-line from William Munny, the Schofield Kid and Little Bill Daggett to Walter White, Jesse Pinkman and Hank Schrader.
In reading about “Breaking Bad” since it ended, I stumbled upon the name Frank Gruber, not a “Die Hard” villain but rather an author and screenwriter who has postulated that there are seven basic plots Westerns follow. “Unforgiven,” according to that reckoning, would be a basic “revenge story.” “Breaking Bad” would seem to be mostly one of Gruber’s “empire” stories, but if you changed the words “ranch” to “meth lab” and “Indians” to “uncivilized multiethnic tribes of the modern West” (which sounds like an episode of “Community”), it covers one or more of those subgenres per episode. It even had a great train robbery.
I’ll spare you Wikipedia’s definition because it sounds a lot more like that simple land of black and white hats than the shifting ground of “Raising Arizona,” “No Country for Old Men,” “Unforgiven” or “Breaking Bad.” Rather than action for its own sake, the modern Western provides a lab for cooking up values. How important is family to you, Walter White, or you, H.I. McDunnough? Care to chime in on self-employment and workplace regulations, Will Munny? Anyone who would argue that the modern Western is facile or shallow should look up the story behind “Felina,” the title of the “Breaking Bad” finale. The show was short on white hats, long on magnetic antiheroes — Walt, Mike Ehrmantraut, Saul Goodman.
But even as the moral landscape shifts, location remains important. Anybody who has lived in the new West will tell you that the name of the game is real estate. It’s hard to imagine setting “Breaking Bad” in a meth hotbed such as West Virginia or Missouri, even if their strip malls and jails resemble the ones ranging from Albuquerque to Reaganomics-ravaged Tempe.
The limited theatrical run of “El Camino,” the “Breaking Bad” movie premiering Friday on Netflix, includes the former but not the latter, and Denver and Fort Collins but not Boulder or elsewhere in Colorado. I’m a little surprised it’s not in Aspen or Telluride, if not here.
The question is whether Westerns are more popular in the coastal cities where the cinema allows viewers to engage their Wild West fantasies, or places like this, where the Old West’s ranches are vanishing as the sun sets on end-stage capitalism.
Minor spoiler alert for a show that ended five years ago: As the sun goes down on Walter’s own capitalist dream come true, he puts his hand on a piece of his lab equipment. There’s no dialogue, but I think it’s clear what he wordlessly says: “They sure don’t make ’em like they used to.”
Dan Thomas, a magnetic antihero in his own right, is from the same state as Vince Gilligan, who provides his own epilogue on another great show: The same year “Breaking Bad” ended, its creator showed up on “Community” as the star of the Western VCR game “Pile of Bullets.”