Walter White & LBJ: Personality Plus, To What End?

Bryan Cranston's Tour de Force in ART's "All the Way"
Sep 20, 2013 4:00 PM ET

The TakeAway: Two drama, Breaking Bad and All the Way, provide insights into complex characters, and lessons for our times.

Time collapsed earlier this week, as volcanoes from the past and present erupted and converged in a manner that only great art can produce. On Sunday, I watched the highly acclaimed AMC series Breaking Bad air its penultimate, gut-punching episode, “Ozymandias”, the third to last episode that ranks as the highest in TV history.

(For those like me who didn’t know, “Ozymandias” is a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, published in 1818, and portrays the fleeting absurdity of great power. Go read it. Now.)

On Tuesday, I watched the now sold-out play called All the Way, at the American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (I saw the fourth stage presentation, while it was still in previews; Opening Night is tonight, and the play runs through October 13th.)

Breaking Bad chronicles roughly one year in the life of a fictional character named Walter White, who morphs from being a brow-beaten, cancer-stricken high school chemistry teacher (whose moment of glory was eclipsed by family responsibilities and a competitive partner), only to become an accidental drug kingpin, mixing high-grade quantities of crystal blue methamphetamine.

All the Way chronicles one year in the life of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who morphs from being a Southern political kingpin (whose moment of glory was eclipsed by his allegiance to Southern opposition to racial equity and a charismatic competitor named John F. Kennedy), only to become an “accidental president” mixing high grade quantities of political persuasion, high ambition, and social responsibility.

In Breaking Bad, last week’s episode featured a gruesome knife fight between the main characters, all of whom we’ve come to love and the last thing we’d come to expect.

In All the Way, LBJ bellows, “There’s no place for ‘nice’ in a knife fight”—referring to Washington’s main characters, very few of whom we’ve come to love and the first thing we’ve come to expect.

(LBJ was referring to Washington’s hardball politics and the limited clout of his running mate, Hubert H. Humphrey—or anyone else unwilling to pull out all stops to get a bill passed.)   Please continue reading here.

While Breaking Bad  fans wait for the last two episodes with their hands over their eyes, Bryan Cranston has immersed himself in the role of Lyndon B. Johnson during a pivotal time in U.S. history. Marcy Murninghan caught the 3rd performance of All the Way, now playing at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In it, Cranston portrays LBJ's ascendance to the presidency, from the assissination of John F. Kennedy to the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, and his election in November. The vortex of change--the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the breakaway South from the Democratic Party, the rise of youth activism that's impatient with change--form a backdrop to the use of power, and where morality fits--or doesn't.

Written by Robert Schenkkan and directed by Bill Rauch, All the Way features an exceptional cast portraying many of those engaged in the struggle for power and justice--Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Hubert Humphrey, Roy Wilkins, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer, Stokely Carmichael, Stanley Levison, Walter Reuther--along with those concerned more about power: J. Edgar Hoover, Sen. Richard Russell, Gov. George Wallace, Joseph Alsop.   

Given current fissures in our society, especially this summer's Supreme Court decision striking down part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the metathemes in All the Way remain fresh. As with Breaking Bad's Walter White, we're reminded that whatever our good intentions, in the end we remain flawed--and powerless. Doing good doesn't, ipso facto, make us good. Indeed, it may get in the way of achieving our goals. That's something sustainability practitioners and change agents must keep in mind.

Marcy Murninghan
The Murninghan Post
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