Now that Breaking Bad is coming to its harrowing, heart-stopping end, we can see it, steadily and whole, as a morally complex masterwork, maybe the best thing that's ever hit our TV screens. We can argue about its weight and meaning. Is it the tragedy of a hollowed-out man? A critique of late capitalism? The melancholy death knell for the American middle class?
But maybe we should also take a moment to view it, just a bit, as a workplace comedy. Sometimes the series has been a workplace drama, of course, and frequently it's been a workplace horror story. But a narrow, crucial through-line on Breaking Bad has always been a black-comic boomers-versus-Millennials death match, a tricky human resources problem that takes on mythic proportions with the addition of Heisenbergian alter-egos, methamphetamine and Mexican cartels.
Breaking Bad has been so super-intense lately that we might forget that there's always been a certain amount of hilarity with our office odd couple, Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. Just think back to the old days, when the men's working relationship was still packed with Two Stooges slapstick and zany misadventures. (The dissolving bathtub! Walt's fly obsession! Jesse's belief that three bags of Funyuns constitutes a meal!)
These comic tensions are rooted in real issues. As Millennials flood the job market, interacting with stressed-out Gen Xers and boomer holdovers, there's an increased interest in generational dynamics in our workplaces. Management experts look at demographic characteristics to figure out how to get the best from everyone.
We know from Walt's "birthday bacon" that he was 50 when the series started. With his tighty-whiteys, his Steely Dan-Boz Scaggs playlist and his long, dull lectures on initiative, he's a classic boomer.
Jesse is adrift in his mid-20s, great at social networking, not so great at self-starting. He's a classic Millennial, though his quarter-life crisis will be more severe than most, since he's currently beaten and chained in a white-supremacist meth lab.
According to cheery HR professionals, the boomers and the Millennials can have a healthy, mutually beneficial work relationship, with boomers offering mentoring and steady guidance, while the tech-savvy Millennials bring energy, connectivity and adaptability.
Cynics, meanwhile, suggest that the Millennials are basically waiting for the boomers to retire -- or, um, die -- so they can get out of those unpaid internships and into real jobs. Meanwhile, boomers tend to condescendingly view Millennials as over-entitled, incompetent whiners, except when the boomers need help with their smartphones.
In its close concentration on the working relationship between Jesse and the man he rather touchingly calls Mr. White, Breaking Bad has swung between these extreme views of boomer-Millennial interaction.
Sure, there have been frictions, as when Walt forces Jesse to murder a rival chemist, or when Jesse douses Walt's carpet with gasoline and gets out his lighter. But despite all the misunderstandings, for almost five seasons these two crazy meth cooks couldn't live without each other. As the ever world-weary Mike Ehrmantraut once said: "Honest to God, what is it with you guys?"
A lot of it comes down to the beauty of work. In a TV landscape almost completely uninterested in honest labour, Breaking Bad perversely gives a lot of time to the nitty-gritty effort of meth-cooking. Some of the series' most dazzling sequences involve the gorgeous rhythms of Walt and Jesse's meth-cook montages.
When they're apart, it's not the same. When Jesse goes freelance and tries to cook with the hapless, tweaked-up Badger, he finds himself in the unfamiliar role of a disappointed authority figure. And as much as Walt berates and belittles Jesse, he never hits that perfect groove with his replacement assistants, whether it's poor, doomed Gale or Todd, that milk-fed sociopath.
That's why their increasingly fraught -- well, OK, potentially murderous -- relationship is such a waste. A lot of it comes down to poor HR management.
If only Walt had read a few business books, he might have learned that Millennials have a low tolerance for boredom (left to his own devices, Jesse plays with the office chair and inflates his cook suit with an oxygen hose), that they want to feel that listened to ("Yo, what about a magnet?"), that they like to find meaning and moral good in their work (like, say, not murdering children).
Walt might have understood that money isn't the only motivation for this often idealistic generation. Jesse, you'll recall, is happy with a mere $5-million meth payout, while Walt wants to hold out for an empire-building $300 mill.
And crucially, Walt would have done much better if he only realized that Millennials respond better to positive reinforcement than negative criticism. Gus knows this, which is why he sends Jesse on a violent team-building exercise with Mike, a kind of criminal version of professional development day.
Walt, meanwhile, keeps undermining Jesse as a screw-up, an idiot, a slacker dropout who's "only capable of working under my supervision."
Too often, Walt is only nice to Jesse when he's trying to manipulate him into doing something terrible. (And while Walt being the murderous Heisenberg is scary, Walt being fake-jovial is absolutely terrifying.) No wonder the two men have workplace issues.
Walt and Jesse's two years of negotiations, alliances, betrayals, power grabs and misunderstandings have resulted in a breathtaking body count. Their office politics may be extreme, but they are still recognizably office politics. And it's that tortured working dynamic that has led up to Sunday night's final episode, when we suspect Jesse and Mr. White's working relationship is going to break really, really bad.