October 8, 2013
Breaking Down Kenny Powers and Walter White
Last week, a certain finale brought an epically proportioned brouhaha to flip the Internet upside down. Those who were satisfied with the technical delivery, who were disappointed on a storytelling level, and who dared to dream all poured out of the Web woodworks. Yet one theory the pundits overlooked has Walt escaping from his supposed lab tomb. He learned a hard lesson about self-deception and self-acceptance, got himself a perm, gained 20 muffins and skirted down to 10 pm on HBO. Both men are avid chemical enthusiasts, though one veers toward the supply business, the other toward the demand. Hey, if Breaking Bad taught us one thing, it’s to never dismiss possible outcomes no matter the odds. And I, for one, never saw a body bag.
There’s been suggestion of a legitimate comparison between Kenny Powers (Danny McBride) and one Walter White, and it’s worth breaking open for further examination. From writer/director Jody Hill, Eastbound & Down is a rough and tumble comedy noir on its fourth and final season. It’s enjoyed a small yet steady cult following, as do most Team Hill productions. (I think Observe and Report is one of the top underrated films of the decade, but that’s a story for another day.) The AMC drama, laid to rest last week after its four and two-half season acclaimed celebration, catalogues the ascent from grace of a man fighting more for his legend than his life. Kenny, a washed up retired baseball player with a knack for pills and prostitutes, and Walt, the chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-tycoon with a scorned ego 50 barrels of empire money couldn’t contain, seem different animals at first glance, but these iconic alpha antiheroes share micro and macro properties. The difference however, as Walt knows too well, lies not with the ingredients, but with the chef.
I’ll point to a Power quote from the EBnD premiere to begin the pick-apart. After Kenny peels a structurally destroyed Sebring into the Millennial Rental company lot, he delivers his iced-out boss a fiery sermon rich with classic Kenny Powers fury: “This little (expletive) parking lot here, this may be your kingdom, your legacy … it’s a piss in the pool to me. From this day forward I’m getting what’s mine: fame, money, respect, chicken chains!” Needless to say, Walt had more than his share of business with chicken chains. Capped off with a Jody Hill-stamped deck to the jaw, Kenny bucks away to noble funemployment with his head high and his boss bloodied. His goodbye kiss is essentially Walt’s battle cry from the time he shears his head in the first season, and echoes the infamous “I am the one who knocks” speech. Though where Walt cowers and Heisenberg storms in, Kenny acts alone – wearing his complex as a badge of honor. He doesn’t hide from anyone, least of all himself, about who he is or what he wants. Nay, deserves. He stays true to each step of his struggle. The scene where he tries to cover his Millennial name tag from old baseball chum Guy Young (Ken Marino) is especially illustrative, as this name tag reveals an interim identity bearing no trace of the man, the myth, the Powers.
Walt blurred the lines and grayed his testimonies when battling who he was to whom, and ultimately left behind a mess that couldn’t be cleaned by 1,000 Roombas. Kenny is far from a neat freak, but his messes to this point have been reconcilable. Walt hid from his God complex, unable to face it without his Heisenberg counterpart. Kenny, on the other hand, doesn’t have a God complex. God has a Kenny complex. And we’re Kenny’s biggest cheerleaders.
Why? He’s a menace with a completely unfounded sense of entitlement and he probably smells like fermented peanut butter. At the end of Season 3, Kenny leaves the game of baseball literally during a game of baseball to trade fame and glory for his true love’s hand in marriage. Southern belle April (played by darling Katy Mixon) looks a bronzed Jessica Rabbit meets full-bosomed Cabbage Patch doll, who sings his praises and keeps her doubts quiet. Kenny Powers, loser of baseball, winner of life. But now he can’t be caught dead supporting his wife’s career achievements if he’s only seen as lowly Mr. Mom, standing willingly behind her. Meals hot, diapers changed, baths drawn. April Powers, winner of bread. It drives him crazy – he obsessively steals any ounce of pride from April and invalidates all praise coming her way. This version of Kenny, a head down, car rental-employed family man dinner partier, is untraceable in prior seasons. (What is clear is the mental labyrinth April navigated to justify marrying this man. Maybe she's delusional enough to convince herself of a domesticated Kenny as real as her eyebrows? Enter: Fantasy Theory. Maybe he died in the car on his way to the wedding.)
No matter. To Kenny, April’s shine only blocks his. And a shine-blocked Kenny isn't only a crime, it's downright insulting. He’s also not afraid to tell her so:
“So because I’m achieving something that makes you a bitch?”
“Yes April! Every single morning I wake up I think about the face that I (expletive) walked away from baseball. I gotta suck my (expletive) soul in, put a smile on my face, and go about my day.”
Both Walt and Kenny have reputations preceding them, but Walt is visibly burdened with filling his reputation’s daunting shoes while Kenny stuffs himself in one toe at a time. Yet the rare cases his grandiose self image aligns with his public image, we can’t clap loud enough. Yes we root for Walt too, sometimes, when we aren’t sickened by his gross deception or reeling from his latest power-hungry exploit. But Kenny Powers captured our hearts and our hopes.
He’s honest. He doesn’t just accept himself, he loves himself. This is the crux of why Walt and Kenny are different. Everyone wants to see an embodiment of unwavering self-respect succeed because it’s what we want for ourselves – success without sacrificing our true fibers or our dignity. Walt’s biggest losing battle is an unwillingness to let anyone in on his Plan. He’s scared of his enemies, scared of his family and scared of himself.
It stands then, that their affinity for employing violence as a communication tool would tout markedly different styles. Walt is meticulous and cautious, producing dire consequences not even he knew he could inflict. Kenny prefers hot-blooded flesh-on-flesh action, ideally with an American flag backdrop. But while Walt is selective and often unsure of his subjects and his implementation, Kenny’s violence, verbal or physical, doesn’t play favorites. He has nothing to hide from anyone and maintains a 100 percent conviction rate. You’re either with him or against him, and if you’re against him, you better at least bring him a platter of chili sliders and an Arnold Palmer. Scratch that, just make it a lemonade.
I’m still working out the kinks on swimming pool significance, and I’m sure there’s a Stevie Janowski and Walt Jr. comparison to be found somewhere, but, again, perhaps a story for another day.