Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Politics of "Breaking Bad", Or, How I Learned to Love Victimized White Masculinity

I've been riveted by the AMC series Breaking Bad since last spring. This post will address plot developments, many from this season, so, if you are still planning on watching the show but haven't yet, stay away for there be spoilers here, ye matey.

We are, it seems, in a television era of the anti-hero. HBO helped start and perfect the trend--Tony Soprano and Jimmy McNulty were two of the most seductive and yet simultaneously troubled leading characters of recent memory. Showtime's Dexter is not centered on what you would call a "good" guy although there is a perverse morality there, an even darker shade of what we see from McNulty in the fifth season of The Wire. Mary Louise Parker's character on Weeds stands out as one of a few female anti-heroes in this mold. AMC boasts two contenders for this anti-hero mantle: the womanizing, dapper, and self-interested Don Draper of Mad Men and Breaking Bad's Walter White. White stands out to me from the other men on this list because, when the series begins, he seems perfectly average--he is a science teacher, rather than a mob boss, an advertising executive, or a cop.

Walter has a pretty and smart wife, Skyler, a good kid struggling with MS, named Walter Jr., and a brother-in-law in the DEA. Oh, and cancer. To make a long story short, Walt's family is struggling to make the payments, so Walt does what any high school chemistry teacher with an exceptional background would do--he starts making meth with one of his old students, Jesse Pinkman. Initially Walt does it to make ends meet, and to provide for his family once he is gone. But a funny thing happens once Walt's body beats the cancer--he doesn't stop making meth. He, in fact, becomes obsessed with how "cooking" is his own art form, a way for him to make his name in the world, to take his exceptional education and mix his labor with goods to really produce something. This decision is contextualized by some backstory we receive in the first two seasons about Walt's involvement with what is now a highly successful company, which he apparently left on bad terms and before it made it big.

Once Walt's wife finds out he's a drug producer, she immediately takes steps to expel him from her and his children's life. Quite legitimately, I might add. He has brought all sorts of potential legal trouble to his home, not to mention the violence and risk associated with the drug trade. Yet persistently, on message boards, Facebook statuses, casual conversations--there is a coterie of the shows fans who continue to identify with Walter White, and cheer his drug dealing alter ego ("Heisenberg", one of the shows funniest gags). Moreover, even if you are not someone who actively roots for Walter, there is certainly an element of identification with Walter White that enables people to continue to enjoy the show even once Walt has really "broken bad".

But really, what is noble and ok about what Walt has done? He has a chance to stop cooking once he is cancer free. It is carefully and clearly revealed that "I'm doing it for my family" is really just another excuse for Walter to continue to adopt his Heisenberg persona, and stroke his own ego in the process. Walt is repeatedly confronted with the collateral damage of his decision (the threats to his marriage, the preposterous plane crash to end season 2, Combo's death, Jesse's traumas) yet continues to cook.

I contend that we should be completely revolted by Walter White's actions. Yet our ability to consume the show and enjoy it testifies to something like Walter in many of us. Let me give an example--you would probably not be that interested in watching a movie about a serial killer told from the serial killer's point of view. Something like the story of John Wayne Gacy told from his perspective presumably would offer little to us for two reasons: 1) the "simple" pathologies of serial killers are the sorts of things we prefer to experience externally, and probably can only understand externally because we ourselves are not serial killers and moreover, defines ourselves positively over and against "that sort" of being--we're very serious about the importance of categories like killer and criminal have in defining our own normalcy or something like it (though the upcoming film version of The Killer Inside Me has some potential to operate inside and outside these categories), and 2. a serial killer's world would be extremely boring, all pathology and no grey area or nuance--at best anyone who enjoyed consuming it would be a fan or Hostel or some such torture-porn drivel.

Back to our friend Walter White. He has blood on his hands. He has violated his family's trust. He is wanted by the Mexican cartel. He is continuously complicit in enabling Jesse's abusive behavior. His actions indrectly lead to Hank's paralysis in season three. "Mr. White", as Jesse calls him, is a bad dude. Sure, he drives a nifty Pontiac SUV, has a neat house, cute baby, had to beat cancer, all that stuff. But at the end of the day, his actions are indefensible to even a light, relative morality. Killing criminals is one thing, but not his only crime.

I contend that Walt as a character is only intelligible to the viewer within the frame of the American Dream. There have been some interesting studies done on the opinions that people have about tax policy. One reason why tax increases on the upper class remain somewhat unpopular is because a lot of people imagine that even if they are not currently well off, they will be one day, and they don't want the government taking their wealth. Moreover, American culture is very, very bad at teaching people to be happy with what they have. And hey, thats's capitalism--one needs to not be satisfied with one's position because that lack of satisfaction is what produces the drive to innovation and ingenuity that ultimately underwrites advances in technology and civilization. We need to be dissatisfied because that dissatisfaction produces the motivation for more labor to occur. I'm not saying its bad or good--just trying to map that model for a minute, to show how Walt's actions might only make sense to us through that frame.

Walter White is not wealthy, but once he beats the cancer he should be able to go back to work and the family could make it. His continual insistence that Skyler not be the family breadwinner reeks of a kind of lingering idea of a masculine hero capable of providing for his family (notwithstanding Skyler's affair with her boss, the status of which in the anterior is unclear). Walt's son, Walt Jr., has his name but not his working legs. One of the most depressing moments in the show is when Walt is trying to show his son how to drive with only one foot, even though the MS makes it very difficult to do--Walt is insisting that his son be "normal" even in the face of that impossibility. Walt's condescending rants to his high school students, about how he was a world class scientist, indicate a dangerous narcissism. His refusal in season one to take his former partner Elliott's money reflects a debilitating heap of pride and indignance. Walter had an exit strategy that did not involve making meth and he kept doing it.

Walt is not a serial killer but when presented in these terms he is a figure from whom we should seemingly want a lot of distance. To the extent that we identify with Walt we suffer from this "disease of more". To the extent that we revel and cheer his badass actions as the dapper and capped "Heisenberg" we are celebrating his temporary escape from the toil and drudgery of responsibility and normalcy. When we are astonished at the potency and purity of his meth we are not "buying the magic of science" but instead are authorizing his astonishingly puerile ego trips. How far away from the "angry white male" of 1994 are we? Walter lives well above a subsistence level--by all appearances, it is a fine middle class existence, one of privilege relative to the lives of many others in the country. He is getting to live a life that many would envy. Yet Walt is dissatsified. Walt is furious that he is normal. Furious that he is unmarked, his genius unacknowledged, that his personal struggles are not the stuff of legend.

Walt would fit in very nicely at a Tea Party rally.


  1. I think there is a lot here just a couple of thoughts
    1. the jump at the end to the tea party strikes me as strange, especially because it seems like Walt is highly invested in criminality and non representation. True, he doesn't want taxation, and resents his middle class status, but I don't think he wants to be a known quantity by the government, other than a spectral threat
    2. can we instead think more about his investment in performing "genius" and the "heisenberg" moniker as a way to think about exceptionality and authorship being whats acted out here? One reason he doesn't want Elliot's money is because he feels that it is his and he was cheated in whatever research relationship they had earlier
    3. "-you would probably not be that interested in watching a movie about a serial killer told from the serial killer's point of view." Dexter? thought in Dexter's case its both vigilante and medicalized so thats a little different, but still...
    4. Walter's relationship with Mexican gang elements might provide interesting traction in thinking about how watching the show lets white viewers engage in an acceptable fantasy of whiteness...

    really interesting post.

  2. I like how it diembodies you. "Caitlin's Blog"

    your second and fourth points strike me as completely correct. Walter really intensely wants people to know that *his* genius is behind the blue meth.

    but I think the authorship angle is what drove me to make a connection with the Tea Party. Walt is highly invested in criminality inasmuch as it provides an avenue for his genius to be recognized and potentially gain him some publicity. Similarly, the Tea Party movement, by agitating, throwing around signifiers of revolution, and demanding to "take their country back" are demanding attention, recognition, and druthers in the form of some kind of symbolic resonance. The disconnect, interestingly, is that Walter can point to something (his blue meth) as the work that he has done with his genius, however perverse that may be. On the other hand, the Tea Party can point to nothing more than the spectral signs of a waning privilege (or at least their own perception of that waning). But the incoherence of the Tea Party's demands, for me, paralells the incoherence of Walter White's anger--both are relatively privileged but both seem structurally incapable of acknowledging that privilege, if that makes sense.

    I haven't seen Dexter all the way through, so I could be wrong. But my sense is he is generally killing very bad people. Walter White, on the other hand, is indirectly and directly implicated in violence against some pretty decent humans. If Dexter was just a show about a murderous cop who psychotically killed people, innocent people, my suspicion is that it would not work.