Overdosing on ‘Breaking Bad’

Not only is the TV series ‘Breaking Bad’ great entertainment, but it speaks volumes about American culture as a whole.

Publicity still shot of Emmy winner Bryan Cranston playing Walter White in the show Breaking Bad
In the TV series 'Breaking Bad', anti-hero Walter White is a science teacher turned meth dealer [Reuters]

It could be a telling sign of being out of touch with popular culture to admit that until a few weeks ago when our children showed up for the holidays, I had never heard of the cable TV drama series Breaking Bad. Of course, this sort of admission damaged my already fragile credibility with those under 30. And when I discovered that Breaking Bad was in its fifth season, and had received numerous awards, earning praise by leading media critics as “the greatest television drama of all time” (according to the Metacritic website, Breaking Bad is the highest rated cable show ever, gaining a rating of 99/100 on the basis of 22 reviews) my self-esteem took a big hit for being so out of the loop. Having overdosed on the series during the recent past I may be about to fall from one trap to another, now putting myself forward as an “instant expert”, a role not more tasteful than instant coffee. Intimidated by such a prospect, I will myself to several random impressions with a goal of stimulating others to set me straight.

At this time I admit to being in danger of becoming a Breaking Bad junkie with serious addiction issues, having watched more than 25 of the early episodes with family members during what has become an almost obsessive nightly ritual. I am left wondering, “what is the source of this fascination?”; “is Breaking Bad telling us some dark things about ourselves, our inner reality as a nation and globe-girdling capitalist powerhouse state?” Whatever else, Breaking Bad as a tale of crime, violence, and personal adventure is quintessentially American; it could not be set elsewhere.

On the most superficial level, the writing, acting, and cinematography are of a high caliber, holding one’s attention week after week due to an engagement with the lives of the characters and the subtle and innovative movements of the plot. It is obvious, as well, that both the technical and dramatic direction is impressive if measured by the industry metrics of craftsmanship and captivating storytelling. The form of episodic presentation, 47 minutes each week, imposes its own constraints.

Each episode needs to combine a self-contained mini-drama with continuities of plot and character that create enough links to earlier segments to sustain a flow from week to week and create at the end of each episode sufficient suspense and curiosity about what will happen next to tune in on the following week. This TV series in many ways incorporates the dramatic strengths of both the most spellbinding soap operas as well as the sweep of successful panoramic moviemaking. Each episode has its own director and is written by one or more of the team of nine writers. Somehow despite this shared responsibility Breaking Bad comes across as a coherent, unified work that rarely disappoints. There is only one episode that seems negatively memorable in which the whole dramatic action consists of the pursuit of a hapless house fly that eludes capture, and is viewed by the expert on such matters as a dire threat to the purity of the crystal meth being produced in an underground elaborate lab.

There is no doubt that the series creator, writer and director of some of the most riveting episodes in the series, Vince Gilligan, knows what he is doing (and came to Breaking Bad with past credentials as a producer of another killer TV series, The X-Files), which is to interweave in compelling ways the complex inter-ethnic world of drug dealing in the American southwest with the humdrum nature of suburban living in Albuquerque, New Mexico: throughout, the ordinary is repeatedly trumped and undermined by extraordinary happenings in episode after episode as the perils, pleasures, and temper tantrums of Walter (Walt) White, the hero-villain’s life accumulate. In the process, Walt’s struggle for survival is turned upside down, being transformed from an underachieving, overqualified high school chemistry teacher having trouble making ends meet to becoming all of a sudden a cash rich overachieving, under qualified supplier (in the harsh business of allocating and safeguarding drug markets) of crystal meth to local gangs linked to bigger drug cartels.

Actually, Walt doesn’t exactly switch careers. He embarks on an elaborate double life, continuing to teach chemistry as his daytime job, a vocational calling, as well as employment, which he never abandons, and although distracted by the challenges of his drug life maintains an abiding concern for his students and exhibits talents as a teacher who knows his subject and how to convey it to young students. Eventually the strains of his secret life finally do take their toll, and Walt is forced by school administrators to take an extended leave of absence during the third season of the show.

Violence and ethnicity 

There is a certain ironic tension between his teaching routine in a high school setting and his use of sophisticated chemistry to produce the highest quality crystal meth available in the Albuquerque market, with an outreach that extends to the cutthroat operators south of the border. Although recourse to violence is characteristic of every major male character in Breaking Bad, the violence associated with the roles of the Hispanic characters in the series are by far the most sadistic, sustained, and extreme, and they are all given rather one-dimensional identities that leaves no room for sympathy or emotional complexity.

A partial exception is the African American-looking, but apparently Latino master dealer, Gustavo (“Gus”) Fring, who is presented as the most sinister of all drug operatives, but possessing social skills that enable him to have a respectable public persona that embraces the material satisfaction of success in the market. We can only critically wonder why the darkest evil is reserved exclusively for “outsiders” in America, the targets of a resurgent racism that is gospel for the rapidly expanding survivalist, anti-government militias active around the country and allied with such unsavoury groups as the National Rifle Association (NRA) and extremist religious cults.

There is no doubt that Walt White (brilliantly played by Bryan Cranston) is as intriguing a character as has ever flitted across my TV screen. Some critics have treated White merely as an acute casualty of a mid-life crisis, where the comforts of the bourgeois life are exchanged for the excitement of the drug underworld, with its violence, risk, double life, secrecy, and big payoffs, but this seems facile and almost willfully misleading.

What gives White his fascinating edge is the fact that his ardent embrace of crime coincided with receiving a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer, giving rise, among other things to a desperate need for large sums of money to pay the huge bills for medicines and treatment, as well as to the realisation that his family will be destitute after his death. Beyond this there is exhibited a rare dramatic tension between the loveable and hateful sides of his character, which is further heightened by unpredictable mood swings and sudden eruptions of repressed violence.

Walt conveys by brilliantly expressive facial expressions and adept mastery of body language a sense of deep torment that is at odds with his endearing qualities of normalcy when he displays the other side of his personality that allows him to be a tender and sensitive father, husband, and friend. The storyline also offers a bit of caviar to tease those who fancy themselves gourmets of high culture. White, as drug dealer, is known on the local meth scene by the moniker “Heisenberg”, a cute play on the idea of “indeterminacy” (just who is White is tantalisingly elusive; and trope that is literalised when a lookalike is actually hired to confuse the police). As well, there are various bonding lines and visual sequences that draw connections between Walt White and Walt Whitman, especially invoking Whitman’s celebrated poem, “Song of Myself”. Names are clearly given some forethought by the series creator: it cannot be accidental that Walt is “White” while Gus looks “black”, possibly a colour coded grading system for degrees of evil, mildly reminiscent of the circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno.

To my way of thinking, one of the great achievements of the series is the interplay between Walt and Jesse Pinkman (convincingly played by Aaron Paul). Jesse is an almost likeable young punk who takes many hard knocks, and has a kind of magnetic purity displayed as a result of his commitments to romantic love, kindness to animals, genuine empathy with young children victimised by their innocent involvement in the drug trade or their proximity to maelstroms of pure violence, and by his own childhood victimisation at the hands of hatefully insensitive parents. There is left the impression that Jesse manages to survive, but barely, periodically wants a cleaner, safe life, but can’t quite muster the will to escape once and for all. He is at once too tender a person to flourish in the cutthroat world of hard-core drug business and yet too dependent and addicted to overcome the interrelated entrapments of use and dealing. Jesse is unlike Walt in many ways, more consistently emotional and romantic, less calculating, as much an addict as a supplier, a cultural casualty rather than a good citizen who goes awry by succumbing to the lure of the gigantic drug profit margins. Despite these differences, Walt and Jesse need one another, save each other’s lives, and are one of those memorable examples of “an odd couple” that is forever inscribed in our consciousness.

Throughout Breaking Bad there are numerous implicit and explicit commentaries on the tawdry character of American life, replete with contradictions and complex filmic and cultural juxtapositions that link benign pretentious hypocrisies with lethal, violent realities that lie just beneath the surface. The relationship between law and crime is examined from many different angles, and it can be no accident, that the lead lawyer puts himself forward falsely as a Jew, Saul Goodman, when in fact he is a shabby abettor of criminality whose ethnicity is Irish, and presumably Catholic. It is almost a joking commentary on anti-Semitism that Saul would want to “pass” as a Jew to foster an image of being the sort of lawyer who knows how to twist the law in whatever direction will help his shady clientele.

The lies at the heart of Saul’s law practice is multiply signalled: a huge balloon version of the Statue of Liberty is attached to the roof above his office, the room where he meets and greets clients uses the text of the US Constitution as wallpaper, and his professional interest in lawyering is to make use of law and lawyers for the sake of promoting crime and safeguarding criminals, and all for the sake of making some extra bucks. There is in the series a second more “honourable” lawyer who is no more loveable, using his knowledge of the intricacies of law to further the cruelties of capitalism. Actually, doctors fare only slightly better than lawyers, offering treatments motivated more by their professional ambitions than a patient’s likelihood of cure, and in the spirit of Michael Moore’s Sicko, making even the most urgent health care a slave of one’s bank balance.

Everything interacts

Implicit in Breaking Bad is an indictment of the cultural ethos of capitalism, and its tendencies to commodify every aspect of life except family relations and intimate love, and even then there is tautness between doing well and doing good. There is an ironic note added here in the sub-text in which Hank Schrader, a kind of loser character who works as a middle level enforcer for the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), loses his cool, brutally beats Jesse, is demoted and discredited, but helped to pay his medical bills by drug money given to his wife, Marie, and eventually rehabilitated. There is an important coded message here: everything interacts. There is no true separation between criminality and legality, and perhaps, never has been. Are we learning about human nature, the specifics of America, the degeneracy of 21st century modernity?

Breaking Bad also making a damning commentary on the failures of urban development in America. The city scenes amount to a sequence of snapshots of the ugliness and tastelessness of the society, the wasteland that developers and city planners have inflicted on society, signposts directing the citizenry toward alienation and escape. This aesthetic indictment also extends to the middle class home furnishings and decorations that are ever-present in the series as exhibits of cultural decline. Only the natural splendor of the desert and the museum housing the masterpieces of Georgia O’Keefe are put before us as contrasts to this general condition of ugliness and banality.   

The TV series also takes a hard look at the hypocrisies that co-mingle with family values and community camaraderie. Walt is the main focus of attention, but is not alone, being portrayed as someone driven to crime, allegedly by a true and abiding love for his wife and children, and in return receives the unconditional love of his disabled son. He says over and over again that all he cares about is his family, and this provides him with a mask of decency no matter how pervasively he falsifies his life. Walt faced with the prospect of his own assured death within a couple of years due to cancer and lacking the capacity to provide a decent future on the basis of legitimate work as a gifted high school chemistry teacher or as a helper in an auto repair shop turns to the lucrative work of “cooking” high quality meth in large quantities. In effect, we are informed only a turn to crime can achieve what hard, honest work of a constructive nature cannot provide for most people living in 21st century America.

The message within the message is that there is the scantest difference between Princeton graduates embarking on Wall Street careers with a clear conscience and those making their living from the drug trade, although the former is far less obviously violent and dangerous, but also contains fewer illusions about normalcy, decency, honesty, and morally and socially acceptable life styles. Another note of irony is that those most driven to success on the Wall Streets of the country often use coke. Of course, Breaking Bad portrays those on the top of the drug trade as mimicking in dress and life style the paragons of business and societal virtue, further blurring the boundaries between criminality and legitimacy. Indeed, Breaking Bad has a vivid relevance to the entire social space in Gilligan’s America as there seems to be no available option that encourages breaking good!

Part of what makes Walt such a memorable character is his mercurial personality that contain unpredictable, yet plausible swerves and shifts, and is dramatically expressed by completely irrational and frightening out-of-control moments that he often apologises for on the next day, and are counterpoised against ultra-rational mini-lectures on what line of action is wisest to take. For instance, at a silly poolside party (epitomising what goes on in polite middle class Albuquerque) when for no apparent reason, Walt diabolically pressures his disabled teenage son, Walt Jr, to get disasterously drunk on tequila. He then gets furious when Hank, his DEA brother in law, Hank Schrader, in a good natured way interferes to prevent this patently improper father-son interaction from doing further self-inflicted damage to Walt. This disturbing incident is out of character for Walt as he normally treats his son with loving kindness.

Law in the back seat

In another episode, Walt is stopped by a highway patrol officer while driving at a normal speed in the desert countryside. The policeman explains that Walt’s car was stopped because its windshield was shattered, making it unsafe and unlawful to drive. When the officer starts writing out a ticket for driving such a vehicle, Walt goes ballistic. He had earlier told the policeman that the damage to the windshield was caused by debris that fell from a fatal plane crash that had occurred in the city a few days earlier. The policeman responded by saying that it does not matter how the damage was done, that driving a car in this condition is against the law and deserves a ticket. Walt becomes wildly defiant, disobeys orders to stay in his car, yelling insults and obscenities at the officer, uncontrollably shouting he has “rights” that are being denied. After being warned more than once, Walt is bloodied and taken into custody. The police – like the drug enforcers – seem to have no instruments of control other than when obedience to the norms fails, to have recourse to the excesses of violence. Hank, his DEA brother in law, comes to his rescue, intercedes to obtain Walt’s immediate release from prison. Once again the law, such as it is, takes a back seat to the corrupting play of personal relations. In both of these incidents Walt after the fact apologises in a tone of solemnity, insisting that he was acting out of character, including vague intimations that his medical condition may have been indirectly responsible.

There is an unusual structural feature throughout the series. There are several dyads or pairings of character. Walt and Skyler (his wife), Walt and Jesse, Walt and Gus, Walt and Hank (DEA), Skyler and her sister, Marie (also Hank’s wife), two lawyers, two drug enforcers, two child foot soldiers for neighbourhood drug dealing. In various episodes either Walt and his wife or Walt and Jesse are placed at the centre of the action. Skyler is the seemingly good woman and loyal wife, but also dipping her toes deeper and deeper into dirty water by covering up the crimes of her boss as well as indulging in a workplace romance with this sleazy character, and soon shifting from abhorrence about Walt’s meth money to a pragmatic use of such funds for the sake of family values, paying the medical bills of Hank. Nothing is as it seems, especially nothing that purports to be good is really good, except perhaps the sincerity of the biologically damaged Walt, Jr, who also at least flirts with indeterminacy by adopting the name “Flynn” to alter his identity until he reverts to Walt, Jr, when his cherished father is banished from home by Skyler after she finally discovers that he has been lying to her for many months, maintaining a secret double life, and obtaining funds far beyond his salary by dealing in drugs, and not as he has insisted, through the generosity of (hated) rich friends who had actually made a fortune by stealing his ideas.

The crude justice of the American Underworld 

As with any imagined fiction, from Shakespeare to Gilligan (and his team of nine writers) what engages an audience is the vividness of the characters and the suspense, illuminations, and hypnotic strangeness of the narrative. The message and cultural critique are secondary to these dramatic qualities, and definitely, Breaking Bad holds our attention mainly by taking us on a wild roller coaster ride with its principal characters that envelops the viewers in the unfolding drama.

The series brilliantly holds our attention, and doesn’t really need the scenes of extreme violence that are present in almost every episode – bloody beatings and killings with gory details, almost unwatchable brutality – but these are made to seem thematically integral, and punctuate with exclamation points the crude justice of both the underworld of drugs and the socially proper world of law, police, and business. There is even one grisly murder in which a stolen ATM machine is used as a weapon to crush a totally unsympathetic victim’s head. A symbolic eloquence is present in such a crime: the complex interplay of money, violence, and criminality is epitomised. Why? In some ways I believe that Breaking Bad is itself a symptom of what it decries. It “entertains” us by its exhibitions of extreme violence and criminality because anything less seems assumed not to engage sufficiently the modern public imagination, especially here in America where even the idea of minimal gun control proposed after a series of horrific domestic massacres is met with collective rage and derision. The gun lobby’s incredibly influential NGO, the NRA, tells us that there will be no ban on even assault weaponry while gun enthusiasts stock up such killing machines because they are fearful that a ban may be imposed, and this would be intolerable, for gun extremists by itself grounds to take up arms against the already hated government in Washington. Also, of course, AMC network and Sony Pictures Television are both providers of the ATM used for making Breaking Bad at $3 million per episode, and reap the monetary benefits and prestige of the show’s deserved critical success.  

In the end, the question posed for me by Breaking Bad is whether moral, political, and societal authenticity is any longer possible given the overall present nature of American popular culture. The government is far from exempt from such criticism if account is taken of the heavy militarist and carbon American footprint throughout much of the world, and the damage done to young Americans sent off to die in wars of no meaningful consequences for the protection of the homeland. I am someone who has spent his entire life in this country, appreciating its freedoms and supportive of its various achievements of moral progress (for instance, the selection of an African American to be its president), although long critical of the gap between its proclaimed values and behaviour, especially in relations with the non-Western world.

I find myself now for the first time contemplating the adoption of an “expatriate consciousness”. I interpret this temptation as an expression of political despair on my part, a giving up on the future of the country after eight decades of hope and struggle. It is not only discouragement with the failures of substantive democracy that leaves the 99 percent in a permanent condition of precarious limbo, while the supposedly “liberal” leadership and citizenry seems to sleep well despite terrorising distant foreign communities with drone violence inflicted for the supposed sake of our “security”.

It is also the increasing failures of procedural democracy, the chances offered to the public by elections and political parties, that makes me feel that the most I can hope for during my lifetime is “the lesser of two evils”, allowing me recently the pleasure of a sigh of relief that it was Obama not Romney who was elected in 2012. Yet this was an electoral campaign in which both sides refused to confront any of the deeper challenges confronting the country. Each side refused to take the presumed political risks of raising such issues as the predatory nature of neoliberal globalisation, the ecological death trip of climate change, and the idiocy of “the long war” with its global battlefield unleashed after the 9/11 attacks. I fully realise that I am transforming Breaking Bad into a metaphor for my own malaise, and I am unsure how Vince Gilligan would react if confronted with such reactions. But does that matter? The autonomy of the viewer is as valid as the intentions of the creator!

Whatever may be the intention of those who put the series together, I do think Breaking Bad, whether deliberately or not, raises disturbing political and cultural questions, somewhat analogous to issues powerfully posed a generation ago by David Lynch in Blue Velvet. This Lynch movie remains one of the great filmic chronicles of the underside of America that has become almost indistinguishable from the self-congratulatory America of patriotic parades and holiday speeches by politicians. This dark criminality that lurks just below the surface of polite society is air brushed out of our collective consciousness by the mega-escapism of spectacles, sports, celebrations of militarism, and a pacifying mainstream media. What I am saying, in effect, is that Breaking Bad works fantastically well as entertainment, but that it is also a reliable journalistic source confirming the bad news about several uncontrolled wild fires burning up the country, and the world.

Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is also the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.