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The capitalist nightmare at the heart of Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad’s power lies in its chilling vision of a society in thrall to the market. 

Walter White by Ralph Steadman

Walter White by Ralph Steadman

Back in October, you could have gone to Toys ’R’ Us and picked up the perfect present for the Breaking Bad fan in your family. Fifty bucks (all right, let’s assume you’re in Albuquerque) would buy you “Heisenberg (Walter White)” complete with a dinky little handgun clutched in his mitt; his sidekick Jesse, in an orange hazmat suit, was yours for $40. But then a Florida mom (it’s always a mom; it’s often in Florida) objected, and got a petition going, needless to say. “While the show may be compelling viewing for adults, its violent content and celebration of the drug trade make this collection unsuitable to be sold alongside Barbie dolls and Disney characters,” she wrote.

It’s worth noting, perhaps, that if Barbie’s proportions had their equivalent in an adult female, that woman would have room for only half a liver and a few inches of intestine; her tiny feet and top-heavy frame would oblige her to walk on all fours. A great role model? I’m not so sure. (And Disney is not always entirely benign. My mother was five when Snow White came out; I’m not sure she ever really recovered from her encounter with its Evil Queen.)

“I’m so mad, I am burning my Florida Mom action figure in protest,” Bryan Cranston tweeted when the storm broke. Cranston went from advertising haemorrhoid cream (“Remember – oxygen action is special with Preparation H”) to playing Hal, the goofy dad on Malcolm in the Middle, to full-on superstardom as Breaking Bad became a talisman of modern popular culture. The show began broadcasting in the US in January 2008 and ran for five seasons. Stephen King called it the best television show in 15 years; it was showered with dozens of awards; Cranston took the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for four out of the show’s five seasons.

So get over it, Florida Mom. Breaking Bad was, and remains (at least for the time being), the apogee of water-cooler culture: serious but seriously cool, and the nerd’s revenge, to boot. Walter White – for those of you who are yet to have your lives devoured by the show – is a high-school chemistry teacher: you might think that’s a respected, reasonably well-compensated profession, but in 21st-century America he’s got to have a second job at a carwash just to make ends meet. When he is diagnosed, as the series begins, with terminal lung cancer, his terror (his existential, male, white-collar terror) focuses not on the prospect of his own death, but on how he will provide for his family. A chance encounter with a former student, Jesse Pinkman – a classic dropout nogoodnik with a sideline in drug sales – sets his unlikely career as a drug baron in motion. As his alter ego “Heisenberg” (the name a knowing echo of that icon of uncertainty), Walter has chemical skills that enable him to cook some of the purest methamphetamine the world has ever known . . . and the rest, as they say, is history.

Now, a little over a year after the show ended, we are reminded of just how much we missed it. I have in my possession the limited-edition tin of the collected Breaking Bad. There are hours of bonus content, interviews with cast and crew, and a 135-minute documentary. There is also plenty of coat-tail-riding merch around, including The Breaking Bad Cookbook (recipes from Walt’s breakfast to Gus Fring’s paila marina) and Baking Bad by “Walter Wheat”, which sees the series through the prism of The Great British Bake Off (“Heisen-Batten-Burg Cake”, and “blue meth crunch” made of coloured sugar).

I’m not sure Florida Mom is going to find herself brewing up a batch of blue candy. And she may not watch Better Call Saul, due to air early next year – a prequel to offer consolation to desperate BrBa fans, which will have Bob Odenkirk reprise his star turn as Walt’s impeccable legal counsel. When we meet him this time, in 2002, he’s still Jimmy McGill, having yet to transform himself into the shady criminal defence lawyer who met his match in Walter White.

But here’s the thing: Florida Mom is on to something, even if she’s wrong about exactly what it is she was objecting to. “A celebration of the drug trade”? I don’t think so. But why did Breaking Bad get under my skin? Why does it still bother me, all these months later? And why do I think, in an era of exceptional television, that it’s the best thing I have ever seen?

First, a remark about the form. We are still struggling with the question of whether some art forms are innately superior to others. I yield to no one in my defence of the novel, or indeed the short story, as a brilliantly expressive, complex vehicle for narrative and character. Does that mean I think novels are “better” than television? It doesn’t. Each has different strengths and goals, and is experienced differently. Who’s to say that, if Dickens were alive today, he wouldn’t want to try his hand at a teleplay? There’s a tendency to look down the nose at work that applies academic rigour to popular forms: work such as Breaking Bad: Critical Essays on the Contexts, Politics, Style and Reception of the Television Series, edited by David P Pierson, associate professor of media studies at the University of Southern Maine. But in Dickens’s day, no one defined “popular culture” better than Boz, and now his work is pored over by academics.

 

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Not everyone wants to use words such as “metadiegetic” when talking about telly, and the close analysis of everything from the show’s vision of landscape to its use of music, or “the epistemological implications of the use a criminal pseudonym”, may be exhausting for some. Yet Pierson’s essay, which opens the volume, draws attention to one of the chief reasons the show has such a terrible and enduring resonance.

Breaking Bad is, he argues, a demonstration of the true consequences of neoliberal ideology: the idea that “the market should be the organising agent for nearly all social, political, economic and personal decisions”. Under neoliberal criminology, the criminal is not a product of psychological disorder, but “a rational-economic actor who contemplates and calculates the risks and the rewards of his actions”. And there is Walter White in a nutshell. This ideology, which has prompted penal reforms such as the “three strikes and you’re out” law, has led to a fivefold rise in the US prison population in the past 25 years; there are now, Pierson reminds us, seven million Americans in prison – one in every 20 adult men. Black men born in the United States in 2001 will have a one-in-three chance of ending up in prison, if current trends continue.

Walter White is not black, as his very name tells us. He hasn’t grown up in Baltimore (the terrain of The Wire); he lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a place that owes its existence to the idea of the American dream, to manifest destiny. Walter is smart: smarter than most. And while the “criminal entrepreneur” is a common “fantasy figure of American capitalism”, Walter is different from the anti-heroes we have grown accustomed to celebrating. We know that the Corleones and the Sopranos are criminals from the get-go; even if we choose to admire Omar Little, The Wire’s charismatic stick-up artist, we understand the shift required in our moral compass to get to that admiration.

We can make jokes here in Britain that (at least for the time being) if Walter White had lived in St Albans rather than Albuquerque, the NHS would have made his dilemma obsolete: but that is not quite correct. The old-fashioned guy that Walter is would still want to leave his family financially secure, even if his visits to the doctor were covered by West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust.

This downtrodden schoolteacher is operating in a global neoliberal marketplace. Consider Gus Fring, “the neoliberal entrepreneur par excellence” whose fried-chicken empire, Los Pollos Hermanos, is cover for a ruthless criminal enterprise. But Gus is the valued supporter of a local charity race; he never hesitates to give his money and time to worthy social causes. Yet soon enough we see what lies behind his mask. Is it, however, a mask? Or is it just the Janus face modern capitalism demands? When corporations take the decision to become “socially responsible”, is that because they’re really swell folks . . . or for some other reason?

As Walter says in the pilot episode, chemistry is the study of change. Walter makes a series of choices based on what he perceives as his circumstances and skills. One of the most striking aspects of the show is the way in which it uses pace to shift perception: the first couple of episodes rattle along, leaving not much room for thought. But the third episode – in which Walter kills a young dealer he’s held hostage in Jesse’s basement – shifts into a slower, and much more disturbing rhythm: and as viewers we begin to see the curves of the road we are about to follow. What does that say about us? Are we Walter’s accomplices, too?

Breaking Bad was distinctive because we always knew where its road would end. We knew that right from the start, in the way that the first audiences of Shakespeare’s tragedies knew what lay in store for Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth. But these days we like to think that the hero, even if he is an anti-hero, makes it through. One of the great strengths of The Wire was its willingness to let art echo the awful destructive force of life – and death. In 21st-century culture it is difficult to consider the fact of mortality, as the surgeon (and this year’s Reith lecturer) Atul Gawande reflects in his recent book Being Mortal. If Walter’s cancer weren’t terminal, there would be no story. There is no escape.

The show’s conclusion – and those who have not got that far may wish to skip this paragraph – showed that, contrary to the TV stereotype, the viewer of Breaking Bad need not be a passive receiver. If you think that some of the ends were tied up too neatly – that Walter’s last conversation with his estranged wife, Skyler, seemed too pat, his last glimpse of his son Walt, Jr too tender – then consider the spin put on the final episode by the New Yorker’s television critic, Emily Nussbaum. At the opening of that episode, Walter attempts to leave the isolated cabin in New Hampshire where he’s holed up; he dreams of exacting revenge on the gangsters who have stolen his money and killed his brother-in-law Hank. “. . . wouldn’t this finale have made far more sense had the episode ended on a shot of Walter White dead, frozen to death, behind the wheel of a car he couldn’t start?” Nussbaum wrote. And then she imagined that everything that happened after the moment when the keys fall, in slow motion, into Walter’s hands from behind the sun visor, and the snowed-in car starts like a dream, is the reverie of his dying moments. This is a compelling, revelatory argument that may or may not reflect the creator’s intention. But criticism’s job, or one of them at least, is to get away from authorial intent.

Breaking Bad wasn’t perfect. I didn’t love the women on the show, or ever quite feel they were fully rounded creations; although Anna Gunn, as Skyler, turned in an astonishing performance show after show, I wasn’t convinced by her transformation, and her compromises, in the way I was by Walter’s. And I was struck by the powerful public reaction to Skyler’s actions: a reaction so strong, and so negative, that Gunn felt compelled to write an op-ed article in the New York Times about the way in which the character had “become a flash point for many people’s feelings about strong, nonsubmissive, ill-treated women”. “As the hatred of Skyler blurred into loathing for me as a person, I saw glimpses of an anger that, at first, simply bewildered me,” she wrote. She came to see that most people’s loathing of the character “had little to do with me and a lot to do with their own perception of women and wives” – a perception that, of course, reflects the broader culture that informed the show. A circular argument? Perhaps. But one worth making.

“Just get me home. Just get me home. I’ll do the rest,” Walter mutters as he sits in his frozen car in that final episode, a weird echo, to my ears, of Dorothy’s words as she yearns for the flat plains of Kansas. The American dream is mutable, reshaped in dark and light for every generation. We are in a dream of darkness, now.

The “Breaking Bad – Complete Series” collector’s edition tin is out now. “Breaking Bad: Critical Essays” is published by Lexington Books ($85)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014