I am totally hooked on this show.
The actors and the writing are solid. The plot lines are interesting, the dialogue is fresh; it is very well done, it is part of the much-lauded television renaissance. It always finds a way to reveal character in really interesting, visually terse ways. Last season revealed so much about the status of Walter White’s moral vacuum with a single shot of a potted plant on a patio. The cinematography and visual palette is engaging and the show is very hard to stop watching once you absorb a emotional defense against it’s weird, slow anxiety-based drama.
[There are spoilers under this cut, you have been warned.]
I’ve found the show stops being so much mental work when you start rooting against Walt. Watching Walt manipulate and hurt Jesse Pinkman allowed me to make peace with the idea of Walt dying or going to Federal prison. Which allowed me to sort of sit back and be an unemotional observer instead of pausing every few minutes and being torn up by the tension.
There is a problem with the way Breaking Bad portrays the aspirations of my race, and people who look like me, and how those aspirations justify the deaths of people of color. There is a moment in the fourth season where Gustavo Fring orders Jesse to go do some bit of grunt work to leave Walt to clean up the mess from the cook alone, and Walt recruits three ladies from Lavandería Brillante to finish the job in the underground meth lab. This is the space Gusstavo slit a man’s throat in, that he has been clear about being willing to murder people over. These women are not killed (which was a distinct and clear possibility) but they are deported back to Honduras. Their entire lives upended so that Walt could sit on his ass, shake a cup of coffee at a camera, and get one over on his boss. He had every reason to think he’d be dumping those women into barrels of acid, and he did it anyway.
There’s a mythology that undergirds this country’s understanding of race and seeks to explain why white people succeed at the things they do and the name of that mythology is white supremacy. What I see in Breaking Bad is a story that is partially about how easily white people can dominate and outmaneuver people of color. The show invokes this dangerous, cutthroat drug world in order to create tension and then deifies Walter by showing us how expertly he masters it. The men he comes into contact with are considered to be human anomalies in their ruthlessness, yet Walt murders every single one of them. He gets people killed because he wants the privilege to make the rules in established systems of conduct, he wants to do things his way. Doing Things His Way is what makes Walt the hero (or antihero) of Breaking Bad. He got a bum hand but he played it like a real star, and the graveyard of dead contacts, henchman, distributors, and dealers is just collateral damage. I haven’t finished the 3rd season yet (I watched the 4th, then the 1st and 2nd) but taking into account the last episode on Sunday, I’ve counted 5 dead white people in the entire series, and two were from the last episode, the German dude and the henchman. The other three were Spooge, Jane, and Gale. That’s a lot of dead people of color versus dead white people.
I said on Twitter that Breaking Bad was a “white privilege fantasia.” Think about the one most special thing about Walt, the thing that gives him power: the purity of his meth. If you look at the breakdown of who can create pure meth it is Gale, Jesse, and Walt, all white characters. Possibly Maximo, Victor, and the chemist in Mexico could have attained such purity but all of them die after attempting it. So purity in the series is tied to Whiteness.
The last name of the main character is White.
If the show is loyal to its foreshadowing, the way it hinted at Gustavo’s death in the elevator with the steady, persistent bell, Walt is not going to survive this season. He could sell or run the car wash and be way, way ahead, but he’s greedy, and he’s ruthless, and he’s going to die. I’m glad the series is quitting while it is ahead, but this season just seems like housekeeping. Just making sure Walt makes his appointment with the bullet, or the knife or, as Mike puts it, the bomb that will strike him down for his hubris.
Breaking Bad fans need to back off of Skyler, seriously. There is one recurring female role in the show and she’ll always be wrong because what she represents is the shrill, nagging harpy. The woman who won’t let her husband live his most authentic meth cooking life. Even to the point that she’s been scared of him, she’s laundered money for him, she’s put hired muscle on her ex-boss to protect his empire, and she’s still with Walt after everything he’s done to her. The end of the second episode of this season is him kissing her unresponsive form and trying to whisper poison into her ear to justify the measures he’s driven her to. She did those things for her family, like he’s flooding the Albuquerque drug market with blue meth for his family.
I’m skeptical of the things people are allowed to justify as done for their family. People can justify the proliferation of assault rifles because one day they might need or want one to protect their family. They can defend a man who covered up child rape because the University he worked for and the honor of it are important to their family and they can strike out with their shock and anger at not having the Golden Aegis of Football extended to their particular astroturf dreams and ignore the way their need for Football generates a desire in the sport to please them at any cost. Not all families are considered equal in America. It might benefit poor families to have a more rigorous social net that prizes allowing families in poverty to build lives for themselves, but first we’ve got to assure every person making over 250K but less than a million that yes, it is important that they have a big house, at least three expensive cars, private school for their kids — all hardships and crosses they must bear that are way more important and deserving of our pity and understanding than someone trying to stretch an allocation of food stamps across a household of children and adults who cannot find work that will keep everything running. They’ve got cell phones! A refrigerator! The rich bastards! There is a lot more ambient empathy in the culture for people who own small businesses or have educations or have white skin. The hardships of these people are the ultimate injustices that human beings face. A white dude gets cancer? NOOOOO, WHITE PEOPLE ARE SUPPOSED TO LIVE FOREVER.
There are perfectly good reasons to have cathected the character of Walter White, because he often says really true, really important things about how a person’s life can get away from them. How a person can make all of the “right” choices and still come up short. Having a giant amount of privilege doesn’t mean your life is going to be one long afternoon with your head under the mashed potato dispenser. Shit can go wrong in your life that no amount of money will fix, but any amount of money will mitigate. At final tally this show has a lot of unacknowledged issues of race, a lot of issues having to do with whose life story is worth rooting for. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been amazing performances given by people of color, Giancarlo Esposito being at the very top of that list. His character, his back story, his tight, controlled merciless cold anger was perfectly executed. But now that he and his people are dead or on the run, we come back to a mostly white party of people left alive, plotting how to start over again. With the White Family and their white lawyer, and Jesse and Mike and Lydia, Hank and Marie all circulating around each other, waiting for the no doubt painfully white finale. That’s what we’ve got to look forward to.