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THE WHITEST SHOW ON TV: 11 Statements About AMC’s Breaking Bad


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.


  1. Matt Janovic wrote:

    I agree with a lot here–that Walter’s implicitly racist, but I doubt that the racial subtext you’re suggesting was as conscious by the writers are you’re suggesting. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes you’re just portraying things as they really are without making any real statement beyond the fact that Walter is basically a criminal at heart. The mistake is thinking it was ever otherwise once he got into the drug underworld. He’s a creep.

    Tuesday, July 24, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Permalink
  2. Garland Grey wrote:

    @Matt Hey, I’m simply looking at the text and noticing things. For instance, Breaking Bad has put way more money into the pockets of people of color than, say, Girls has, and anything that results in POC actors getting work is awesome, but most of them showed up for auditions to be dealers and henchman and laundry workers, and most of the white actors showed up to portray complex characters that are defined by things outside of what they do to make money. I’m not suggesting it is a horrible show or people like it only because of the centering of Whiteness, I’m suggesting it has these issues, and I’m talking about them.

    Tuesday, July 24, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Permalink
  3. Rebecca wrote:

    Huh, I have been bothered for awhile about the fact that the show portrays Walt’s life as ultimately more valuable than Jesse’s because he has a wife and kids, and how that is related to our general societal valuations of nuclear families as more valuable than any other form of social organizing. I completely see what you are talking about here, and while it may be unconscious on the writer’s part, it is very problematic.

    Also, I totally agree on Giancarlo Esposito, he’s amazing here.

    Tuesday, July 24, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Permalink
  4. Yvonne Rathbone wrote:

    Actually, I think the racial aspect is essential to understanding the show and knowing who to root for (Holly – maybe? until she grows up to be Jane?) For #6, to get the full metaphor, this has to be extended to what the white people are good at. The whites in this story are super good at producing a toxin that destroys lives. Yes, POC can attempt to do that, but only white privilege gives you the ability to do that better than anyone else. This connects to the idea that racial whiteness is defined by slave ownership. The characteristic of “being white” in our culture is tied to the role of master in a slave society. There’s a special irony in this particular form of mastery – it is envied even as it reveals its definitional evil – that is being showcased in the show. Refer back to item 1.

    Tuesday, July 24, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Permalink
  5. Veda wrote:

    As a resident of Albuquerque, one of my *major* problems of the show is just how white it is. Obviously a show about cooking meth is not going to portray the most positive sides of a city anyway, and you’re bound to have more drug dealers, etc. among the characters – but the cast of the show does NOT look like my city, period. This kind of sadly standard Hollywood whitewashing is so obvious and egregious in a city as diverse as ABQ. I actually have a hard time watching it, despite the many great things about it (and the fun of seeing places in my town on television), because it is just crazy to me that this show could have shot here for so many years and not seen fit to select the population here better.

    Tuesday, July 24, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Permalink
  6. Yatima wrote:

    My take on this is that some of the race issues here are unexamined, but others were intentional. I think we were meant to judge Walter for putting the laundry workers in harm’s way, just as we were meant to judge Hank for his racist bullshit in El Paso. I think the show works best as a dissection of Walter’s Whiteness: his conviction that he knows best, that his intellect justifies his behavior, that his enemies are just being unreasonable. Like you, I didn’t start enjoying the show until I gave myself permission to consider Walt loathsome. As we’ve been reminded again this week, some of the most dangerous people in the world are highly intelligent white men.

    I think Vince Gilligan has done interesting work with that material, but has heartbreakingly missed opportunities elsewhere. The fact that Gus is the only truly three-dimensional character of color stands in stark contrast to The Wire, of course, but even to Nurse Jackie and Community. Gus will be missed.

    Tuesday, July 24, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Permalink
  7. Greg wrote:

    5 — don’t forget that Walt isn’t the only smart killer in the show. Gus killed Don Eladio.

    Tuesday, July 24, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Permalink
  8. dryad wrote:

    Even the germ of the idea of the show is racist: the concept of the meth business as unnatural or foreign to Walt at the beginning. Like the far less well-written Weeds, Breaking Bad initially drew grim humor from the supposed incongruity of white suburbanite entering the drug trade.

    The show’s creator has described the arc of the show as “from Mr. Chips to Scarface.” Mr. Chips characters are always white naifs, no show or film (or book that I can think of) has a Mr. Chips of color. Whereas Scarface is not only a psychopathic gangster, he is Cuban. The character, if not the actor playing the role, of Scarface is Latino. So the journey of Walter White is to lose his whiteness, which is equated with innocence.

    Wednesday, July 25, 2012 at 12:16 pm | Permalink
  9. Julian wrote:

    I think people are seeing what they want to see here.Walter didn’t ask the workers to clean up because he is racist, but because with a few exceptions he doesn’t care about other peoples lives.

    Wednesday, July 25, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Permalink
  10. apgeeksout wrote:

    @Julian – Walter, being a fictional person, doesn’t do anything of his own volition. Writers and casting directors and producers and filmmakers and all the other people it takes to make a tv show happen make all of the choices that lead to Walter being and doing and caring (or not caring) about anything at all. And they don’t make those creative decisions in a void: they’re making them in a culture that has deeply ugly and unexamined issues about race.

    A culture where it’s incredibly easy and ordinary (without any malicious intent or even much conscious thought) to fill the plotspace marked “lives protagonist doesn’t care about” with brown women from a Not-US country.

    Thursday, July 26, 2012 at 11:47 am | Permalink
  11. Anna wrote:

    Never mind that the whole reason Walt is in this mess in the first place is he’s too goddamned White Man Bootstraps Proud to accept help from his former white colleague for the multibillion dollar business he helped start.

    Thursday, July 26, 2012 at 11:58 am | Permalink
  12. ColKurtz wrote:

    But the show explicitly shows that there *are* consequences to these people that Walter doesn’t care about. The laundry workers are put on a bus to be deported (or are they?), and the janitor at Walt’s school takes the fall for Walt’s theft. This show neither glosses over nor glorifies Walt’s selfish behavior.

    What was a young Gustavo, if not a Mr. Chips of color?

    I think you’re seriously underselling Gus and overselling Walt. Walt doesn’t expertly master this world, he bumbles and stumbles his way through by the skin of his teeth. He only survived long enough to murder Gus through a combination of incredible luck and Gus’ good graces. At every step Gus is shown to be a smarter, more competent and more rational businessman than Walt.

    Friday, July 27, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Permalink
  13. Frogisis wrote:

    I think this hits on a lot of good points, but where I disagree is that these instances aren’t themselves examples of the show addressing these issues.
    Maybe I watch TV differently from other people, but I never identified with Walt and instead regarded the whole thing as a kind of clockwork Greek tragedy where someone rises to the top and is inevitably brought down by their various flaws, and the kind of circular, karmic plot developments really seal this for me. To me there’s a kind of irony in everything in Walt does, where instead of reifying his ostensibly good actions as the actual values of the show, they’re a mask for how selfish, conniving behavior hurts people unknowingly. Walter didn’t conscript those women to clean because that’s what they were for in the universe of the show, he did it because he is bad. He prayed on their status and didn’t care what happened to them, and the show paints this as further damage to his moral compass.
    The entire arc of the 4th season is about him trying to maintain his privilege and uniqueness so he isn’t killed and replaced by any number of likely-to-be-brown people, and it pushes him further and further into irredeemably evil behavior.
    Also, his helpful old business partner is named the German word for “Black,” Walt’s pure, traditionally white/clear meth is actually blue, and Saul Goodman is really of Irish descent but pretending to be Jewish to exploit that stereotype, so I think even these metaphorically racial conceits in the show are more complex than they seem on the surface.
    I guess what I’m trying to say is, “yeah, all that stuff is in there, but it’s a bad thing in the show, too.” It is a white privilege fantasia, among other things, but I don’t think it’s portraying that unconsciously or in neutral terms at all.

    Friday, July 27, 2012 at 7:33 pm | Permalink
  14. hamrove wrote:

    The problem for me is less the writers and more the viewers, though I agree with many of these points. We were supposed to lose sympathy for Walter White a long, long time ago, yet viewers (at least from what I’ve seen on comment boards) continue to defend and justify Walt at every turn, scapegoating Skyler and making excuses for all of Walt’s bad behavior.
    Whenever I discuss BB with acquaintances it always comes back to ‘when did you know Walt was irredeemable?’ and it’s interesting how the answers vary. For me it was Hugo. The scene in which Walt use the ladies at the laundry echoes that point in the first season when Hugo, the Latino custodian, is fired after Walt steals lab equipment from the school. That event effectively illustrates how Walt’s race and class privilege shields him from suspicion and how he is able to pass off the consequences of his own actions onto people of color. Weeds is the story of a wacky white lady adventuring into the world of POC and having a zany laugh; BB is the story of how a white middle class person uses and abuses his privilege, sacrificing the lives of POC and poorer people at every turn.
    Did we need another show with a white protagonist? No, no we didn’t. It would be far more interesting to have shows about racism and white supremacy that focused on POC protagonists. For a show with a white protagonist though, BB has done a reasonably good job of proving that its white male protagonist is selfish, childish and ruthless, and that the myth he creates for himself about masculine pride and family is hollow bullshit. When the lady on Weeds faces off against POC foes, we’re supposed to root for her, which makes that show totally beyond redemption. Breaking Bad differs because when Fring falls to the ground we’re disappointed that the white guy won.

    Friday, July 27, 2012 at 11:27 pm | Permalink
  15. Susana Gallardo wrote:

    Excellent analysis. Thank you.

    Wednesday, August 1, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Permalink
  16. Matt Cornell wrote:

    Not just Walter *White*, but also Jesse “Pinkman.”

    To me, the biggest problem with the show is that, save for Steve Gomez, Hank’s Latino partner, ALL of the people of color on the show are cartoonish villains. That includes Fring, even though he’s a marvelous character.

    Also, I think it’s important to note, that while Esposito has been opaque in interviews, Fring was clearly meant to be gay– his long ago murdered partner supplying the motive for his epic revenge last season.

    Friday, August 3, 2012 at 4:34 am | Permalink
  17. Ally wrote:

    Yes! Thank you! Next: commentary on Weeds, please. These shows seem to create (or merely perpetuate?) the idea that when white people sell drugs, it’s for noble reasons, whereas when people of color sell drugs it’s because they’re evil. Because, you know, people of color never have families that they’re looking out for or anything. I mean, okay, Walt isn’t so much of a hero after the first season, but he’s still the protagonist.
    Even The Wire, on which people of color sell drugs but have more complex stories than on Breaking Bad or Weeds, still shows this racial warfare where white, middle-class society is the protagonist group.

    Friday, August 3, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Permalink
  18. willibro wrote:

    Thank you. Exactly on point, in every response. And exactly the reason for Garland’s response (and my own) that the show is easier to take (and understand) once you stop cathecting Walt and start analyzing him as a specimen of all the issues the show attempts to deal with: racism, sexism, and the impact of capitalist assumptions behind everything you’re seeing. One more example to consider: The only reason White is able to murder Fring before Fring murders him is Hector Salamanca’s hatred for *both* of them. Fring’s only mistake is that he taunts Salamanca with the murder of Don Eladio and his crew every chance he gets. White’s only success is that he exploits that to get Salamanca’s cooperation with the bombing. Tell me: Is that believable? That one POC should hate another POC to the degree that he will revenge himself on the other with a suicide bomb? And do this at the behest of a White Man who he knows is responsible for murdering his relatives? Go read up on the history of the Indian Raj and the Opium Wars and then get back to me.

    Sunday, August 5, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Permalink