Impossible Choices? The Conservatism of "Breaking Bad"
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"Breaking Bad" is a fascinating show. But efforts to compare it to "The Wire," which systematically analyzed American institutions and the American experience, are misguided. "Breaking Bad" is fundamentally a conservative show that is all about the individual.
This Sunday (September 2) AMC will air the final episode of part one of it's fifth and final season of "Breaking Bad," an immensely popular and critically acclaimed show about a down-on-his luck high school chemistry teacher who, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, starts a life as a crystal methamphetamine manufacturer. The high praise of the show is largely warranted: the premise is fascinating, the photography and acting is superb and the drama intense. Some have even dared to suggest that "Breaking Bad" represents the best that modern television has to offer, even surpassing HBO's the "Wire" as the greatest show of its time. This, it must be said, is to give the show too much credit.
As entertaining as the show is, it is important to understand what it is not: a serious analysis of the drug war, the health system, middle-class drug culture or the American experience at all. In fact, the show is very much a demonstration of a very conservative worldview that posits that life is but a series of individual choices. The show, rather simply, attributes the consequences of these choices squarely on the women and (mostly) men who make them. As Chuck Klosterman wrote for Grantland, in a 2011 essay praising "Breaking Bad" as the greatest show of the modern era, the show presents a world where "goodness and badness are simply complicated choices, no different than anything else." This, he adds, is in contrast to "The Wire," where (emphasis in original) "everyone is simultaneously good and bad" and "[t]he conditions matter more than the participants."
Klosterman, in trying to explain why "Breaking Bad" is the best of the great shows of the modern era, is actually, and unwittingly, pointing out its most glaring weakness. "Breaking Bad's" biggest shortcoming is its lack of systemic analysis of the American experiment, which also happened to be the "Wire's" greatest asset. In fact, "Breaking Bad" does the exact opposite of systemic analysis; rather than focus on society's problems from a macro level, it has a laser-like focus on the micro - into the world of one unique man, with unique ambitions and morals. As a result, "Breaking Bad" teaches us a lot about one fascinating man, and almost nothing about the American experience.
"Breaking Bad" did not have to be this way. After the pilot, one could have reasonably projected that the show would serve to address the bankrupting impact of our woeful health care system. In fact, a recent essay in the Nation describes the show as being (wrongly, I would argue) about the "failed American Dream," filled with "impossible choices." "Breaking Bad," the author writes, "works to deconstruct these little fallacies that keep the poor from demanding dignity."
But this interpretation greatly overstates "Breaking Bad" as a critique of American capitalism and/or its institutions. Indeed, soon after the pilot the show quickly pivoted to something very different, and something rooted deeply in a sort of masculine, individualist conservatism. It turned out Walter White did not cook crystal meth because he could not pay his medical bills, but because he did not want to accept charity (from well-to-do friends) to pay these bills.
Using a rationale and language that conservatives must love, White would not demean himself by accepting help from others, no matter that else he must do to avoid that fate. Receiving charity in White's world, makes him weak, makes him less of a man, and is far less desirable to him than dying of cancer. The idea that he was "forced" into a life of crime does not do justice to the evolution of White into Heisenberg. White did have choices; they may not have been perfect choices, but they were not "impossible" choices, such as the ones the character's on the "Wire" faced all the time.