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Impossible Choices? The Conservatism of "Breaking Bad"

"Breaking Bad" is fundamentally a conservative show that is all about the individual.

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White's decision to manufacture drugs was not done clearly from a point of desperation, which is further shown by the fact that he keeps up the caper well after he makes millions and has his cancer in remission. No, White's decision reflected a classic conservatism that comes straight from the likes of Edmund Burke. "A man provides for his family ... because he a man," said drug kingpin Gustavo Fring, to an agreeable White. This line shows why "Breaking Bad" may well be the most philosophically conservative show on television.

"The show is careful to demonstrate how hard it is to even reach for modest things - Walt and Skyler's house is not lavish, and yet it's a very real possibility that they could lose it after Walt's death. When Walt tells Skyler what he's done, his justification is decidedly modest. He tells her: 'I've done a terrible thing. But I've done it for a good reason. I did it for us,'" said Alyssa Rosenberg, of the Center for American Progress, in an email interview with Truthout. "And yet, Walt's solution to this dilemma is individualist, governed by a vision of masculinity that makes him ashamed when his son solicits donations for his care. As the series has progressed, he's embraced this idea that he's succeeding as a man not only when he's providing modest financial security for his family, but when he's threatening to other people."

To be fair, the creators of "Breaking Bad" are open about what the show is trying to do and they do not even try to dissect the systemic problems in the United States. Every single detail of the show and White's life is, as the protagonist explained to his son who had bought his lie about being addicted to gambling, "all about choices." And this is where "Breaking Bad" misses an amazing opportunity. You learn much more about society when people operate in a world, much like our own, where choices are restricted by larger, external forces. "The Wire," of course, is a full-frontal assault on numerous failing institutions, and in some ways, of the brutal nature of capitalism itself - a system that leaves a permanent urban underclass in the streets of Baltimore with little reasons for hope and almost no prospects for a way out.

Here we see that being "bad" or "good" is not simply a matter of "complicated choices," but a complicated world  where many are primarily subjects of the world around them. Consider the "Wire's" character archs with the young children, such as Dukie, whose descent into homelessness and drug addiction cannot be explained away by "complicated choices." Likewise, the character of Michael, whose " complicated decision" to join a violent, murderous drug gang is also complicated by much more than his own judgment. "I got a problem I can't bring to no one esle," he tells gang leader Marlo Stanfield. He is not totally wrong. His young brother, who lacks a single adult caretaker of any reliability, risks being abused sexually, forcing Michael into a "choice."

Choices are a luxury that White has, and the poor urban underclass do not. After all, if Dukie from the "Wire" had contracted cancer, he most certainly would have gone on with no diagnoses and quickly died. And  that is a telling and chilling thought about the American experience. "Breaking Bad" offers almost no such thoughts on American life. The children of the "Wire" are in many ways, what Kurt Vonnegut calls, the "listless playthings of enormous forces." They prove that choices are not all created equal, and in some cases barely qualify as choices at all.