Impossible Choices? The Conservatism of "Breaking Bad"
"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.
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.
Unlike the nuanced picture we see of drug dealers and addicts in "The Wire," "Breaking Bad" presents the drug counterculture of Albuquerque as merely a gang of idiots: middle-class, slacker children; toothless, aging prostitutes; crazed, erratic kingpins; and so on. The portrayal of Wendy the prostitute is especially appalling; in one cold opening the horrors of her life are presented in a comical way to song, and in another scene, Uncle Hank pokes fun at her missing teeth to scare Walter Jr. off marijuana. Even the hapless Jesse Pinkman, an addict himself, is only redeemed in the eyes of the camera, when he, with Walt, flourishes in the black market and makes millions - gaining both power and wealth, two of the absolute values of "Breaking Bad."
All of this his makes for a fascinating character study - White's transition to Heisenberg has been a jaw dropping and dramatic. Think Progress recently devoted an article to the idea that Walt is abusing Jesse, which is not only fairly persuasive, but also demonstrates the depths with which the Walt character can be examined. But it is indeed the character that we can learn about, not so much the world he lives in. In fact, Walt and his experiences are so thoroughly unique that we are quite limited in what we can learn from his adventures through the crystal meth underbelly of New Mexico. The same cannot be said for the "Wire" where most of the characters are representative of an entire population of America: the urban poor.
Interestingly, Rosenberg, who has written about the conservative aspects of the show, tells Truthout that "given how sharp the show's moral critique of Walt has become, how thoroughly villainous he is now, I have to see it as a critique both of the failure of institutions and of go-it-alone and hypermasculine responses to those failures."
Yet, the conservative sentiments behind White's actions, if not the actions themselves, still seem to resonate with many fans. At the end of season four, White's final battle with Fring played out like a Western gun fight, though more gruesome. It was compelling television, and in the end, our anti-hero, White, won the day. Klosterman, in his essay, admits, that despite his murderous, deceptive ways, the audience is put in the "curious position of continuing to root for an individual who's no longer good." Consider that wording: No longer good. Klosterman uses the words "good" and "bad" as if the whole world could be placed in a Venn diagram that never intersects.
White may well still get his just desserts by the time the series ends next year. But the "Wire" did not have us rooting for or against any heroes or villains at all; indeed, the shows characters were too complicated, by in large, for such labels. "The Wire," instead, had us rooting for a world in which all human beings can live with dignity and have the freedom to actually make choices. And that is a testament to the greatness of "The Wire," and a reminder of the limitations of "Breaking Bad."