Home > Reviews, Television > Meth, Masculinity and Moral Consequence: Breaking Bad – Seasons 1 & 2

Meth, Masculinity and Moral Consequence: Breaking Bad – Seasons 1 & 2

As the final season of AMC’s critically-acclaimed drama Breaking Bad broadcasts out to its dedicated viewing base, it seemed like as good a time as ever to rectify a standing oversight and finally watch through Vince Gilligan’s saga of an ordinary chemistry teacher’s descent into meth dealing, treachery, and deadly violence from the beginning. The picture that emerges, at least from the first two seasons that I’ve worked my way through thus far, is an artful, uncompromising portrait of the increasingly sociopathic efforts of Walter White (the revelatory Bryan Cranston) to re-assert a measure of patriarchal masculine power in a shifting social milieu by navigating the dark underworld of sun-drenched New Mexico.

As even those who have never seen the show surely know by now, Breaking Bad narrates the downward moral spiral of Walter, a brilliant chemistry PhD who has found himself teaching high-school chemistry in Albuquerque and gets into manufacturing and selling methamphetamine with former student (and drug addict flameout) Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). He embarks on this dirty business venture ostensibly to provide for his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn), his cerebral-palsy-afflicted son Walter, Jr. (RJ Mitte) and unborn daughter (who is born by the end of season two) after he is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He keeps his activities from them, although the demands on his time and the financial windfalls that result from it make the deception increasingly unsustainable, and Skyler has exposed nearly all of his secret life by the end of the second season and left him.

Although Walter is constantly justifying his actions (up to and including multiple murders) as being for the sake of his family and to pay for his cancer treatment, by the end of the second season his family is fractured and his cancer is in remission. And yet, we can be sure by the show’s subsequent seasons that he hasn’t gotten out of the meth game despite this (for what does it profit a man to gain the world, etc.). The lure of filthy lucre is often suggested as a more baseline motivation; Walter is shown repeatedly carefully hiding and moving and grabbing at stacks of bills, his eyes ever fixed on this tangible pecuniary prize. But recapturing some measure of male pride for himself, after a life marked by diminished agency, crops up as a more primal driving force in his actions. The writers even show their hand on this subject, having Walter defend his right to act as he wants, to make his own decisions for once after deferring to others for his entire life, when faced with stark medical options for his cancer treatment.

Walter asserts his purportedly threatened manhood in other, more dangerous ways, of course. He sets fire to the expensive convertible of a cocky businessman who, though obviously a douchebag, has done nothing more than irritate him indirectly in a banking queue. He constantly dominates and belittles his dealing partner Jesse, ripping his lack of intelligence and backbone when it comes to the meth business. And he causes an unsettling scene at a party celebrating the evident success of his cancer treatment, insisting on giving Walter, Jr. more tequila than he can handle in defiant resistance to his blabbermouth DEA agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), a rival father figure for the boy. Indeed, Junior’s function in the show (as the least-developed of the central characters) tends to be to occasionally remind his dad not to be such a “pussy”, to stand up and be a man.

These recurring themes, in combination with its drug-underworld subject matter and attendant threats and violence, has earned Breaking Bad a vocal fanbase of young males who openly understand it as an artistic lightning-rod for their undirected social discontent. Perhaps due to this association, the show has sometimes been accused harbouring misogynistic sentiments. Such sentiments have swirled menacingly enough around the character of Skyler, who attempts to draw out the increasingly secretive Walt and limit his (misspent) independence, that Gunn felt compelled to pen a New York Times op-ed pushing back against anti-Skyler (and anti-Anna Gunn) fan chatter on the internet as well as against more sober assessments of Breaking Bad as an essentially anti-feminist text.

Not to dismiss Gunn’s insider understanding of creator Gilligan’s intentions as far as signification goes, but reading Breaking Bad as proceeding from an anti-woman discursive location is not off-base. This is not to suggest that Gilligan or any other creative force behind the show is purposely misogynist, per say. It would be nearer to the point to analogize that Breaking Bad prepares suitable laboratory conditions in which misogyny can thrive, and steadfastly refuses to stamp down such inclinations when they arise. Indeed, actively contradicting those inclinations would directly undermine too many of the show’s core themes to be worth the risk.

Perhaps this is why those who lean more progressive are more hesitant in their praise of Breaking Bad. It may also serve to explain why the show’s social commentary is much more proscribed than that of a serial television text similarly focused on the drug underworld, like venerable liberal totem The Wire. Like the gangland dick-measuring that now pervades the once-promising period drama Boardwalk Empire, the attempts by anti-hero Walter White to annex the traditional masculine privilege connected to the position of economic provider carry on despite the complexities of shifting social structures.

Unlike Boardwalk Empire, and to Breaking Bad‘s greater credit, there is little ambiguity about Walter’s choice to pursue an expression of male agency having deep, powerful moral and mortal consequences for not only himself but especially for those around him. Breaking Bad‘s mastery as narrative is most evident in this last element, the gradual, devastating cause-and-effect relationship between choices and consequences, the trickle-down of tragedy and pain from the bloated reservoir of immoral conduct and greed. Just as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings theoretically becomes a destructive hurricane an ocean away, Walter’s decision to do nothing to help a young woman in distress ripples into the deadly mid-air airplane collision that ends season two. And the consequences of this event will multiply further as Walter White’s path from righteousness winds on into the dark desert valley in which he finds himself.

Categories: Reviews, Television

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