Home > Culture, Reviews, Television > Power and Corporatization in the Meth Underworld: Breaking Bad – Seasons 3 & 4

Power and Corporatization in the Meth Underworld: Breaking Bad – Seasons 3 & 4

It’s easier to consider the ways in which Breaking Bad stays the same through its run than to consider the ways it changes. The finely-tuned, incremental amassing of narrative detail remains constant and superlative; whatever else one might have to say about the thematic content of Vince Gilligan’s television opus, there’s little question that its storytelling is exquisite. Quibble about its constant thematic drumbeat of motivating masculine pride and immoral Machiavellian manipulations if you will, but Breaking Bad has enraptured a mass audience with its developing plot, and rightly so.

As mentioned, the assertions of masculinity, in particular through the seedy underworld of meth-trade crime, never go away and never really wane. They even flare up on key occasions, against the better mental judgment of the show’s characters, pushing the story forward in a way that is not merely about imparting meaning but also about the unavoidable and unforeseen consequences of human agency. This tendency, the closest thing to a formula that Breaking Bad can be said to follow, crops up repeatedly in the show’s third and fourth seasons.

Walter White (Bryan Cranston), for instance, unadvisedly keeps his DEA brother-in-law Hank’s (Dean Norris) investigation into the meth operation he has been involved in alive when it might have advantageously wilted on the vine. A bit elated with liquor at a family dinner, Walter shoots down Hank’s theory that Walter’s former meth lab assistant Gale Boetticher (David Costabile) was “Heisenberg”, the true chemistry genius behind the pure, blue-tinted methamphetamine product flooding the streets of Albuquerque and beyond, a suspicion that may have put the investigation to sleep and at least temporarily left Walter and his collaborators in the clear. Walter speaks up in his disinhibited state largely because, perversely, the quality meth he secretly manufactures has become the signature accomplishment of his disappointing life, and the protection of that accomplishment the sole opportunity to fulfill any sort of male dominance over his world. Although the cruel irony of this accomplishment is that he cannot openly take credit for it for risk of legal consequence, he’ll be damned if he lets another man, even a dead one like Gale, receive the laurels due to him. And damned, one gets the distinct feeling, he will be soon enough.

This choice by Walter ripples out from him, in the form of increased DEA pressure on his drug-lord employer Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), which further strains their already-poisoned professional relationship (once friendly and even understanding of his brilliant but volatile employee, Fring is trundling Walter out to the desert to make death threats against his family before too long). But Fring, constructed by the writers and played by Esposito as a calculating logic-bot who matches and surpasses Walter’s meticulous double-life practices, makes his own emotional, masculine power-asserting miscalculation which costs him most dearly. Seeking to diffuse escalating cross-border tensions with the Mexican cartels, Fring poisons kingpin Don Eladio (Steven Bauer) and his entire cartel leadership to death. Mass murder may seem an extreme reaction for a highly-controlled man like Gustavo Fring, but then Eladio did have Fring’s former meth-cooking partner killed before his eyes, as a flashback reveals (the trigger-man was Hector Salamanca, memorably played by Mark Margolis as a crusty old invalid in a wheelchair who rings a bell like a mute, avenging angel).

A desire for revenge clouds Fring’s judgment in this matter, and only some unexpected quick action by Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), who has become a trusted figure in Fring’s organization, saves Fring, Jesse, and Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) from a fate similar to that suffered by the cartel elite. But with primary underhanded operative Mike out of commission in Mexico with a gunshot wound, Fring is left vulnerable to an attack from his newly-minted nemesis Walter, who engineers a final explosive encounter between Fring and Hector. Fring’s unwise, personally-driven overreach proves very costly, as many of our own emotional choices do as well.

Walter and Jesse’s inculcation into Fring’s meth operation dominates both of these seasons, although parallel and related storylines make their presence known as well (the cartel’s attack on Hank which leaves him temporarily paralyzed, Skyler and Walt buying the car wash where the latter once worked in order to launder their money, Jesse’s attempt at family life with a fellow recovering addict). But Breaking Bad‘s continuing allegory for American capitalism circles persistently around Fring’s diversified holdings, and it pulls lesser narratives and implications into this same orbit.

If the early stretches of the show commented on the consuming pressures of the laissez-faire American economy and the dark side of the entrepreneurial spirit, then Walter’s hiring by Fring and relocation into the industrial meth super-lab beneath an unassuming laundry facility represents the pitfalls of corporatization. Walt chafes under Fring’s increasingly close supervision and intrusive surveillance, become progressively more defiant in defending his position in the lab. After Walter put a great deal of effort into getting Fring’s attention and then eventually his patronage for his particular form of chemical art, the protagonist of Breaking Bad finds the supposedly more secure realm of large-scale meth production and distribution no more welcoming or easily navigated than the street-level knife-fight he sought to avoid. Selling out, it turns out, is not the solution to all that ails economic players.

Ever get the feeling that we’re being watched, Mr. White?

Fring seeks to minimize risk like a true micromanager, and Walter White is nothing if not one big walking risk (throw in Jesse Pinkman and that’s two). His fried chicken franchise is a cunning cover, but it’s also a profitable business that could have kept Fring living very comfortably without the drug trade sideline. The car wash project is mostly about “cleaning” Walter’s income so that it can be used for Hank’s recovery (Skyler suspects quite rightly that the attack on Walter’s brother-in-law had something to do with him), but it’s also a modest step towards at least the appearance of fiscal independence, like Fring’s Los Pollos Hermanos. It’s conceivable that, like his boss’ fast food chain, the car wash could give Walter a chance to live straight. But neither man can resist the lucrative profits and ample opportunities for robust dick-measuring that the meth business has to offer. And, to tell the truth, they are both in far too deep to get out, even if they wanted to.

One other notable way in which Breaking Bad shifts on its axis in the third and fourth seasons has to do with its once-balanced portrait of meth culture. As the show has focused with more and more detail and complexity on the business and extortionary side of the trade, it has lost touch with the seedy, painful underworld of the afflicted addicts who actually buy and use crystal meth. The window into this realm was Jesse for a long time in the show’s early days, and and this perspective reached its unsettling climax in his Dante’s Inferno descent into the den of two addicts with a neglected, half-feral son (Season 2’s “Peekaboo”).

Hard as this material was to watch, it was necessary to ground the meth trade intrigue in real, harsh consequences. It became impossible to forget that whatever pecuniary rewards Walter ultimately earned, at the bum end of the whole sordid affair was a person whose life was being strangled by the drug he made for them to pay to use. But the intrigue was simply too intriguing to Breaking Bad‘s creative braintrust, and the crime noir elements take firm precedence over the depiction of meth’s social costs by the fourth season. My previous consideration of the first two seasons lamented the privileging of the incident-laden story over the possible thematic social messages, and if anything, this issue intensifies as the show carries on. As the fifth and final season looms for this one delayed follower of Breaking Bad, the appeal of narrative appeal remains the main draw.

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Categories: Culture, Reviews, Television

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