What I Learned from Breaking Bad By Stephanie “Heisenberg” Giluk
First, some contextBreaking Bad is a TV show created byVince Gilligan about Walter White, amiddle class white American man with awife, a son, and a baby on the way wholearns he has cancer that is already inthe advanced stagesHe’s super smart, but he teaches highschool chemistrySo naturally he decides to pay forcancer treatment and make sure there’senough money saved to support hisfamily after he’s gone by cooking methand then selling it This was me watchingGo watch it on Netflix right now Breaking Bad
Anti-heroes are the way to goNeither of the show’s maincharacters, Jesse (on the right) or Walt (onthe left) are very likeable or moralThey can both be cowardly, violent, andmanipulative The dynamic between the two of them, however (Walt is the cook, Jesse is the dealer), is compelling and they have an odd man kind of partnership Plus it’s funny to watch them try to be big time criminals because they suck at it early in the series
The American dream is a lie (surprise) Walt could have made it big with his chemistry buddies from school but instead they got rich without him and Walt resents their wealth and success compared to his His job as a teacher, his wife, his nice house, aren’t enough—he’s not happy He makes meth for a noble (?) cause at first, but then learns that he loves the thrill and danger of it not to mention the insane amount of money he makes This is Walt quitting his after- school job
Science is way cooler than anyone could have guessedWalt defeats otherrival drug dealerswith science! Well,explosions caused byscience Walt cooks the best meth ever because of his expertise in chemistry Big time dealers pay big bucks for Walt’s blue meth Learn to be a chemist so you too can make meth
The voice of reason is lame In a show all about the anti- heroes and the horrible/entertaining things they do, it’s hard to like anyone reasonable Case in point, Walt’s wife, Skyler Fans almost universally hate Skyler, even though she’s done nothing wrong—how would you feel if your dying husband started cookingHey everyone this is my first meth behind your back?meme! I made it myself!
Morality isn’t as simple as good or badThere’s a whole lotof grey areabetween good andbad and Walter livesin that grey areaWhat makes you agood man? A goodfather? A goodmother? A goodwife? I felt like this gif really said “moral complexity”Moral complexity isthe way to go
Time for some serious analysisThis article had some interesting things to say about the whole “American dream” aspectof Breaking Bad. Through flashbacks, we see Walt looking forward to life he wants to buildwith Skyler, but this dream (kids, good job, nice house) he and many other American mentry to live out crashes down around his ears. Walt is faced with the very real possibilitythat he and his family might fall into poverty, and he desperately turns to cooking an illegalsubstance to make sure this doesn’t happen. While he is “initially a sloppy, dangerousnovice…Walt enters the upcoming season having found his way to the top of a criminalempire” (Rivlin-Nadler). This story arc is so appealing to so many fans because it embodiessome of middle class America’s secret desires. If so many people find the so-calledAmerican dream unattainable or unfulfilling, Walt is a way for viewers to vicariouslyescape into Walt’s life, where he has gained power over his life after being powerless inthe face of poverty and even death.In Ashby’s chapter titled “Counterpoints to Consensus,” he discusses how “popularculture [in the 1940s-1950s] provided outlets for feelings of uncertainty, doubt anddiminished personal power” and I think pop culture, and more specifically, Breaking Bad,can still be outlets for those kinds of feeling among consumers of the show (303). TheAmerican dream has let a lot of people down by generally being a big fat lie, and shows likeBreaking Bad can help people see how fictional middle class people deal with this giant let-down. Walt has asked himself “If playing by the rules can only get you so far, whybother?” and this is the heart of the show (Rivlin-Nadler). Walt has chosen to break awayfrom the status quo and in doing so has become an increasing amoral criminal—so is Waltreally any really better off having broken away from the myth of the American dream? Idon’t know!
Serious analysis continued (American dream)I came across a very interesting article about Breaking Bad’s handling of the Americandream dealing with a Walt Whitman reference made during the third season of the show.For those that don’t know, Whitman was an American poet, most famous for “Song ofMyself,” which has been read as the intense celebration of the individual and the self butthe self as connected to every living being in the cosmos (it’s pretty awesome). Walterpicks up a book of Whitman’s poems and is seen reading them in different episodes, andthis is obviously not an accident on the part of the writers.As Matt Orenstein points out in his article, “Whitman’s pithy humanism stands in starkcontrast to Walter White’s gradual indulgence of his own will-to-power and hisinsouciance towards the lives of others,” but at the same time, “[w]atching Breaking Badin light of Whitman is to meditate on the American Dream through a glass, darkly.”Walter’s “American Dream exists outside of the American legal system,” which isn’tcomplicit with the proper American Dream—it should be achieved legally and honestly(Orenstein). Walter’s “rugged individualism” isn’t enough to qualify him as a good oldAmerican boy, like Whitman, because in the end, they are too different (Orenstein).Ultimately, Whitman’s “America…was one of altruism: his poems professed a love ofeveryone,” but Walter, “lives for and believes only in himself” (Orenstein). Having Walterread the poems of someone who wrote about his connection to and love for his fellowhumans all while being an intensely rugged individual is a clear way of pointing outWalter’s contrasting dehumanization and his grasping for some semblance of theAmerican Dream in an illegal, immoral way.
More analysis: Skyler and genderLike I mentioned in a previous slide, almost everyone hates Skyler White’scharacter and most people reason that because Walt is set up as our (anti)hero, Skyler is his natural foil. She’s set up from the first episode to be seen asthe nagging wife who undervalues her quiet, intelligent, troubled husband, butas the show progresses and Walt become more and more frightening, Skyler isstill seen as this unreasonable, hateful woman, even though she must deal withthe fact that her husband is placing their family in very real danger and ispossibly becoming a sociopathic murderer.In her article, Alyssa Rosenberg explores Skyler’s character from a feministperspective. Rosenberg describes Skyler as “one of many TV wives…fans turnon rather than visiting moral judgment on the anti-hero men themselves.”Skyler’s relationship with her husband grows more and more complex andmore dangerous with each season—Walt becomes abusive and “Skyler seesWalt as we’re [viewers] meant to see him: a self-deluding, pathetic man, but adangerous one” (Rosenberg). Her character has been criticized for not leavingWalt, not realizing how difficult it might for Skyler to leave, with a teenage sonand infant child, a man who has been known to kill when threatened. ThoughRosenberg does point out that perhaps “Skyler has a moral clarity that thoseof us who want to identify with Walt as a badass would like to deny,” she alsosays that “it’s hard enough for women who aren’t married to evil geniuses toleave abusive relationships” and that Skyler shouldn’t be villainized for tryingto work out a solution to the complex problem that is her life.
Works CitedAshby, LeRoy. “Counterpoints to Consensus.” WithAmusement for All: A History of American Popular CultureSince 1830. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky,2006. 302-347. Print.Orenstein, Matt. “I See You Face to Face: Walt Whitman andWalter White.” Full Stop. Full Stop, 19 September 2012. Web.14 March 2013.Rivlin-Nadler, Max. “Breaking Bad’s Failed AmericanDream.” The Nation. The Nation, 11 July 2012. Web. 14 March2013.Rosenberg, Alyssa. “Stop Hating the Wives: In Praise ofBreaking Bad’s Skyler White.” Slate. The Slate Group, 16 July2012. Web. 14 March 2013.
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