Breaking Bad is Hard to Do

Breaking Bad, the television juggernaut that has taken over the pop culture zeitgeist for the last several months, will be airing its series finale this Sunday night on AMC. If you don’t follow the show, hype surrounding the finale is hard to avoid. And even if you do watch the show, it’s seemingly impossible to be on the internet and not find yourself wrapped up in a recap (or five) or wasting away your productivity on an easter egg hunt for Walter White’s khakis in the desert. Basically, everyone in the world — and their neo-Nazi uncle — is talking about Breaking Bad. So the question is, why should The Nerds of Color?

This question has actually been a hotly contested one ’round the old N.O.C.H.Q. Up to this point, this site has focused primarily on speculative fiction (or “spec-fic”) genres like sci-fi, fantasy, and superheroes. Because Breaking Bad is ostensibly a crime show (albeit, an Emmy-winning one), would covering it lead the site down the slippery slope of covering other network dramas that don’t have a “spec-fic” bent? Are you clamoring to read Jenn‘s take on NCIS: Los Angeles? Or Shawn‘s analysis of Law & Order: SVU? (Go ahead, click this.)

The other side of the question stems from the fact that the show is about a lot of white people — people so white, they’re actually named White. How can The Nerds of Color include in its wheelhouse a show that — at least on the surface — takes a hands-off approach to discussing race issues, at best? Or marginalizes and/or stereotypes the people of color in its cast, at worst?

These are both fair questions to ask when sussing out what types of media are deemed worthy of discussion and analysis on this site. However, in my opinion, I feel like the show fits neatly within our purview, satisfying both the “Nerds” side as well as the “of Color” one.

From the beginning, Vince Gilligan has described the story of Walter White as the journey from “Mr. Chips to Scarface.” How and why does a mild mannered chemistry teacher turn into the most feared drug kingpin in the Southwest? And while the show has done an expert job in exploring this transformation, it also reads like a supervillain’s origin story. (And Cranston is so good at being the bad guy that rumors about him playing Lex Luthor flooded the web all summer). More than that, one of the appeals of the show is that it crosses so many genres. Throughout its five-and-a-half season run, it has been everything from high pulp, film noir, to  buddy comedy, to westerns, to Shakespearean tragedy, and yes, a kind of science fiction-y — or a science-y fiction, at the very least. And while the show has always been couched in realism and verisimilitude, it has also dipped its toe in surrealism and hyper-reality just as often. Seriously, tell me this ain’t a scene straight out of a comic book:

Complete with Giancarlo Esposito’s best Harvey Dent impression!

The show also has spec-fic cred since Gilligan cut his teeth on the X-Files in the 90s. There’s also a frequent appeal to nerd sensibilities on the show. Take for instance, Badger’s Star Trek fanfic and Jesse’s Team S.C.I.E.N.C.E. fantasy. Also magnets. Bitch! I’m saying, there’s a lot there for the nerds and the fanboys, making Breaking Bad a perennial draw at San Diego Comic-Con.

While the show has never been a didactic treatise on racial tensions in New Mexico, I believe — from the show’s inception — it has always been a subtle (and not so subtle) examination and deconstruction of white privilege and the benefits that privilege affords. This show can only exist because Walter is, well, White. (Not to mention, the other lead on the show is named Pinkman). Turn this around and make this a show about, say, Gus Fring, and I doubt it gets past the pilot. There is a reason that Fring’s secret identity is so meticulously managed. What’s the old adage about “working twice as hard to get half as far?” Heisenberg created — in less than a year — a multimillion dollar meth empire and toppled the one Fring took decades to build and maintain. You see, Walter White’s story is compelling precisely because of his whiteness affords him the opportunity to stumble into this massive meth empire without suspicion. Whereas Fring has to ingratiate himself into polite society through his charitable giving and his small business contributions, Walt simply takes off the pork pie and — voila — Heisenberg is hidden. Seriously, only a person with Walter White’s complexion could get away with the whole “fugue state” excuse without being arrested, let alone have every one of his friends and family believe it.

I don’t believe this critique of white privilege is accidental either. I think Vince Gilligan and his writing staff have made a concerted effort to show the consequences of this privilege and have toyed with the audience’s expectations in the same way. The writers set out to make viewers question what it means to root for a man like Walter White. And by all accounts, rooting for Walt to succeed makes you a terrible person. If it wasn’t before, this should’ve been clear the moment Heisenberg allied himself with the Aryan Nation. Seriously, if Nazis don’t get you off Team Walt, something is the matter. Emily Nussbaum’s “Bad Fans” theory is correct: some folks really are watching the show wrong.

Walter’s since of entitlement and hubris is also brought to the fore throughout the show. We all know by now that he — and his Heisenberg alter ego, emphasis on the ego — is a massive narcissist, but there have been signs of this peppered since the pilot. Sure, he feels put upon and emasculated by his job and his wife, but the pre-cancer diagnosis life he was leading was, by most measures, a pretty good one. At least he had a job, and a family, and two cars, and a house in the ‘burbs — with a pool, no less! Even after the diagnosis, it isn’t far-fetched to assume that, as a public school employee, the family’s health insurance might be enough (though, to be honest, I’m not sure if this was a plot point). It can also be said that, above all else, the show is a critique of America’s broken health care system,.

Whatever the case may be, I think Breaking Bad is one of those shows that you just kind of have to talk about, no matter what kind of site you run. I’m pretty sure there are Breaking Bad recaps on the Food Network and PBS (shout out to Charlie Rose!). It’s that big a deal. And after Sunday, we’ll all likely be discussing where the show fits in the pantheon of “greatest television shows of all time.”

2 thoughts on “Breaking Bad is Hard to Do

  1. Loved this! I was thinking about it some more last night, and the show gets you in both directions: yes, you are a bad person if you’re still rooting for badass Heisenberg, because obviously by now, he isn’t a good guy who just happens to be in the drug trade. However, I found myself in the other extreme, where I was wishing horrible, horrible things upon him for ruining the lives of a dozen people directly, and god knows how many thousands second-hand (either via his product or via plane crash, etc.), and therefore stripped away his humanity too much, I think.

    I’m so glad we are talking about it, because there is SO much to talk about, and I’d much rather discuss it with my fellow NOCs and NOC readers than anywhere else.

    PS: I saw a clip of “Talking Bad” the other day, and the actor who plays Steve Gomez said straight-out “It’s really tough to be a Mexican on Breaking Bad.” Transcript here:

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