It’s the last week of Breaking Bad.
The last week in which you’ll be able to wonder – how much more can an unassuming Albuquerque school teacher fall to pieces?
Many have written about series creator Vince Gilligan’s intention to turn the docile Walter White from ‘Mr Chips to Scarface’, from protagonist to antagonist, from loved to feared.
But there is something more to Breaking Bad’s success – why it is drawing in audiences previously uninterested in gangsters and drug dealers and shoot ‘em up action. Why its audience numbers are refusing to taper – hitting record levels with 6.4 million watching last week’s episode ‘Ozymandias’ in the US.
The show resonates because Walter White’s journey towards moral annihilation describes, albeit in hyperbolic form, the experience awaiting anyone joining the modern workplace.
Breaking Bad illustrates the devil's bargain all young people face, entering a jobs market where most of the outcomes their work will create–pollution, inequality, misinformation, division–are at odds with their personal morality.
Like any young lawyer, financier or entrepreneur engaging with the pointy end of our economy for the first time, the naive White discovers that behind the market’s veneer of fraternity, profit is its only guide.
The products are nasty and addictive. The people who make them couldn’t care less.
When White is forced out of his safe, suburban bubble for the first time – compelled by a cancer diagnosis to earn money quickly for his disabled son – he finds that the local chicken shop is owned by one of the country’s biggest meth dealers. The cross-border arm of a Mexican cartel run Albuquerque’s streets. A German multinational food science corporation is operating as a front to supply meth precursors to the US market. Men in rickety old Tarago’s can with an hour’s notice pick you up and completely re-invent your identity.
In other words – when profit is the only motive, anything goes. Laws, national boundaries, corporate governance – these are fictions for school kids (and their teachers).
At its heart, the series is about what a society looks like when it is ruled purely by greed.
That’s why White is the centre of this story rather than a detective or vigilante hero. Because no one can teach us more about a society guided only by profit than a gangster on a learning curve.
Jason Webster wrote recently in Aeon Magazine that the detective in 20th century fiction was in many senses presented as a modern priest – ‘by taking us on a journey, discovering pieces of evidence, seeking out hints and clues… We need him, with his special knowledge and abilities, to make sense of it all.’
But in a society that’s all about profit, you need a hustler rather than a detective to really make sense of the money trail.
White is the explainer in Breaking Bad, not DEA agent Hank Schrader, just as the great philosophers in The Wire were drug dealers like Omar Little and Bodie.
Breaking Bad follows in the tradition of modern gangster franchises like Grand Theft Auto, where the metropolis is reduced through the eyes of a petty felon into a corrupted pyramid scheme, crooked from top to bottom.
Hip-hop has for decades presented stories about drug dealing and hustling as a metaphor for American capitalism. A few years ago 50 Cent and Robert Greene managed to distill the metaphor into a bestselling book – The 50th Law – translating the lessons of crack dealing into a philosophy for the boardroom.
Walter White takes white people on that journey – thrust into poverty by his cancer diagnosis and son’s disability.
The gangster metaphor plays to Gandhi’s observation that a society should be judged by how it treats its weakest members. Society allows that many of the poor are forced to sell addictive, harmful products to make a living, and compete for clients in never ending bloody turf wars. Is it any surprise then that at the big end of town the same thing happens with oil – where the addiction is structured into the economy, the harm global, and the turf wars, well… wars?
Breaking Bad resonates because it opens the gangster metaphor up to young people about to enter adulthood and leave coddled suburbia. What they find will be the same as White – that the way to get wealth and power isn't to carry out humble teaching or police work, it's to find employment in jobs that serve profit and ignore consequence. For White that job is cooking meth, for the rest of us it means working for companies that pollute the environment, feed people products that kill them, and shear off mountain tops to generate power for air-conditioning units in the suburban homes in which we raise our children.
Breaking Bad is a parable for an intensely corporatised world where a younger generation are approaching their working life with suspicion and trepidation.
The brilliance of the show is that it doesn't allow the bleakness of this economic pact to be shrugged off with cynicism, irony, or dissimulation. As White discovers, working only for money eventually strikes at the heart of a person.
Watching White fall to pieces is like watching any ambitious careerist slowly transform from loving family member to deranged, miserable, BMW3 driving, Hublot wearing, inhuman psychopath. At first he tries to justify the negative outcomes of his work by blaming the duress of circumstance. Later, he blames the responsibilities of power. Eventually, dry of excuses, he turns on his wife and bullies and belittles her for speaking against him.
And there is a shade of Walter White in all of us when we try and hide, excuse and eventually give up justifying the negative work we do. When we work for and consume the products of companies that contribute to anthropogenic climate change, sweatshops, obesity, diabetes, species extinction, conflict and hate, and pretend that these outcomes will never come back to harm our families or haunt us in the suburban Arcadias we're so obsessed with building (and fleeing to).
The show’s message is that bad work catches up with you, wherever you run.
That is because bad work transforms us. Overtime, it consumes the soul.
And in a society addicted to bad work, it eventually consumes all.