The greatness of Breaking Bad explained

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

24 comments

  • Very interesting. I'd never tried to apply White's circumstances to my own life. I always tried to insert myself into White's circumstances and wished I done chemistry. I'd be a better drug baron than White because I know I'm more ruthless and sadistic ;-)

    I'd be happy to settle for being Jesse if there are any Whites out there...

    It's not companies that pollute the environment etc: it's human demand. Companies just give you what you want (cheap product). Sounds like you're trying to absolve yourself of guilt in this cycle. If there wasn't a demand for something then there would be no company there.

    To quote a stellar philosopher of modern times: "Make money. F**k b*****s"

    Or another one: "Get rich or die trying"

    Or Frank Sinatra: "He who dies with the most toys wins"

    No-one remembers the slave. History only remembers the king.

    Commenter
    Bender
    Date and time
    September 23, 2013, 8:56AM
    • "No-one remembers the slave. History only remembers the king."

      So all the references to Ozymandias last episode totally went over your head then?

      Commenter
      K.
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      September 23, 2013, 11:19AM
    • Nope. The very fact even a crumbling remnant still exists means you remember the king. No-one remembers the slave that dragged the stones into place.

      Commenter
      Bender
      Date and time
      September 23, 2013, 1:49PM
    • Well that's at odds with every interpretation of the poem ever, including that of Shelley. Maybe if you repeat it enough it'll become true.

      Commenter
      K.
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      September 23, 2013, 2:12PM
    • If there wasn't a hypothetical remnant or a poem to said hypothetical remnant you wouldn't be remembering or talking about the king..........

      Commenter
      Bender
      Date and time
      September 23, 2013, 3:53PM
  • This is a very nice write up! perfectly explained!

    Commenter
    Dave
    Date and time
    September 23, 2013, 8:57AM
    • Excellent article

      ... and less than 240 minutes until the next Breaking Bad episode. In my opinion the top tier of premium television is the pinnacle of western popular culture at the moment, not music, not film.

      Commenter
      Mic
      Location
      S-Korea
      Date and time
      September 23, 2013, 8:57AM
      • I don't agree that young people entering the workforce are embarking on a life of crime. Breaking Bad is essentially about entitlement regardless of the cost to family, friends and society at large. Walter White starts as a victim of circumstances and ends up as a victim of his selfish criminal obsessions.

        Commenter
        Syndrome
        Location
        Canberra
        Date and time
        September 23, 2013, 8:59AM
        • Very perspicacious. A big wheel in destructive capitalism, Gunns' former CEO John Gay, even used the Breaking Bad excuse for his insider trading recently ("I thought I was dying so that justified my criminality"), and it was accepted! I must admit I looked on with horror at this cosy deal between the judiciary and Big Capitalism but perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised.

          Commenter
          CrazedLoner
          Location
          Amaroo
          Date and time
          September 23, 2013, 9:01AM
          • Great analogy.

            Commenter
            TheTrace
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            September 23, 2013, 9:10AM

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