I’m going to stop apologizing for being so late in catching up on “Breaking Bad.” I probably broke every rule of Kwanzaa to focus on the #BreakingBadMarathon, which began on December 27 and largely focused on two, White families, when I was supposed to be focusing on Africa and being African in the world; but I most certainly did it. I needed to decompress, as I focus on my cultural legacy all the time, actually. I was engaged in escapism. Forgive me. However, my Black cultural-centeredness came in handy, even as I enjoyed the show.
“Breaking Bad” is many things and I thoroughly enjoyed the storytelling, for the most part. I loved the poetic writing, the connection to the music, the flashback cinematography I appreciated from “Desperate Housewives,” along with the neatly interwoven plot twists and character development, the supersonic fast forward motion that I loved from “True Blood” and the repeated sunset, showdown scenes that brought back fond memories of my studies of the American West in film and television. But “Breaking Bad” is also a categorically racist and white supremacist fantasy and narrative that would not allow me to grant it the “Best Television Show Ever” status to which some people wanted me to assign.
For starters, the reason why I would enjoy a show that had a white supremacist fantasy at its base is because I grew up in North America and was / am routinely conditioned to see White people as the norm, their humanity as universal and I am heavily encouraged to see human beings who define themselves as “White” as more important than me and whose lives are more valuable.
I don’t believe the creators, writers, directors, designers, actors and other technicians to be racist. I don’t know them, personally, and this analysis is, in no way, personal. In fact, that’s the best part about providing this analysis. “Breaking Bad” is racist precisely because of the structural inequalities and unfair imagery that has plagued North America since its inception. I was curious about the show’s popularity. I had grown extremely tired of “hood” flicks and the constant romanticization of drugs, drug life and the effects of drugs on families, especially Black families, so I missed the exceptional show, “The Wire” (and even snubbed my nose at the likes of Jay-Z years earlier) when it debuted.
The white supremacy in America’s imagery and grand narrative is so deeply entrenched in American culture, no individual has to actively participate in the system to produce more racism. Indeed, even a show like “Breaking Bad,” which cast Latino, Black and Asian characters and produced a showdown against neo-nazis, can still maintain and promote the tenets of white supremacist thought, action and policy.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here is how “Breaking Bad” promotes racism/white supremacy:
1. The name, Walter White is pretty obvious and self-evident. I don’t need to go further than that for now. Even if White is based on Walt Whitman, it’s still telling that the name was truncated to “White,” which is important in a show that focuses on colors like blue and metaphors like “blue skies” with characters named “Skyler” and Jesse “Pinkman.” Let’s move on…
2. It’s a minute example but telling. Walt refers to Gustavo Fring as a “black guy.” I wasn’t sure if it was ad-lib or not but I suspect Bryan Cranston was just reading from the script. And I wondered why the writers would allow Walt to simply skip over Fring’s obvious Afro-Latin heritage and/or present him as such. This could just be artistic license and a way to reinforce the masked nature of Fring’s character but it bothered me, I must admit.
3. We never see anyone else’s family members except the main (and some minor) White guys in the show. Walter, Hank, Jesse and Mike’s loved ones are the only family we get to see, even though some of their other relatives were discussed and not seen (Walt’s Mother, for example). Even the scary looking dude who was in the plaza when Jesse was headed to meet Walt ended up being a ploy for audience members, as his daughter was swept up into his loving arms. Not ever seeing Gus’s family is a major flaw in the show and it’s one of the major tenets of white supremacy not to fully humanize a person of color and certainly a person who was such a prominent character in the show.
4. Gus’s death has a strange justification. In the end, Gus was the smartest of them all. Gus was the one who kept his mysterious past mysterious. He was the smartest business man. He was the one who was cautious, careful, gave advice on “how to be rich” and kept his ego and pride in check. Gus was the one very well able to “hide in plain sight” and one could argue that his death was not actually one of poetic justice, considering how Hector Salamanca had so ruthlessly killed his partner, Maximilio Arciniega, in such a cruel manner.
Don’t get me wrong, all of the drug dealers deserved to die (including Jesse) but it’s always interesting to see how artists choose to end their subject’s lives—and why. Nevertheless, when we meet Gustavo, he is already a meth dealer and, coupled with the absence of his family, it follows the theme that no other drug dealers in the show “break” bad except the white ones. And that sends a powerful (even if unintended) message that their evil deeds are inherent, at worse and a cultural legacy, at best.
Tuco and his cousins are naturally groomed into the Juarez Cartel. Their mothers basically don’t exist, we just see the patrilineal inheritance of drug dealing and murder as an expected, occupational hazard. For Walt and Jesse, they wrangle with the loss of life, dry heaving and outright hurling their way through this emotional complexity. Indeed, Walter White makes a list of pros and cons in trying to decide to take his first “innocent” life. This is juxtaposed with Tuco, who acts impulsively and whom Walt later calls “a degenerate who deserves to die.”
I will give a nod to the moment of humanity granted to Tuco, who serves as a caregiver for Tio (which means “Uncle”) when he’s not beating his lackeys senseless. And, as an aside, Tuco’s “tight-tight-yeahtight” reaction to Walt and Jesse’s purer meth is still hysterically funny.
5. Finally, the political tones and overall message about America in “Breaking Bad” reinforce the narrative of white supremacy that was created long before anyone in the cast or crew were born. But it’s interesting how the legacy continues, no? The Western is America’s Grand Narrative that it likes to tell to and about itself. It’s the story where the self-reliant man tries to provide for his homestead while conquering nature and battling his dark enemies, the Indians. In most Westerns, the “enemy” is just there—Indians (and in this case, Mexicans) appear out of nowhere, their history is rarely told and the narrative of the Native Americans, as a whole, gets lost in the heroism of an often, singular White man or community—pretty much like Agent Gomez aka “Gomie,” does—a nickname I always hated but is a very White thing to do to non-White American names. We don’t see his family either, by the way. And his presence doesn’t matter. Every Cowboy has a Tonto. No offense, Gomez… and much of the action takes place on Indian tribal lands like To’hajiilee.
Thus, the grand narrative of Breaking Bad is how the average, middle class, White American family (and particularly male) is frustrated with being of greater intelligence either in the world (because you know Americans don’t travel enough) or of the rest of America and is not getting out of life the material, emotional, psychological and cultural rewards and benefits to which they feel entitled. Hence, the showdowns…
In actuality, most of us feel that way, as we struggle with the recession, home foreclosures, the lack of affordable healthcare and unemployment or being underpaid, especially if we’re not in the 1% but if we try to “break bad,” there will be no benefit of the doubt, we will find ourselves in prison with the quickness. Another gift of white supremacy is to give white people the benefit of the doubt and non-white people, none. If Walter White were Walter Black, he would have been in jail by the end of Episode 3.
The political frustration was obvious and is also a part of the Western narrative, as the self-reliant man is often angry to be somewhat dependent upon the financiers, government institutions and/or educational institutions in the East. So, after all of his hard work, we find Walter White in the American Southwest, making only $43,000 a year for a family of four, instead of existing as the multi-millionaire entrepreneur who made it big in New Hampshire, like Gretchen and Elliott. He is a disparaged high school teacher working part-time at a car wash getting teased by disrespectful students, instead of a highly respected college professor or corporate genius who does not have to worry about earning a living wage.
When Walter (and Hank) are in need of health care, they cannot afford it because the health insurance capitalists in the East want too much money for treatment. And even though Hank’s supposedly superior intelligence as a detective puts him on the right path to catch the bad guys, it’s the American government, with its overpowering rules and regulations, that hold him back and make him get things like warrants, thereby allowing the bad guys to get away, once again.
Walter White feels he has no choice but to become an outlaw and cook meth. And even Hank triggers his inner Jesse James by dehumanizing the bad guys on a regular basis via pictures and trophies of bling grills (teeth), bailing out his shoplifting wife and engaging in the occasional act of police brutality. Cowboys and Indians…
The cultural wars were perhaps the most fun for me. They were intergenerational (Walt, Mike, Gus, the Support Group Leader vs. Jesse, Badger, Skinny Pete, the students and most addicts shown), they were musical (Rock, Country vs. Hip Hop and Metal) and they were racial. As Toni Morrison discusses in her brilliant essay-turned-book, Playing in the Dark long before this show appeared, “Breaking Bad” uses Black and Brown faces and culture as the backdrop to its storytelling. Other than Huell (Saul Goodman’s “security”) and the handful of extras we witness in the support group scenes, we do not see any young, Black men in “Breaking Bad.” They don’t really exist in the world and certainly not in Albuquerque, which is hilarious because much of the characterization of Jesse signifies the “tropes of Blackness,” of young Black males, as Morrison might suggest.
Jesse is young, wears his pants lower and rarely with a belt, he is a slacker, intelligent but doesn’t apply himself, so he remains ignorant (“Oooohh, wire…”) and most of his behavior on the show is punctuated by Hip Hop, especially during his silliest moments (my favorite being when he blows up his suit like Missy Elliott did in her first video) and his constant use of the term, “Yo.”
And, he curses a lot (“Yeah, Bitch”). I felt like a horrible feminist for enjoying every single utterance of his “bitches” and my favorite is “Yeah, Bitch! Magnets, Ohhhh!” It was a lot of fun in fiction. At one point, Jesse Pinkman even becomes “Jesse Jackson,” another hilarious moment but one I was unwilling to overlook for this discussion.
Outside of the obvious evil of building a meth empire, Walt’s superior intellect relative to Jesse’s ignorance is an important dichotomy to note because it is precisely one of cultural influence and choice, not of birth (which includes whiteness). Jesse comes from a stable home, a two-parent family, a generally substantive income and by the looks of his little brother, he could have easily been, well, a brilliant chemist akin to Walter White.
We see Jesse’s intellect eeking out in every episode, even when Walter White continues his emotional abuse. Jesse and his friends need but “apply themselves” and they could emerge from the cultural influences—indeed the extreme popularity of Hip Hop—that only serve to bring them down, literally and figuratively. It was very interesting to watch, especially given the glaring absence of young, Black men on the show. When Walter White appears, he lines the brim of his hat with his fingers to rock music. In a distinctly unorthodox move, White’s ‘badness’ is not undergirded by a Hip Hop soundtrack. It has been replaced; and this is a telling aspect of the show, as a deliberately generational, cultural and dare I say, scientific, choice.
So, what is the purpose of the neo-nazis in “Breaking Bad?” Well, I suspect that, at some point, the writers became a bit self-reflective and may have considered the full meaning of all of this (consciously unintended) whiteness and decided to make a point—“we’re not racists, some of our best friends are Black and/or Latino!” And there needed to be some sort of counterpoint to say so and then kill those bad men off.
That’s sort of tongue-in-cheek. But the grand narrative remains.
America cheered for Walter White for many reasons. He had MacGyver’s intelligence, John Wayne’s determination, the Marlboro Man’s cigarettes, the rugged individualism that characterizes the West and inspired his actions which, as we learned, had very little to do with his “family.” He finally admitted, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it.”
And that pretty much sums up what the Walter White-like American men have done throughout history—committing evil deeds as “Conquistadors,” as “Colonialists,” as “Masters,” as “CEOs,” lying to themselves about doing it for “the country,” to “take back America,” for their families, etc. Whether they intended to do so or not (and I happen to believe these were unconscious choices, as that’s how myths work), the creators and collaborators of “Breaking Bad” fed us a lie—that the hard work of so many White people in this country is being “taken away,” largely by the savagery (or laziness) of people of color, undermining their good nature and not playing fair or by the rules. Hence “entitlement programs” need to be stopped, people are in prison for good reasons and corporations are people, too.
And that’s a God-damned lie.
As Americans, we are not struggling because of the election of President Obama or because Hip Hop is America’s most popular music or because public schools and neighborhoods filled with Black and Brown kids are bringing the country’s average down. We are struggling because of the increase in rugged individualism, the existence of celebrity worship, extreme wage disparity, transnational corporations who continue putting profits over people as they continue to engage in unfair trade deals, the disrespect of labor and environmental laws that are meant to keep jobs in America and respect nature and, dare I say it? Greed.
The enemy to the (White) American family is not some Mexican drug cartel or even immigration, it’s probably your own Dad. Look in your own house. Art is probably imitating life, albeit in a less-exaggerated way.
I loved “Breaking Bad.” I mean, I really enjoyed it. As an artist, I could not help but to tip my hat to the artistry. But on so many other levels and in so many other ways, I could not ignore the overarching theme (which is a lie) and I understand why it was just not a show I was drawn into or even knew was popular—until the end of Season Six. But I watched the finale with everybody else because, hey, there’s a reason it’s called popular culture and I wanted to get a clue.
Well, I did. I got the clue and the code, even as I enjoyed the ride on the White horse.
Update: Ironically, I have no problem with a show largely about meth, largely featuring White people. Statistically speaking, White folks tend to use meth, Black folks tend to use crack. Both are cheap and for poor people, so there’s your racial unity. In fact, in my second theater show, “Dr. Goddess Goes to Jail,” I created a skit called “CrackMeth Heads United” a Saturday-Night-Live-Wayne’s-World-meets-Chappelle-Show’s-Tyrone type of skit where a Black woman crackhead and White male methhead proudly proclaim, “We succeed where your city can’t!” I still laugh about it, although it made me cringe to write it.
Update: I found this article entitled, “US deal with cartel let billions of dollars of drugs be smuggled,” and I was sad. Note that it fuels Chicago’s street dealers and we keep asking what is going on with all of the killings of young, Black people in the city?