Of the tons of post-finale Breaking Bad analysis in circulation, Jef Costellos’ articles are the only ones I’ve come across that really get to the heart of the matter. I’ve long believed Breaking Bad taps into a deeper, collective anxiety experienced by whites (in particular, straight white men of largely protestant ancestry living in America.) In many ways, with Walter White we see the yearning for a Nietzschean ubermensch transformation. (The closest antecedents I can think of, that broach the subject — even if from the loosest and more leftist perspectives — are Falling Down, Fight Club, and American History X.)
Much has been made of the show’s use of colors (e.g., Marie’s purples; Skyler’s gradual move from blues to the neutral tans of Walter’s wardrobe; even Saul Goodman’s clashing, clown-like colors), and from such an angle I’m sure there’s some interesting stuff, but I haven’t really explored it.
The very name Walter WHITE, however, evokes Walt Whitman, most famous for Leaves of Grass, the great collection of romantic poems, which has sorta become synonymous with that transcendentalist school of poetry about America. (Breaking Bad contains many allusions to Whitman, and more than a few allusions to Thoreau.)
Breaking Bad‘s Walter White is figuratively emasculated and rather ashamed being stuck in his conscribed social role of high school chemistry teacher, earning $40k per year, while trying to support a wife, a teenaged son with cerebral palsy, and with a second child on the way. To make ends meet, Walt works summers at a local car wash, taking orders from a bushy-eyed, thickly-accented, Romanian carwash owner. All around him is the ‘New America’, the Mexican demographics of Albuquerque, the archetypal wigger Jesse PINKman embodying white youth’s ironic embrace of all-things-black-and-brown.
Walt’s regrettable financial situation, we learn through flashback, took place within the shadows of Elliot & Gretchen Schwartz, Walt’s Grey Matter cohorts. It’s interesting how Vince Gilligan turned these quintessential jewish characters into quasi-villains, with the script even mentioning the Gray Matter name being derived from the ‘white’ of Walter and the ‘black’ of Schwartz. (In the show’s final episode, with Charles Gounod’s Faust playing on the Schwartz’s stereo system, Walter compliments them on the view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains they have from their living room, Sangre de Cristo meaning the “Blood of Christ.”)
As one commenter to Costello’s article notes:
I was highly amused by the Schwartz scene, with “Awakened Aryan” Walter calmly dominating two slippery Tribe members who had screwed him out of millions. The scene of Gretchen Schwartz bibbling on about planning a “spa day with the Cohens” before seeing Walter and screaming is a treasure.
Almost wondered if all the Neo-Nazi stuff was inserted just to ward against accusations of anti-semitism… Put Gilligan in with Chris Nolan. He knows more than he’s letting on publicly.
Ironically, it’s been the left that have slung its tired tropes onto the show’s racial dynamics. From a Rolling Stone lib:
At first the decision to introduce Walt’s late-game antagonists so damn late in the game baffled me. Uncle Jack, Todd, Lydia – could they really hold their own in a category that previously included Gus Fring, Mike Ehrmantraut and the Salamanca clan? Well, no, not really, and I think that’s the point. Positioning himself as an emperor, viewing himself as a mastermind, toppling kingpins, walking away clean – this all falls apart thanks to the efforts of a bunch of dudes with swastika neck tattoos. There’s a punning logic to it, if you’re into that sort of thing: White’s supremacy, destroyed by white supremacists. There’s an intra-show undermining of its own Mighty Whitey trope, in which the White genius responsible for blue meth beats a whole bunch of brown people at their own game. It’s difficult to argue that the show is making an implicitly racist case for these explicitly racist thugs’ inherent superiority to anyone. They’re not better or smarter than anyone else in this game so far, they’re just better armed and in the right place at the right time.
Of the Mighty White trope, another lib writes:
Which brings us to the other thing that sets White and Pinkman apart from their competitors: color. And I don’t mean blue.
The white guy who enters a world supposedly beneath him where he doesn’t belong yet nonetheless triumphs over the inhabitants is older than talkies. TV Tropes calls it “Mighty Whitey,” and examples range from Tom Cruise as Samurai and Daniel Day Lewis as Mohican to the slightly less far-fetched Julia Stiles as ghetto-fabulous. But whether it’s a 3-D Marine playing alien in Avatar or Bruce Wayne slumming in a Bhutanese prison, the story is still good for a few hundred million bucks. The story changes a bit from telling to telling, but the meaning is consistent: a white person is (and by extension, white people are) best at everything.
In Salon, yet another liberal writer, recognizing the racial dimension of the show, albeit from a leftwing ‘white male privilege’ angle (“Breaking Bad’s racial politics: Walter White, angry white man“) writes:
… “Breaking Bad’s” four most important characters—Walter, Jesse, Skyler and Hank, in roughly that order—are all white, and though the center of the show is one family that’s eventually torn apart by Walter’s choice to break bad, it still has always seemed a little weird that the show has so few important Latino characters, particularly when one of the main villains over the course of the series has been a Mexican drug cartel…
…[T]he foremost reason for this to be a show primarily about a middle-aged white guy is because it’s perhaps the last of the great antihero dramas. The antihero drama movement, kicked off by “The Sopranos” in 1999, with important roots in 1993’s “NYPD Blue,” has had shows that weren’t strictly about white men. “The Wire,” for instance, had antiheroes who were both white and African-American, while “Damages” (which is not a very good show but is very good at playing up antihero tropes) was centered on Glenn Close. But for the most part, this has been a movement dominated by singular white men, whose combination of ruthlessness, inherently sympathetic nature and sexual charisma has led them to deeper and darker things. The subtext of so many of these shows has been about that white guy taking what he was always owed, be that money or sex or power, and regardless of if that man was conventionally attractive—like Don Draper—or a little schlubby—like Tony Soprano—there was something thrilling and sexually dangerous about it.
Throughout its run, “Breaking Bad” has been interested in exposing the danger underneath this idea. Idolize Walter White or any antihero (as so many do) for being a “badass,” and it becomes far too easy to buy whole-hog into what they’re saying. Thus, instead of populating its physical universe, “Breaking Bad” has been far more interested in populating its psychological universe, at digging down deeper and deeper into Walter until it exposes the hollowness of all of his rationales for the awful things he does….
… Walt’s justifications for why he should have what he wants stem almost entirely from believing that he’s owed in some way, that the universe has screwed him over. Yet when the series begins, he has a pretty good life. He has a beautiful wife, a loving son, a baby on the way, and a house with a swimming pool. Maybe he doesn’t like either of his jobs, but who does? And when he gets cancer, old friends who feel a debt to him offer to pay for the treatments. Yet all Walter needs is the slightest provocation to look around himself, reach out for anything within reach, and cry out, “I want that!” like a spoiled toddler.
Those are, more or less, the series’ racial politics in a nutshell. Walter White is not a racist, nor is he really a misogynist (though he’s said misogynistic things to his wife and Gretchen). What he is is blithely unaware of just how little he’s owed any of the things he reaches out to take…
Walter White was a smart, capable guy who expected, at some level, to be rewarded simply for being a smart, capable guy. And why wouldn’t he expect that? He lives in a culture that regularly rewards men who look like him simply because of who they are, rather than any other particular qualities. The genius of “Breaking Bad” lies in the fact that it can look with clear eyes at this privilege and entitlement and can see that even when Walter has millions upon millions, it will never be enough. It’s the center of the show’s portrayal of the American white guy psyche, the man always pointing at something somebody else has and saying, “Gimme that!”
Costellos, on the other hand, sees Breaking Bad as Walter’s journey in becoming a true man.
Of Walt vs. Hank, Costellos notes in an earlier essay on Breaking Bad:
Walt is faced continually with situations that require courage, boldness, and guts – and again and again he acquits himself rather well. Even when he is required to kill – and (in one stomach-churning sequence) dispose of a body. Things go very differently, however, for tough guy Hank. Given the opportunity to join a major drug task force, Hank is put in a harrowing combat situation – and basically has a nervous breakdown. Deep down, Walt the geek has got what it takes. Hank — the man who postures at being a man — simply doesn’t. (Though later in the series he manages to redeem himself and win everyone’s admiration.)
Of Jesse’s own transformation:
Jesse represents a different case of transformation. It was hard – no, it was impossible — for me to like Jesse at first. He represents so much in this culture for which I have a visceral dislike. In addition to all the objectionable qualities mentioned earlier, he is weak, cowardly, unstable, unreliable, and disloyal. But as the series develops, Jesse grows up. In season four we see him displaying true courage, loyalty, and a sense of honor.
Of Walter Jr.:
Walt loves Walter Junior, but the sad truth is that at some level he must feel dissatisfied that his only son, who bears his name, is not and never will be physically sound. Walter Junior’s disabled body is like a physical externalization of the state of Walt’s stunted soul at the beginning of Breaking Bad. Despite his many faults, Jesse becomes a kind of surrogate son to Walt. And he can be the kind of son Walter Junior can never be: tough, resourceful, and physically daring.
I’d have ruminate on this a bit longer, but Gilligan’s tacking on of Uncle Jack’s Neo-Nazi Gang was, plot-wise, a rather contrived ‘deus ex machina’ device of almost comic-book levels of evil, and, thematically, a strange offset to the aforementioned racial theory.
But then again, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle posits the fundamental limit to our knowledge of position vs. momentum. The more one knows a particle’s position, the less one knows it’s momentum.
And vice versa.