Breaking Bad: This Generation’s Western

The fourth season of Breaking Bad is done and dusted. (Yes, I am a Netflix-viewer of television series, and so, invariably lag behind; in this case, a full season.) I’ve not written on this blog before about Breaking Bad, and given my admiration for the show, find myself surprised by this omission. So here goes nothing.

Like many viewers of the show, I have been struck by the remarkable descent of Walter White into the depths of moral depravity, the steady darkening of his character, his pathological tendencies, and concomitantly, the painful decline of the young Jesse Pinkman, his former student, and now, his seemingly doomed partner in crime. (And like most viewers of the show, I’m reminded of the grim toll the war on drugs continues to exact.) A great deal has been written on these themes: Walter has truly been the single worst thing that could have happened to Jesse; life as a petty meth-dealer was infinitely preferable to the high-stakes, even if well-paid, hellish ride Walter has taken Jesse on; beatings and death threats have been the least of it. (My wife and I cheered Jesse on as he handed out a thrashing to Walter in season 4; never have I been happier to see a lead character take a beating.)

Rather than repeat some of those commentaries, I want to quickly make note of another player in this saga of  murderous desperation and deceit: the classically Southwestern landscapes of New Mexico. (The often grim urban setting of Albuquerque is undoubtedly a key participant too, but those are less novel given the context of the show.)

From the first episode onward, when Walter and Jessie head out to the desert to cook their first batch, the Southwestern high deserts and plateaus are ever-present players. The harsh glare of the baking sunlight, the parched landscape it shines on, beautiful and deadly, are suitably incongruous partners to the business our chemical artists are engaged in, bringing together the elegant precision of Walter’s chemical formulas and cooking techniques with the deadliness of a ‘product’  sent out to be sold by homicidal paranoiacs and consumed by derelicts with rotting teeth, wasting bodies and addled brains. Walter’s mobile meth lab seemingly desecrates this landscape, but it has seen plenty of violence in the past too. This desert plateau is the setting for mass executions, violent interceptions of meth shipments, pow-wows with Mexican cartels,  the disposal of corpses, and edgy, teetering-on-the-edge-of-catastrophe encounters; its light always brightly illuminates the darkest deeds imaginable.

In utilizing the Southwestern landscapes as he does in Breaking Bad, the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, has added another dimension to the wildness of the Wild, Wild West, and provided us a new kind of Western, one suitable for this day and age. Here, there are no heroes, merely villains and victims of one stripe or the other. When the smoke will have cleared at the end of the fifth and final season, and guns holstered and put away, it seems highly implausible the good guys will walk out of the saloon – for the simple reason there were never any to begin with.

9 thoughts on “Breaking Bad: This Generation’s Western

  1. I just finished the 4th season myself. I loved the last few eps – (spoiler alert) Gus taking out the cartel and Walt using the old man to take down Gus. You’re right, what lead character has become so unforgivable? I love that the characters are always getting themselves into trouble because of their own pride. Walt actually put Hank back on his trail because he couldn’t handle Hank talking about the genius meth chemist Gale. And Gus could’ve easily let his man take out the old cripple but he had to do it himself. I can’t wait to get going on Season 5.

    1. Ben,

      Thanks for the comment – yes, the 4th season ended in spectacular style. I almost felt like it had wrapped up but clearly there is some cleaning up to be done. The show has done a good job of blurring the usual lines between good and bad. We almost found ourselves admiring Gus, imagine that!

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