Breaking Bad and the War on Drugs

A video made by the Brave New Foundation and titled ‘What Breaking Bad Reveals About the War on Drugs‘ is making the rounds these days. It is brief, well worth a watch,  and made up of rapidly edited clips from the show. It features the following  screen legends–designed in Breaking Bad’s trademark ‘chemical elements letters’ style–that successively make its central points:

The War on Drugs Doesn’t Stop Drug Use

It Just Creates More Violence

And Enriches Drug Lords

Want Safer Streets?

End the Failed War on Drugs

The folks at BNF have it right.

Walter White would never have thought he could make a fortune and provide for his family without his knowledge of the contours of the illegal black market in crystal meth. That drug–like many others–is expensive because it is illegal and ‘scarce’; it promises huge profit margins–its expected payoffs–to those who traffic in it because of this particular peculiarity in its economic standing, And those who deal in it, who distribute it–Krazy 8, Gus Fring, the Mexican cartels–do not appreciate competition, whether it be in the form of law-enforcement agents or rival manufacturers and distributors. The greater the risk involved in bringing the drug to market, the greater the constriction on demand, and correspondingly the greater the price users are willing to pay and dealers to charge. The resultant profits will then be defended ruthlessly, by any means possible; competitors may sometimes, in the best case scenario, be forced out  because of the superior quality of the ‘product’, like Heisenberg’s ‘blue‘, but occasionally that won’t be enough; they may need to eliminated too.

And sometimes, it may not be enough to just kill off a rival; sometimes it may be necessary to scare off any future ones. In that case, the violence might need to be ratcheted up, turned up a notch, made more lurid and gory, to drive home the message that here be dragons: this is dangerous territory, you would do best to stay out, to ‘tread lightly.’

Those who oppose the illegal trade–the DEA and Hank Schrader for instance–are ruthless themselves; they will skirt constitutional limitations on police power if need be. Promotions and careers hinge on it; quotas are in place; reputations rest on it. Nothing will be allowed to get in the way of these imperatives. Municipal budgets might shrink; city services might decline; but funding for combating the ‘scourge’ of drugs must maintain an upward trajectory.   The meth-heads Breaking Bad sometimes let us glimpse in its early seasons have few avenues for treatment available to them; the war has turned them into criminals, not patients.  And there’s no money for them anyway; if drugs are going to be ‘fought’ it will happen via the handcuff, the gun, the arrest, not the counselor and the clinic.

Breaking Bad, like The Wire, is not just a complicated morality tale: it is a damning indictment of the war on drugs.

Note: In a future post, I will take a closer look at The Wire. Much has been written already about its positioning within the anti-war-on-drugs debate, but I hope there is still something to be said there.

Breaking Badder Than I Thought

Almost exactly a year ago, I speculated about how Breaking Bad would wrap up.

I wondered about Walter White‘s eventual fate:

[P]erhaps the writers will give Walter a glorious back-to-the-wall-defending-his-family-shootout kind of death, saving  them from the depredations of a ruthless set of ganglords, thus redeeming himself in spectacular fashion even as he loses his life….Hank will finally catch up with Walter, his Heisenbergean nemesis, a man who has nearly caused his death, and caused him plenty of misery.

I seemed to be on the mark here. In a fashion. But there were other speculations that I got wrong:

[W]hen Hank catches up with Walter, it will be too late; Walter will be dying, and Hank will let him go, cognizant of the price to be paid by the family if Walter’s cover is blown. Most centrally, Hank will keep Walter’s identity secret so that Junior does not come to know his father was a demented meth cook….As for Jesse, Walter will apologize for having induced such a catastrophic trajectory to Jesse’s life, but I do not know if he will ever spill the beans about his role in Jesse’s girlfriend’s death….These redemptions add up to a happy ending of sorts: there will be a funeral and tears will be shed, but Walter will have provided for his (extended) family, eased the uncertain torments of Hank, and maintained his image in the eyes of his befuddled son.

As the series heads for its finale next week, it’s pretty clear there will be few happy endings. Indeed, the only outcome that could count as such would be Jesse liberated from his horrific servitude. Every thing else would be very weak balm on a large sucking wound. Walter White is at the bottom of a deep pit; it’s going to take some desperate scrambling up its slimy sides to get ‘out.’

Not that there’s much waiting up top:  his money seems destined to go waste; wiping out a gang of feral killers seems unlikely. As does reconciliation with his family, the unkindest cut of all. And of course, a painful death from lung cancer awaits in any case.

Vince Gilligan had indicated that Breaking Bad would ‘not end well,’ and if the current trajectory of the show is any indication, that seems very  plausible. Still, I have been surprised by the bleakness of these last few episodes and wonder how much of the feel-good wrap-up style I had relied on in my earlier speculations will be on display in its conclusion next week. Walter donning his Heisenberg hat and the flash-forward earlier in the season which showed him with a gun suggest that at least some dramatic, blood-soaked resolutions lie ahead, and the wrinkle introduced by the mention of Gray Matter Technologies is certainly an interesting one.

If Gilligan remains uncompromising and brings the White nightmare to an end in as unsparing fashion as he has shown recently, then Breaking Bad will have performed a very useful service: it will make conventional endings look almost unsustainably trite.   It has already set new standards for bleakness–Jesse Pinkman‘s recapture and Andrea‘s execution were merely the latest flourishes.

I’ll be sad to see the show end, but I wouldn’t mind a little relief either.

Skyler White, The Anti-Muse?

Yesterday I wrote a short response to Anna Gunn‘s New York Times Op-Ed about the negative reaction to the Skyler White character on Breaking Bad. I want to add a couple of points to that today.

Some of the adverse reaction to Skyler finds its grounding in her instantiation of an archetype that I alluded to yesterday: the domestication, and hence taming, of the artist. Walter White is an auteur, a maven who marries science and art to produce the purest crystal meth possible, who worries incessantly, and proudly, about the quality of his ‘product.’ This is a man obsessed, like all good artists are, about whether his vision has been realized, who is capable of endless ‘revision’ and ‘drafting’ to get things to come out just right. His pride may be his downfall, as in when he cannot stop himself from bragging to Hank about how Gale was a mere child compared to Heisenberg, but it is a justified pride: his work is just that damn good. Skyler, however, is no such thing. Remember that in the first season we are told that she writes short stories and sells items on Ebay. The former activity marks her not as creative but as delusional, like all those people who imagine they will write the next Great American Novel, the latter as a not particular edifying combination of a hustler and parasite. Later she becomes book-keeper for Beneke Fabricators.

The contrast is clear: in one corner, creativity, innovation and enterprise, in the other, dull, stodgy, mundane beancounting. And more significantly, the brilliant male artist, bought to heel by the cackling, nagging, domesticity of the home and hearth, his rising star brought back to earth by the dead weight of the home. An old joke has it that one mathematician wrote to his colleague after his marriage, ‘Congratulations, you can do more mathematics now’, but in general, the received wisdom is that the artist’s work suffers after marriage. He is called away from his easel, his desk, because of the calls from the kitchen and the nursery. Skyler is thus the sand in the wheels for Walter’s artistry; she gets in the way of his work. she prevents him from realizing his potential. We are invited to see her as a millstone and barrier.

There is an interesting visual grammar to the contrast drawn between Skyler and Walter. As the show progresses, Walter becomes sharper: he loses his hair, starts dressing in black, speaks with gritted teeth, delivers his lines with barely controlled violence, and his actions follow a trajectory of decreasing compromise (like all good artists’!). His rough edges are smoothed, he becomes menacing, not just in his deeds, but in his appearance as well. Compared to him, Skyler appears rooted in the ordinary. indeed, for a while, she is visibly weighed down with pregnancy, viewed here not as fertility, but rather, as a symbol of the artist’s enslavement.

It is little wonder Skyler provokes such visceral reactions; her character carries the burden of many pernicious tropes.

Breaking Bad Season 5 Speculation: Reconciliations for Redemption

Having finished watching Season 4 of Breaking Bad, and having no access to Season 5 till it emerges on DVD or streaming, I’m going to go ahead and speculate a bit about the show’s eventual direction and conclusion.  Many of the issues raised and provoked by the first four seasons seem to require resolution if the show is to wrapped up, as indicated, by the end of the fifth season, and though I’m not one of the writers, I’m going to throw my tuppence in.

Clearly, the tidiest and most obvious way to bring the show to an end is Walter White‘s death i.e., the cancer picks up pace and moves on to its grim finale. And as it does so, and as Walter senses the white light approaching, he steps up the pace of his cooking and manipulating, going out in a blaze of meth-infused bloody glory, leaving the usual trail of death and deception in his wake. (He will, of course, leave behind a widow and two fatherless children.) This should be extremely entertaining even if wrenching to watch. Or, perhaps the writers will give Walter a glorious back-to-the-wall-defending-his-family-shootout kind of death, saving  them from the depredations of a ruthless set of ganglords, thus redeeming himself in spectacular fashion even as he loses his life.

Be that as it may, the more important tasks for the show’s writers seem to be the resolutions of the conflicts in Walter’s personal relationships: Hank-Walter, Walter-Junior, Walter-Skyler, and Walter-Jesse. Both Hank and Junior have suffered from Walter’s deceptions, whereas Skyler and Jesse have suffered from their knowledge of, and involvement in, Walter’s activities.

For my money, the most crucial reconciliations are those between Hank and Walter and between Walter and Jesse. (Walter and Skyler have had a running conversation and plenty of time to air their angst about each other; this does not, of course, preclude their final takes on each other as Walter’s life comes to an end.) If I may hazard an educated guess, Hank will finally catch up with Walter, his Heisenbergean nemesis, a man who has nearly caused his death, and caused him plenty of misery.  (It is Hank’s fault that he is such an enthusiastic, unthinking participant in the war on drugs, but still.) But when Hank catches up with Walter, it will be too late; Walter will be dying, and Hank will let him go, cognizant of the price to be paid by the family if Walter’s cover is blown. Most centrally, Hank will keep Walter’s identity secret so that Junior does not come to know his father was a demented meth cook.

As for Jesse, Walter will apologize for having induced such a catastrophic trajectory to Jesse’s life, but I do not know if he will ever spill the beans about his role in Jesse’s girlfriend’s death. (Seeing Jesse’s reaction to that would be something, but I suspect that that knowledge would be too painful to burden Jesse with.) It may be that the ultimate happy ending would be Jesse inheriting part of Walter’s fortunes, becoming, as it were, another son of his, one more heir. (I am going to skip lightly past the issue of the morality of getting rich on the back of a trade as violent as meth cooking and dealing.) Then, we would come to view Walter as having rescued Jesse from a possibly worse fate: that of the petty drug-dealer who was sooner or later going to either end up in jail, or be shot by a rival.

These redemptions add up to a happy ending of sorts: there will be a funeral and tears will be shed, but Walter will have provided for his (extended) family, eased the uncertain torments of Hank, and maintained his image in the eyes of his befuddled son.

This is mere guesswork, of course, and half of Season 5 is done and dusted, so those watching the show might be inclined to chuckle at my babbling above. No matter; all will be clear once I lay my hands on the full season.

Note: Please, do not leave any Season 5 spoilers in the comments.