To mark the end of Breaking Bad, we’re reprinting Malcolm Harris’s 2012 essay on the show’s racial politics, “The White Market,” with a new introduction about gangster endings and the role of pop criticism
When I wrote this essay a year ago, there weren’t any literal Nazis in Breaking Bad and the show was about drugs. Neither of those things are true now. The end of the series looms behind this half-season the way a long novel’s final 50 pages feel in your hand; whatever is happening it is going to be all over soon.
Last year the most common critique of this piece I heard of was that the audience wasn’t supposed to identify with Walter White at all, that he is unambiguously a bad guy and we’re supposed to learn from his example. Having forfeited his last chance for a peaceful death in the penultimate episode, there’s little doubt things will end painfully for Walter. Taken as a whole, his story isn’t exactly an endorsement of megalomaniacal entrepreneurialism, but we don’t take narratives as a whole. Stories — especially ones as long as Breaking Bad — aren’t just fables, with everything in service of a didactic ending. Especially in gangster stories.
Take the two most famous cinematic gangsters of all time, both played by Al Pacino. Tony Montana and Michael Corleone are icons, some of the 20th century’s most influential characters, and exemplars of masculinity for countless boys — gangsters and not.
But despite these cautionary endings, they don’t sell Scarface and Godfather t-shirts at every tourist shop in Manhattan because people like to remind themselves about the dangers of hubris. Stories and the characters in them are more than lessons, and a narrative’s most ideologically weighty elements don’t map onto a seventh grade worksheet about major themes. Long after we’re done watching we hold moments with us: shot angles and character dynamics, snippets of dialog and unquestioned premises. The point of critically examining cultural objects like Breaking Bad isn’t to place them in categories good or bad, to predict the ending, or even to decode what’s “really” happening; the point is to pay attention to our attention, to look at how it’s being held, on what, and how someone’s making money on it. If pop criticism is to be good for anything, it’s that.
If you judged by TV and movies alone, you’d think “pure” drugs were seeping out of American society’s every pore, along with hot doctors and secret agents gone rogue. Even if suburban 15-year-olds don’t ask their dealers for THC percentages after seeing Oliver Stone’s Savages — and smart money says some of them are — craft beer isn’t the only boutique intoxicant buzzing around the nation’s subconscious. In the shadow of the high-fructose-corn-syrup backlash, everyone from the Olive Garden to the proverbial Brooklyn popsicle startup is trying to cash in on craftsmanship. Meanwhile, screenwriters (clever advertisers in their own right) have found that the easiest way to hook viewers on drug-dealer protagonists is to sell crack as small-batch artisanal rock cocaine.
Would AMC’s Breaking Bad be as popular if high school chemist turned meth cook Walter White made an average product instead of his “99 percent pure” blue glass? From the pilot on, the quality of White’s output has driven the show’s narrative arc. As a careful midgrade cook with DEA connections, he could have flown under the radar in a community overrun with the stuff and taken care of his chemo costs and family just fine. But what makes White more attractive than your garden-variety tweaker to both international cartels and viewers alike is his craftsmanship and attention to detail. He brings class to the New Mexico meth scene.
For a show set in the dirty world of methamphetamine, Breaking Bad is obsessive about cleanliness. Hardly an episode goes by without a discussion of potential impurities. The equipment always seals perfectly, the vats stainless steel. But that’s how you make meth! No, it’s not. That’s how Walter White makes meth on Breaking Bad.
White isn’t some junkie cook; he’s a scientist. The exurbs are going crazy for the special meth that only he can make because it’s pure and a scientist made it with stainless steel and it’s blue. That’s how a timid high school teacher became a regional drug kingpin over the course of a year. The point isn’t that the show is unrealistic or hard to believe, but the narrative function of the ways in which it is: Which disbeliefs are viewers asked to suspend, and which ideologies are they encouraged to retain?
As far as Breaking Bad is concerned, Walter’s meth is bought and used in unadulterated form, whereas in any believable scenario distributors would dilute (“step on”) the product for sale. Finally, toward the end of the fifth season, Walter is forced to explain to a new organization that customers will pay more for his product than, say, one that was 85 percent pure. The other manufacturer seems to accept Walter’s logic even though, as an ostensibly experienced dealer, he should know it doesn’t make any sense. America isn’t flooded with pure meth, and it’s not because our chemists are too ethical. The illegal drug market simply doesn’t reward peerless expertise in the same way celebrity cooking shows do.
The idea that people will always pay more for purer or small-batch products makes a lot of sense to demographics used to paying more for quality gimmicks — conveniently, the same demos advertisers pay a premium for. But it doesn’t make sense for the consumers Breaking Bad so sparingly depicts. When we do see White’s ultimate customers, they’re zombies: all scabs and eroded teeth. We’re not talking about impulse buyers or comparison shoppers here; it’s a textbook case of what freshman economics students call inelastic demand. As Stringer Bell told D’Angelo Barksdale in another show about drugs, in direct contrast to what Walter claims, “When it’s good, they buy. When it’s bad, they buy twice as much. The worse we do, the more money we make.”
Demographically, the viewers AMC wants are more likely to do a lot of pills than unscrew a light bulb to smoke some ice, even if the substances are chemically similar. There are plenty of expert scientists making tons of money cooking up and selling amphetamines, but they’re not robbing trains or toting guns. Big Pharma brings in a $250 billion annually in the U.S. alone, much of it from the same chemical compounds in White’s lab. When it’s 89 percent pure, it’s illegal meth; when it’s 99 percent pure, methamphetamine is sold by Lundbeck Inc. under the trademark name Desoxyn, for “the short-term management of exogenous obesity.” Walter isn’t making crank; he is manufacturing black-market pharmaceuticals.
A Breaking Bad in which the street dealers were diluting the product would have had Walter and his partner Jesse Pinkman competing with every local operation, struggling to set up a larger distribution network without costly middlemen and, well, interacting with meth users a lot. But The Wire on Ice isn’t sexy enough to sell a Dodge, and a teacher slanging to his fucked-up former students would turn stomachs, not open wallets. Suffice to say it would be a darker show.
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 Savages, another recent story of Mighty Whitey getting people stoned, Berkeley-educated botanist Chon (maybe the only name whiter than “White”) and his war-vet buddy Ben combine exported Afghan seeds and a public-Ivy STEM degree to create a strand of superweed. A narrator asserts Afghanistan is the source of the best weed on earth with the same revelatory reverence that Anthony Bourdain might declare Iberia the source of the best pork. It’s not enough that these two 20-somethings grow and sell weed; they have to do it better than anyone else by a huge margin. Chon and Ben’s bud has a THC content of 40 percent (the 2011 Cannabis Cup winner Liberty Haze tops out at 25 percent) and sells for a laughable $6,000 per pound. The botanist-manager uses his profits the way you’d expect a self-respecting white person to: sustainable charity projects in Asia and Africa.
Because of their (third-)world-beating products, Ben and Chon, and Walter and Jesse, attract the interest of the big bad other in the American drug imaginary: Mexican cartels. The cartels (often referred to in the singular, as if monolithic) are merciless and invincible, with money and power that seems limitless. But for all their government connections and firepower, the cartels have a Kryptonite: white people.
You see, the Mexicans need white college graduates because only the white graduates know the secret drug recipes. But these white craftsmen don’t want to work for such swarthy operations, and so, despite being far outmatched in both resources and experience, they contrive plots to bring down the heretofore untouchable organizations.
The scene in Breaking Bad’s fourth season, when Pinkman — a failure at high school chem — shows up a room of Mexican scientists is full of supremacist glee. The Mexicans can wave their skill and experience around, but the science equipment knows objective quality, and there’s no competing with the only white guy in the room. These plots expect viewers to cheer while pale protagonists repeatedly triumph over their southern enemies, leaving them dead or in jail. By the start of season five, White is so successful that Breaking Bad becomes no more diverse than Big Love, leaving the show’s anchoring team visually indistinguishable from the senior cadre of a skinhead gang. In the recent half-season finale, White goes so far as to actually enlist the Aryan Nation to perform a series of expertly timed prison assassinations. But Walter is a bad guy! He still drives the car the show is trying to sell you.
The drug world is a convenient setting for selling white supremacy because it allows for a white underdog in an openly racialized conflict. Besides the War on Terror, there aren’t a lot of other scenarios in which it’s possible to root for the particularly American cocktail of meritocracy, the little guy, the good guy, and the white guy, all at the same time. Put it this way: A show about a small American toy manufacturer laying waste to the villainous and inferior Mexican industry would be such a transparent and reactionary play on post-NAFTA anxieties that no luxury advertiser would dare sponsor it. But when Jalopnik‘s Travis Okulski expressed understandable confusion about what Chrysler thought it had to gain from being associated with an abusive husband and meth cook, the luxury carmaker
White-washing the illegal drug market involves depicting it like markets wealthy viewers are more comfortable and familiar with, namely those of the farmers market or the local pharmacy. Walter White combines the ostensible moral complexity television audiences demand in a post-Soprano protagonist with a cleanliness that allows him to market expensive cars. The U.S. is still very much a white supremacist country, but classic cowboys-kill-Indians narratives don’t play with wealthy viewers or the critics who help determine those tastes. And Jack Bauer can drive only so many cars. For the credulous viewer who likes to imagine he’s a couple of life crises from being the Larry Bird of meth — and for the people who sell him stuff — White is right.