December 16th, 2013
by Emma Haylett
As Breaking Bad ends a wildly successful season—don’t worry, you won’t find spoilers here—
the show is on many of our minds for many different reasons. While the idea certainly wasn’t
groundbreaking (there are so many that deal with drug and alcohol addictions and various forms
of recovery, to varying degrees of accuracy and success), it managed to capture the hearts
and minds of people across the United States. Likely it is because of the variety of emotions a
show like this evokes, often in the span of one episode. As humans, we crave a deep emotional
connection to the media we consume, and in an age of reality television, this may be lacking.
We want good guys and bad guys and carefully constructed (and filmed) plot.
Breaking Bad though doesn’t adhere to our ideas of good and evil, instead subverting them
over and over again. But we stay tuned because we’re interested in how far our own thinking
can go and transform, how like or unlike an addict we might feel in our journey with the show.
Strangely, or perhaps not, is the scenario put in place by writers and producers that even allows
for a man like Walter White to find himself in such predicaments.
For Walter White to make and deal methamphetamines, he had to get cancer, be unable to
treat it, be unwilling to accept money from friends, know a shady high school student, and be
later consumed by a world darker than he could have imagined. It’s an excellent premise e for a
show, certainly—but imagine the setup for a black man. Other shows have proven that we don’t
need to suspend our disbelief by establishing a crazy cancer scenario to believe that a minority
might make, sell, or do drugs.
And Breaking Bad has other issues with race—while Albuquerque, New Mexico is nearly half
Latino, Gus Fring is the only Latino character to reoccur enough to get a billing as regular cast.
In a Salon article titled “Breaking Bad’s Racial Politics Walter White, Angry White Man”, Todd
Van Derwerff suggests that it is the idea of the antihero that speaks most effectively to white
privilege. “His is the voice of white male privilege, the angry, unfiltered sense that one is owed
something and has had it taken away. Never mind that Walter built an empire worth $80 million.
He always wanted more—respect or fear or worship—and he never got it. He could never quite
get over the fact that other people weren’t placed on Earth to play supporting characters in his
own story, and even in the series’ pilot, he’s bogged down by an overbearing boss and a wife
who seems interested in anything but him,” writes Van Derwerff.
But Breaking Bad is good television, and, while ignoring some aspects of racial diversity, it
perhaps addresses the reality of methamphetamine in rural areas—states like Idaho and
Wyoming have documented problems with the use of meth. If we look at Idaho, 70% of drug
related offenses are meth related, which costs the state between $60 million and $102 million
for incarceration and arrest. 89% of women in Idaho jails are meth users, and 80% of children
placed by Health and Welfare are removed from their homes because of drug abuse—mostly
Meth is affecting areas that are not dirty or dangerous—teachers and factory workers, high
school students and high school dropouts are part of the growing meth problem and, if nothing
else, Breaking Bad has drawn attention to it. To the show’s credit, it doesn’t glamorize the
addiction or recovery from addiction in the way that some shows have—the characters who use
are decaying, they’re mean, they’re painfully addicted and involved in an extremely dangerous
Ultimately, Breaking Bad presents a scenario in which the viewer is asked to examine the good
and evil within themselves. It is also (though perhaps not intentionally) raising a discussion
about race—who deals and uses, who produces, develops, and distributes meth. And that’s a
conversation worth having.
Emma Haylett is really good at thinking up nicknames, though she has few of her own. When she’s not
packing around a too-heavy backpack at graduate school or working as a Certified Prevention Specialist
Intern, you can find her advocating for healthy drug rehabilitation programs around the US.