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Walter White Privilege: Facile Empathy in Breaking Bad
By Film Corner Tea Time Columnist THOMAS ZACHARY TOLES
Given that Better Call Saul, the spin-off of Vince Gilligan’s universally acclaimed Breaking Bad has placed its first record-breaking season six-feet-under (in slavering anticipation of the second season, ordered by AMC before Season One even aired), it’s high time for a critical reexamination of the series that started it all, a show that pretends to test the limits of our empathy while rewarding its viewers for lazily aligning with a singular, dominant perspective.
Let us examine what is broken and bad with Breaking Bad.
|"Let's just blow EVERYBODY the fuck away!"|
Walter White (Bryan Cranston), an overqualified chemistry teacher with an ego, is driven to meth dealing and murder by the onset of lung cancer. He hopes to earn enough to cover his exorbitant treatment costs and posthumously bequeath a large sum for his family. The apparent premise of the show is: to what extent can this ordinary man justify his increasingly immoral behaviour with ostensibly compassionate motives? How long will the viewer’s allegiance to Walt last before siding with him becomes impossible?
Breaking Bad’s great fault, however, is that it creates a warped world in which there is effectively no human alternative to Walt. He is the cleverest, coolest, most compelling person in the show, unquestionably a better meth cook than any Hispanic cartel member who preceded him. The genius middle-class white man with crazed ambition (the American dream!) is glorified in his corruption while the devastating effects of meth addiction on impoverished communities are only shown once or twice in the entire series. Walter White is “Whiteman,” America’s presiding figure--a superhero of narcissistic greed.
The emotional consequences of Walt’s actions on his family and other major characters are deceptively insubstantial. The wronged family includes his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn), a character so unsympathetic to most fans that desperately cheating on her lying drug-dealer husband was widely deemed unforgivable. Then there are his children: Walt Jr. (RJ MItte), whose primary arc consists of driving lessons and breakfast consumption, and Holly (Elanor Anne Wenrich), a baby forgotten as frequently by the show’s writers as Maggie is by Homer Simpson.
Skyler is a controversial case because, as Erin Gloria Ryan (writer and managing editor of JEZEBEL) argued, fan hatred for her was due to misogyny, despite the show’s loud assertions of her blamelessness. I counter that her blamelessness reflects Gilligan’s inability to imagine a rich inner life for the character. Skyler’s existence separate from Walt’s endeavours, and her pain, become increasingly vague as the show takes Walt’s continuing survival as its central concern. Walt also causes anguish for Jesse (Aaron Paul), his partner-in-crime, but Walt’s final sacrifice for Jesse allows the older man’s manipulations to be overshadowed by the real villains of the show.
Breaking Bad ends by establishing a ludicrous dichotomy between Walt (a human with flaws--like us) and the fantasy of truly evil people (neo-Nazis) who, unlike Walt, don’t have their reasons. Walt confesses his selfishness (self-awareness achieved!) and redeems himself by vanquishing actual, uncomplicated evil and rescuing Jesse.
|Walter White and Edward Hyde: Happy Bedfellows!|
For the show’s legions of viewers, Walt has been a surrogate Mr. Hyde, allowing us to tacitly revel in his immorality from the safety of our couches. Breaking Bad relies on the seductive illusion that our dark sides can be outsourced to Walt, vicariously embraced, and then neutralized with Walt’s death and his accompanying self-awareness (that we are invited to share).
Gilligan expresses his desire to redeem Walt and provide a satisfying, palatable ending in his comments on a possible alternate ending in which Walt shoots up a jail to free Jesse:
“[W]e kept asking ourselves, ‘Well, how bad is Walt going to be at the end here? Is he going to kill a bunch of upstanding, law-abiding jail guards? What the hell kind of ending is that?’”Gilligan wants closure and gratification for his audience; he does not want to leave them frustrated or confused. Walt’s redemption purges the viewer’s guilt for fetishizing him, tying up the show’s loose ends on a chilling note of admiration.
Fiction has the power to vividly portray disorder and ambiguity, in ways that may help us reach a wider, more empathetic outlook. Yet Breaking Bad rewards its viewers for lionizing its slick, troubled protagonist, not challenging us to peer at the peripheral figures beyond him.
Countless Americans are indifferent to the commonplace killings of unarmed people of colour by police officers—proclaiming that Mike Brown, Miriam Carey, Eric Garner, and many others just shouldn’t have broken the law. Undoubtedly, many of these same Americans readily accepted Walt’s violent criminality.
Breaking Bad dangerously inhibits empathy for real-life abuses of power because it predominantly asks its viewers to identify with the one character with both authority and explicit motives. Walt is a complex figure surrounded by stereotypes like Tuco’s homicidal cousins, whose non-existent personalities are only justified by their brutish foreignness.
Breaking Bad encourages empathy for yet another white authority figure (who kills, like Darren Wilson or George Zimmerman, when he “fears for his life”), while disregarding the humanity of those less powerful than he.
A narrow vision, indeed.
Breaking Bad is available in Canada by clicking HEREand in the United States of America by clicking HEREand in the Jolly Old United Kingdom by clicking HERE The first 10 episodes of Season One of Better Call Saul premiered on AMC on February 8, 2015.
All photo collages by GJK