Blind Spots: we all have them. With so much cultural baggage heaped onto our nifty Honda Zeitgeists, it’s hard not to. On Blind Spotting, The Taste Basket Team sets to mending. Led by a resident expert, a writer navigates the rocky road of an unfamiliar work of art, writes about it, and then gets the satisfying revenge of playing backseat driver to their guide on a topic of their choice. It’s like a Middle School Cultural Exchange project… only pettier, and with less ethnic dancing.
Get a man on the side views—we’re flying blind.
For the inaugural post, PJ Grisar, who watched the pilot of Breaking Bad first run before a year long sabbatical (picked it back up in 2013), shepherds Scott Interrante, who mainlined the show this past month.
I have abandonment issues with TV shows. Let me clarify: I abandon them. I jumped ship (plane?) on Lost¹ after its aimless pilot, I couldn’t get through the morass that was Dexter² or some of the more far-fetched developments of Weeds. But for all of them, I was on the frontlines, watching them live. I saw the pilot of Breaking Bad in January of 2008 when I was a senior in high school entering into the lightest semester of my life. I still lived at home and had cable and a nascent interest in writing. I had followed Bryan Cranston from his humble beginnings as Tim Watley, DDS on Seinfeld and the henpecked Hal on Malcolm in the Middle, I was the audience for this show. So, in spite of my wonted viewing habits… I abandoned it completely for four years until just before my last semester of college.
This may make me an unlikely Sherpa for this feature’s first walkabout. I’d love to claim, as my parents so proudly do, the status of an early adherent to the Bad, but this is simply not true. I am no pioneer. I wasn’t there first, and I’m not the best to point out the cinematic signposts, and thematic landmarks, or the spooky spoor of some of the eerier foreshadowing—I’d be insufferable to do so with a show like this. All said, though, I like to think my late turnaround is in the spirit of the thing. Breaking Bad’s a show that picked up a fan base in between seasons with help from Señor Netflix. Though I rushed in for the late, the lag in its viewership was such that I was still among the first in my friend group to watch it, thus hazarding becoming one of “those people” that tell you you have to watch The Wire or use unquantifiable superlatives like the Comic Book Guy (Best. Show. Ever). But in this case, how off-base is that assessment?
It seems now, almost a year later, that Bad’s real-life rise was mirrored by Walt’s. The show’s popularity grew as Heisenberg’s legend spread. This could not have been anticipated, but damn, does it make for a nice parallel. Big things have little beginnings. What follows are some thoughts from the last of my friends to have seen the show.
¹Rimshot/I was right on.
²Again, if Series Finales are any indication, I made the right call.
To be sure, my natural contrarianism played a big part in my decision to not watch Breaking Bad until this August. I’m not entirely above admitting that. But in conversations with people I had where the show has come up, I found myself repeatedly saying, “It’s just not really my thing.” Of course, I hadn’t seen a single second of the show, but as someone who lives in this day and age not under many rocks (or minerals, as it were), I felt I had a good sense of what the show was like and I knew it wasn’t for me. I’m someone whose favorite shows include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, iCarly, and Boy Meets World. I recently binged Battlestar Galactica and found even that a bit too intense for my taste. But another reason to not watch the show, perhaps my main reasoning, was the anxiety of not liking it. Not because of the time I’d waste watching a show I didn’t like—I’ve seen every episode of Tru Calling. It was more a fear of having to defend myself against the legions of devotees. Breaking Bad is one of the most well received and critically acclaimed television shows of all time. What if I watched it and didn’t like it? It would be a lot of effort to go through the rest of my life defending my taste. Easier to just avoid it entirely, I told myself.
I was wrong, of course. Breaking Bad is very much my thing, in that it focuses on issues of the construction of masculinity, which happen to be a large part of what my academic research is about. It’s not a show about drugs or science or even family—not really, anyway. It is essentially, as Markus Gerke put it succinctly, “a reflection on the destructive potential of masculinity in our society.” That this is the show’s primary concern is made clear even in the pilot. Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a fuddy duddy chemistry teacher, is portrayed as a typical beta male, contrasted by his brother-in-law, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), a macho D.E.A. Agent. During a 50th birthday party for Walt, Hank steals everyone’s focus by talking about his gun (a phallic object if ever there was one). When Walt sheepishly agrees to hold it, he notes how heavy it is. Hank replies, “Yeah, that’s why they hire men.” The implication is that Walt, as someone who does not fit into the traditional, hegemonic model of masculinity, is not a real man.
The rest of the series follows Walt on his journey towards hypermasculinity. Creator Vince Gilligan’s oft-quoted summary of the series, “This is a story about a man who transforms himself from Mr. Chips into Scarface,” only captures part of it. More precisely, it’s a story about the destruction that comes as a result of transforming from Mr. Chips into Scarface. All the terrible things that happen throughout the course of the show are results of Walt’s decision to cook meth. He is initially motivated by the desire to provide for his family, but it quickly becomes more about himself, his ego, and a need for power and control, and, as Steven Whitehead discusses in his book Men and Masculinities, “a key factor in men needing to control is a lack of confidence and inner security about their masculinity, maleness, sexuality.” Because of the masculine anxiety and helplessness Walt feels after his cancer diagnosis, he is pushed to seek control through hypermasculinity.
Earning enough money to provide for his family is just Walt’s first step. In his essay “Taking Control: Male Angst and the Re-Emergence of Hegemonic Masculinity in Breaking Bad,”¹ Brian Faucette discusses how, in the show, “money is the route to masculine efficacy.” For Walt, he argues, “[money] allows him to rationalize all the violence he enacts as he continuously reminds himself that he has become involved in the drug trade in order to provide for and protect his family.” But his actions ultimately tear his family apart, not to mention cause a whole lot of death and other destruction along the way.
Of course, it’s not just Walt who makes bad decisions in the name of being a Man. Breaking Bad is filled with men whose insecurities with their masculinity lead to their demise, so much so that its characters can manipulate each other by playing on these anxieties. Silpa Kovvali, for The Atlantic, points to when Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) goes to kill Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis) himself because, as he says, “What kind of man talks to the D.E.A.? No man,” a decision that Walt was counting on him to make in order to kill Gus instead. Or when Walt insinuates that Uncle Jack (Michael Bowen) was working with Jesse (as opposed to keeping him as a slave), knowing that Jack’s hubris would give Walt an opportunity to kill him and his whole team. Walt is also manipulated in this way: Gus convinces him to cook meth in the super lab by telling him that a man must provide for his family, even if he doesn’t get the respect or appreciation he deserve; Skyler convinces Walt to buy the car wash by telling him that his former boss insulted his masculinity. All of these decisions pay off badly for the men who make them.
But if Breaking Bad is a show about the destruction that comes with striving for hypermasculinity, what is its solution? In the final season, things come down to Hank vs. Walt. But more than their individual characters, we’re seeing a showdown between two forms of masculinity. In Walt, we have a former beta male, one who retains his intellectual genius but has picked up the power and confidence of a hypermasculine Man. He has no more regard for anyone who stands in his way. Simply, he’s the archetypical villain. Hank takes on another archetypical masculine role: the hero. Because of his physical stature and his employment as a D.E.A. agent (and the financial security it brings), Hank naturally fits into the typical masculine stereotypes.
For this reason, Hank’s narrative arc throughout the series is not concerned with establishing his masculinity in the way that Walt is. Instead, as the series goes on, we actually see Hank become more vulnerable. We witness his panic attacks in elevators, we see him turn down the job in El Paso because he’s scared, and we see him (temporarily) lose the ability to walk. But it’s clear, even in these more sensitive moments, that Hank is a Man, and he makes sure everyone knows it. Since his traditional masculinity is well established, the decisions he makes in the name of being a Man have less disastrous outcomes than Walt’s. Even when he goes ‘bad cop’ on Jesse or on the drug dealers in the bar, it is more for the audience to see his temper than to set any negative chain reaction in motion. He’s strong and macho—though certainly not without faults—but he mostly does what’s right.
So by having the series culminate in a struggle between Hank (the hero) and Walt (the villain), it becomes a battle between hegemonic masculinity and hegemonic masculinity. The hero wins, of course², but what is that saying about gender? Well, it seems to imply that traditional masculinity is only destructive if you have to work for it, like Walt. For Hank, who is naturally a macho tough guy, traditional masculinity is acceptable, or even admirable.
What would have been more satisfying? Having Jesse come out as the hero. Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) is a character naturally positioned more or less near Walt on the masculinity spectrum. Even though, when we first meet him, he exudes a typical tough guy attitude, it’s clear that it is a performance in response to his masculine anxieties. He is short and scrawny, and wears baggy thuggish clothing to compensate for this. He sprinkles the word “bitch” throughout his dialogue, and it always feels forced.³ As Jesse and Walt navigate the crime world and are forced to commit violent acts (including murder) and make decisions about how to conduct themselves, their reactions differ greatly. Walt is ready to embrace his hypermasculinity, but Jesse repeatedly shies away from it. Laura Hudson notes, “We see Jesse cry on more than one occasion, and he has a particular soft spot for children, both very stereotypically feminine traits.” The deeper they get the more hypermasculine Walt becomes and the more feminine Jesse becomes. Even when Gus and Mike employ Jesse as Mike’s right-hand man, a job that could be read as masculine because of its violence and responsibility, they did it to keep an eye on him and control him. Throughout the show he is a passive character, and this is made literal by his enslavement as a meth cook for Todd and Uncle Jack.
The last time we see Jesse, he has just been saved by Walt and freed from captivity. Although we could see his new-found freedom as a happy ending for Jesse, it doesn’t happen on his terms. His punishment for resisting hegemonic masculinity, it seems, is to be stripped of his agency. He is a damsel who must be saved by Walt. Breaking Bad would be more satisfying if Jesse’s brand of masculinity was able to beat Walt’s, not rely on it. For a show so focused on critiquing traditional masculinity, it offers no viable alternative, and that’s a pretty dark prospect.
¹This essay and many other insightful essays on Breaking Bad can be found in Breaking Bad: Critical Essays on the Contexts, Politics, Style, and Reception of the Television Series, ed. David Pierson, Lexington Books (2014).
²It’s true that Hank dies before the end of the series, so I know that claiming “the hero wins” is a gross simplification. But he dies with his values and respect intact, while Walt dies with nothing. Some writers and fans have noted that Walt’s ending was—if not happy—peaceful and on his own terms, and while there is a sense of acceptance of death for Walt in that final scene, he is still the clear loser.
³Laura Hudson points out, “Despite being the most famous and popular insult of Jesse Pinkman, it’s worth noting that Jesse almost never uses the word to describe women.” This brings up an important aspect of the show that I’ve decided not to address within my post but will acknowledge in this inappropriately long footnote: Much has been written about the lack of well-developed female characters in Breaking Bad, but to me, as a show that is so much about the failures of men and a critique of traditional masculinity, it makes sense. In fact, when they did try to insert a female character into their crime world with Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Laura Fraser), they made her so stereotypically frantic and over-emotional that it became more problematic than if they had left the females out entirely.