Buyout: A Marxist Critique of Breaking Bad Jared McNett Truman State University, Class of 2013 Contributor of the Month
Breaking Bad probes the depths to which a cancer-diagnosed father will go to provide for his family while exploring the price at which every individual can be bought. Though the series is primarily concerned with that father, Walter White, it also spotlights his impressionable sidekick Jesse Pinkman, whom Walterâ€™s pursuit gradually corrupts. A marked turn in the tone of the show occurs between seasons two and three in which Walter, now having reached the monetary benchmark he set for himself, still lusts after the lucrative meth market. Throughout the course of season three and into season four, Walter and Jesseâ€™s journey takes them to cold and soulless places, where cash is abundant and morality is in short supply. Bursting at the seams with class warfare and torn asunder by the battle between the bourgeoisie and proletariat, Breaking Bad is ripe for Marxist pickings. When seeing through Watercooler Journal
Chandler’s perspective of “Marxist Theory,” the show is a fascinating mirror of the seamy side of the American dream. The world of the show is one where cash is king and where every man/woman/child can be bought and sold for a price. Breaking Bad then is both a capitalist nirvana and a Marxist nightmare, determined by the flip of a shiny silver coin. A Marxist Primer A critical piece of Marxist Media Theory that Daniel Chandler discusses is the concept that mass media plays a critical role in the “reproduction of the status quo” (2). Chandler goes on to note that this stands in stark contrast with “liberal pluralists” who tend to stress the liberating power of mass media, and how it induces freedom (2). As Gurevitch et. al see it, a capitalist society is a confining society, a society that favors the upper class at the expense of the middle and lower class, a society where control is determined by capital and autonomy is “an illusion” that reinforces the dominate culture. For Gurevitch et. al then, the media’s societal role is to relay and reinforce the dominant cultural mindset and tamp down alternative viewpoints. This is true of a film like District 9, where the South African news media derisively refers to the immigrating aliens as “prawns,” further reinforcing a narrative crafted by the bureaucratic government and Multinational United, who intend to keep the “prawns” living in the squalor of an internment camp.
“Breaking Bad then is a capitalist nirvana and a Marxist nightmare, determined by the flip of a shiny silver coin.” As Chandler notes, a key element of “classical” Marxist Theory is the idea of “economism” which posits that economy can determine everything in a society from the political to the social (3). Economism exists metaphorically in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, where workers lacking any individual identity literally become cogs in the machine of big business. Due to this view of economism, Hall believes that the mass media of Marxist Theory must cater to the needs of big business, lest they miss out on vital ad revenue. The aforementioned “reproduction of status quo” that Chandler dissects is made possible by the mass media’s promulgating of the “dominant ideology” (those values held by the ruling class). Citing Curran et al., Chandler finds that this process is aided and abetted by the mass media’s “concealment of class struggle” which effectively allows for class struggle to be swept Watercooler Journal
under the rug (Curran et al. 26). To a degree this can already be seen in many U.S. news media markets, when certain “messier” stories lacking a clear, clean narrative are avoided. Given that there is often an economy of words and time in news presentations; media members are constantly looking for the quickest, cleanest sound bite to drive the story. These bites often obfuscate the full story, and the consumer is left in the dark with no inclination as to the larger political, economical, or social struggle at work. When this struggle is concealed, the possibility for dissent and disruption of the “status quo” is effectively neutralized. Marxist Theory is also quick to point out that the mass media can reproduce the status quo by mythologizing certain segments of society (Chandler 5). This is true of many law enforcement dramas (such as Cops) which craft a good guy/bad guy storyline. In these shows, the forces of good will eventually stomp out the “malevolence” of crime. Examining these shows on a closer level, a Marxist theorist would likely conclude that these narratives warn viewers that contrarianism and all anti-societal behaviors will not be tolerated and will be stopped by any means necessary. In effect, these shows keep consumers on the “straight and narrow path” that dominant society crafts. French philosopher Louis Althusser advanced the belief that ideology—not economism—has the greatest influence on status. According to Althusser, ideology is transformative, capable of deceiving people that they are self-determining, when in actuality they are pawns in an ideological “chess game” (8). This game accelerates through interpellation, wherein state institutions shepherd us into positions where our work will assist those who own and control the means of production (Smith 208). In effect, Althusserian Marxism suggests then that we do not “work to live, but rather live to work” (Arze-Bravo et al.). One potent point made by Mick Underwood is that the working class does not necessarily conform under pressure of the mass media or hegemonic domination, but accepts proletarian status because they desire to keep working. As Underwood illustrates, we need to “play by the rules” in order to stay in the game and chase a win that may never come (4). A Breaking Bad Primer Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad stands as one of the most stinging critiques of the American economic system to appear on American television in several years. It is not merely a deviation from the cultural norms, but a flat-out rejection of the “system.” In scenic Albuquerque, New Mexico, the American dream internalized from the country’s inception has become a Watercooler Journal
nightmare. When we open up on a dazed and confused Walter White in the series pilot, heâ€™s seen brandishing a gun and profusely apologizing (into a handheld camera) to his family for the shame his short meth-making career has wrought. This is a Walter White ashamed of his actions, one who canâ€™t seem to believe he has stumbled so far from the straight and narrow. Pre meth-making Walter White was an honest man, clocking into his civil service job of teaching chemistry at a public high school. He was a faithful husband and a loving father to a son afflicted with cerebral palsy living in a humdrum suburb where nothing exciting ever seemed to happen.
For all his commitment to the American dream, Walter is afforded nothing in return. A man that was once a part of a Nobel Prize-winning research team has been reduced to teaching the bare bones of chemistry, lecturing ad nauseum about atoms and the differences between an acid and a base. Instead of reaping the rewards for his intellect and rugged individualism, Walter was pushed out of a now billion-dollar company by his colleagues. As the show starts, he splits his time between teaching chemistry and washing cars at A1A Car Wash under the watchful eye of an oppressive boss. Even with his dutiful commitment to these dull jobs, Walter still struggles to make ends meet, barely making house payments. His years toiling as a member of the proletariat have yielded long nights and diminishing returns. Watercooler Journal
The capitalist shackles begin to slip off when Walter is diagnosed with lung cancer and given only a few months to live. Piling onto his mounting problems is his wife Skyler’s revelation that she is pregnant with their second child. In the same pilot episode, Walter is literally brought to his knees at the car wash when he finds himself scrubbing away at a current student’s sports car (that student laughs on in amusement). The pivotal moment for Walter comes when his DEA brother-in-law Hank Schrader offers him a ride along as fiftieth birthday gift. During the course of this ride along, Walt witnesses a former student, Jesse Pinkman, narrowly escaping arrest and leaving behind his shambolic meth-lab. After his brother-in-law tells him how much the haul was worth, the internal light-bulb clicks for Walter; he realizes how futile his life has been. After pitching a partnership to Jesse, Walter begins cooking a potent strain of crystal meth while Jesse tries to sell it. This initial series of events marks a jarring departure from American cultural norms and quickly establishes Walter as the ultimate anti-hero. With his decision to break free from the nine-tofive proletarian grind, Walter escapes Gurevitch’s confining capitalist society and becomes an autonomous individual. With partner-in-crime Jesse in tow, Walt engages in his own worker’s revolution, establishing a “cooperative ownership” where everything is split fifty/fifty.
At this point in the story arc, Walter can be seen as working for the greater good, aiming to provide for his family long after he has faded away. In this fashion, Walter fulfills the Marxist principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” with his own family comprising the neediest. Walter has escaped the shackles of the bourgeoisie and no longer works for monetary reward, but for the satisfaction of providing for his family. Living to Work: Gustavo Fring’s Property Fast-forwarding to season three, we find Walter and Jesse in possession of a small fortune, but with a trail of blood left in their “revolutionary” path. When Walter and Jesse agree to work with a powerful drug kingpin by the name of Gustavo Fring, the capitalist system once inverted begins to reassert itself. While Gus deals in an illegal trade scrutinized by traditional American society, he still values profit and the bottom dollar above all else. In an ironic turn, the man who operates with the most illegality on the entire show is the one who would be most at home in the normative American economic system.
By casting Gus as not only a drug kingpin but a successful business entrepreneur, Gilligan manages to craft a stinging critique of American corporate culture. In the corporate race that Watercooler Journal
Gus runs, contrivances like workers’ rights and the law are of little concern, mere roadblocks set up to stymie an ever-flowing revenue stream. In a stark moment of employee abuse early in season four, Gus slashes the throat of his henchman Victor in front of Walter and Jesse to send a message about company loyalty. By towering over the pair as they plead for their lives, Gus effectively reasserts the hegemonic will, albeit by force, of the bourgeoisie on the wayward proletariat workers. As he leaves them behind in the laboratory to clean up after his mess, Gus coldly demands Walter and Jesse get back to work. Even with a “cog” now permanently out of order, the wheels of the capitalist machine must keep turning lest a work day be missed or a dollar go unearned. The aforementioned “employee abuse” further ratchets up in season four when Gus places security cameras in the lab and assigns Tyrus to replace Victor in watching over Walter and Jesse. With these implementations, Gus embodies “Big Brother,” never letting Walter and Jesse out of his sight. This encroachment leads Walter to wail about invasion of privacy, which falls on deaf ears. Tyrus and his boss Mike intercept every attempt Walter makes to reach out to Gus, fully isolating the working class from their employers.
“By casting Gus as not only a drug kingpin but a successful business entrepreneur, Gilligan manages to craft a stinging critique of American corporate culture.” When Gus made the decision to spare Walter and Jesse’s lives, he wasn’t acting out of compassion, but out of consideration for his bottom line. Walter and Jesse are Gus’ shining stars, the most lucrative employees in an empire. They are, in a sense, his property, existing solely to serve him and his interests. Furthermore, Walter and Jesse’s struggle elucidates Althusser’s concept of ideology being transformative. Walter and Jesse buy into being “selfdetermining” when nothing could be further from the truth. Their every move is closely watched and scrutinized; they make “pennies” while their boss makes millions. They are slaves to a seemingly endless proletariat grind. In this way, Walter and Jesse’s predicament tragically embodies the Althusserian conception of “living to work,” and no life exists outside of the lab. Though Walter now toils away in the lab as the proletariat, he slowly becomes the bourgeoisie he once loathed outside. Whereas Walter was once working towards the Marxist ideal of “to Watercooler Journal
each according to his needs,” he now stockpiles money as if he’s saving up for an economic apocalypse. He celebrates all this success and wealth with his now estranged wife, heedlessly spending money on the same champagne that Winston Churchill once drank. As season four takes shape, this shift becomes more pronounced with Walter slowly fitting the role of Albuquerque’s newest aristocrat. He’s made more than enough money, and yet he wants more. All bets are off by the time we hit season five, when Walter trades his workmanlike Pontiac Aztek for a posh Bentley. Blinded by the dollar signs, Walter now feeds into the capitalist system, wantonly spending money on cars, bullets, and booze. But despite the death of the once oppressive Gus at the end of season four, Walter and Jesse are still prisoners of the proletariat mindset, permanently tethered to the working grind of the lab.
While the fumes of bourgeoisie “glitz and glamour” intoxicate Walter, the new lifestyle torments Jesse. With his half of the money, Jesse holes up in his own home, buys towering music speakers, and invites society’s skid row over to keep his misery company. All the fortune in the world can’t keep the demons at bay for Jesse, who is now the tragic hero of the revolution. From a historical perspective, Jesse is the diffident Leon Trotsky to Walter’s brash Joseph Watercooler Journal
Stalin. As Trotsky once wrote in The Revolution Betrayed, questioning “where it was going,” Jesse can’t help but turn to the past and wonder where his and Walt’s own personal revolution went wrong. As season four fades into season five, the divide between Walter and Jesse becomes a chasm. Akin to Stalin’s own expulsion of Trotsky from the revolutionary ranks, Walter sends Jesse to the sidelines and seizes control of the operation for himself. With this final power grab, Walter becomes the nightmarish bourgeoisie. The season five posters for Breaking Bad play this newly found power to a hilt, sitting Walter down in front of untold sums of money and meth, as the words “ALL HAIL THE KING” hang just overhead. The former serf has become a sovereign, all from the benefits of a corrupted capitalist system.
A Marxism of Convenience It’s worth noting that despite the Marxist rhetoric coursing through the veins of the show, Breaking Bad is far cry from anything Karl Marx himself would extol. The almighty dollar still rules over all, and no means of seizing it is considered too extreme. In fact, throughout the duration of the show, Walter has a hand in killing over a dozen individuals who would dare stand in his way. In the span of a year, Walter eliminates former co-worker Gale Boetticher and endangers the life of six-year old Brock Cantillo, the son of Jesse’s girlfriend. He abandons his cerebral palsy afflicted child Walt, Jr., “leaves” his wife Skyler (who is haunted by the prospect of her husband being a ruthless drug lord), and becomes a proxy parent for his infant daughter Holly. Moreover, Walter readily rejects an equal partnership with Jesse in season five for a chance to go-it-alone and make more money than he or Skyler could ever hope to count. Watercooler Journal
“Jesse is the diffident Leon Trotsky to Walter’s brash Joseph Stalin.” Walter’s own brother-in-law Hank is a boisterous DEA agent, and as their lives become further intertwined, Hank unknowingly becomes Walter’s rival. When considering Hank’s role on the show, it would be easy to neatly file him away as the “foil”—the source of tension to play off of Walter’s criminal posturing. But something greater is at play underneath Hank’s brash exterior. If Walter’s unceasing quest for cash isn’t enough to make the hard-lined Marxist nervous, Vince Gilligan’s inclusion of Hank will likely drive them insane. Breaking Bad idealizes Hank more than any other individual in the show, at times painting him as the show’s sole moral compass. Hank is the anti-contrarian poster child, putting all ne’er-do-wells on notice that anti-societal behavior and crime do not pay. Amidst this “amorality,” the long-arm of the law still exists, struggling to reinforce cultural norms and protect the bourgeoisie from the “fiendish” proletariat. While AMC certainly does go against the mass media grain by offering Breaking Bad on its slate, it can’t help but be stuck in the past. The inclusion of the Hank character is a callback to countless cops from television’s past and strengthens Chandler’s notion of mass media reinforcing the status quo through mythologizing. From the Marxist frame of reference, it’s almost impossible not to picture Gilligan kowtowing to cultural demands to include a lawful character on the show to appease mainstream mentality.
“The inclusion of the Hank character is a callback to countless cops from television’s past and strengthens Chandler’s notion of mass media reinforcing the status quo through mythologizing.” Another cause for concern from the Marxist viewpoint is the way in which Walter and Jesse are slowly subsumed by the bourgeoisie system. Try as they might, they can’t seem to escape the throes of the machine. Similarly even in their constant attempts to buck the system, Walter and Jesse only manage to add fuel to the fire. They wantonly spend money on all the finer things in life, leaving little if any for the starving proletariat masses. And in perhaps the defining moment Watercooler Journal
of the “all for me” mentality, Walter simply tells Skyler, “I did it for me.” In this sense, Walter and Jesse are no better than the capitalist overlords that once controlled them. The two then are not Marxists by heart, but rather Marxists by convenience, utilizing the revolutionary tools of the sickle and hammer when it suits them, and casting them aside at a moment’s notice for hegemonic comforts common in a capitalist society to a fortunate few. A Fan’s Conclusion I’ve been captivated by Breaking Bad from the get-go, rooting for Walter (through the first two seasons) and Jesse to succeed at every turn. My urge to root for such unsavory characters likely stems from an inherent desire to make it on my own without any semblance of a system holding me back. In reality, the only reason I eventually found myself rooting for Walt to meet an untimely end is because he spurned the very Marxist philosophies that once kept him afloat in a raging sea of bourgeoisie oppression. While it is true that Walter and Jesse are in no way pure Marxists, their bucking of the system serves as a source of odd fascination for the audience at large, and their story through five seasons hems closer to a Marxist narrative than anything currently on television.
works cited Arze-Bravo, Murray, Robertson, & Tunzelman. “Althusserian Ideology”: Introduction & Biography of Althusser. Retrieved November 25, 2012 from: http://froberto.dnsalias.org/shared/Althusserian_Ideology/theory_althusser.html “Breaking Bad.” Retrieved December 3, 2012 from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breaking_Bad Chandler, D. (1994). “Marxist Media Theory.” University of Wales Press. Retrieved November 8, 2012. Gurevitch, M., Bennett, T., Curran, J., & Woollacott, J. (1982). Culture, Society, and the Media. London: Methuen. Smith, Philip. Cultural Theory: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 2001. Trotsky, L. The revolution betrayed: What is the Soviet Union and where is it going? NY: Dover Publications. Underwood, M. (2003). Criticisms of the Marxist approach. Retrieved November 10 from: https://tsu-cms.truman.edu/bbcswebdav/pid-416217-dt-content-rid2318490_1/courses/2012607497/CRITICISMS%20OF%20THE%20MARXIST%20APP ROACH.pdf
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