In 2013, AMC's Breaking Bad concluded its fifth and final season to impressive ratings. The show chronicled the transformation of high school chemistry teacher Walter White into a minor drug kingpin after he was diagnosed with cancer (ostensibly so that he could ensure that his family was provided for after his passing). The question I want to ask is, what can we learn from the popularity of Breaking Bad? And, further, what does it tell us about contemporary North American culture? These questions are perhaps more difficult to answer than it might first appear, for they confront us with the challenge of extricating the intentions of the show's creator from the way in which it came to be perceived by audiences. In other words, it is not uncommon for a work of art to be understood by viewers in a very different way than its author intended. A famous example of this phenomenon was Dave Chappelle's decision to take a break from his show after a sketch intended to satirize racial stereotypes was perceived to be funny by audience members precisely because it reinforced the very essentialisms it was intending to disrupt.
In the context of Breaking Bad, the issue I want to explore is masculinity. In many ways, the show offers an extended meditation on the theme of what it means to be a man. Walter White charts an arc that takes him from putative loser (a high school teacher who struggles to achieve the respect of his current teenage students and former academic colleagues) to successful and feared producer and trafficker of meth. Along the way, Walt in effect loses the love and admiration of his family and gains the esteem of members of the criminal underworld. Is Walt's journey a triumphant ascent to manhood facilitated by impending mortality, or is it a harrowing examination of the costs of hegemonic masculinity? Laura Hudson writes:
Many have argued that Breaking Bad is an indictment of Walt, a critique of the male power fantasy rather than a celebration. How we respond to the ending and whether we’re still rooting for Walt in those final moments is indeed a measure of our own complicity – or Matt Zoller Seitz puts it at Vulture, “it’s an ending that leaves us alone with a mirror.”
While we may want to cheer for the character we’ve been identifying with for so long, what are we really cheering? What standards of success are we tacitly endorsing when we feel just a little bit pleased that Walt got to live — and die — “like a man”? The masculinity described in Breaking Bad is something deeply pernicious, a cultural dogma that damages, warps and limits men, isolating them from their emotions and from others. It promotes violence, retribution, and a hierarchy built upon the backs victims both male and female. Sometimes, it kills them. As Silpa Kovvari at The Atlantic observed, the masculinity of Breaking Bad represents “standards to die by, not to live by.”As Hudson indicates, ultimately, the issue is not whether creator Vince Gilligan understands Walter White to be a hero or anti-hero. Rather, what matters (as Dave Chappelle understood) is how devoted fans watch the show. Why is it so popular and what are people getting out of it?
The frightening reality seems to be that for many passionate followers of Breaking Bad, Walter White does indeed represent a "male power fantasy." This fact is laid disturbingly bare by actor Anna Gunn who played Walt's wife Skyler on the show. Gunn writes,
Because Walter is the show’s protagonist, there is a natural tendency to empathize with and root for him, despite his moral failings. (That viewers can identify with this antihero is also a testament to how deftly his character is written and acted.) As the one character who consistently opposes Walter and calls him on his lies, Skyler is, in a sense, his antagonist. So from the beginning, I was aware that she might not be the show’s most popular character.
But I was unprepared for the vitriolic response she inspired. Thousands of people have “liked” the Facebook page “I Hate Skyler White.” Tens of thousands have “liked” a similar Facebook page with a name that cannot be printed here. When people started telling me about the “hate boards” for Skyler on the Web site for AMC, the network that broadcasts the show, I knew it was probably best not to look, but I wanted to understand what was happening.
A typical online post complained that Skyler was a “shrieking, hypocritical harpy” and didn’t “deserve the great life she has.”
“I have never hated a TV-show character as much as I hate her,” one poster wrote. The consensus among the haters was clear: Skyler was a ball-and-chain, a drag, a shrew, an “annoying bitch wife.”...
At some point on the message boards, the character of Skyler seemed to drop out of the conversation, and people transferred their negative feelings directly to me. The already harsh online comments became outright personal attacks. One such post read: “Could somebody tell me where I can find Anna Gunn so I can kill her?” Besides being frightened (and taking steps to ensure my safety), I was also astonished: how had disliking a character spiraled into homicidal rage at the actress playing her?
Gunn really hits the nail on the head here. Skyler White drew the ire of the show's fans because she posed a challenge to Walt's patriarchal ascent. The responses to Walt and Skyler are two sides of the same coin. All too many male viewers identify with Walt and are thus deeply resentful of the ways in which Skyler is perceived to thwart the realization of his (terrifyingly sociopathic) ambitions. Whether or not Vince Gilligan endorses the character he created as a model of manhood, there is little question that that is how he has come to be taken up by legions of the shows fans. They admire his stoicism, his ruthlessness, his vengefulness, and, perhaps most of all, his success. Varda Burstyn has coined the term "coercive entitlement" to describe a dominant thread in contemporary masculinity. What she means is that men are taught that they deserve those things they are able to take through violence. This is a common theme in contemporary sport and it is the lesson of Breaking Bad for many if not most of its fans. Whether Gilligan himself believes in the justice of coercive entitlement, he has created a character who embodies it. Unfortunately, unlike Dave Chappelle, Gilligan does not appear to have acquired the requisite social conscience required to stand up to the monster he created. Instead, as Hudson tells, he has this to say of his show's ending:But I finally realized that most people’s hatred of Skyler had little to do with me and a lot to do with their own perception of women and wives. Because Skyler didn’t conform to a comfortable ideal of the archetypical female, she had become a kind of Rorschach test for society, a measure of our attitudes toward gender.
“As bad a guy as he has been, and as dark a series of misdeeds as he has committed, it felt right and satisfying and proper for us that he went out on his own terms. He went out like a man.”If one of the most appealing definitions of manhood to be found in popular culture today is death via a hail of gunfire in a war over drug turf, then we have a problem.