brianmlatimer said: It sounds like you want to be watching The Wire rather than Breaking Bad.
You say that like it’s a bad thing! But yeah, I’m a child of The Wire (must have started watching the third season nearly ten years ago now?) and it did have nearly everything I think Breaking Bad now lacks. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy watching Breaking Bad, it’s visually superb and has lots of (to I suppose damn with faint praise) dramatic flair - plus, what it shares with The Wire is that on the more-or-less surface level it has so many interesting, finely-drawn and comic characters. It’s just that I find its supposed moral weight drags it down without the balancing effect of a wider social perspective. Of course there are many valid criticisms to be made of The Wire, even on those terms, since it remains a stylised portrayal of systemic corruption as Breaking Bad is perhaps also a stylised portrayal of individual depravity. Perhaps Breaking Bad is simply ‘great television’ in the sense of being watchable and engaging, rather than ‘Great Television’ in the pseudo-philosophical, quasi-literary sense often attributed to The Wire, and maybe that’s a good thing.
One of my problems with Breaking Bad, or at least with some of the common responses to it, is that I don’t believe in monsters. I think people are primarily the product of their social environment, interpreted through psychological processes we do not yet (and perhaps never will) fully understand. Sadists exist, as in general do people whose ways of thinking are so far beyond the normal comprehension of any of us - save those few who are professionally trained to at least consider they can dissect the most deviant minds - that we simply label them ‘monsters’, the Other to what we think is innate human morality and common decency. But what if the more horrifying truth is that those are just fragile norms, which can break down at the individual or even societal level given enough pressure?
This Malcolm Harris essay about Breaking Bad and the real economics of drug production is really good, I don’t know why I didn’t see it before (it’s from 2012). I have to admit I’d never thought of the ‘white supremacy’ aspect before - it is a bit of a jaded criticism of TV shows, unfortunately - but maybe the worst part is I just accept it naturally. The show doesn’t make an issue out of race and I’m far removed from its context, but it does seem like a further problematic extension of the show’s social dimension.
Some other good quotes:
"The illegal drug market simply doesn’t reward peerless expertise in the same way celebrity cooking shows do."
"From the pilot on, the quality of White’s output has driven the show’s narrative arc. As a careful midgrade cook with DEA connections, he could have flown under the radar in a community overrun with the stuff and taken care of his chemo costs and family just fine."
"The point isn’t that the show is unrealistic or hard to believe, but the narrative function of the ways in which it is: Which disbeliefs are viewers asked to suspend, and which ideologies are they encouraged to retain?”
The apogee of that arc was for me the scene where Walt asks a prospective rival/distributor if he really wants to live in a world ‘without Coca-Cola’? Well, it may be the case that the illegal drug market already operates on that basis, but I’d also say I’d be happy to live in that world if it meant an end to corporate human rights abuses (my old college has a long-time ban on Coca-Cola products in student-run campus shops for that reason; often derided as liberal posturing and not, in reality, a huge sacrifice). The idea that the show seems to presume you agree - through Walter White as capitalist-genius - is something I find disturbing.
bmichael asked: Yeah but what you're missing is that healthcare costs were obviated early on because Walt's rich friend / ex business partner would have footed the bill. The healthcare costs have to be paid on Walt's own terms. I'm sure you could find some cultural analog for European egocentrism (or you know whatever) for Walt to 'break bad'. Most of the characters are offered outs along the way, and they all choose to stay on board.
True, I had forgotten that - although it would have been a bit deus ex philanthropos (if you’ll forgive the Greek/Latin mix. Lustria perhaps?) and of course killed the story stone dead. And the fact remains that he had to raise the money somehow or else be crippled, specifically, by the healthcare costs.
I was thinking that the conceit wouldn’t have to have been healthcare, but then it would have be something else equally as personal and allied to a life-changing condition. Some family catastrophe, perhaps, that would overwhelm the social safety net of the average European home? (Probably something with a taboo or pride issue similar to what feeds into Walt’s thinking)
Still, I don’t find it as interesting why the characters themselves ‘break bad’, or continue to do so, as what it is about the society that sets them up to do that. Or the fact that ‘breaking bad’ is servicing a massive demand for an addictive drug linked to the de-industrialisation of America. Again, maybe there’s a particular European analogue for that (what is going on in the Czech Republic?) but there’s a particular social dynamic that Breaking Bad ties into which seems exceptionally American, at least to its degree.