When Capitalism Breaks Bad
In the TV series Breaking Bad, creator Vince Gilligan skillfully weaves themes of morality, greed, capitalism, and love into an intricate story about a cancer-stricken high school chemistry-teacher turned-meth-manufacturer. The main character, Walter White, attempts to enter the meth-cooking business upon being diagnosed with lung cancer, believing the illegal drug industry to be the most lucrative and efficient way of earning money to leave behind as inheritance. He reaches out to his former student, Jesse Pinkman, and partners with him to distribute his new formula of meth with its signature blue color. Given his chemistry background, Walter creates a meth formula that is nearly pure and of the highest grade that any consumers or dealers have ever seen, causing the popularity of his product to skyrocket. Throughout five seasons, Gilligan follows Walter White as he hurdles over various obstacles, advances his business to new heights, and most importantly, makes crucial and questionable sacrifices for the success of his product.
The Role of Capitalism
Breaking Bad as a series may be a microcosm through which we can gain a new perspective about the state of American capitalism. According to David Pierson, an associate professor of media studies at the University of Southern Maine, Breaking Bad demonstrates the repercussions of neoliberal ideology, or the idea that “the market should be the organising agent for nearly all social, political, economic and personal decisions.” According to this ideology, criminals are not “products of psychological disorder.” Rather, they are “rational economic actors who contemplate and calculate the risks and the rewards of their actions” and Walter perfectly fits this definition.
Capitalism is defined as “an economic system in which investment in and ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange of wealth is made and maintained chiefly by private individuals or corporations, especially as contrasted to cooperatively or state-owned means of wealth.” In other words, capitalism centers around independence, freedom, and entrepreneurship; as a founding principle, capitalism itself is central to the American spirit and culture. One fundamental belief of capitalism is that it allows for one to be self-reliant, breeding a certain level of creativity and productivity. In this type of system, productivity and financial success are the primary concern and people thrive off of greed and ambition. After all, another important American notion is the American Dream, or “the ideal that every U.S. citizen should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative.”Regarding these notions, Breaking Bad offers a critique with disturbing implications.
First and foremost, Walter represents the contemporary American middle class as a high school chemistry teacher disheartened by his medical bills and worried about possible continued debt. In attempt to score a large pay-off, Walter decides to apply his chemistry skills to cook meth. However, once Walter is sucked into the dangerous world of easy money, he is overcome with an insatiable greed. And he wants more of it precisely because “his eyes are opened to how America really operates:” with a disregard for morals and a high regard for profit. For example, Gus Fring, a wealthy businessman, is in reality a high-level drug distributor and mastermind using a fast-food chicken chain as a disguise for his intricate drug operation backed by a German multinational company. So why is he successful? Because capitalism is fueled by greed. Although Walter claims to have started cooking meth for his family, he only uses this reasoning as a guise for his true motives of gaining control, status, and even more money. According to John Doyle, Breaking Bad serves as “a parable about entrepreneurship,” which lies in the very foundation of American culture. The series elucidates that the “entrepreneur eventually becomes corporation, which is what the entrepreneur wants, and with that, loses all humanity.” By the end of the series, Walter White is the “personification of the whole theory that America’s exceptional form of safety-net-free capitalism — and the desperation it breeds — truly does breed innovation and entrepreneurship.” However, he demonstrates that such productivity may manifest itself in undesirable directions. The American Dream also blinds him; although Walter’s wealthy friend offers to pay for his cancer treatment, Walter chooses to “live out the archetypal up-from-the-bootstraps story — the American Dream narrative on which our society bases its very definition of manhood.”
In the series, Jesse represents someone who does not see the cold, hard truth regarding Walter’s actions and its implications for the priorities of America. Throughout the later seasons, Jesse’s spirit slowly deteriorates and he becomes crazed and furious at the immoral way in which Walter gains all of his wild success. According to Doyle, the destruction of Jesse’s morale represents the “collapse of a millennial’s naiveté when faced with the reality of the brutal working world where money is actually made.”
Perhaps the image that best encapsulates Breaking Bad’s message about capitalism can be found in one scene towards the end of the series. After a group of men steal most of Walter’s drug money, he is left with only one barrel of cash. With his partner turned against him and his family—that he first began this journey for—alienated from him, Walt rolls this barrel of 11 million dollars along for hours on end in the desert where he first started cooking meth. Everything comes full circle, showing that although Walter was a successful and cutthroat businessman, this did not ultimately matter due to the lack of any meaningful relationships to fight for.
Walter White: A Modern Man
While most people may not directly connect to Walter White’s story—especially the lung cancer, secret drug deals, and calculated murders—Breaking Badmay relate to our lives more than we realize. All audience members may not have lung cancer, but many have gone through frustrations with the American healthcare system or are scared of medical bankruptcy, just as Walter White had been. In other ways, people may connect with Walter White in his struggle to balance his ethics and the need to provide for his loved ones. Jesse Pinkman may also present another appealing character to viewers as he searches for a purpose in life, one that is more morally sound and enjoyable. After all, according to David Sirota, Breaking Badmay owe its cult firmament to how it “so perfectly captures the specific pressures and ideologies that make America exceptional at the very moment the country is itself breaking bad.” Therefore, in this regard, Breaking Badcan serve as more than just entertainment; it can provide a valuable, sinister warning for how Americans should live their own lives. After all, if we initially supported Walter White and we can’t identify a certain point at which he “broke bad,” will we be able to know when we ourselves break bad before it is too late?