Breaking Bad: corroding a hole through the top floor of Maslow’s pyramid

I know Breaking Bad is finished but a late suggestion to creator Vince Gilligan – you really should have used this classic by The Nolans as the theme tune:

I recently finished a month or so in which I watched all five series on Netflix. This multi-award-winning US drama, for those still unfamiliar with it, is about a terminally ill Albuquerque chemistry teacher, who decides to cook crystal meth as a way of providing money for his family after he dies. It’s also, more interestingly for me at least, a story of self-actualisation gone wrong. And a very American tale at that.

Bricking Bad - lab-based fun for all the family
Bricking Bad – lab-based fun for all the family. The Lego-isation of Planet Earth continues apace. I love the inset picture of the half-blown-way visage of everyone’s favourite purveyor of fried chicken solutions

It’s about the slide into the moral abyss of the main character, Walter White. White is a Macbeth with more of a cause but less of a conscience. According to Gilligan, the pitch was:

We’re going to take Mr. Chips, and we’re going to turn him into Scarface.

Predictably enough, our periodic-table-toting hero’s Heath Robinson life insurance scheme comes with consequences. Some of those are worse even than the sight of White wandering around in his underpants, which he does a lot. And deeper and deeper he sinks, as he deals with an increasing number of threats to his success.

Go for experience every time
Go for experience every time

What we come to realise though, as the series progress, is that the initial pitch for Breaking Bad – terminally ill man trying to provide for his family – masks the real thrust of the drama. What it’s really about is a man rediscovering his mojo: returning to that thing that he does best in the world – here, being a lab chemist – and trying to be the best he can be at it. White is a gifted scientist who has forgone a glittering career in favour of being a good family provider. He followed a humdrum path as a high school chemistry teacher instead of making millions on developing new patents like his millionaire former lab mates.

"My compliments to the chef: that was tight, tight, tight."
Tight, tight, tight: but Tuco’s surely over-dressed for a meeting in a wrecking yard

When he’s declared terminally ill, he doesn’t consciously choose to gun straight for the top of Maslow’s pyramid – but it’s the path his bizarre crystal meth cooking scheme inevitably leads him to. Telling himself at first he is being selfless, the satisfaction of achievement becomes addictive. He likes it so much, to borrow from Britney Spears, he gets lost in the game. And this proves to be every bit as destructive as the meth he so expertly “cooks”, like a bald Fanny Craddock in y-fronts.

A lot has been written about what Breaking Bad says about American society: from Breaking Bad as metaphor for US foreign policy, to a commentary on vulture capitalism; and so on. Gilligan has said, rather simply, that it’s about actions having consequences. But for me, the most striking aspect of it is the tension between the individual and society; between living for yourself and living for others. In Breaking Bad, seeking the best for yourself as an individual does not achieve the American Dream. Indeed, the mayhem left in the wake of Walter White is a really a challenge to the cult of individual freedom and its off-shoot, the cult of self-actualisation (the bastard child of Carl Jung and Oprah Winfrey).  Attempts at self-improvement are everywhere in Breaking Bad, from new age teepee retreats in the desert, to drug rehab groups, kleptomania therapy, to immigrants building business empires.

It has been pointed out that the only black character in the series cooks fried chicken and sells drugs: but on the other hand, Gus Fring is the show's most intriguing character
It has been pointed out that the only black character in the series cooks fried chicken and sells drugs; but on the other hand, Gus Fring is the show’s most intriguing- and scary – character. I mean, just look at that smile …

Here is a man who rediscovers his manhood, becomes “strong”, provides for his family and has his expertise recognised and admired by connoisseurs (albeit that these are generally either psychopathic drug lords, meth-heads or in the case of Tuco, both). But the results of this self-actualisation are grotesque, not just because White’s chosen the wrong thing to become good at, but because his mission could never be as altruistic as he thinks. Deep down, the individual is the only meaningful unit for him. God helps those who help themselves. He think as an individual, not a family member or a member of a community. If he is strong and clever and means well, everything else will fall into place. Only things don’t work like that.

Somewhere along the border
Somewhere along the border

It’s no coincidence that White ends up in Series 5 in New Hampshire, whose American fundamentalist state motto is Live Free Or Die. Nor is it a coincidence that the series is set in New Mexico, on the wild frontier. The frontier is associated with the forging of America and, more particularly, a robust masculine American individualism: Davy Crockett, the Marlboro Man, Al Swearengen from Deadwood.  White was once a pioneer, but at the start of Breaking Bad he has settled into a sleepier life in settled land behind the front line. It is for cowboys like DEA agent Hank to shoot it out with the Indians – or here, their mestizo descendants from Chihuahua and Sonora, characters reminiscent of Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad album (which itself referenced John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie‘s stories of life Out West on the wrong side of the tracks). In Breaking Bad, the American male tries to rediscover that frontier spirit that made him great, only to find that the very attributes needed at the frontier battleground make him a misfit back at home. White’s home life is soon a mess; but it’s not just him. DEA man Hank fares even worse, returning from a botched drugs bust like a traumatised soldier home from Iraq. It has something to say too to that wider army of men: the beaten up, blue collar wage slaves who crash back through the front door after a dispiriting day at the coal face, struggling to adjust. Tony Soprano was another character that got lost in this liminal place between home and “work” (or Badabing). The transition is at the heart of being a bloke today; it’s hard though, and some don’t bother even trying.

"You can call me Al, (you c***)." King of the Wild Frontier and urinator-into-pots extraordinaire
“You can call me Al, (you c***).” King of the Wild Frontier and urinator-into-pots extraordinaire

The tunnel-visioned White echoes the American right’s assertions that there is no such thing as society, just individuals (and, at a stretch, families). We make our own luck; and the flip side is that no one is really unlucky, just careless or lazy. As The Robbie Coltrane Hollywood producer character says in The Comic Strip Presents: Strike!: “One guys wins, the other schmuck loses …”  That is the hard-ass American Way. (Obama’s healthcare reforms, like Breaking Bad, challenge that assumption – which is one reason why the American right has gone so crazy over such seemingly innocuous changes.)

If there was ever an altruistic Walter White, it’s the one pre-diagnosis, at the start of Breaking Bad: the one who was regarded by the sensation-hungry people around him (including, painfully, his son) as a boring mediocrity. Breaking Bad challenges a moral order in which the unspectacular good are so sidelined. It asks, can you achieve your personal ambitions and still be a good person? Or does the quest for success inevitably draw you away from a caring and selfless life? You can, perhaps – but Walter White can’t. And it’s because his is an especially American dilemma: America expects so much of its people. Having the freedom to be anything means that what you are is your fault alone. It’s a heavy burden.

But a big part of what makes Breaking Bad so gripping is the brilliant cast of characters around Bryan Cranston’s Walter White. The more I watched, the more I admired the initially bluff, crass DEA man Hank Schrader: Dean Norris’s performance was surely the most accomplished of anyone on the show, superb as the wise-cracking “man’s man” whose inner fragility and inner toughness are locked in crippling combat. Chicken czar Gus Fring’s chilling calm dominated the screen any time he was on. And I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a hard-bitten hitman quite as much as I enjoyed Mike Ermintraut and his peerless snarl.

After a brush with a young Bryan Cranston, Jerry Seinfeld became hopelessly addicted to dentistry
After a brush with a young Bryan Cranston, Jerry Seinfeld became hopelessly addicted to dentistry

Vince Gilligan said after the final episode that one of his big regrets was that Jesse Pinkman, a multiply-assaulted meth addict played by Aaron Paul, had unrealistically perfect teeth. Bryan Cranston used to play Jerry’s dentist in Seinfeld, so perhaps he applied some of his fictional skills on Aaron Paul’s bake (as we say in Belfast). The Perfectibility of Man Through Expensive Dentistry is, it seems, a truth many Americans hold to be self-evident. But as long as they can make series like Breaking Bad, I’ll forgive them the ivory glare.


Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

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