Breaking (White) Bread With the Devil

MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD. If you haven’t watched up to the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad, read no more. Even if you don’t think you’re ever going to watch it, probably you should stop here just in case. What follows is a Facebook discussion between Daniel Riccuito of The Chiseler about the racial politics of the show. The discussion took place before either of us had caught up with the final episode — so we may get into that in the comments section, which will be even MORE spoiler-heavy.
Now read on — or don’t!
DR: Walter White poisons a child. Fortunately for White America, said child is a nerdy, round Latino. After all, what would this oh-so-ethical viewing public think if Walt ever dosed some blond and blue-eyed little girl? Also lucky for us, his first murder victim is, yet again, brown (and angry… gotta ease viewers into the violence — kill off them “natural” crooks first, yeah). Oh, and I for one am glad that when Walt nukes an old age home, we don’t see any white bodies. Weeds, Sons of Anarchy, Orange is the New Black, Dexter, Breaking Bad –5 shows, one white supremacist premise. Nifty!
DC: WW has killed quite a few white people too…
DR: Sure. Still, the fundamental tension of the show is racist. It’s hardly a coincidence that so many tv series share the same tension — white, law-abiding protagonist vs a world of crime, teeming with the “swarthies.” DC: WW isn’t law-abiding! The show is, like Macbeth, about the slow decay of the moral sense, so yes it does “ease the viewer in” — the first killing is straight self-defense, the second is to protect his family, but the victim is defenseless at the time. I never saw race as part of that, it would certainly have been cynical as hell of the makers to use that, but I don’t believe they did. Gale Beidecker comes before the kid…
DR: I don’t think anyone would care about WW’s “slow decay” if it weren’t presented in racist terms. His most appalling crimes — the ones that violate white, middle-class taboos — are couched in racism. Poisoning a kid is intolerable… Unless! Mass murdering helpless elderly folks is completely beyond the pale… Unless! All we see is a Latino criminal with half his face blown off (a touch of comedy), but where is the endless parade of corpses? Nowhere. Invisible.
DC: Because the explosion was localized to that room. The show would have told us if there was a bunch of collateral damage — they didn’t shy away from the air crash.
DR: No, the carnage beyond that room is mentioned more than once. We just don’t see it. And the air crash is also pretty darn abstract.I like the show very much, btw.
DC: Consider — there’s no structural damage to the building — Fring walks out the doorway, which is intact. Walls were not blown down. So I don’t see how anybody else would have been harmed.
DR: You have a point, David.
DR: I find it hard not to see the drug culture Walt enters as a racially charged measuring stick. Always and everywhere, Walt’s “slow decay” brings him closer to a callousness that we’re supposed to take for granted when it occurs in that “other” world.
DC: It all depends, also, on how they choose to end it — does he get a shot at “redemption”? — which would be rather offensive at this stage — or does he complete his journey into evil?
DR: It’s gorgeously written.In the standard 50s sitcom, a husband and wife would swap jobs for the comedic value of it all. “Oh look, that man is acting like a lady!” The comedy of Breaking Bad has a similar dynamic. “Oh, look at that white man (and his sidekick, PINK MAN) acting all…” fill in the blank.
Hard to ignore the fact that the two main characters bear the names WHITE and PINK MAN!
Also, WW bests his fellow criminals with intelligence. That’s another primary tension. The cerebral white character knocking off the thugs, one by one. Even the brighter gangsters are no match for the supremely brilliant Walter White. It’s the “brainiac” vs the (mostly) dumbass crooks. I don’t think it’s coincidental that in the final season the show concentrates all but exclusively on white people, even white supremacists. It’s a way of buying back the racism of the entire series. Suddenly, the white suburban monsters come out to play! It’s a sly move.
Put it this way: if Walter White were a black man, would the show fly?
DC: It might have trouble if he were black because then they’d worry about racism from another angle — “The apparently civilized middle-class black man proves to be a gangster at heart.”
DR: True enough, but I’m thinking specifically about the “redemption” theme you mentioned. In AMERICAN HISTORY X, the white protagonist brutally murders a young black man by methodically and sadistically crushing his skull. That moment plays on white revenge scenarios. The camera loiters on the thrill of it all. I seriously doubt a white audience would stick around for the ensuing redemption if some black protagonist had just murdered an adolescent white boy in cold blood. When WW strangles a Latino captive tied up in a basement like an animal, self-defense or not, there’s a pointed white supremacy undercurrent to the scene. And so, to my ear. there’s a thumpingly obvious racist aspect to WW’s “complex” downfall. Non-whites are being used as disposable stepping-stones. I don’t think redemption is necessary here — the fact that we keep watching, that we remain interested in WW’s ethical dilemma… That’s everything.
DC: I’d go further and say that to pretend Walt is in any way redeemable would negate the series, and I bet that’s not going to happen. It’s highly questionable if, at the end of the last episode, he’s even thinking of doing good. He’s thinking of mass murder, it’s just a question of who. The audience is very keen to see the neo-Nazis pay, and I’m very keen to see what happens with that storyline — it needs to not deliver the required uplift.I don’t see the killing of Crazy 8 as white supremacist because it’s not triumphal — it’s another step on the path to damnation.
DR: Redemption is probably not in the cards — and I don’t see the ending as crucial with re: to white supremacy themes. Such themes are NEVER dominant but ALWAYS available to the Breaking Bad audience. The subtlety of the racist agenda is part of what I find so hard to bear. Grind-house bigotry is more honest. It’s funny how tasteful and self-effacing racism can be, while masquerading as enlightened or “progressive” cinema. AMERICAN HISTORY X plays that same game. The triumphalism is there for those who want it (virtually everyone in the white American audience), but it can be plausibly excused and downplayed in a million (conscious) ways. That’s exactly what Walt’s crimes against white victims amount to — plausible deniability. A non-triumphal ending only reinforces the “see, we’re not being racist” claim. Again, BB is part of an undeniably HUGE context — shows that exploit the tragi-comedy of hapless white people besting black and Latino criminals at their “own game” as the central plot. WW essentially clobbers the country of Mexico by his lonesome. The unconscious appeal of that is HUGE for a white America in free-fall, trying to fend off Mexican immigration and regain a sense of hegemony. Walter’s (incredibly) white, dull nerdiness is crucial to the power trip. Whereas the comeuppance ending is obligatory and meaningless. The fantasy is geared to unconscious desires, not a conscious moral sense. We’ve reversed the Depression-era formula of the 1930s (happy endings) — now we get “complexity” to feed our Even Greater Depression (which has only just commenced!).
DC: I was never interested seeing AMERICAN HISTORY X because I have so little sympathy for the KIND of character and don’t really see them as redeemable. The road to hell structure of BB is fascinating because it’s all so awful — I’m not sure I can even explain why the show is pleasurable to watch. On certain levels it’s torture. But obviously there’s gratification to be had from seeing the upstanding citizen suddenly cut loose from society’s rules, and his first victory in the pilot is over a loudmouthed yuppie whose car he torches and over some (white) bullies who pick on his son. So we get the seduction of being a bad-ass. But mostly it’s a character making horrible choices, having a horrible time, and making things horrible for those around him, friends AND enemies…
DR: Yeah, agreed. Totally. I just happen to doubt that the show is oblivious to these “darker” forms of viewer satisfaction. I keep thumping the same key, sorry — “White” and “Pinkman/ Pink Man”! It’s a great joke. With nasty nuances…
DC: And a multiform joke, since it brings in Mr White and Mr Pink from RESERVOIR DOGS and Walt Whitman too.
DR: The deaths of the Latino characters are consistently graphic.Hank’s death? Barely visible.Even the white chemist killed by Mr. Pink is conveyed via Jesse’s point of view.
DC: Because Walt’s not there. It’s more unsympathetic for him to make Jesse do it than it would be if he did it himself.As for visibility, it’s not the same thing as significance.
DR: Again, I take your points, but it says something about viewer tolerance. The show assumes that seeing a white person’s face ripped apart is harder to take.
DC: Jesse gets beaten to shit every series!
DR: Not NEARLY the same as Fring!
Not even in the same moral universe!
DC: Well, Fring is the villain. The show has a grand guignol element for sure. Hank’s death isn’t about the fact of his destruction, it’s about Walt losing any illusion of control he had over the events he’s set in motion, and about the lie of protecting his family being destroyed. So splatter seems less appropriate — the scene is more EMOTIONAL than Fring’s. Fring’s needed that element of theater to reach the right level.
DR: But it ALWAYS seems to play out that way. We INVARIABLY need to see Latinos die gruesomely and slowly.Think of Fring’s young protege.It’s a pattern.
DC: Which protegé?
DR: BOTH protegés! DC: Seems to me more of them are fast, just very messy. There is an attempt to make the deaths shocking and unpleasant, but this is of course within the context of an entertainment.
DR: My point exactly. We’re entertained by the gruesome deaths so long as the victims are of the “appropriate” variety.
DC: We’re also entertained by the tragic, less bloody deaths of the sympathetic characters, in a different way. And Gus kills one of his own  protegés with a boxcutter, so where does that take us?
DR: To the same conclusion — Latino blood is cheap.
DC: Then the show could be racist by that argument even if there were no white characters. It doesn’t seem like there’s any way Gilligan can win here.
DR: Think about your unambiguous declaration — Fring is a villain. I agree. The ONLY thing that distinguishes Walt from Fring is race; and yet Walt’s a far more ambiguous character, a “villain”… quotation marks firmly in place. Walt’s “moral ambiguity” is strictly racial.
DC: The thing(s) that distinguishes Walt (1) He’s the chosen protagonist (2) He journeys from being sympathetic to not being sympathetic, but of course takes some of the audience’s identification along for the ride. Fring kills more readily than Walter, but it’s true that by the end of series 4 there’s little to separate them, which is the point. But though morally similar they have different roles in the series, those of protagonist and antagonist. Is that in itself racist?Despite having less screen time than Walt, Fring DOES get moments of sympathy, nurturing Jesse and he is supplied with motivation, the death of his brother which transformed him the way Walt is transformed.
DR: Exactly! Don’t forget that we see Fring’s back-story. And the more we learn about him, the more he becomes Walt’s opposite number — and yet Walt, the protagonist, has a nimbus that Fring, no matter how sympathetic he becomes, will never have. Yes, I do see Walt’s status as the protagonist as stemming from both race and racism. Same goes for Gus, who is fated to be another disposable villain — that, too, plays on the big R.Walt’s crimes remain pretty white.Fring slices throats.Those Latinos!!!
DC: Well then, it’s the inevitable racism of American TV shows preferring white central characters where possible. But I do think that if Walt had been black, the show would have seemed MORE racist, because it deals with the nastiness lurking behind the civilized veneer. Not an inspiring message to apply to a black schoolteacher.
DR: It’s a trap. Think of The Wire. Black faces. White soul. The Corner, its predecessor, is far better.
DC: Still to see The Wire. I don’t really watch much TV.
DR: This is where I go into my schtick about the narrative form itself, which, more often than not, reinforces whatever problems plague the culture that produces it. Narrative… is evil. Walter’s moral dilemma, the one we care so much about, MUST be dramatized with plenty of carnage. The people who die are necessarily less-than types — Gus the Villain absolutely must die; and we know this from the moment he’s introduced. To me, it’s impossible to review the body count, and the character of each death (its relative grisliness and so on) without seeing race and racism, which are necessary to the show’s essential message. Otherwise we couldn’t stand the pain. Because Walt is the protagonist, he needs to go on (and on!) mowing down his competitors. I won’t advise you to watch — urgh — more television… but Weeds has exactly the same plot, and it’s ALL about race (only more brazenly and trashily so).

109 Responses to “Breaking (White) Bread With the Devil”

  1. The fundamental tone of The Walking Dead (another AMC series) is racist too as it’s all about white people killing and guarding themselves against the onslaught of “them.”

    And we all know who “they” are.

    With Barack Obama as POTUS racism has resurged in new and virulent forms all across the culture. What is now known as “Obamacare” began its life as a program created by the “Heritage Foundation” and replicated in his home state by Mitt Romney. But once Obama adopted it became something else. It became all about a black man wanting to invade your white body.

  2. It HAS to be the case that a black president and the prevalence of social media has simply brought to the surface racism that was lurking all along. Admittedly the Republican party has gone batshit insane, but I don’t think this has exacerbated their racism so much as simply damaged their ability to conceal it.

    Having now seen the finale of BB, I thought it was very effective and satisfied the narrative expectations, but Daniel is arguably right to say “narrative is evil” or at any rate that satisfying narrative requirements within the framework of commercial television leads one to evil choices. I thought they were way too generous to Walt, letting him die with a triumph and a little bit of hard-won self-knowledge. But because the show is built as a revenger’s tragedy, he achieves his “redemption” in the bloodiest possible way.

    With the ricin he’s orphaned a child, and the show should have reminded us of that.

    I also didn’t like, retrospectively, the way they killed a sympathetic minor character in the penultimate show just in case we didn’t hate the neo-Nazis enough.

    It was all very neat and effective, I enjoyed it, but it backed away from the more interesting areas dealt with earlier. The sense of messiness that comes from unintended consequences of our actions was missing.

    In terms of White and Pinkman, my take now is that the show is indeed about two middle-class whites messing in the underworld. They make things much more destructive and violent because they don’t fit in and don’t follow the “rules.” Mike, one white character who DOES belong in the world of crime, dislikes Walter at once because he brings chaos into the structured world of gangsterism. Mike is an amoral Hawksian professional, and Walt is a smart guy out of his element pursuing an agenda that’s personal, irrational, and beyond his own apprehension (until the final episode).

  3. The biggest surprise of that episode is Pink Man’s emancipation from slavery. In circling back hard to its origin in Tarantino themes, Breaking Bad confirms that white people own black history. And we can elect to move in and inhabit its pain (as well as its victorious moments) any time we damn well choose. Zoinks!

  4. I didn’t interpret Jesse’s imprisonment as a riff on slavery, so much. It’s true he is literally enslaved, though.

    There’s something weird about the fact that the bad guys are neo-nazis and yet that never plays a role in the plot, it’s just a device to make us hate them more. And it feels like Walt’s guilt in employing them isn’t properly addressed. They gave us that big closeup of the handshake earlier this series, with the swastika tattoo visible, but Walt’s deal with the devil wasn’t addressed as clearly as I’d have liked.

    I’m still mulling over the idea that zombie movies are racist. It has merit — a piece of Caribbean folklore imported and outwardly bleached of ethnic aspect, but used to suggest the danger of the masses. Even Dawn of the Dead equates zombies with passive consumerism, ie with the proletariat. No wonder Romero felt the need to have black heroes.

  5. The bad guys are Nazis because they come out of the prison Aryan Brotherhood world. Their essential agenda is criminal, not political. I think it would have been a real mistake to make anything more out of their regalia than an (accurate, so far as I know) observation about the flavor of criminal likely to be involved in the meth trade.

  6. I see. And I guess the payoff is that Walt is punished for dealing with them because of what happens to Hank. And the show has always walked a fine line ethically because of the kind of character Walt is — his redemption being half-baked and twisted makes some degree of sense. But is it too easy on the audience? I wondered if the satisfaction of Walt’s vengeance, and knowing that his money will get paid to his son, was too generous.

  7. I was floored by the utter abandonment of the usual tricks and disguises — this episode is incredibly satisfying as a comic-book narrative, which is exactly what the show has been from the start. David, there’s something in what you say… a great question. Why identify these bad guys as having a white supremacy agenda? The show presents bupkis of what they’re up to (outside of common criminal activity). I can think of some pretty interesting answers… all linked to themes of white supremacy and white paranoia.

  8. This is an interesting discussion because Hollywood’s racism has become really lazy in recent years – by really I mean disturbingly – yet Breaking Bad really never really bothered me because it’s not about the sociology of the meth trade its just a rock-em-sock-em Shakespearean morality play.

    The more racist films take on two three tracts. 1.) Films that don’t place non-white actors in any interesting or consequential narrative role, as if Hollywood shuffle isn’t a thirty year old film (but if there is an exception, they cast them as the boss or primary mover role so that a) they can claim the production is not racist and b) they don’t have to film many scenes with that character). 2.) Films that overly cover race but in a way that is offensive in the same way the new MLK monument is: shockingly self-congratulatory, historically inaccurate and overly simplistic (42, Blindside, Lincoln, The Help, even Django, etc.) The third and final way is the Medea-type all African American cast films which are just niche market films and really just corporatist-justified mass media segregation. And as to the reason why all these Herzogian “stupid stupidities” are occurring is Walter White’s favorite thing: money.

    My favorite “did nobody ask any questions?” racist film recently is Flight which ostensibly is about a black man who only makes courageous decisions when he’s drunk and in the end ends winds up incarcerated and happy as lark-clam-punch to be there!

    All the nonsense aside, can’t wait to see McQueen’s new film!

  9. Walt is , and always has been, a redemption super hero for white people. He’s even vindicated… as a TEACHER!! The show is highly nuanced trash. We might as well debate the moral ambiguity in Spider Man comics. David, are you sticking to this statement? I’d go further and say that to pretend Walt is in any way redeemable would negate the series…”?

  10. I missed the McQueen in Telluride but my colleague Paul Duane caught a great q&a:
    “We hear of other actors in period movies staying in character all the time. Did you try that?”
    Michael Fassbender: “Well, I had a black director so that wasn’t going to work.”

    I have to stick to what I wrote because I only wrote it two days ago. I’d say the cartoon morality play aspect of the series, the “Mr Chips becomes Scarface” driving concept, is negated by Walt’s last act redemption. The ways in which that is complcated and undercut do help, but don’t go far enough for me (ie the death threat to his former business partners is ostensibly part of his salvation, but CANNOT be morally justified, can it?).

    Flight is from a right-wing filmmaker who has always been rather insensitive on matters of race. The argument for Denzel would presumably have been “There would be no problem with a white actor playing this role, so why can’t I?”

  11. Yeah, after the original ricin season, the one that ends on the flower, I always thought of Walt as being the irredeemable side of the bad coin and that Jesse was the the human/audience side of it. This last season they sought to mitigate where Walt had gone before which was too clean.

    Ending most serials doesn’t work as there’s an inherent contradiction. Miles Davis talks about when he started to do Beatles-like production work that he loved the fade out of his music because it’s like the song just keeps on going in time without you necessarily being there to pay witness. That’s the appeal of the serial, even when the conclusion of a season happens, there’s always a next book. The clear cut hollywood ending of success/fail really has put a curse on the awesome television of the past decade, again because serialization thwarts that traditional comfort. So instead they should set up the most intense high-stakes season ever but then not make that season, hashtag obviously.

    And Roger on Zemeckis. Another all-American director who’s work is terribly frightening when you recognize his latent white supremacy is John Hughes. Like Chicago in the 1980’s his films are hyper-segregated.

  12. Yo, bitch — what am I, a potted plant? I think my comment above gives a good reason that the show didn’t elucidate the “white supremacy agenda” of Uncle Jack and Co. The swastika-sporting motorcycle clubs around here are assumed to be involved in meth distribution. They have a crime-and-money agenda.

    To be honest, DR, I thought virtually all of your points were easily refuted by DC, and many of them were based on inaccurately recalled plot elements blown up by hyperbole. Was WW really shown to have single-handedly “clobbered” Mexico? Actually it was Fring that killed off the Mexican cartel that was threatening both him and WW; WW was, in comparison, an oblivious fool — unaware when he stepped out of the shower that two assassins had been there moments before. And Fring, WW’s major non-white antagonist, is a far more cerebral and rational character than WW, something that Mike recognizes. The one emotional weakness that undoes him is not entirely unlike Walts, and from what we know of his background it’s more well-founded. The reason that BB watchers wanted to know more about Fring was because there was so much suggestion that there was more to know — that is, that he was complexly bad, like Walt. I doubt thoughtful viewers believed that Albuquerque was better off when he died and Walt survived. But Walt was the protagonist.

    And I note that you ignore a white killer who’s not at all redeemed: Lydia. She’s not just white; she’s ultra-white. A parody of a fussy, stevia-drinking yuppy. Of course you might say that all’s different for white females and add misogyny to the charge sheet, but the more caveats, backtracking, and epicyles you need to keep a theory aloft, the more it needs to be reexamined.

    Where I do think you’re on the right track, though, is in your closing remarks about the problems of narrative itself. BB absolutely had to have a real ending, not a Sopranos-style missing puzzle piece, and it had to have some element of rescue (for Jesse) and of resolution if not redemption for Walt. These were real aesthetic needs that the narrative itself created. But it may not have been possible to satisfy those needs without at least infringing on the show’s moral premise.

  13. But DC — Walt’s threat to the Schwartz’s is NOT part of his redemption, especially as there’s no reason to think they’ve wronged him at all. It’s part of his resolution, though. It makes the audience feel better.

    To me the one thing that effectively undercuts a notion of real redemption is the expression on dead Walt’s face in the final shot. Yeah, he dies happy — because he’s with his meth! He’s reclaimed his empire of shit.

  14. Nicely argued.

    The argument that makes the best case for the ending is the one that sees it as a mockery of a happy, redemptive ending, which I can kind of get behind. It works for the Schwartzes, alright.

    Lydia isn’t just white, she’s Scottish, or at least Laura Fraser is. As Billy Connolly said, we aren’t white, we’re pale blue. Like meth.

    This series, dealing as it did with a man who gets a terminal illness, was never the kind of serial that could run forever — that was always one of the exciting things about it.

  15. Pretty telling that BB draws our attention to the white supremacist politics of characters… who never once pursue a white supremacist agenda. (Do they even use racist language?) De-politicizing racism is basic to the entire show. In terms of orphaned children, we have a fairly controlled experiment here. We see a child’s mother murdered, and there’s the accompanying verbal threat to the child himself. This is ostensibly something a white audience can bear, so long as the characters are non-whites; but when Walt casually orphans a little girl, we’re moving at a crazy clip that doesn’t encourage reflection. I’d say that has everything to do with the whiteness of those characters. How could we possibly enjoy ourselves if we stopped to consider that Walt, White America’s favorite hero, just murdered a mom?

  16. Breaking Bad is a White Weepie. We’re supposed to feel bad that the white race has lost power and being obliterated.

    I couldn’t be happier and it can’t come soon enough!

  17. Huh. I guess I really am a potted plant. I live pretty close to the Hell’s Angels clubhouse, though, so I can give them a good scolding about the way they depoliticize their racism. And maybe score some so-so meth.

  18. Yes, I agree with David’s last comment completely.

  19. The “abstraction” of Walt’s crimes is hilarious. He kills off an entire platoon of white supremacist soldiers by flicking a switch. Death by gizmo. There’s the fact that Walt gets what he wants from his former colleagues by terrorizing them with… laser pointers…. wielded by junkies! The single mother he murders practically dies by her own hand (and naturally we do not see her die)… So the only person he kills directly is the white supremacist leader. This is beyond puerile morality; it’s chuckleheaded nonsense.

  20. *I* hear you, Katya!

    Of course any argument about realism in the show is undercut by the fact that it’s always been a gleeful burlesque of reality.

    As far as Lydia’s kid goes, they may not have reminded us of her motherhood, but they set it up in the first place and probably always knew Walt was going to kill her. And they don’t expect us to forget. But I think a reminder of it would have been an elegant twist of the knife and would have complicated the triumph.

    Daniel, by your argument the killing of Jesse’s ex should have been super-graphic and gory, since she’s Hispanic. Instead, it’s distant and understated, in keeping with the show’s commitment to character POV, and consistent with the scheme whereby villains’ deaths are shocking because they’re explicit, and good guys’ deaths are swift, shocking because of how we feel about the characters.

  21. Of course Walt’s effectiveness as a bad-ass was always in the realm of fantasy. But the indirect methods whereby he kills do not absolve him, they just try to use his intellectual gifts to render his implausible skill at mayhem more convincing.

  22. Naw, it’s got to be worse than that.

    (Sorry. I’m having a bad foliage day.)

  23. David, I don’t see the death of Jesse’s ex as “understated “at all. We experience her death via Jesse, whose pain is all we’re asked to care about, as he writhes and tries to scream through the gag in his mouth.

  24. I’m glad you use the word “absolve” — because it’s stronger than “redeem.” The fantastic virtuosity of Walt’s killings is only part of the story. His absolution is layered. He confesses to his wife that he liked killing people (he just say he liked “it”… “was good at it”). And then, after she looks at him beatifically, he kisses his child and gets the first smile Skylar has conferred on Walt in ages.

  25. Oops. David’s last two remarks slipped in while I was snarking.

  26. Then Walt dies a blessed death.

  27. Daniel, the ex execution plays out just like Hank’s death: we focus on the horrified reactions of the characters close to the victim, rather than on the messy act. Which to me blows a hole in your argument that white and non-white characters’ deaths are treated differently on the show. Instead, I post the view that the difference has to do with the level of sympathy the character has. The suicide of Jane’s dad, for instance, is entirely offscreen and all the more bleak for it. A more important character like Hank gets mourned more and his death plays out on Walt.

    Gale is slightly an exception because they’re dramatizing the horror of what Jesse goes through in killing him.

    I think Walt’s confession is that he liked cooking meth, nothing to do with killing people (except via OD).

  28. In other words, Jesse’s ex is another disposable character whose death only matters in so far as it upsets Jesse.

  29. David, Walt was clearly referring to the gestalt enterprise, which included an astonishing body count. Yes, the part about killing people is impossible to ignore (unless one elects to do so). As for my “theory,” I’d say it was an obvious observation, which had NOTHING to do with every single Latino character on the show dying in precisely the same manner. We were talking about overwhelming patterns., starting with Walt’s first victim. Tied up and strangled (white killer/brown victim). I also mentioned that Fring kills his protege is a rather gory way. There are countless examples of brown victims dying in explicitly gruesome detail. Remember the severed head on the turtle (tortoise?)? So I stand by what I said earlier on that front. Hank’s death and the death of Jesse’s ex are in no way comparable, but that’s another discussion.

  30. I get the sense that you’re reluctant to say the show is racist.

  31. “In other words, Jesse’s ex is another disposable character whose death only matters in so far as it upsets Jesse.”

    In other other words, Hank is another disposable character whose death only matters insofar as it upsets Walt. Since David C Was equating the handling of Hank’s death with Andrea’s. As opposed to the deaths of significant characters that we care about, like that guy whose throat gets cut by Fring.

    (I think in the flashback when Fring’s protege — lover? — gets shot, we see Fring’s face. We care about the effect on him.)

  32. Hank is not a disposable character. He’s a major character.

  33. Yes. And I believe David C.’s point was that his death and Andrea’s were staged in similar manners in terms of point-of-view, impact, and explicitness. One character is major, the other relatively minor from the viewers’ perspectives — but they’re both “major” to the characters who are witnessing their deaths. And in both cases what we’re shown at the moment of death is the faces of those witnesses.

  34. Yes, that was David’s point. I’m not sure, however, what it has to do with mine.

  35. Andrea’s killer lingers at the open door, nervously looking inside for her child. So when the designated bad guy (Walt’s star pupil) shoots Andrea in the back of her head, we have a few tense seconds in which to contemplate a soon-to-be-orphaned son (the one Walt poisoned). Despite the fact that Walt’s fingerprints are all over this one, he gets to play the hero and release Jesse, who flies like a Meat Loaf bat out of hell. Andrea’s death (and her impact on Jesse are long gone). Her execution is a plot device. Nothing more. By contrast, think of the way that Hank’s death resounds (it costs Walt his son for one thing). There are a dozen other reasons why I think the comparison between these two deaths is an irrelevant one.

  36. You’re arguing that characters and the staging of their deaths are handled differently depending on their race. He’s pointing out cases where the deaths of characters of different races are handled in much the same way, and proposed a theory which seems to fit the facts better. In the case of Hank and Andrea, the races were different; one character was more important to the viewers than the other; but both characters were sympathetic and in both stagings the focus was on the impact of the death on the witnesses.

  37. Andrea and her kid exist for the same reason as the vast majority of Hispanic characters on Breaking Bad — to measure the white characters’ pain, fall from grace, whatever. The formal similarities between Hank’s death and Andrea’s have to be considered in the larger (yes, racist) context of the show.

  38. I’ve already said that I have no “theory.” I merely observed an overwhelming pattern, and that’s all.

  39. There are approximately six major characters on BB (depending on your definition of “major”). They’re all white. The bad guys are set up so that Walt can knock em down like bowling pins. (Fring lasts longer than most — maybe that’s why his death had to be the most grisly one of all.) Yes, many (many!) of them are Hispanic, and they tend to die in more concrete(?) terms than the white folks do. This is in no way a theory or a law. Just an observation… If you don’t see the fundamental narrative structure as problematic with regard to racial bias, that’s okey dokey. We simply disagree.

  40. That’s it, Katya. I’m merely pointing out that a central part of Daniel’s argument, that the deaths of characters of different races are ALWAYS shown differently, is not in fact true. He was talking about the handling of the death scenes, and is not allowed to slide into making it about the repercussions.

    (I don’t personally think they needed to kill Andrea.)

    The show’s “morality” was always knowingly questionable: the “heroes” are drug dealers. The more one thinks about Walt’s redemption, the less it makes sense. This may be the point.

    Is the show racist? Commercial television is racist. I think Tuco was something of a stereotype. And the series premise causes us to care more about some amoral criminals who are white in preference to some other amoral criminals, some of who are Hispanic. As Daniel says, narrative is evil — and as Kurt Vonnegut pointed out, having some characters in your story who are important and some who aren’t gets you into ethical trouble right away.

  41. I was more struck by how nearly all the major male characters on the show are bald or shaven-headed. Walt, Hank, Mike, Jesse, Gus… They should have called it Breaking Bald.

  42. Well, if you admit that Andrea’s death was gratuitous (unlike Hank’s), then I’ll settle for that. I do wish we could move beyond the notion that BB is racist because, well, racism is just “inevitable” on television.

  43. If we begin and end with the “inevitability” of racist content, then “narrative is evil” becomes a kid of excuse, as opposed to an indictment. It’s become increasingly kosher to use words against meaning — which is what Breaking Bad banks on. It’s that latter element I worry about, a general willingness to sidestep the most aggressive patterns, which aren’t exclusively the fault of narrative.

  44. Well there’s three-way agreement about one thing: I also didn’t think they needed to kill Andrea.

    Daniel’s comment on six major characters, all white, touched off a few tangents in my mind, one being how to define “major character.” To my mind Fring was a major character and Marie wasn’t, since without Marie the series’ basic shape and meanings would have been the same, while without Fring they wouldn’t have been. But take two characters that we can agree were major, Skyler and Hank — would it have made any difference if Hispanic actors had been cast in those roles, with whatever adjustments in backstory and details? (Hank would be able to speak a LITTLE Spanish.) That would have been a positive sign about TV casting practices, but I think it would have made very little difference in the actual show. Ditto if Fring had been an Anglo character. (Was he originally intended to be? “Gus Fring” is presumed to be an alias, but why would a South American chose a name like that?)

    In every case but Walt’s (DC gave a good argument as to why he had to be white) the racial “polarity” could easily have been switched without changing the series in any fundamental way. That, to me, suggests that it’s not underlyingly premised on an Anglo/Hispanic dichotomy. By the last episode, the bad guys are all white, not Hispanic. Walt kills a bunch of them in an implausible way. In an earlier episode, Gus killed a bunch of Mexican bad guys in an implausible way. (He racks up a far higher Hispanic body count than Walt does.) Neither group of bad guys/victims was entirely dehumanized, as I saw it. But the viewer wanted both Walt and Gus to succeed.

    The one caveat is Jesse. An Hispanic Jesse would have “read” differently, even if he was still a yo-bitchin’ ghetto wannabe. I think whatever element of racial coding can be credibly discerned in the show comes down to his character: this white kid is plucked from an otherwise Hispanic crew (Crazy-8 and that other guy), and he’s the character who becomes Walt’s protege, victim, and conscience. Whereas casting an Hispanic actor in that role would have been completely appropriate to the NM setting and to the student/teacher backstory.

    The problem with entirely chalking this one up on the “TV is racist” tab, though, is that Jesse was originally supposed to be killed off in the first season. At the time Aaron Paul was cast, Gilligan et al., were thinking “likable future-murder-victim-for-Walt-to-avenge,” not about a long-running co-starring role.

    Anyway. The DR/DC dialogue kicked off a long-running Shadowplay thread, which is more fun than convincing or being convinced.

  45. I’m co-writing an article on BB with the great Jennifer Matsui. Here’s the opening…

    I’m hard pressed to think of a more recurring theme in popular culture than the notion of a man going to great, and most often illegal and/or immoral (and always violent) lengths to ‘save’ his family. Occasionally the purveyors of this kind of masculine quest fantasy will throw the “hero” mantle on a “mom” or Denzel Washington, but overwhelmingly it’s a white Dad who plays the caped patriarchal enforcer of heternormative suburban values. “Mom”, you see, if she’s not just a baby-providing dingleberry, is an ingrate, ball stomping killjoy, and thus ill-equipped intellectually, emotionally, and physically to deal with the ever-present threat of violence lurking in the hedges. That’s not to say the American family isn’t under attack. But the threat is likelier to be inside the home, if not the actual mortar and asbestos structure sitting atop a giant sink hole with a ‘foreclosure’ notice on it. But assuming the house is still standing on solid marshland, the householder who can’t remember to put the toilet seat down is statistically more likely to forget to lock the gun cabinet. More often than not, it’s ‘dad’ who needs saving from himself. I’m still even more hard-pressed to think of any actual incidences in ‘real’ life where “Dad” provided his savior services to the family. Seems to me, at least, people need saving from exploitive and predatory institutions, both private and government. And they can achieve this collectively, taking uphill, long-haul path towards building a more just and sustainable society, rather than through vicarious escape fantasies predicated on the notion of individual heroism. “But what about the Dads?” all you dudes out there will moan in unison. “Will you consign them to the same rubbish incinerator where you burn all those bras and unwanted babies during full moons and PMS cycles”? Having consulted with the all-powerful feminist lobby (we meet every Friday the 13th during Happy Hour – it’s the only time we can get away from the demands of hoarding cats), this is what they said: “You don’t have to be a hero, just try not to be a flaming cock”.

  46. 1) The bad guys in season 5 are the Aryan Brotherhood so we can hate them more readily, to balance the previous racial tendencies on the show, and because Walt needed a team with prison gang connections. The decision not to show anything of the gang’s racial attitudes apart from the odd tattoo is something I can only wonder at. I appreciate that the AB are not out burning churches of a weekend, but I would imagine their prejudices would be aired even in casual conversation. But if the show is trying to make up for its inherent racism, building up their loathsomeness in this area would have served its purposes, wouldn’t it?

    2) Seems like Jesse has very little chance of escaping the law at the end. I wondered why the show left it like that — Walt could presumably have arranged for Robert Forster to be waiting for him. Possibly they felt that despite our affection for Jesse, he needs to go to jail for what he’s done (but doesn’t deserve to die). Which points to more of a social conscience behind the show than we often assume.

    3) A Mexican Skyler or Hank would have mixed up the racial divisions in a good way, even if the overall dynamic remained the same. I do think the show actually deserves credit for not being afraid to have minorities in a wide range of roles — there are all kinds of sympathetic stereotypes that are just as racist (and less fun for actors to play).

    4) It can be argued that the driving force of the whole series is not Walt vs drug barons at all, but Hank vs Heisenberg, a tension which which has been in play consistently from the first episode. When Hank is removed from the equation, the Aryan Brotherhood are the only foe left, and in fact Walt is destroying his own organisation now — he’s turned against himself.

  47. Very interested in the article — surely if Walter is anything he is a flaming cock and the show wants us to know it. The hate mail sent to Anna Gunn for playing Skyler does prove that much of the show’s audience isn’t smart enough to understand anything about what they’re watching, and should probably be protected from fiction altogether, but for many of us it’s clear that Walt’s paternal/criminal enterprise is a disaster from the start (and unnecessary if he’d swallowed his pride and accepted help from rich friends).

  48. When in doubt, kill the Mexicans.

  49. Endless parsing of race after the fact is a facet of the grift and gazibe intended by BB (it’s part of the consumer experience). There’s something ineluctable about the canned national debate we’re participating in right now — I’m flailing for a way out of that, but it may be best to simply let the veil of silence fall on this racist bauble. My “ALWAYS” re: gore was colloquial, as in “Oh you ALWAYS do that!” In the article, I may (oh dear) have to compile a body count. My guess is that viewers who’ve seen the five or six shows I mentioned earlier will be compelled to admit the obvious pattern. Notice how these shows always have minority sidekicks. As if minorities have always failed at drug dealing and criminal stuff and just need a white guy to show ’em how it’s done. Shows like BB, The Wire and Dexter have a high body count of brown and black people to make the violence more palatable.

  50. What a fascinating discussion. I am torn – I’m more in sympathy with DC, but can’t disagree with DR’s position in its fundamentals.

    Gus Fring’s death – which was effects-driven, by the way, as the guys who do The Walking Dead share an employer with Breaking Bad and offered to do something spectacular for a season finale – seems to me to have been an utter low-point in the show overall. To create a character as rounded, sympathetic, appalling, and wonderful as Gus Fring and then offer him a death scene fit for a Terminator movie was a huge lapse of taste. Compared to Mike’s quiet and rather beautiful end, which was straight out of Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, it seems even more grotesque.

    I hadn’t thought about a racial reading of the series, and it troubles me to do so, but yes, it’s hard to disagree with DR that the deaths of brown characters are used primarily to reflect on the feelings of white characters.

    And for all the show’s vaunted tying-up of loose ends, Huell is still in that safe-house for all we know. Maybe Ted Beneke came to get him.

  51. I think the bias towards white characters POV is an inevitable effect of who the main characters are. And anything which messed with that more would have been good.

    I LOVED Gus Fring’s death, purely on a visceral level, the “My God, he’s unharmed! — Oh, wait…” effect got me just the way it was supposed to. But I take the point — since we’ve seen his flashbacks and shared his viewpoint and been impressed with him, an ending for the character that used all of that more could have been stronger and more appropriate. But as I say, the grand guignol aspect of the show has always been there.

    The idea that Walt is better at drug dealing than the cartel is an odd one — sort of true, in that he has a very good run, but ultimately he creates chaos and instability and is destroyed. I take Mike Ehrmantraut’s hostility to Walt to be based on his awareness that Walt is a loose cannon, not professional, not reliable.

  52. Yes, exactly. Mike doesn’t know Walt’s backstory, but he recognizes that he’s goaded by emotional spurs that make him fundamentally unreliable. And his own absurd death proves him right. Walt kills him for really no reason at all; he’s got a gun and he flies off the handle. One of the best scenes in the series is Mike sitting by the river with Walt next to him, about to do what — apologize? Sorry I killed ya.

    “The decision not to show anything of the gang’s racial attitudes apart from the odd tattoo is something I can only wonder at. I appreciate that the AB are not out burning churches of a weekend, but I would imagine their prejudices would be aired even in casual conversation.”

    In casual conversations with who — Walt? Each other? What would a few jammed-in casual conversations tell us that the tattoos don’t?

    I know I’m harping on it, but this particular complaint is offbase. Just today the “General” of the very scary Texas Aryan Brotherhood was sentenced (back) to prison for what will be the remainder of his life. Articles note that the Brotherhood makes its money by selling meth, and that it may be responsible for hundreds of murders, in and out of prison. It’s racist, but there’s nothing about a racial agenda driving its activities. The AB frequently murders its own, in order to maintain secrecy and discipline. Typical of crime families, it’s about maintaining cash flow and organizational soundness. Outside of prison, at least, Its victims are overwhelmingly white, even overwhelmingly white supremacist. So regarding Daniel’s complaint that Uncle Jack’s gang was “depoliticized”: what would an appropriately “politicized” Breaking Bad have done with them? Shown them doing things that the AB actually doesn’t do, inserting falsity in order to comport with pre-fab politicized “truth?” The AB was formed in prisons and recruits among people who are already convicted, just like its African-American and Hispanic counterparts. It’s extraordinarily vicious and racist, and there’s nothing to stop it from branching into specifically racially-based violence — that is, forsaking lethal business for lethal politics. But the group Walt deals with is doing what the AB is about now. Its racial component is prison-made garb over pre-existing criminality.

  53. A friend who has had, quite unwillingly, brief contact with AB members reports that the show does certainly distort things because you cannot hear those guys talk for a minute at a time without some racial slur being aired. Now, the series distorts many things for the sake of drama, and I think that’s fine. As I say, I just wonder why they excluded this. As you say, it wouldn’t have told us anything the tattoos didn’t, and maybe that’s enough reason.

    If they HAD made more of it, I would probably have suspected the show more of what Daniel thinks it’s trying to do: balance out the largely non-white body count with some obvious racist villains. As it is, they have the villains but soft-pedal their racism…

  54. Well thinking again, I do see a point to including racist dialogue, one which is I think separate from the notion of politicization/depoliticization. A swastika tattoo is such a powerful capsulated jolt of utlimate evil that I’ve seen carping going the other way: that the close-up of the tattoo over-egged the “deal with the devil” message. But precisely because it is such a heavily-laden symbol, it’s something viewers can categorize and shelve away, without encountering the shock that ugly dialogue delivers. The tattoos just conveyed the idea of the kinds of people Walt had sunk to dealing with.

  55. See, I’m thinking that the mixed message re: the white supremacists isn’t a failure of art. I also highly doubt that it betrays some move toward concision (as in: Oh, the-swastika-is-enough). I’m pretty sure that, well, cognitive dissonance is the point. If the white supremacists use racist language or in any way trigger race as a theme, the whole show gets called into question… specifically its agenda via Hispanics. Then there’s Walt’s unfortunate skin-headedness.

  56. I say “via” Hispanics because the primary reason for the presence of Hispanic characters is racist — they’re props.

  57. That’s what I meant earlier when I claimed white supremacy is “de-politicized.” If the show ever consciously engaged race, the entire unconscious motivation of the BB would stand naked before us. Not a good look.

  58. Swastikas have always been more than enough for me.

    Going along with the convenience that a television show has a collective conscious/unconscious: did its unconscious motivation kick in before or after its setting was moved from Riverside to NM because of tax breaks? For that matter, it could very plausibly have been set in Aaron Paul’s home state, the Valhalla-under-construction known as Idaho. What I mean is, the primary reason for the presence of Hispanic characters is Albuquerque, and Albuquerque was an accident. It’s true, though (to reiterate DC’s point), that most of the Hispanic characters (not Fring) are “props” in that none of them is Walt or Jesse.

    “Then there’s Walt’s unfortunate skin-headedness.”

    What about it? That a shaven head is a dangerous look with sinister implications is practically spelled out in the show; it’s certainly what the creators knew viewers would take from it.

    Basically, the narrative you’re presenting is: BB had an “agenda via Hispanics,” albeit perhaps one that developed unconsciously. To cover that up, or pacify protests, it introduced white supremacist bad guys — as it happens, the exact type of white supremacist bad guys who are actually known to traffic meth. But if those bad guys had been given racist dialogue, instead of just racist insignia to display, “the whole show would have been called into question,” and the “unconscious motivation of BB” would be exposed.

    And — no. If Jack’s gang had had racist dialogue, or even if the crew’s racism had been turned (implausibly) into a significant plot element, the whole show would not have been called into question. Why would it have been? It’s not as if all the Hispanic characters were negative, and it’s certainly not as if all the white characters were positive. Issues like Hispanic characters — characters that we like and sympathize with — being ultimately “props” in white protagonists’ stories are far too subtle to be “exposed” by an Aryan Brotherhood rant!

    re: the Grand Guignol aspects DC mentioned — Vince Gilligan does come out of the X-Files, and unlike David Simon, he has the heart of an entertainer. (I’m thinking David Simon has the heart of a cranky right-libertarian polemicist, but maybe I’ve been over-influenced by some dopey things he’s said lately.)

  59. I guess in the same way that Tootsie posits a female impersonator who becomes a breakout character on daytime TV because, I guess, Dustin Hoffman is a better woman than Jessica Lange could ever be, we can say that Walter White defeats Tuco and Gus et al because he’s smarter white man, and show is thusly racist.

    But I do think Gilligan and his collaborators were aware of that pitfall and leap it by (a) making Walt in so many ways a disaster in the drug trade, apart from his chemistry (and I liked how Jesse destroyed the whole concept of the show by yelling “We make poison for people who don’t care!”) and (b) making Walt’s cunning manifest itself in horribly ruthless ways — I don’t believe Gus would have poisoned a child.

    I have another interpretation of the show that also accounts for the names White and Pinkman — it’s about American interventionism. Walt gets involved in another country/world/life for reasons he’s dishonest about, even to himself, and reaps horrendous consequences, creating chaos in an already turbulent field. Every attempt he makes to impose order causes more destruction. That’s the reason, of course, that Heisenberg, author of the uncertainty principle, is such an apt pseudonym.

  60. David: your “horrendous consequences” argument would make sense IF the last episode had never aired. Just prior to the finale, you said that the entire show would be nullified by a redemptive ending. At the time of our initial Fb thread, I didn’t attach much importance to the ending, partly because I figured the show would cover its tracks as per usual. but… Walt is redeemed… through acts of revenge! All bets are off, no?

  61. Katya: you and I apparently read the show in fundamentally different ways. Not sure what else to say without getting involved in a mechanism vs mechanism argument.

  62. Another thing that BB and Dexter have in common is their assiduous denial of race, a denial that gets damn funny. It’s not just the politically correct Nazis who mind their Ps and Qs . Very few of the characters seem to experience (quite normal) racial/cultural tension . Have they had all traces of racism, even the covert variety that we all carry around, surgically removed? The answer is yes.

  63. Maybe there’s some banter between Hank and his (obligatory) Hispanic sidekick? Not sure. It seems to me that a white cop, especially a crass loud-mouth like Hank, would be spewing racism left and right, especially given that busting brown people is practically his whole job. I can accept the color-blind White Supremacists more easily than an egalitarian copper. I don’t think this skittishness is innocent, no.

  64. Think Hank might have called Gomez a “beanie” way back in the early days…

  65. Hmm? Bully-boy Hank is constantly ragging Gomez with Frito Bandito comments in the early episodes. His being a white guy who doesn’t speak Spanish, works in a DEA office where a lot of others do, and covers his racial uneasiness with macho aggressive jokiness, is a vivid aspect of his character. Post-shooting Hank not so much, but he’s meant to be somewhat changed after that. As before, you’re letting rhetorical tangents overrun the actual facts of plot and characterization,. You start off with a good prima facie case to make, but you’re keeping your arguments aloft with a lot of … non-fact.

    (And allowing that we undoubtedly have fundamentally different views here, I don’t think there’s anything in my last response that hangs on a particular interpretation or even opinion of BB.)

  66. I mentioned Hank’s early days, so I’m not losing sight of the exceptions. Let’s focus on the *rule* for a moment — again, one of the overwhelming patterns that defenders of the show tend to deny, downplay or ignore. Race gets pretty well buried on BB.

  67. The Hispanic characters would make far more racially incendiary comments than they do. Culture clashes constitute much of the narrative, after all. Why doesn’t it become… conscious?

  68. As I said, Hank’s “racism” is not only in the past — it’s friendly banter. He seems pretty pure otherwise, given that his character is a cop. In isolation, his relative color-blindness wouldn’t be a particularly big deal, but he’s hardly alone.

  69. I’m also interested in the iconography of Walt’s hat.

  70. Exceptions/rule is putting it unfairly — the rule of Hank’s character pre-shooting is that he was crass and racially insensitive. It was one of the main things we knew about him.

    Walt’s hat is clearly gangsta. That’s conscious and deliberate. I don’t think we can accuse the show of covering up race purely because of dialogue — when a show features neo-Nazis, a jovially racist cop, the Mexican drug cartel, and white characters playing gangsta, you could argue that discussion of race would be redundant. I think that may be why the AB don’t get to air their views. The subject of a show can be apparent without being in the dialogue, you know?

    The more I think about Walt’s “redemption”, the more I find it undercut — if the show expects us to think at all, which it always has in the past, then —
    1) Walt has made the world worse with all his actions throughout
    2) He chooses an unnecessarily violent solution
    3) Jesse isn’t going anywhere
    4) Walt dies happy in the company of his meth lab

    It’s merciful to Walt because the series creator loves him too much, and an airheaded viewer will see it as “happy”, but I think we are meant to unpick it. It’s layered enough that I certainly don’t HAVE to see it as redemptive or Walt as absolved. So I think I have more than enough wriggle-room (though I would have preferred harsher).

  71. Hank — a racially insensitive cop? David, If I’m wrong to call Walt “law-abiding,” since that’s how he behaved when we first met the character, then you are certainly stretching definitions here. I agree, and I’ve said many times, that the show allows us (hell, it BEGS us) to endlessly “unpick.” To be clear: I’m calling that almost unavoidable option yet another layer of white privilege; it’s built into the show. We’ll grasp at straws to avoid staring at what’s right in front of us. Anyhow, it’s been fun — thanks for putting up your dukes !!!!

  72. Sorry for the mixed metaphors!!!!

  73. Alright, I lied. Just a few more points to make about the relationship between Breaking Bad and its sources, one of which is clearly genre fiction of the 1970s — movies like FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE, in which white people terrorize a black family.

    No viewer with an ounce of conscience can watch this film without feeling assaulted by its racism. Unfortunately, the disingenuous nature of BB is such that it enacts the very same racist themes as grind-house narratives, while playing to contemporary middle-class norms. After all, culture clashes are a major part of the comedy…. Walt’s free-fall has us laughing alright. The humor “works” because we recognize the racially incendiary truth in the humor. There’s a hierarchy here, taken profoundly for granted. A guy plummets from middle-class whiteness… DOWN!… to the world of Tuco Salamanca.

    However, BB has decided it’s a tasteful bit of genre fiction, and so it plays by the rules of color-blind decorum (which won’t stand for a Nazi who might possibly — heaven forefend! — use “gutter talk”). The disgusting truth of the middle-brow model is that its “color-blindness” is a smokescreen for in-the-bone-racism. Just excise the use of problematic language and nobody will notice that the whole narrative structure of the show — whites on top, browns on the bottom — is brazenly bigoted.

    I’m with DE on this. BB is indeed the “white weepy” version of grind-house a programmer all dressed up as high art.

  74. I lied again… Thing is: I’m as intrigued by 70s exploitation movies as anyone else, because naked racism is honest. On the other hand, shows like BB play to the same impulses as 42 Street theaters circa 1978, but claim otherwise. Worse, they normalize racist hierarchies and therefor do profound damage. Liberal notions of color-blindness tend to ignore and thereby deepen and broaden the truly hideous forms of institutionalized racism (which endure with a black president in the White House). My gripe against Tarantino, a BB touchstone, is that he took sub-genres and destroyed their meaning by putting his corporate logo on what amounted to cheap little backwater thrills. He made them respectable. Breaking Bad makes racism respectable.

  75. I have been waiting expectantly for someone to bring this topic up. America has always had this love affair with white criminality, and Hollywood has discovered that it sells, whether you glamorize it (Bonny and Clyde), or play it relatively straight (Goodfellas). As of yet no Hollywood screenwriter has written a truly complex Black character, and even if they did I don’t believe the American viewing audience would accept it.

    We often blame Hollywood for it’s lack of interest in stories revolving around p.o.c. but I think you have to take into account that Hollywood may have accurately read it’s target audience. It’s all about perception, and the truth is mainstream America is not generally interested in stories concerning p.o.c. in any capacity (unless it’s obvious buffoonery). I mean do we really believe that independent film darling like Juno, or Little Miss Sunshine would even be a mention if the same stories had centered on black people? And those films are about common decent people.

    Now we have Tony Soprano, Dexter, and Walter White, and all these shows are earning the highest praises from critics and the mainstream audiences. Sad to admit one of the reasons we don’t see more diversity in the roles and stories that black people tend to tell when they do get into the creative end of media is that like it or not we are hampered in the stories that we are allowed to tell if we want those stories to be watch by anything other than a very small niche market.

  76. I think that’s true, but it’s equally true that self-censorship is the most damaging kind. Filmmakers of all colours should aim to make the most complex and interesting stories and characters they can imagine, because dumbing it down to get it made is self-defeating. The best films about p.oc. are likely to be made by p.o.c. Now that movies can be made very cheaply, a genuinely unusual movie from a rarely-heard POV has at least the potential to get made, and could reach an audience just by offering something fresh — as long as it’s genuinely good.

    I don’t believe that an authentic voice would go entirely unheard just because it was saying uncomfortable things or using an unfamiliar manner.

    It’s not easy — it never is. But compromising isn’t the way to get it done. BB is about a middle-aged teacher with cancer who deals drugs — it’s not an easy sell on the face of it.

  77. “BB is about a middle-aged teacher with cancer who deals drugs — it’s not an easy sell on the face of it.” You may have put your finger on something very concrete, David. The *ostensible* sell is tough, and not only in the case of Breaking Bad. The message we’re getting from mainstream media (btw, Nelson may well be right that the media has our number) is that racism sells. So wrap some “serious drama” in a larger plot that just happens to include messages of whit superiority and PRESTO! You got a hit.

  78. Or, look at it from this angle: BB, Dexter and Weeds all feature serial-killer protagonists… serial-killer PARENT protagonists. The defense of hearth and home is primary. So, too, are the victims — in all three shows, the victims are mainly non-whites. What are the chances that these shows just happen to share these “themes”? If we choose to dignify the word — conniving stratagems is more like it.

  79. Walt’s defense of his family isn’t really a big theme in the show — they are under threat occasionally, and he tells himself he is cooking meth for their sake, but this is not true.

    Haven’t see the other shows so can’t comment.

  80. Well, I guess it’s fairer to say that these are two primary identities and leave it at that — PARENT and MASS MURDERER. Though Walt’s family does come under threat quite a number of times.

  81. The role of parent seems to be a kind of counterweight to the killing (even if speciously– and only in the parent’s serial-killing mind) . The threat to the family is sometimes real, sometimes perceived (Skylar’s almost constant state of fear may as well be based on legitimate threats, since she’s so utterly traumatized). But I think that this role of protector is supposed to rub off onto the viewer’s consciousness, even as the self-delusion of the protagonist is made plane. Dunno. Anyhow, WEEDS, BB, DEXTER and SONS OF ANARCHY all play on these perverse pivots from Crate & Barrel family life to exotic adventures in the drug trade.

  82. The dream idea — one which would be irksome if it were too obvious — is attractive precisely because the show never tips its hand in this direction. But it’s undercut by the fact that Jesse has his own dream sequence within it, and he dreams about something Walt doesn’t know about. So I guess this wasn’t the intention — a shame, as I think it would have worked.

    There IS clearly an intention to make Walt seem ghostly, but I guess that’s just because he’s dying. I dunno.

  83. Agreed. I don’t think she’s claiming the dream as anything but her own idiosyncratic interpretation — though the article does provide a compelling case. She’s basically slamming the last episode, without taking a polemical or confrontational stance, a finely turned riff that ALMOST has me liking the finale.

  84. Yes — it’s a very nice reading/critique.

  85. I just realized something: virtually EVERYONE wants Jesse dead in the last season, and the side-effect of this — the white-washing of Water White — is kinda’ fascinating. When Skylar, of all people, tries to put a hit on Jesse, we see Walt’s appalled expression, and the same thing happens both times Saul raises the idea. When Hank makes possibly the most callous remark of his life about the precariousness of Jesse’s life in the sting operation, once again it reflects on Walt , though indirectly– suddenly Walt is just one evil guy among, well, many (many!) others. We hadn’t been encouraged to think of Skylar, Hank and Saul as murderers before.

  86. The white people start to think and behave like Fring, Tuco, etc. — another case of Latinos being used as an ethical yardstick to measure the decline of white morality.

  87. Skylar is willing to kill to protect her family, as would many normal people be. She wouldn’t have chosen to create such a situation the way Walt did, however. Walt also wants Jesse dead, later.

    I didn’t hate Hank for his callous remark — I saw it as a nasty moment but an understandable one given what he’s going through.

    Neither of these things caused me to equate the characters with Fring or Tuco. Of course Walt’s moral decline does send him on a trajectory intersecting Fring and Tuco, because they’re all criminals. Hank’s character remains the kind of bad-ass who would break the law to “uphold” it — he’s more of a criminal than his partner Steve Gomez. I don’t see how that fits your scheme.

  88. Good points, but I’m looking closely at the show’s sense of timing here — Skylar’s line about killing a man (“what’s one more?”) would have been unthinkable a short time ago. Hank’s remark is by far the darkest he’s ever uttered, at least in my memory. Ditto Saul’s twice suggested zotzing of Jesse. All three characters have hit bottom in the last season, AFTER the Hispanic villains have all gone — as if the total ethical collapse of the white characters (which, btw, includes Skylar’s sister) has rushed in to fill the void left by Tuco and Company. I mean, for the VAST bulk of BB’s history, most of the truly villainous characters were “others”. Now suddenly white supremacists have take center stage as the ostensible villains, just as the white suburban characters on the show start thinking in terms of murder. Skylar’s request that Walt kill Jesse goes well beyond her stated agenda of protecting hearth and home…

  89. Well, one long-standing conceit has been that Walt corrupts everybody around him. Saul and Skylar can’t understand why he WOULDN’T kill Jesse since as far as they can see he’s capable of any horror.

    None of these characters are being positioned as replacements to Tuco: of them all, only Hank is Walt’s opponent, and despite his long-established antipathy to Jesse, we LIKE Hank.

    The Aryan Bs ARE replacements for the Hispanic bad guys, and on that score you may have a point: a conscious backing away from ethnic baddies. Also a quest to find villains who are somehow worse than Walt and worse than anyone we’ve seen before. Because it’s for the climax.

  90. If we’re speaking of direct replacements, then, yes, white supremacists do in fact replace standard Hispanic villains. Skylar and Hank are in no way “replacing” these villains, but certainly BB’s final season has both characters morphing into monsters — that is, Skylar, Hank, Marie and Saul are occupying a new (for them) hard-as-nails ethical ground made familiar by Tuco and Friends. So once again the Latino baddies are being used as creepy precedents for white slippage. It’s not simply a case of Walt bringing down everyone around him, because he’s bringing them down quite literally here — these characters are FLATTENED in the last season. Hank, who* used to be* likeable and interesting as a human being, starts acting like the stereotype of a maniacal cop. His wife thumps the same piano key (“I’m angry… “I’m angry”…) about three thousand times. Skylar is suddenly a parody of the mob wife, doling out hits from her bed! Remember the assassin twins slithering on their bellies in the desert? The same thing is happening to the white people. Even Saul finds a lower place than usual.

  91. Not to push the image too far, but… Walt, Jesse and Hank all lie down on the desert floor in the penultimate episode. Hank and Jesse actually crawl. Made me think of the snake twins. A helluva stretch, I know.

  92. “I was more struck by how nearly all the major male characters on the show are bald or shaven-headed. Walt, Hank, Mike, Jesse, Gus… They should have called it Breaking Bald.”

    You clearly don’t hang out in West Hollywood very often.
    And I have through the years grown extremely fond of my husband’s shaved head. Lovely to see it reflected in popular culture.

    Perhaps off-topic, but then again maybe not so much; It was often remarked (at least among my male friends) that in the 1990s the relatively sudden sporting of shaved heads by gay men was an expression of community, an identification with and expression of support for, those of us who were losing our hair as a consequence of HIV/AIDS and its medical treatments.

    Which is a way of getting around to my ongoing bafflement that so few threads, even on blogs like yours, ever seem to generate such lengthy, impassioned, reasoned and eloquent responses as this thread boasts, when the subject is the wretched near-invisibility and homophobic representation of gay men and women in movies and on television. Indeed, I’m not sure I’ve seen the point made or the subject addressed?

    I don’t recall any LGBT people, for example, in Walt and Jesse’s world. Or in Stephen King’s canon, or in Big Bang Theory, or in Homeland, or Boardwalk Empire, or Elementary, or any of the following horror movies among the many I saw this year – Evil Dead, The Conjuring, Mama, The Purge, You’re Next – or for that matter, in The Walking Dead (but I may be wrong on that, I gave up on TWD after a couple of seasons for that very reason – I no longer can muster much interest in dull heterosexuals surviving apocalypse… )

  93. “Indeed, I’m not sure I’ve seen the point made or the subject addressed?”
    I should clarify that by making that comment I’m being quite impertinent – I mean made by *you*. On Shadow Play. Cheeky bugger that I am.

  94. I thought Gale the chemist was probably gay, and a gay nerd which is a distinct character type not often depicted. But one gay person in that cast of characters is not enough. But on the other hand, it’s more than many shows attempt. But still not enough.

    As Glenn Kenny put it, the straight bias in most media is so all-pervasive that it would get boring to keep saying “Have you ever noticed how heteronormative EVERYTHING is?” But it’s nevertheless a fair point and needs to be said.

  95. And ain’t Gale the FIRST person Jesse shoots in cold blood? Can’t think of anyone gunned down who wasn’t an immediate threat, prior to the ambiguously gay Gale that is. Strategically, sure, Jesse killed him to save Walt — interesting.

  96. The distinction I’d draw between this show and much heavier examples of racist pop culture from the past? Minstrelsy, vaudeville — everyone involved knew what they were about. They may have felt zero guilt, but they weren’t oblivious to the agenda, BB and contemporary shows like it operate under the cloak of “post-racial” America and the kind of irony that allows the same old privileged types to say and do whatever they want. No guilt, no awareness.

  97. No *genuine* awareness…

  98. Could not resist checking back here to see if this thread was still going on — and I’ll take the change of subject to put in one more word, and that word is — buh? There was a major gay character in Breaking Bad: Gus Fring. It’s not spelled out that his pollo hermano, the “dear friend” whose murder is his major known motivation, was his lover, but that was the implication. Hector engages in a bit of gay-baiting in the flashback scene where we see the murder. The ascetic present-tense Gus is fastidious in dress and manner, a good cook, sans wife or girlfriend: hits all the marks.

  99. Well then, we can add “heteronormative” (even “homophobic”) to “racist” and “sexist” — the list is long.

  100. Skylar is the long-suffering wife (and, worse, her sister’s a pain-in-the-ass wife). Jesse’s girffriends die in order to advance the plot. Latinos, gay and straight, die to advance the plot. And, yeah, Huell is a buffoon waiting for Eternity to come.

  101. …and Jesse is an idiot, Walt is an amoral near-psychopath, Hank is variations on an asshole (but we love him). I’d say that whatever stereotyping is there is mediated by an awareness, not that they can do whatever they want, but that they have to keep it very much in check. Thus, all the “yes, but” moments in your discourse.

    It’s interesting that Gus and Gale are “coded” gay, in a way that doesn’t have any other equivalent in the show. We “know” Walt and Jesse are straight, but inference is required for G & G.

  102. No, the “mediation” is exactly what I’ve described — permission. I’m not speaking of fictional characters. I’m talking about the shows owners. They do what they want with our tacit approval because they’ve thrown in sufficient “complexity” to mask the (still rather obvious) agenda. “Coding,” with regard to homosexuality, is plain old, boring homophobia.

  103. There’s simply no way to equate these “stereotypes” you mention with the real ones. After all, Jesse is in no way a stereotype — he helps plan one of the most ingenious heists in history, becomes a better meth cook than his world-class mentor… and his “idiocy” plays into my earlier comments about the relative evils of narrative. Same goes for WW. The fact that these protagonists are just that… the important people… means that their race, sexual orientation and gender become important too. Even if Jesse’s an idiot and Walt’s a nutter, they’re still people we’re meant to care about in deeply nuanced ways. By the same token, stereotyping ancillary characters is heavier… by design.

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