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).