Breaking Bad and the Downfall of the White ‘Anyman’

The sublime show speaks to the anxiety of the modern white American male who is in danger of losing his grip on power

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Ursula Coyote / AMC

Breaking Bad is on the short list of the greatest dramas in modern TV (alongside The Wire, The Sopranos and Mad Men) not only because it’s well-written, well-acted and well-directed, but also because it’s wrapped up in three major themes that speak to where America is today. The show’s premise — a high school chemistry teacher named Walter White descends into making and selling methamphetamine — comes into view after White discovers he has lung cancer and is unable to pay his exorbitant bills and may die leaving his family broke. This brings us into the long national argument around health care (as well as the criminal underpayment of America’s teachers). When White moves into the meth trade, the show enters the territory of the War on Drugs as he swims in an ocean of sharks — evil dealers, crazy hitmen, kooky junkies, crooked lawyers and the dogged DEA.

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Third and perhaps most importantly, White — like Don Draper of Mad Men and Tony Soprano of The Sopranos — is a man struggling to retain his grip on power in his world. The meta-story of these shows is a top dog in slow decline. White’s narrative started in a nice, predictable, vanilla suburbia, but he lost control over his body because of cancer, then over his world because of the dealing, leaving him fighting to stay alive among criminals who are tougher than him and stay out of jail by avoiding authorities who are chasing him. As recently as late last season, White was virtually a slave for a bigger dealer, who he kills because he’s afraid of being killed. Yes, White has risen high on the underworld ladder, but to do so he’s moved from protagonist to antagonist: he’s lost his soul. Cancer pushed him out of his suburban Eden and into a chaotic meth-filled Hades where he struggles with ill characters who are black and brown and white trash. Thus White’s battle to maintain power and supremacy in an increasingly challenging world is arguably symbolic of the modern white American male, who is ever so slightly losing his grip on total power in America. Blacks and hispanics are rising in numbers and women are scoring more college and graduate degrees. Compared to other demographics the white male is still the top dog, but he is far less in control than, say, his father was a generation ago.

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Of course white supremacy continues to reign. Fittingly, White thrives in a violent world of criminal schemers that he’s comically unsuited for. The vision of a relatively average white person — an “anyman” — succeeding and rising to prominence in the drug jungle must be a fun fantasy for white people to watch (I find myself rolling my eyes at some of that). Whiteness helps White very little in the Breaking Bad underworld, except when it causes criminals or cops to underestimate him. But at every turn White emerges smarter than all around him and his intelligence, especially where science is concerned, is his superpower. Whenever he finds himself in a sticky situation he turns into an intellectual MacGyver, constructing a little bomb to scare a fearsome druglord or putting together a gigantic magnet to erase a computer with potentially devastating evidence. Seeing him think his way through underworld problems in a middle-class way provides a lot of the show’s thrill.

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White is yet another in TV’s modern parade of epic, charismatic rogues (including Draper, Soprano and many of The Wire‘s criminals). They are perhaps our age’s Shakespearean figures, entrancing us with their complexity, luring us in with their humanity, then daring us to like them despite their horrific behavior. We respect and root for them even as we see reasons why we shouldn’t. But White is an outlier in that group. The others are cloaked in immorality and, as characters, defined by original sin — Draper’s a man who has stolen someone’s identity and is living a lie; the others are hardcore professional criminals and killers. But White became a criminal for reasons we can understand — and at his core he remains the guy next door. He is anyman in Hell.

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22 comments
StopWhiteGenocide7
StopWhiteGenocide7

It's hard to see White GENOCIDE when you're an anti-White.

So let me put it this way: if ALL Black countries and ONLY black countries were being FORCED to "assimilate" with a flood of non-blacks, until there would be no more Black countries, the genocide would be obvious.

Yet this is exactly what is happening to ALL the White countries and ONLY the White countries.  It's genocide, straight up, through social engineering.

Anti-racist is a code word for anti-White

6Cobra
6Cobra

How do I get a job writing cream-puff opinion pieces about TV dramas without actually saying anything or drawing any meaningful conclusions?  This is the kind of piece I would expect to read in a high school newspaper.   

Fla4Me
Fla4Me

A currently trendy view point looking for a vehicle to allow for it to be recited once more.   Please.

fmondana
fmondana

Wow, sometimes a duck is just a duck. How much you want to bet that some some underlying concept  regarding a paradigm shift in the role of the white male in modern America never occurred to the producers, writers, or actors.

It's fine to analyze a show to dig into the themes but too many people bring shovels that are way too tiny. This way they can make not just one mountain but can start lots of other mole hills and create mountains that never existed.

The second paragraph in this article is a great summary...until the racial element is shoehorned in.

Bryan Cranston plays the part because it is an example of an extremely complex and nuanced character with quite a journey. It's not that he's a "white guy" descending into a tangled world that is inhabited by some very bad people and eventually becomes one of them. Any actor of any color could play this role, right? Or are you saying that blacks or browns could play this role since it is true to their background.

I would argue that banging in the square racial element into the round dramatic hole is in itself racist. Racial equality will not happen until those on both sides of the divide stop viewing everything from a racial point of view. The ultimate goal of equality is color-blindness, simple concept, hard to achieve.

White (the character) could be anyone, black, brown, green, or polka-dot. Even his name is not a racial element. White simply suggests a bland, "nor,al" type of person. That's the real point. Anyone of any race viewing this show can see a piece of themselves. Not a "white version" of themselves at all.

NeedACleverName
NeedACleverName

The author has misinterpreted a good deal about Breaking Bad.  Walter White was not robbed of his soul by some uncontrollable outside force.  He willingly sold his soul for his own pride and need for affirmation.  I don't think that's a racial problem or even a societal one--it's a personality flaw.

I don't think the author has watched Breaking Bad - or if he has, not watched it closely- or he'd know that Walt's father died when Walt was 5.  His father apparently had far superior character to Walt, as he did not become a megalomaniac when he was diagnosed with cancer (Hodgkins lymphoma).  

Opiniontothinkabout
Opiniontothinkabout

Honestly, I don't know how to respond to this article. I have seen powerful Black men, Asian men, Indian men, and White men. I have seen poor and powerless White men, Black men, Asian men, Hispanic men, and Indian men. The power shift is occurring and it will not occur along racial lines as one might believe. White men are struggling with their challenges just like all other men struggle. White men must deal with the reality of justice in the 21st century. In previous centuries, they were able to make unjust decisions that negatively impacted people of color. However, the arc of justice is correcting the balance of power and wealth. White men will really learn what it means to earn what you have versus benefitting from Whiteness at the expense of others. They will learn that they are not the only persons who should be portrayed as the Superheroes. This may be a tough lesson for them to learn but it will be one worth learning.

Opiniontothinkabout
Opiniontothinkabout

White male power? This is a myth. It has never been about White males. It has always been about the rich and powerful, whether White or some other color. There will always be powerful White males just like there will always be powerful Black, Asian, and Indian males. No one racial group has a monopoly on power and wealth. Yes, White males in America have benefitted from their Whiteness. However, those who really benefitted had wealth. There are many White males that have not ascended to the status of power and wealth as there are many males of color who outperform most White males in many areas including intellectually, economically, and most of all, spiritually. I think White males may think too much of themselves. Or at least the author does.

f_galton
f_galton

"the modern white American male, who is ever so slightly losing his grip on total power in America"

Hey Tourgay, tell us if white run cities are nicer places to live than black run cities.

f_galton
f_galton

"Blacks and hispanics are rising in numbers and women are scoring more college and graduate degrees"

Hey Tourgay, tell us how many black and hispanic math and physics PhD's there are. 

f_galton
f_galton

Because of affirmative action and the reticence of white liberals to speak honestly to blacks Tourgay doesn't realize how truly stupid he is.

Julian11
Julian11

Why does time keep a resident racist columnist? Look through the authors previous work. Of course, I don't mind my race being mocked. I object to the transparent  hipocrisy of Time Magazine

Lucia Matias
Lucia Matias

Totally, completely BS....

People is able to twist and change  the meaning of everything... Even the  fall of shooting stars can be seen omens of White Man decline....

This is a show about drug dealers killing each other... The women are as stupid as door, the geniuses are White, bad guys are Mexicans....

Blah.....! 

Kimmee Sun Woo
Kimmee Sun Woo

I think white males will be just fine in the foreseeable future. IT's not like American business is going the way of the professional sports. Sure, white males have lost total power, but they certainly have not lost dominant power.  We are talking hegemonic-level of power in this country, if Romney is elected, then they will once again have total power. 

Brad
Brad

Why does everything have to be warped to fit a political view? You see what you want to see.

The Write Man
The Write Man

I feel there is a point but this article takes the show out of context and wraps itself up in special interest politics. Breaking Bad is about a decent guy who loses himself in a dark environment. Why does everything have to turn into a racial discussion?

Josh Swartz
Josh Swartz

"Blacks and hispanics are rising in numbers and women are scoring more college and graduate degrees."

I would agree that there is a definite racial divide in the show, between the whiteness of the suburban families and the "otherness" of drug dealers/lords. However, to equate the "others" in the show (i.e. Gus, Tuco, Mexican Cartel, etc...) who commit heinous crimes with educated Americans who are not "white" and not "male" is ignorant and inaccurate. 

I would also argue that there is not a distinct racial divide between the intelligence level of characters in the show. Jesse and Gus are perfect examples of the way that "intelligence" in the show has transcended racial boundaries. While cast as the typical college dropout kid, Jesse transcends the stereotypes and proves to have brains and a heart while Gus is a meticulous mastermind behind drug trafficking while fronting a fast food restaurant. I think a point the show is trying to make is to not pass judgements based on appearance; rather, it is the personal journey each character takes that is most important to his/her legacy. 

It is tough to try to characterize a show as complex as Breaking Bad by the appearance of its characters. The point is that white suburbia is not the paradise we often imagine it to be; Skyler, Marie, and of course Walt all commit crimes and are part of a dysfunctional family, while much of the actions of the Mexican Cartel in the show are based around a strong family.  None of Walt's actions reinforce the White(ness) in his name. All of these contradictions cause us as viewers to challenge our notions of normalcy, right vs. wrong, and our moral code. Breaking Bad does not reinforce typical identity stereotypes. It challenges them.

Tiq Milan
Tiq Milan

If someone black or brown played the role of Walter White, they would have been tried and in jail by the end of season one. 

Surfboat Dan.
Surfboat Dan.

 I like this opinion. 

However,  there is a great loss occurring to white men that will ultimately negatively impact everyone.  The ability of honest intelligent white men to collaborate to accomplish large goals will also diminish.    Their ability to teach others how to do it will soon be lost forever.  Cures for polio etc. occurred because of excess production which resulted from that collaboration.    We are headed towards minimalist and even fraudulent production.  Getting rid of tort law will be the canary in the coal mine. 

Surfboat Dan.
Surfboat Dan.

 There is a superficial successful  logic in your question.  White run cities are better and nicer than black or brown run cities.  Now; to be fair:  How many minorities were involved in the savings and loan scandal?  How many black institutions got bailed out by TARP?  How many minorities have gotten loans on their signatures?  How many blacks or browns have been made rich by their white employees?  What about the other way round?  How many whites in groups of over a million have been held captive slaves by blacks or browns and subjugated for generations?

scottieray90
scottieray90

I see your point, but I think Toure is hitting on the allegorical aspect of the show, which may not be directly "about" but can still address racial issues as part of how Americans think about themselves. The show also hits on other issues, sure: the disparity between middle-class suburban life and the urban underclass, the insignificance of the individual in modern society, and I would say, about masculinity, too. "Race" is bound up with all of those things, and it's useful to take all of them into account as many layers of a work of fiction (novels, tv shows, films, whatever) as possible.

Politics aside, it's also socially relevant: we've seen an upsurge in white supremacist groups over the past decade, resulting not only from President Obama's election but also the increase in interracial marriages (especially here in the South), immigration from Central and South America, the Middle East and Asia, and shifting demographics in general (e.g. recent reports that nonwhite births in the U.S. now outnumber white births). In other words, "white" people can't just assume they're majority anymore; they're thinking a lot more about what it means to be white now -- a phenomenon not seen since Reconstruction in the South, when whites were outnumbered by their former slaves, especially in SC.

I do hope, of course, that over time these transitions make "race," and the old nonsense of white supremacy, irrelevant. Toure's critique, though, seems aware that there's a lot of fear (his word: "anxiety") about what these changes mean. I think shows like "Breaking Bad" can help us think about them carefully, instead of taking their racial implications for granted.