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.
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.
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.