I work as a felony prosecutor in a town where methamphetamine is our biggest narcotics problem. I’m also a big fan of Breaking Bad, but whenever I ask colleagues (particularly law-enforcement officers) whether they’ve been following the show, I invariably get the same answer: “Absolutely not. I refuse to watch any show that glorifies that lifestyle.”
I certainly sympathize with those who are concerned about the glorification of methamphetamine. Meth is pure evil. Meth addicts are often barely recognizable as human, and every meth user is an addict; there is no such thing as a casual or social meth user, at least not in the end. People who use that drug will generally continue to do so until it destroys their lives and the lives of the people who care about them.
For a while I tried to convince others that Breaking Bad doesn’t really glorify meth; in fact, it mercilessly portrays the self-destruction that follows naturally from meth addiction. I argued that the show doesn’t promote meth any more than Schindler’s List promotes Nazism — that is, it may desensitize viewers to the horrors of that particular world, but it would never encourage them to adopt the lifestyle. After all, it’s only a TV show.
But lately I’ve become convinced that my colleagues are right to be concerned about the popularity of Breaking Bad and its effect on our communities.
Law-enforcement officers’ duties bring them into contact with the drug-addled on a daily basis, so the proliferation of dangerous drugs directly affects their lives and families more than it might affect yours or mine. And while Breaking Bad may not glorify meth in the sense of making it attractive to the average viewer, it does normalize the idea of meth for a broad segment of society that might otherwise have no knowledge of that dark and dangerous world.
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Before Breaking Bad, relatively few people knew someone whose life had been touched by meth, but now millions more people have an intense emotional connection with at least two: Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. And suddenly, for those spellbound viewers, the idea of people using meth is a little less foreign, a little more familiar. And that false sense of familiarity is inherently dangerous.
Does this mean that watching an episode of Breaking Bad will cause responsible adults to run out and find a local meth dealer? Clearly not, and I have no interest in blaming television writers and producers for the destructive choices that other people make. But when a critically acclaimed television show centered on the drug world so permeates popular culture that it becomes the subject of watercooler talk and Jimmy Fallon parodies, there can be little doubt that some people on the margins of society will be drawn into that world, if only out of morbid curiosity. Breaking Bad is great art, but sometimes great art affects culture negatively. We can acknowledge that fact without calling for censorship or puritanism.
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So as the curtain comes down on Breaking Bad, I will certainly be watching. I can’t help myself. And I would still encourage others to tune in as well, because the story is compelling and, on balance, highly moral. But I’ll have misgivings. I’ll continue to wonder about the long-term effects of mainstreaming such a dangerous drug into popular culture. I’ll be mindful that there are others for whom the consequences of drug addiction are a miserable and persistent reality, not merely the stuff of a TV drama, no matter how “gritty” and artful and captivating.
Blake Ewing is an assistant district attorney who lives near Austin. This piece was adapted from a post originally published by Ricochet.com. The views expressed are solely his own.