“This is a story about a man who transforms himself from Mr. Chips into Scarface,” producer Vince Gilligan told Sony Television executives in 2005 when he pitched his idea for the new AMC melodrama, Breaking Bad.
This one-liner turned out to be a clincher, and it remains as poignant a description as any of Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston), the cancer-stricken high school chemistry teacher who, ostensibly to pay for treatment and to support his family, begins to manufacture the most pure, most coveted methamphetamine in all of Albuquerque, NM.
But what unfolds in the five season series—the final part of which will resume this July—is far more complex than one man’s transformation from a protagonist to an antagonist. Breaking Bad reflects the human face of the recent economic downturn and reveals the increasing social class inequality in the U.S.
When the series first aired in 2008, the U.S. economic recession was just reaching its peak. As the year ended, over 2.6 million people were left jobless—the most in six decades, according to CNN—and those who did manage to hold onto jobs were often overqualified or undercompensated for their work. Walter’s bleak financial situation and unfulfilling career resonated with the harsh realities of everyday life of people across the country.
The only thing more deflated than the U.S. dollar or job market in 2008 was national morale, which was captured by best-selling author Fareed Zakaria in his book The Post American World and later by Thomas Friedman in his bestseller, That Used to be Us.
The country was reaching what a former editor of The Christian Science Monitor, John Hughes, described as a “tipping point in America’s mood.” Perched precariously on a ledge of uncertainty—an uncertainty that was only heightened by the two very different presidential contenders, John McCain and Barack Obama—Americans were searching for a way out.
So was Walter White. Throw in malignant lung cancer, a pregnant wife, and a son with cerebral palsy, and suddenly Walt’s decision to reject cancer treatment doesn’t seem so radical. In fact, his choice to devote his remaining time and resources to providing for his family is actually quite understandable.
But somewhere between lying to his wife, Skyler (played by Anna Gunn), outsmarting a Mexican drug kingpin named Tuco (played by Raymond Cruz), and cooking up batches of 99.1 percent pure crystal with his sidekick and former student, Jesse (played by Aaron Paul), Walt’s motives change. Around season three, he stops cooking meth to support his family and continues cooking for himself.
As the show presses on, Walt moves deeper into the Scarface stage. With a swell of self-importance, he lets a young woman overdose after she’s gotten in his way. With a hint of arrogance, he poisons a child to regain Jesse’s loyalty. By the end of season four, having successfully murdered the leader of an international drug cartel, Walt has risen to the top of the methamphetamine food chain.
Curiously, viewer ratings skyrocketed to an all-time high as Walter breaks to his “baddest” point yet. Breaking Bad’s fourth season finale drew in a whopping 2.9 million viewers and was ranked the most engaging series on television by Nielsen, a Los Angeles based data analysis company.
Fascination with Walt’s transformation from geeky suburban dad to ruthless drug lord reflects, in part, the increasing inability of Americans to cross social and class boundaries. A plot that reverses the usual social equation of lower class Americans struggling to make it is intriguing. Instead, the storyline in Breaking Bad hinges on a middle class man’s ability to earn street cred with Albuquerque’s working class Latino population. It is far afield from the typical rags to riches story.
Walt’s relatively comfortable lifestyle—which initially includes a steady job, a home with a pool, and two cars, despite the occasional financial pinch—is thrown into sharp juxtaposition to the lifestyles of the people he encounters on a regular basis when trying to move his product. In order to effectively conduct business, Walter shaves his head, changes his wardrobe, and learns the drug-market lingo, which, more often than not, is one of violence.
Walter’s commitment to this new line of work means he’ll do what it takes to succeed—even if that means crossing moral or ethical lines.
When confronted with the dilemma of killing or letting go a threatening thug in the second episode of season 1, Walter scribbles down a panicked ethical calculus: Con: “MURDER IS WRONG.” Pro: “He’ll kill your entire family if you let him go.” It’s not hard to see why Walt strangles Krazy-8 with a bicycle lock just two hours into the show.
In keeping with this new, tougher image, Walt later refuses to accept financial assistance for his chemotherapy bills from well-to-do family friends, despite his inability to pay. Instead, he opts to double his meth output, which simultaneously boosts his entrepreneurial pride and drug dealer status. He has become the number one crystal distributor in the city. Walter White has successfully and unabashedly written his own American Dream story.
“How much is enough?” Skyler asks her husband midway through season five. She has taken Walt to a storage warehouse to see the stacks of money he has made in the last few months. Skyler isn’t asking for a number, she’s asking, when will it all end?
It is a question many middle-class Americans, too, have asked repeatedly over the last decade as the economy groans under the weight of a wealth disparity gap between the nation’s rich and poor, which continues to grow more pronounced.
Breaking Bad’s popularity is not only based on the acting—which is stellar—and the compelling storyline of Walt’s transformation, it also reflects the economic conditions in the U.S. today. In a country where the scope of financial inequality has itself become unethical, it is unfair to judge Walt too harshly on grounds of morality.