Anything Less Than Extraordinary: Breaking Bad and American AmbitionBy Laura Bogart
August 05, 2013
Breaking Bad’s five-year run coincides with the emergence of a populist brio that sings the sanctity of American ambition: Everyone who works hard enough deserves to be his own boss, deserves to break ground on his dream home—a mansion with skylights bigger than his 2014 Cherokee Diesel. Only people who’ve rolled up their sleeves (or donned their Hazmat suits) and “built that” are considered extraordinary, and anything less than extraordinary isn’t worth anything at all.
Walter White’s transformation into an overlord of the meth underworld isn’t just, as the marketing copy quips, “Mr. Chips turning into Scarface”; it’s an exploration of the cult of Father Knows Best, the paternalistic assumption that a Chrysler 300 and a Challenger SRT 8 in the driveway are the sole measures of success. And anything that impedes that success—a business competitor, your own wife, or a small child—should be dispatched in a finger snap.
Walt ascends from the dregs of the underpaid and underemployed to become Heisenberg, aka “the danger.” A king among kingpins. President and CEO of “the empire business.” And he takes anyone who’s ever felt entombed in her cubicle, who knows that her life doesn’t begin until she sits in that corner office with her name on the door, along with him. His story shows the appeal of bootstraps conservatism.
There is, arguably, no greater example of a truly unregulated market than the drug trade: supremacy is won with guns and cunning. But, as Sean McElwee wrote in a recent Salon piece about “libertarian populism”:
The problem is that markets, being amoral, are necessarily immoral. Markets are essentially utilitarian, they maximize ‘happiness,’ and each individual is free to choose what makes him or her happy. But what happens when one man’s pleasure harms another?
The bones of those who’ve encroached on Heisenberg’s territory have hissed away in acid; not a strand of hair or even a fingernail is left of them. He knows the ache of being edged out of a multi-billion dollar enterprise. He’d sold away his shares in a calling and settled into a livelihood with all its petty burdens of mortgages and debt. Never again. No half measures.
Walt’s first forays into cooking may have come, ostensibly, from the ultimate masculine piety, providing for the wife and kids after his death. But he keeps going, even when he’s in remission. He’s amassed a warehouse of fat stacks that could pay his mortgage and his children’s college tuitions many times over. His desire is deeper and more severe than the money itself; it’s about the power endowed in the very idea of being wealthy. Walt’s self worth is his net worth.
This worth can’t be gauged in the sly smile of the satisfied wife who doles out his breakfast bacon; it isn’t evident enough in the love of a son who’ll shuck off his teenage detachment to build a website devoted to his “hero,” his Dad. The pundits may say that family is “everything,” but that’s exactly what family takes away, too — the time and the money to spend at the doctor’s and the grocer’s, the parent-teacher meetings and the play dates. Perhaps that’s why so many fans loathe Skyler. She makes Walt trade in those sports cars for less flashy, more suburban wheels. She asks how high the pile of money has to be. She’s a reminder that a bedrock can also be a millstone.
A millstone that a man like Gus Fring—a man unencumbered by any connections—can smooth between his fingers, then toss away like a skipping stone. Gus’s cover is as middle manager at a fried chicken chain; in reality, he is the top guy in the chain of “I know a guy, who knows a guy, who knows another guy.” That’s why, when Heisenberg (who’s still only growling at bush-league competitors in Home Depot parking lots), tells him that they are very much alike, Gus demurs. Of course they’re not, not when Gus knows that his striped tie and yellow shirt are like Clark Kent’s glasses.
Walt is a combustible bond of desperation and drive, a man who’d liken himself to a CEO without ever leaving the mailroom. And Gus knows exactly how to balm over Walt’s wounded pride, how to get him back to work. When he rhapsodizes that “a man provides. And he does it even when he’s not appreciated or respected or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it,” he’s speaking to anyone who has looked at his paycheck and known it isn’t worth the lack of sunlight.
Most of us will never dare to be our own bosses. We pick up a phone and say “yes ma’am” or chuckle gamely when the guy who signs our checks tries a joke. But Walt shoves his shit jobs in spectacular fashion—and not just his second shift at the car wash or his teaching gig. Even when he’s given a supervillain lair of a lab by Dopeland impresario Gus Fring, Walt can’t bear to be the mortar, not the pestle.
The season five poster illustrates Walt’s fantasy vision of himself, a fantasy that anyone who’s cranked up Yeezus and sang along to “I am a god/Hurry up with my damn massage/get the Porsche out the damn garage” on his commute home—from a job that sounds impressive on paper but doesn’t pay him enough to give his monthly pound of flesh to Sallie Mae and still buy groceries—could aspire to: Clad in his yellow Hazmat suit, he sits in a warehouse throne room of money piles, his bald head backlit with a spectral solemnity that mimics a crown’s gold sheen. The tagline above him is “All hail the king.” And in an America where your teachers and your parents and your politicians tell you that you can be anything, why not be the king?
Settling for anything less—a day job that funds your organic tea and karaoke habits; a steady paycheck and days off with your granddaughter or your girlfriend’s son—makes you a sadsack, a schlub, leaves you vulnerable for elimination (in some cases, literally), at the king’s whim. Gale, Mike, and even—especially—Jesse, the characters who know their jobs and know their places, are whipped through their bones by the cold winds of Walt’s orbit. He “outsources” them—with a handgun, a barrel, and some acid; or the perfect machination, the most brutal twisting of words—with the ease of an executive moving a factory from Flint to Beijing.
“You had to be the man,” Mike says. “If you’d done your job and known your place, we’d all be fine now.” This is, of course, just moments before Walt accidentally (on purpose) shoots him to death. Walt’s hostilities are manifest in extremis, but his resentment spider-legs down the spine of anyone who’s looked at that one workplace long-timer—the secretary who’s worn grooves into her office chair or that weirdo in accounts who covers his door with wrapping paper each December—and thought, “I’ll never be like them. I’ll never drop anchor.” And yet, years later, you’re still there, still filing the same TPS reports, just changing the dates; you know your job and you know your place.
We’ve all been waiting for our lives to begin, for that advanced degree and all those hours of overtime to give us the lifestyles that the marketing campaigns swear we’re entitled to. As Max Rivlin-Nadar writes: “Breaking Bad dismisses the idea that your blue-collar job will provide for you, that, if needed, the State will, too, and that doing the right thing will be its own substantive reward.” When Walter White decides that he will get his, and get it on his own, he throws mercury fulminate onto the social—and legal—conventions that demand we play nice and pay our taxes, that we share and share alike.
Knuckling under, being team players—this means shrinking ourselves, our ambitions, into the cogs that propel another man’s vision into being. Most of us will never reach Kardashian-levels of wealth or fame. We’ll have to take a second job or a third shift and still stare down the chasm between ends that will never meet. It’s easier to believe we’re the victims of welfare leeches and not predatory lending. Our parents and our teacher and our politicians would never spin myths and inflate our expectations: It’s the spinelessness of government largess—that’s what’s deprived us of the means to build our businesses and our houses on the hill. Just like Breaking Bad’s huckster sage, Saul Goodman, says: “If you’re committed enough, you can make any story work.”
A fistful of Mercury fulminate levels a building to ash. A tiny bell triggers a dragon’s belch of an explosion and a man walks out of the room with his face ablaze, stopping to adjust his bow tie. A black-clad man with a face as sharp and cragged as the desert he stands in stares down a rival dealer with a simple demand: “Say my name.” There are so many scenes that make the “Best of Breaking Bad” fan videos on YouTube. But the soul of the show is truly encapsulated in the very first image of the very first episode: a pair of tan khakis, the quintessential suburban Dad-wear, floats through the air with a balletic elegance, only to be ground under the wheel of a careening RV. One kind of life is literally torn up by another.
Gus actually owns the chicken joints, he’s not just middle management.
This essay perfectly captures both the show and its depiction of America and all her warts. Brilliant. Sublime.
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