Breaking Bad: Reclaiming Masculinity in a Perilous Political Economy

AMC recently aired its final episode of Breaking Bad. With the series now completed, one might wonder how so many viewers could maintain loyalty to protagonist, “Water White,” the dorky low-level crystal methamphetamine producer, turned vicious kingpin, who over five seasons inflicted unbridled violence on a slew of characters. Even Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan expressed a sociologically-driven curiosity with Walt’s ability to emit public sympathy: “I have kind of lost sympathy for Walt along the way…I find it interesting, this sociological phenomenon, that people still root for Walt. Perhaps it says something about the nature of fiction, that viewers have to identify on some level with the protagonist of the show, or maybe he’s just interesting because he is good at what he does.” In this post, David Mayeda breaks down Breaking Bad’s success, accounting for reclaimed masculinity in a failed political economy.

For the few of you out there unfamiliar with AMC’s fictional drama, Breaking Bad tells the story of fumbling high school chemistry teacher with a PhD – Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) – who “breaks bad” by ditching his conventional teaching gig to produce and eventually traffic crystal methamphetamine across New Mexico and the greater American Southwest. Key in the series’ storyline is that Walt is a conventional family man, deeply in love with his pregnant wife, Skyler, and teenage son, Walt Jr., who suffers from cerebral palsy. That’s a lot of financial responsibility for any high school teacher. To make matters seemingly impossible, Walt is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Hence Walt works in tandem with former pupil, Jesse Pinkman, to start cooking meth in hopes of making enough money for his family’s long-term future.

Over the course of five seasons, Walter White transforms from a dorky, emasculated high school chemistry teacher who cannot provide for his family, to badass drug kingpin, steeped in money and power. With nothing to lose, Walt’s ascent stems from an incessantly growing cunningness, elite intellectual acumen, and at times, departure from his once conventional moral compass. Viewers have watched Walt kill rival drug dealers, associates and kingpins, stand idly by while Jesse’s love interest dies; we even know Walt poisoned a young child. Despite these departures from conventional morality, a substantial portion of Breaking Bads viewers still sympathize with, even cheer for Walt. How can this be?

Sociologically speaking, the answer lies in Walt’s ability to establish a kind of hegemonic masculinity under dreadful circumstances that on a different level, also impacted so many Breaking Bad fans. It is important to recall when Breaking Bad first premiered in January 2008, shortly after America kick-started the global financial crisis. Millions of Americans – and even more globally – were facing unexpected, uncertain, unfair and uncontrollable economic perils. What so many of us felt on a personal level, we could see symbolically on a more extreme level in Walt – the model citizen who did everything right for his family, but who was given a raw deal in life, and stuck in an unhelpful economic system.

Early in the series, Walt is the stereotypical adult nerd, brilliant intellectually, but a bumbling buffoon lacking more conventional forms of masculinity. Listen to this 2012 interview with Bryan Cranston as he describes the “Walt” character (@3:28 of the podcast):

  • “I think he should be a little pudgy. I think he should be pale… I think he should have this silly mustache that doesn’t convey anything, except that it conveys impotence to me. It was unnecessary. And it sort of was a manifestation of what I thought his life was like at that time, basically unnecessary, that he felt useless, invisible to the world, to society, even to himself.”

More from Cranston and the Breaking Bad cast:

Walt’s early character conveys impotence. Despite all his brainy prowess, Walt still could not fulfill adequate dimensions of masculinity. He could not stand up for himself, and perhaps more importantly under his medical and economic circumstances, he could not provide for his family. Thus on two masculine levels, Walt reclaims characteristics that viewers respect within a patriarchal society: (1) he eventually earns more than enough money to provide for his family (we’re talking tens of millions), and (2) he holds so much power that he overrides virtually anyone who gets in his way, and does so very decisively, often violently.

Walt is no longer the invisible, impotent nerd that fails to provide for his family. No, Walt has parlayed his intelligence such that he continually finds ways to exert a physical, financial (i.e., masculine) dominance over others, and that is what keeps fans liking Walter White in spite of his heinous actions. As Cranston says in the video, above at 0:50, “There’s nothing boring about Walter White’s life now.”

Dig Deeper:

  1. How has the Breaking Bad creative team relied on broad sociological constructs, such as heteronormativity and the economy, to keep viewers engaged in the series?
  2. What other major socio-political factors tied to race, drug trafficking and politics across the American Southwest during Breaking Bad’s tenure might have affected its popularity?
  3. Think of a character you like from another television series or film that holds what you define as negative qualities. What additional qualities does the character have that connect him or her to you emotionally?
  4. Now thinking of that same character, are there broader sociological factors (like the 2008 financial crisis as it relates to Breaking Bad) that impact your connection to the character?