I had to go back and view "Breaking Bad." The tv series was the butterfly flutter that made me re-examine my impressions years away.
Considered by many to be the greatest television show of all time, Breaking Bad set an unprecedented bar for drama entertainment during its five-season run. With its antihero lead, memorable characters, purposeful storytelling, sophisticated action, and riveting twists, there’s a clear reason why the series has become a staple of pop culture and is endlessly rewatchable.
(De Leo, p1, 2023)
The sophisticated imagery of "Breaking Bad" achieved by director Vince Gilligan characterizes the artistic appeal for a wide and critical audience. He reminisces, “New Mexico inspires the wide-angle shots we use on both television series (“Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul”). Very often there are beautiful, puffy, ice-creamy cumulus clouds that stand out very vividly on the dark-blue skies. Any time we can show a wide shot of the New Mexico landscape and do our best to make it seem like an Ernst Haas photo, I’m as happy as a clam.” (Reilly p1, 2015)
Watching TV is a complex phenomenon. We know that for young viewers, television violence may cause them to become more aggressive and anxious. Other research has found that exposure to media violence can desensitize people to violence in the real world. For some people, watching violence in the media becomes enjoyable and does not result in the anxious arousal expected from seeing such imagery.
Re-seeing “Breaking Bad” made me hypothesize that we are what we view, at least in part. Here is what I saw.
In the 14th episode of the last season, Walter screams to his wife on the phone, "What the hell is wrong with you? Why can't you do one thing I say… toe the line, or you will end up like Hank,” who was indirectly killed by Walter. Many males feel superior to women, with corresponding large gender differences. Women represent 58 percent of the workforce but hold 35% of senior leadership positions. Only nine percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Males threaten and commit violence against women. One in four women experiences severe intimate partner physical violence, sexual violence, or stalking. Seventy-two percent of all murder-suicides involve an intimate partner; 94% of these victims are female.
Like in “Breaking Bad," we use a lot of drugs, not only the mild ones but all the others, with some complicit behavior on the part of pharmaceutical companies and physicians, indicating a desensitization of their moral standards. Among Americans aged 12 years and older, 37 million are current illegal drug users (used within the last 30 days) as of 2020. Fifty-nine million persons have used illicit drugs or misused prescription drugs within the last year. Annual drug-related arrests are 1.2 million.
Not too surprisingly, we are unhealthy. Lavell Crawford, acting as Saul’s bodyguard, reminds us that 42 percent of American adults are obese. Conditions related to obesity include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Medical costs for obesity were 170 billion dollars in 2019, and annual medical costs were $1,861 more for them.
Health care is expensive in the US and constitutes the stimulus for the criminal action of Walter, who must pay for his cancer treatments. Walter’s response to a costly, unjust health system is thinkable. We go along with his early actions. On average, other large, wealthy countries spend about half as much per person on health as the US. We maximize short-term profit, not always with competition.
Walter is threatened with being unable to pay his medical bills and thus dragging his family into poverty. He is alarmed, yet we, as Americans, seem indifferent to the problems of the poor. Or at least little has changed. Our poverty level has remained relatively constant for the last 50 years. 12.6 percent of the US population was poor in 1970; two decades later, it was 13.5 percent; and in 2019, it was 10.5 percent.
The primary reason for our stalled progress on poverty reduction has to do with the fact that we have not confronted the unrelenting exploitation of the poor in the labor, housing, and financial markets…But capitalism is inherently about owners trying to give as little, and workers trying to get as much, as possible. With unions largely out of the picture, corporations have chipped away at the conventional midcentury work arrangement, which involved steady employment, opportunities for advancement and raises and decent pay with some benefits. As the sociologist Gerald Davis has put it: Our grandparents had careers. Our parents had jobs. We complete tasks. Or at least that has been the story of the American working class and working poor.
(Desmond, p2 2023)
Crime and murder pay for Mr. White at least in four out of five seasons. For every type of crime, the overall crime rate in the US reaches 47.7 per 100,000, which is not too different from other developed countries. Instead, last year 14,827 people were murdered in the US, which leaves the US at 4.8 murders per 100,000 citizens. In comparison, Japan has 0.4 murders per 100,000 residents. Germany has 0.8, Australia 1, France 1.1, and Britain 1.2. In the US, the lower income neighborhoods have more homicides, independent of racial and ethnic composition (Gobaud 2022). Without saying, we facilitate the possession of guns and automatic weapons in fiction and reality.
Americans are inclined to incarcerate and hold the world’s record with over 2.3 million prisoners. Part of this Is due to more stringent drug laws at a lower level of drug distribution and longer prison sentences in general. Apparently, we do not want to see the drug traffickers, in contrast to their constant presence in “Breaking Bad.” Once in prison, however, they can be eliminated by Walter. Little attention is paid to the other half, the drug users, again in fact and fiction.
In the end, Mr. Walter White murders a member of his own family, the brother-in-law Hank, even if by miscalculation. We do not accept one another. Many have experienced identity issues concerning sexuality, religious beliefs, political orientation, where one lives, and more. We have spent so much effort establishing and defending our own identities that we distrust others. An American identity crisis has arrived. However, country identities generally become excessive when we need a planetary one.
Over the five years of "Breaking Bad," we experience the increasing degradation of the morals of Walter and, to a lesser extent, his wife. At first, it is drug pushers, then innocent children, then silencing the nine witnesses; nothing becomes too immoral for Walter. And we linger on for five years. Our epic moral degradation is Big Oil and Gas’s coverup and making of climate warming. And we, as consumers, kept buying cars, creating auto-centric cities, sustaining unsustainable agriculture, and so on. We risk leaving our grandchildren a second-class degraded earth while blithely seeking short-term profits. Artificial intelligence may be a wizard, but it cannot build the love and respect among people needed to become global citizens.
Of course, we watch other TV programs, and many deny any identification with “Breaking Bad.” Then why was the show such a success?
It may be late for reflection, but is this the American people, and climate, we want?
Desmond, M., 2023, Why Poverty Persists in America, New York Times, March 9, This article is adapted from Matthew Desmond’s book “Poverty, by America.” It is being published on March 21 by Crown.
Gobaud, A.N., Mehranbod, C.A., Dong, B. et al. Absolute versus relative socioeconomic disadvantage and homicide: a spatial ecological case–control study of US zip codes. Inj. Epidemiol. 9, 7 (2022).
De Leo, A., 2023, 15 Best 'Breaking Bad' Episodes, Ranked According to IMDb, Collider, February 24.
Reilly, D., 2016, The Godfather, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, and More Influences on Better Call Saul (and Breaking Bad), SLATE, March 22.