thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Breaking Bad: Against Family

In misogyny, Television, TV villains, violence on August 13, 2013 at 10:01 pm

Sarah T.

Walter White is a family man. When the 50-year-old chemistry teacher at the center of AMC’s Breaking Bad is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, his immediate concerns lie with his wife and kids. How will they manage when he’s gone? In order to cover college, the mortgage, cost of living, and medical care, he calculates, he’d need to leave behind $737,000. That kind of sum is not typically available to educators in the U.S. public school system. So Walt does what any self-respecting man of the house would do: he starts cooking and dealing crystal meth.

Of course, Walt’s journey from mensch to monster isn’t really for the benefit of Skyler, Walt Jr., and Holly. If Walt really cared about his family, he wouldn’t endanger them by immersing himself in a world where people get plugged for dealing  on the wrong street corner and ruthless twins slaughter innocents as easily as they slip into their sharkskin suits. He wouldn’t risk getting caught by the feds and spending the short time he has left behind bars instead of at home. And he wouldn’t ignore the toll that his new line of business takes on his wife and son, who are first disturbed, then alienated and finally–at least in Skyler’s case–ruined by his choices.

But while Walt isn’t a family man by any sane measure, he does fulfill the role in a way that’s true to his vision of what a husband and father should be. Providing his family with love and support and a sense of security was never Walt’s goal. His goal was to become someone powerful and strong and feared, a head of household who rules over his family and makes unilateral decisions on their behalf. Walt begins Breaking Bad as a man who feels emasculated by the humbling circumstances of his life. The show is, in part, the story of his journey toward embodying a patriarchal ideal of the family man, and of how poisonous that ideal turns out to be.

At the outset of the series, Walt is hardworking, gentle, soft-spoken–and terribly disappointed with the way his life has turned out. He lost his shot at fame and fortune back in grad school. In the present, he has to work a second job at a car wash to pay the bills, and his snickering chemistry students pay no attention to his enthusiastic tributes to the periodic table. He’s also surrounded by men who seem, to Walt’s eyes, far more powerful than he is–particularly his brother-in-law Hank, a boisterous DEA agent built like a brick house.

This dynamic extends to his marriage with Skyler, a practical blonde who regards her husband with love and affection, but not necessarily starry-eyed admiration. That’s actually a good deal, but a far cry from “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands.” Meanwhile, his son Walt Jr. seems much more likely to look up to his uncle–a badass cop–than his mild-mannered dad.

The moment Walt transforms himself into a meth cook and dealer, he begins ruining his relationship with his family–and reshaping its power structure. His secret double life makes him moody and unreliable, leading Skyler to assume he’s having an existential crisis or an affair. Having a secret self also takes Walt away from Skyler emotionally, giving him something to lord over her. When Skyler gasps, “Walt, is that you?” at the end of the pilot, she’s talking about his unexpected sexual aggression–but she could as easily be talking to the first glimmers of Heisenberg in the man she thinks she knows.

Skyler tries to separate from Walt, taking the kids with her. But soon enough she’s drawn into Walt’s moral vacuum, laundering his money and keeping silent about his murders. The more complicit and trapped Skyler becomes, the more open she is about how much she hates and fears Walt. “Someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family,” she tells Walt in season 4.

By season 5, she’s sent the kids away from home so they’ll be safe from the danger he’s injected into their lives. Her disgust for the man who used to be her husband is evident in every fishbowl-sized glass of wine she glugs down and in the swimming pool she wades into, Virginia Woolf-style.

“I don’t know what to do,” she tells Walt. “I can’t go to the police. I can’t stop laundering your money. I can’t keep you out of this house. I can’t even keep you out of my bed. All I can do is wait. That’s it. That’s the only good option.” Wait for what, Walt wonders. “For the cancer to come back,” she says.

Walt’s shocked, but hardly concerned about the damage he’s done to his marriage. He’s so far removed that he uses his problems with Skyler as an excuse to bug his brother-in-law’s office. In the next scene, he’s blubbering to a befuddled Hank. The moment Hank runs out for a comforting cup of coffee, Walt’s tears dry right up. Family is just another weapon he wields.

As Breaking Bad heads into its final stretch, critics and fans are speculating wildly over how it’s all going to end. One popular theory predicts that Walt will lose his family–the thing he cares about most, the reason he began cooking meth in the first place. But family was never the reason. It was only a convenient excuse.

“When we do what we do for good reasons, then we’ve got nothing to worry about,” Walt tells Skyler, laughably attempting to justify the destruction they’ve left in their wake. “And there’s no better reason than family.” The line drips with hypocrisy, and it also points to Breaking Bad‘s relentless moral vision.

As long as Walt’s relationship with his family remained recognizably human, he could still be somewhat sympathetic. His love for them made him vulnerable. Breaking Bad has ripped the protective cover of family away from Walt. Now we know that all he ever wanted was not to seem weak. As the show counts down to curtains, I’m counting on it to expose all the ways this quest made him small.

  1. Sarah: yes! Your thoughts also put me in mind of another show preoccupied with white American masculinity that uses drugs and criminality as its stage dressing: Sons of Anarchy. SOA goes at it from the other side of BB, the man immersed in evil who cannot escape, in part because of his notions of what makes a “real” man (notions shared by everyone around him). However, SOA lacks the “relentless moral vision” of BB and so it’s far more scattered in plot and approach.

  2. I’ve not seen Breaking Bad but I have seen a lot of analogous behavior over the years. Thank you.

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