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What Do Academics Think of ‘Breaking Bad’?

• September 27, 2013 • 4:00 AM

(PHOTO: COURTESY OF AMC)

A whole lot, actually.

The television series Breaking Bad comes to an end this Sunday night on AMC with a 75-minute finale. If you did not know that—hello, alien. And maybe stop reading. Everyone is dying, and everything is most definitely terrible. Except the show itself, which is great and fun and a wonderful kind of terrible. It’s also a piece of American art, which is an obnoxious way to describe it, but probably the correct way. Like any worthwhile piece of culture, Breaking Bad says something about the time it’s being consumed in. For that, it’s a thing to be studied—and it’s a thing that’s being studied.

So, what does an agro-maniacal chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-god say about the way we live now? I spoke to David Pierson, a professor at the University of Southern Maine and editor of the forthcoming Breaking Bad: Critical Essays on the Context, Politics, Style and Reception of the Television Series, to get a sense of what my children (oh God) will be studying when they go to college 30 years from now.

Also: **SPOILER ALERT**

Is there any difference in the academic reception/understanding of the show, compared to the way the show’s being talked about and written about in popular culture?
While many scholars or academics are fans of the series and enjoy its intense drama, they also ask a number of critical questions about it, such as how does Walt’s decision to pursue a criminal enterprise connect to the struggles of middle- and working-class Americans, especially since the show came out in September 2008—the height of the Great Recession (2007-2009)? Also, does Walt’s transformation and double-life connect to a crisis of American masculinity in the 21st century? How are Latino Americans and the disabled represented in the series? What does the show say about America’s long-standing war on drugs? OK, academics can not seem to stop asking critical questions, but most of us do enjoy the pleasures of TV viewing.

“The penchant for rationalizing all types of immoral deeds and actions reminds me of the rational decisions and actions of Wall Street investment bankers that led to the Great Recession.”

Let’s start with Walt. The way in which he’s so totally irredeemable—poisoned a kid, let a woman die, killed multiple others—yet still has so many fans, seems unique. Is it? Or is there a way to characterize him/view his actions—a.k.a, he’s just a narcissist—that’s maybe easy to miss?
I think the reason why viewers, myself included, continue to root for Walt, even in this tough final season, is that he continues to serve as a fantasy figure. By living a double-life and identity as Heisenberg, he is able to take charge of his life, to become more assertive and to become a self-sufficient entrepreneur. For the first time in his life, he is able to effectively use his talents as a chemist to build an empire. He also does it for the right reasons, to secure his family’s future for a couple of generations. While most of us would like to led a double-life where we could take what we want, unfortunately, our lives must fit within acceptable social parameters and responsibilities. The Hollywood criminal gangster figure is another example of this capitalist fantasy figure.

What do you make of all the backlash against Skyler, Walt’s wife, by viewers? There’s a loud group of people—mostly white, mostly men—who despise her.
It may be that Skyler stands as a figure to interrupt or even question the fantasies of these viewers, which include men and women. Skyler tends to serve as a standing and philosophical reminder to Walt that actions do have consequences and that his actions (or now their actions) will ultimately affect the family in immeasurable ways. Walt, who is the most rational person in the series, seems to always view events and actions as abstractions, which includes his family. He does not see them as individuals with his or her own feelings and perspectives. In this final season, Walt is experiencing many of the consequences of his actions, and one could say the chickens are coming home to roost.

Does any one character interest you more than the others?
That is a very tough question. I think this may change from one season to the next. Last year, I found Mike to be the most complex and interesting character, outside of Walt and Jesse. This final season, I find myself still haunted by Hank Schrader and Dean Norris’ excellent performance over the past episodes. Breaking Bad is a very rich dramatic series, and there is no doubt that viewers and critics will explore and discover new treasures from its episodes.

What does the show do poorly? What does it get wrong?
Since the series is so focused on the characters of Walt and Jesse, along with their friends and families, it does not really provide viewers with a good view of how the social and economic structures in the American Southwest enable a thriving drug trafficking economy or the effects of these drugs on poor and working-class Americans. Of course, to my memory, the only series that has successfully tackled the complexities of the drug economy is The Wire.

We talk about the different themes of individual pieces of art, and for Breaking Bad so many get thrown around: fatherhood, capitalism, family, partnership, the importance of breakfast, the vagueness of moral lines, and etc. But do you think there’s one main theme or over-arching connector that really holds the show together?
I agree that breakfast is important. No really, one over-arching theme that may be suggested by Heisenberg’s “Uncertainty Principle” is that no observer or scientist can observe a phenomenon without influencing it in some way. Walt, ever the rational scientist, believes that he can do all sorts of unspeakable things, like selling deadly drugs and committing murder, as long as they are done for the right reason (securing his family’s future). The penchant for rationalizing all types of immoral deeds and actions reminds me of the rational decisions and actions of Wall Street investment bankers that led to the Great Recession. Walt focuses on the most primitive form of capitalism (accumulation) with little thought as to how his actions affect other people and entire communities.

The show takes place over five years of real-life time, but the show itself only spans about 18 months. Some people have experienced that year-and-a-half over six years, while others have binge-watched or maybe even watched over the same timespan the show covers. Do you think this has any effect on how viewers experience the show?
Yes, I do think how people have viewed and experienced the series does make a difference. This is a new area of study in television studies, so new that I don’t believe these studies have been completed. It makes sense to me that people who have viewed the series over the past six years may experience a greater sense of resonance with each season than viewers who have watched over a shorter period of time. Although I would say that the so-called binge-viewers may see certain themes across seasons that are not readily apparent in traditional viewing.

OK, putting you on the spot here: How will it end? And does it matter?
My prediction is that since Walt wants the rest of his 80 million dollars, he will take on Todd’s uncle and his uncle’s gang. Walt will have a last meeting with Jesse, and I don’t believe that either one of them will be killed, though they may be severely injured. I think how it ends is important for viewers who feel very invested in the series and its characters. I don’t believe that [Vince] Gilligan will wrap everything up because he is not that type of producer.

Ryan O'Hanlon
Senior Digital Editor Ryan O’Hanlon joined Pacific Standard from Outside, where he was an assistant online editor. He is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross, and his writing has appeared in Deadspin, Grantland, The Awl, New York, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @rwohan.

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