Brett Martin states in his book Difficult Men, “Every great TV show tells its whole story in its pilot. Often in just one line” (2013, p. 59). As soon as I read that line, I immediately thought of Breaking Bad and Walter White’s speech to his chemistry students in the very first episode.
Technically, chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change. [Starts a demonstration for his students]. Electrons, they change their energy levels; molecules change their bonds; elements, they combine and change into compounds! Well that’s, that’s all of life, right? I mean it’s just, it’s the constant, it’s the cycle, it’s solution, dissolution, just over and over and over. It is growth then decay, then transformation! (Breaking Bad, S1:E1)
Walt’s monologue in that scene foretells exactly what happens to his character as the series progresses. Those are the kinds of subtle artistry that come together to make Breaking Bad one of the big four TV shows of the Third Golden Age of Television. While it shares many common themes with the other shows in the big four (Mad Men, The Wire, The Sopranos), Chuck Klosterman pointed out exactly what sets Breaking Bad apart, stating “it’s the only [show] where the characters have real control over how they choose to live” (2011). Everything that happens in the show, every choice that is made by the characters is not one that is born out of necessity – Walt did not absolutely have to cook meth in order to obtain more money for his family. In fact, there were at least three other reasonable options that were mentioned throughout the series that would have also helped him out financially: a) he could have swallowed his pride and taken the job offer to work at Gray Matter again, b) he could have opened up that coffee shop with Gale, and c) he could have stopped cooking meth when he realized he was making a decent amount of money with the car wash he and Skyler started. Those are just the options that were explicitly mentioned (even jokingly) within the show, but as in any true capitalistic market he had several ways he could have saved up a nest egg for his family that did not involve the perpetuation of drugs.
What’s interesting to me is that several Breaking Bad fans have justified Walt’s actions as doing what he had to do as a man; he had to provide for his family and he turned to cooking meth because it would bring in the most money in the least amount of time and he was a smart enough chemist to do it well. However, what people fail to see is that, while it is the easiest route to take, it isn’t the only route. That justification also gets back to a common theme throughout the entire series: masculinity. What does it mean to be a man? As I was re-watching some of the episodes recently I noticed that there was something in each one that had some sort of message about what it means to be a man. Sometimes it was subtle (Walt and his son sitting in the driveway revving the engines to their new, shiny sports cars) and sometimes it was rather explicit (like when Gus Fring flat-out told Walt that “a man provides”). However, what makes all of this even more interesting is how the audience reacted to it.
About a year ago, shortly after the series ended, I conducted a study focused audience reaction to gender in Breaking Bad. I collected forty one-on-one interviews with fans that had watched at least three entire seasons of the series and I asked them to describe their thoughts on various characters, namely Walter, Skyler, Hank, and Marie. I found that the majority of the participants asserted that Walter was a smart dude who went from lame to total badass throughout the course of the series and, in one instance, when pressed for what made him such a badass I got the following response, “because he blew up a hospital!” On the other hand, Skyler received the most hate (aside from Marie) from the fans I spoke to mostly because she stood up to Walt and struggled to come to terms with his actions. To justify their dislike of her character, the general consensus of the interviewees sounded something along the lines of “Well, it was obvious that the writers wanted us to hate Skyler because of the way that the show was set up.” However, if you actually read interviews with Vince Gilligan, the brilliant man behind Breaking Bad, you’ll see that he actually intended for her to be a more relatable character. Gilligan was testing his audience to see how they would react to a protagonist that started out as a likable person and chose to walk down a dark path – would they continue to cling to someone who was so obviously villainous or would they realize the error of his ways and change their alliances? It can be gleaned, not only from the interviews I conducted, but from the general comments posted to online forums dedicated to the show, that cognitive dissonance won out. Many people were unsure of whom to root for in the end, which amused and sometimes terrified the writers and actors of the show (as Dean Norris, who portrayed Hank, remarked about in a Conan O’Brien interview).
So why is this show so important? What makes it worth scholarly study? Anna Gunn, the actress that portrayed Skyler White in the Breaking Bad series put it best:
But I finally realized that most people’s hatred of Skyler had little to do with me and a lot to do with their own perception of women and wives. Because Skyler didn’t conform to a comfortable ideal of the archetypical female, she had become a kind of Rorschach test for society, a measure of our attitudes toward gender” (2013)
The way that people react to fictional worlds is a reflection of how they feel about the larger issues that are presented in those worlds. It is especially important when those issues are prevalent within our real-world culture as those presented in Breaking Bad so often are. The fact that the character of Skyler White has gotten so much hatred over rather small human faults (especially when compared to her meth-cooking, killer husband) is a frightening thing. However, this sort of reaction to a strong female character is nothing new. The only new thing that’s involved in it is the online forums that have given people easier access to a platform where they can motivate others to share in their hatred. As Gilligan himself put it when confronted with fans hating Skyler:
Man, I don’t see it that way at all. We’ve been at events and had all our actors up onstage, and people ask Anna Gunn, ‘Why is your character such a bitch?’ And with the risk of painting with too broad a brush, I think the people who have these issues with the wives being too bitchy on Breaking Bad are misogynists, plain and simple (2013).
So, the next time you find yourself exhibiting strong emotions toward a fictional character, ask yourself where those feelings are coming from.