On Breaking Bad’s Intense Critique Of Western Masculinity

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Holy shit, you guys. The season finale of Breaking Bad happened last night, and it was so intense I laid awake for hours thinking, yes, about that shot, but also about Walter White‘s complete and utter corruption as a human being, and the degree to which said corruption is a result of Walt having watched too many westerns as a kid. Like its Emmy-baiting brethren Mad Men, Breaking Bad is all about What It Means To Be A Man in this day and age, an especially deep theme for something emanating from the same appliance that shows us The Jersey Shore.

The series opens with Walt feeling utterly emasculated by pretty much everything in his life. He has an excess of intelligence, but not (yet) the conniving kind that allowed his partner in research to double cross him and make a ton of money off his work. For this he's rewarded with a low-paying job teaching bored kids about chemistry, plus an even lower-paying job at a car wash. Walter White is the 99%! Like many people in America, he grew up being told that if he just worked hard enough and did what he was supposed to (and also, if he could manage it, be born white and male), he'd be able to win enough bread for his family to live decently and have a house, a car, a color TV, etc. And for his wife to stay at home, baking cookies and taking care of the kids. Only, like many people in this country, he finds this is no longer the case. As if that weren't enough, he's emasculated some more by cancer, and must submit to all kinds of treatments that literally penetrate and invade his body. And then there's his wife. So many opinions, this woman has. Why won't she shut up and let him die already?

Walt's first slide into “breaking bad,” as the series calls it, is at least partially motivated by the type of benevolent sexism that makes up a huge part of western masculinity. (I mean “western” in the terms of the developed world, but the concept of the American West certainly plays into it, too.) A man must provide for his helpless family by whatever means necessary, besides taking charity from others, of course, because that would make him weak. Also, he wants to provide for himself, which means treating his cancer and staying alive. This is partially underpinned by Skyler‘s stubborn refusal to just let him die, but as the series progresses, Walt turns out to have quite a strong self-preservation instinct of his own. His loyalty to his image of what it means to be a man could be mistaken for nobility, at this point. “He'd rather sell meth than accept charity from anyone! What a man,” etc.

But it's clear from the first moment he puts on that black hat and calls himself “Heisenberg” that he's not just doing it for his wife and kids. He's doing it because being a drug dealer is exciting, and tests his mettle in ways suburban life never did. He gets to play out his fantasy of being a bad ass gangster, being “the danger,” and he turns out to be improbably good at it. Pretending to be John fucking Wayne or Avon Barksdale or whomever is Walt's twisted version of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He's doing it, frankly, because it gets his dick hard.

Because this is a smart show, it undercuts that fantasy every chance it gets. The shots of the New Mexican landscape echo old westerns, while Walt's suburban markers (those brown bag lunches!) juxtapose the fact that he works at a meth lab. (See also: poisoning a child with a goddamn house plant.) The biggest example of this, of course, is the terrible way Walt's actions affect both himself and everyone else. For a tough gang banger, it quickly grows apparent that Jesse is much more human on the inside than Walt. The first time Jesse kills someone, it almost destroys him; the first time Walt kills someone, it only makes him more murderous, more Heisenberg. Walt's masculinity is toxic and self-perpetuating.

Another fascinating way the show complicates masculinity is with its homoerotic undercurrents. We talked in our editorial meeting last week about why Walt never cheats on Skyler with other women, and I think it's because he's busy being in love with both meth-cooking, and his partner in meth-cooking. From the very first time they take their clothes off to cook, Walt and Jesse's relationship plays out somewhat like a love story. It's passionate, tempestuous, and jealous! They even get to have some full body contact in the scene where Walt's brand of discipline gets to be too much even for a sub like Jesse, and they fight. Don't tell me wrestling is not incredibly homoerotic. (See also: Fight Club.)

There's also the matter of Gus Fring, who seems coded as queer in many ways. He's a fastidious dresser, he's soft-spoken, and he had a rather dreamy “friend” he loved so much that he's willing to spend years building a fast food franchise/super meth lab/community presence just to get a chance at avenging him. He's even willing to risk death just to be the one who sticks the needle in Tio Hector. Would you do that for a “friend”? (It wouldn't be the first time a critically acclaimed show had complicated things by making the drug king pin queer.)

It's a testament to how committed we are to these ideals of masculinity that so many people spent so long rooting for Walt, murderous asshole, while at the same time hating Skyler for…what, exactly? Showing tough love by trying to snap him out of his prideful “let the cancer kill me” daze? Wanting to know what the fuck is up with her husband? Demanding to be treated as co-pilot of the family? Being kind of annoying? Ironically enough, as Walt continues to unravel he unwittingly takes on many stereotypically feminine qualities (irrationallity, impulsiveness, verbal diarrhea), while Skyler is forced to keep a cool head and do damage control (for him, and for fellow failed man Ted Beneke) so that she and her kids have a chance at survival. Who's the shrewish wife now?

Which is all to say, this show is hugely subversive. Of course, there are always going to be people who take the utterly wrong message from it; they're probably the same people who made the Brooks Brothers Mad Men line of suits possible. But I think Breaking Bad‘s popularity has at least something to do with how well it engages with issues that are on a lot of people's minds these days, especially the people in that crucial 18-49-year-old male demographic. With Walt as corrupted as he is right now, where will the final sixteen episodes take us? To penance as ugly as Walt's battle scarred face, no doubt.