I was so wrapped up in the emotional tension of Breaking Bad that it wasn’t until about a week after I finished watching the third season that I realized something that’s been itching at me: I’m not sure what the show’s politics are. Breaking Bad is meant to be a personal story rather than a systematic one, but that doesn’t mean it’s apolitical, especially when that personal story puts a drug dealer and a Drug Enforcement Administration in close proximity to each other. And especially when that personal story is essentially a long-term examination of masculine ideals. I’m not sure Breaking Bad is a profoundly conservative show, but it seems to me it’s not a liberal one, in that it buys fairly deeply into some existing assumptions and power structures.
First, the question of the DEA and the War on Drugs. Unlike The Wire, Breaking Bad isn’t really engaged in structural analysis (I’d be curious to see someone do that with meth, though). To the limited extent that it explores drug organizations, Breaking Bad tends to portray dealers as violent psychopaths like Tuco and the extended Salamanca family, or as shadowy amoral operators like Gus. It’s hard to see the kind of people who would cut Danny Trejo’s head off, put it on a turtle, and rig the turtle with bombs as anything other than desperately in need of prosecution. More importantly, the way Walt’s storyline is set up reinforces the idea that we shouldn’t have sympathy for people in the industry. He may start out manufacturing meth out of a sense of financial need, but he keeps cooking after he goes into remission out of sheer cussedness and pride—pretty much like everyone else we see in the industry. It’s harder to treat the War on Drugs as if it’s manifestly unjust if you reject or obscure the idea that the drug trade is the product of larger societal structures.
Then, there’s the portrayal of the DEA. Apparently, the agency’s worked with Vince Gilligan and members of the cast to make the raid and lab scenes more authentic, which strikes me as something that would definitely have an impact on how the folks on the show feel about the DEA:
But I also think the depiction of the agency is generally positive. Hank may be abrasive and difficult and racist (“You people used to be conquistadors, for chrissake. Smells like a Drakkar Noir factory in here,” he complains when he’s busting dealers), but he’s also generally treated as if he’s good at his job—it would be pretty unfortunate if, now that he’s got Gayle’s proposal, the show throws illogical obstacles in the way of Hank figuring out that Walt is Heisenberg. His beating Jesse is undeniably immoral, but the show does a nice job of documenting how that transgressive act of violence emerges out of his PTSD from the bombing, and Hank refuses to duck responsibility for the beating. Though Marie blames the DEA for taking Hank’s gun away from him, leaving him vulnerable when the Cousins attack him, there’s no question that it was the responsible thing to do, a sense that the agency has itself under control, and Hank basically proves himself to be an action hero when he is the victim of violence. And it’s his DEA buddies, rather than Marie, who find the thing to reengage Hank’s spirit as he struggles with his rehabilitation, getting him back in an investigative frame of mind. That’s a generally optimistic picture that doesn’t grapple with the abuses or failures of the policies that agency is set to enforce.
Breaking Bad‘s substantially more nuanced when it comes to the question of masculine ideals. The show’s fairly sympathetic to Walt’s desire to provide for his family after his death’s, a sense that he, as the man of the family, is responsible for it. But it’s also clear that Walt’s renewed sense of himself as a man leads in some ugly directions, whether he’s attacking the teenagers who bully Walter Jr., forcing himself on Skylar, or encouraging Walter Jr. to drink until he vomits. Similarly, Hank’s a good provider for Marie, and capable of stepping up and supporting Skylar when Walt’s essentially an absent husband, but he’s crude, insensitive, he commits a worrying number of petty cruelties and abuses on the people around them. Don Salamanca’s decision to preserve the honor of his family through violence brings disaster down upon them. Jesse’s still a child. Jane’s father crumbles after her death. If anything, Gus is the most reliable avatar of manhood on the show: calm, controlled, efficient, successful, keeping to high standards. But he’s so distant and reserved that he’s more ideal than human, but not one that anyone else on-screen or off can really emulate.