Is ‘Breaking Bad’ About Capitalism, Or Masculinity, Or Both?

The video in this post contains spoilers for Season 5 of Breaking Bad, up to & including the September 2 episode.

It would be a usurpation to write up the closeout episode of season 5.1 of Breaking Bad with Alyssa vacationing. I won’t try to do that, but the folks at Press Play have a gorgeous video essay up stringing together some of the best bits of cinematography we’ve seen this season and making an argument about what it all means. Take a look:

The accompanying text is well worth your time too. Praising the show’s “visual literacy,” Derek Hill writes that “it draws on the muscular richness of past masters of the action genre, such as Sergio Leone, John Sturges, Budd Boetticher, Sam Peckinpah, William Friedkin, and Michael Mann, to deliver the goods.” That’s quite a list, and I think I agree — especially when Hill contrasts the use of cinematography to flesh out character psychology in Breaking Bad with the way that an adroit stylist like Tarantino employs some of the same techniques.

Hill goes on to narrow the argument about the show’s cinematography a bit too far for me, however:

Actors in the frame are typically juxtaposed with advertising signs or dwarfed by urban architecture, a sort of primetime visual semiotics. Although the show ostensibly explores Walter and Jesse’s trajectories through the seedy, violent world of drug dealing and crime, it’s really about capitalism at its most savage. Walter’s justification for his involvement in the meth business has always been his need to financially support his family. That’s what he tells himself and his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn). It’s a lie, however, since Walter has had many opportunities to walk away with the fortune he’s made. Greed and the American need to dominate have taken root in Walter now.

Hill makes a strong argument and you should read the whole thing, but I disagree that capitalism is the core of Breaking Bad. For me, the constant visual evocations of Westerns and action flicks point a different direction: gender panic. Walter gave up on his startup only to get stuck teaching bored teenagers the basics while his former partners earn billions pushing the boundaries of the science he loves. He’s so ill-compensated he takes a carwash job that inverts the status his education would seem to confer, and spends his evenings getting yelled at by strangers picky about their cars.

Yes, it’s late-stage American capitalism (and Walt’s decisions within it) that put him in this position. But his break into criminality and his gradual dedication to not just sufficient profit but kingpin status are compensatory. Walt’s been deprived of even the opportunity to play an alpha role in his professional life, and clings to the illusion of one in his personal life to such an extent that he’s outraged and wounded when Skyler wants to go back to work. He compensates for what he feels are years of deprivation by launching himself towards the opposite end of the masculinity spectrum, where he feels he deserves to operate. No one ever calls him on the reality that he made the choices — or at least the primary choice — that left him juggling jobs to support his family. Rather than floating towards some kind of equilibrium point along the scale of “kneeling carwash employee” to “The One Who Knocks,” Walt’s been relentlessly pressing toward the outward bound of the alpha-male self identity he carries in his head. He’s been going all one direction for four and a half seasons (and a year of his life). The show has illustrated this lunge for idealized man-ness with car explosions, ruthless poisonings, manic self-confidence, various forms of aggressive/threatening sexuality, potted plants thrown through windows.

Insofar as the show is about Walter White, it’s about a wild-eyed monomaniacal lunge for status and control. Insofar as the show is about America, Hill’s spot on. The visual language of Breaking Bad is working on a bunch of different tasks at any given time. It’s almost too gorgeous to digest in a single viewing, and as tough as it is to wait a year for the conclusion, that gives us all time to watch and rewatch this singular set of visual achievements.