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'Sometimes forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest, doesn't it?' Breaking Bad: the transgressive journey of Walter White American Studies Today Online

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This article addresses some of the key moments in the first two seasons of Breaking Bad (2008-2013). The paper utilises the concept of the liminal subject to address the ways in which protagonist Walter White’s actions disrupt and trouble the boundaries between criminal and conforming behaviour; in so doing, the paper suggests that the series’ narrative framework orients  viewers’ attention toward a sociological, rather than a populist understanding of crime and deviance.

by Hazel Work (lecturer in sociology at the University of Abertay, Dundee who teaches social and cultural theory.)


Posted 5 June 2014




Framework of the narrative

Dream on

'…trust me; this line of work doesn't suit you'

I am awake

Cancer man

I am not the same

Seven thirty seven

'We don't got the street cred to survive it'

Roaches and beans

Oh God! All the lies


Further Reading



Protagonist Walter White’s decision to ‘break bad’ takes viewers on a narrative journey that can be understood in terms of Jeff Ferrell, Keith Hayward and Jock Young’s criminological approach, which focuses on ‘the phenomenology of everyday life: the experiences of joy, humiliation, anger and desperation, the seductions of transgression and vindictiveness, the myriad forms of resistance and the repressive nature of acquiescence’ (2008: 205). In addition to representing these experiences, Walt’s narrative allows insight into both a socio-structural and phenomenological understanding of criminal behaviour. Breaking Bad develops a sociologically-informed narrative about the ‘delicately balanced’ relationship ‘between crime and convention’ (Matza 1964: 63), which provides viewers with a complex moral discourse about the social character of deviance, conformity and transgression. This discourse is developed through Walt’s attempt, in light of his decision to ‘break bad’, to maintain both a conventional and a criminal identity, thereby problematizing clear-cut boundaries between conforming and deviant behaviour. The series illustrates the plasticity of moral boundaries and demonstrates that the lines between crime and convention are socially produced and defined; by so doing, Breaking Bad challenges the orthodox or common-sense understanding of criminal behaviour reproduced in many popular cultural forms.

Framework of the narrative

In Breaking Bad, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a former research scientist and overqualified high school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. He is 50, has a teenage son, Walt Junior (RJ Mitte) who has cerebral palsy, and his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) is expecting an (unplanned) baby. To make ends meet, Walt has a second, after-school job at the local car-wash; a job more suited to a high school student, and a fact which is not lost on Walt. His family’s precarious socio-economic position is reinforced by the fact that Walt has inadequate health insurance and cannot afford the medical treatment necessary to treat his lung cancer.

Television coverage of a recent bust of a crystal methamphetamine ‘factory’ opens Walt’s eyes to an alternative and far more lucrative career. As a gifted chemist, Walt sees the production of crystal meth as an avenue through which he could provide for his family after his death. After a ride-along with his brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), a Drug Enforcement Administration officer, Walt seeks out a former high school student, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) who is a low level manufacturer and dealer of poor quality crystal meth. A partnership is forged and the series details the journey the amateurs take into the field of drug production and distribution, deviance and criminality. Crucially, Walt fails to tell his family he has lung cancer until a month after his diagnosis and his first foray into the production of crystal meth; the deceit and lying this engenders, sets the emotional tone through which much of the resulting drama of the first two seasons is played out.

Dream on

The White family reflects the economic situation of many Americans today who are experiencing falling income levels, rising unemployment and an overall rise in the levels of inequality. As Lawrence Katz states, ‘This is truly a lost decade. We think of America as a place where every generation is doing better; but we’re looking at a period when the median family is in worse shape than it was in the late 1990s’ (quoted in Usborne 2011: 31). Walt’s diagnosis throws into relief the gap between the expectation of a lifestyle congruent with the ideology of the American Dream and the reality that, after a life-time of conforming to social expectations, he has nothing. Under these circumstances, Walt’s decision to produce crystal meth seems, to him, to be a rational one. The Whites’ economic situation thus provides the structural framework for Walt’s foray into criminal behaviour, but it is important to note that Walt also has an emotional investment in his criminal activity, to protect his family from economic hardship. As the narrative progresses, however, we also see that his foray into a deviant career includes a ‘range of sensual dynamics’ (Katz 1988: 5) such as pleasure, power, risk and excitement that lead us beyond the confines and relative safety of crime and criminal behaviour, understood as a rational choice. This choice can be contained and made safe because it is regarded as calculated and in some sense reasonable. In Breaking Bad, we are confronted with a character whose age, illness and economic situation contribute to his liminal state, where one is positioned between different states of being. This fluidity in Walt’s sense of self has a greater potential to destabilise and challenge orthodox ideas about conformity, order and containment than crime understood as calculative rationality alone.

‘…trust me; this line of work doesn’t suit you’

Walter White has worked all his life, yet on his 50th birthday he cannot afford basic maintenance in his house, his wife takes him to task for putting $15.88 on a credit card they do not use and he is humiliated by his socially demeaning position at the car-wash. His perception of his social status colours many of his decisions regarding his subsequent forays into criminal behaviour. We are also given the sense that Walt has conformed to normative expectations all his life, for example, not eating junk food and not smoking—either cigarettes or joints (see episode two, ‘The cat’s in the bag,’ series 1). According to his brother-in-law, Walt is a ‘straight man’, who ‘wouldn’t know a criminal if he was close enough to check you for a hernia’ (episode six, ‘Crazy handful of Nothin’’, series 2) Yet, by the time of this comment, Walt has killed two men and has committed himself to producing 2lb (0.9 kg) of crystal meth per week for Tuco Salamanca, a local Mexican-American drug lord with connections to Juarez. Walt’s very conformity helps to ensure that he is immune from suspicion; the label of deviant is not attached to him because he does not fit standard behavioural codes that would classify him as such. This sense of conformity is further reinforced by the dullness of his home, his staid clothing, his non-descript car and his beige moustache. In these ways, Walt challenges the populist notion that the deviant is somehow distinguishable from the ‘normal’ person, and his character reinforces the more complex sociological idea that conformity and deviancy are unstable, socially produced categories.

The suggestion that conformity and deviance are not fixed categories is reinforced in episode seven, ‘A no-rough-stuff type of deal’ (series 1). Hank (DEA) and Walt discuss, while smoking illegal Cuban cigars, ‘How we draw that line’ between legality and illegality. The conversation ranges from the cigars, through prohibition to the period in time when crystal meth was sold in pharmacies across America. Walt argues that the definitions of legality and illegality are arbitrary, with Hank retorting that he hears the same arguments in ‘lock up’. In this exchange, Walt is symbolically aligned with counter-hegemonic discourses of crime and deviance, yet his position is much more complex than this alignment may suggest. Walt is attempting to negotiate a sense of self between the conventional and criminal world and, despite the fact that he is clearly invigorated by his criminal behaviour, his rationale for ‘becoming deviant’ is inextricably linked to his commitment to the norms and values of the ‘straight’ world as husband, father and provider. Moreover, Walt’s diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer facilitates his decision to become this other deviant self. His diagnosis situates him in the no-man’s-land between life and death, and the ontological insecurity that this status engenders grounds decisions that Walter White, chemistry teacher would not or perhaps could not contemplate.

I am awake

As a man in between, Walt is a liminal entity, defined by Victor Turner as entities that are ‘neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned by law, custom, convention and ceremonial. This liminality is frequently likened to death’ (1969, 2011:95). Liminality is associated also with transition and change, with Breaking Bad drawing on Walt’s liminal status to explore ideas about the relationship between conformity and deviance and how we define and interpret the moral qualities and moral boundaries of our actions.

This sense of transformation and change is brought to the fore in the opening episodes when Walt is teaching his chemistry class. He argues, in the pilot episode, that chemistry is the study of change, of ‘solution, dissolution, transformation.’ Walt ‘breaks bad’ because he needs the money, but his journey into the badlands is also facilitated by the emotions he experiences when carrying out relatively minor acts of deviant behaviour; these include his use of violence to defend his son, the manner of his resignation from the car-wash and his act of revenge upon the driver of a sports car. These acts suggest a small man acting out or fighting back and they make Walt feel that he is actually living rather than merely existing. So, transgression for Walt becomes associated, both literally and metaphorically, with life rather than death, and his assertion, ‘I am awake’, represents the beginning of his transformation.

The idea of transformation is inextricably linked to the creation of another self. In the second episode, ‘The cat’s in the bag’ (series 1), Walt begins his chemistry lesson by talking about CHIRAL compounds, which are ‘identical but opposite’; they ‘look the same but don’t behave the same.’ The idea of the double is of course a classic theme in popular culture, but Breaking Bad’s account of doubling moves beyond a simple dichotomy of good and evil, black and white. Here, the idea of the double may also be viewed as a metaphor for the fluidity of the relationship between conformity and deviance. Indeed, Walt’s two selves may look the same but they are opposites: on the one hand, straight family man, teacher and conformist, and, on the other, drug producer, liar and (reluctant), murderer. The ‘classificatory boundaries’ are troubled because it is difficult to see Walt as an ‘other’ monstrous self since the conformist and the deviant are ‘creatures of the same culture, inventions of the same imagination’, or two sides of the same coin (Erikson 1966: 21).

Breaking Bad cast and crew

From left to right: Josh Sapan (AMC president and CEO), Aaron Paul (Jesse Pinkman), Vince Gilligan (creator), Bryan Cranston (Walter White) and Charlie Collier (President, General Manager)

Photo: Thomas Attila Lewis from Pittsfield, MA, USA - Flickr

Cancer man

Walt ‘slips through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space’ (Turner 1969, 2011: 95), as is made apparent in the dialectic between the deviant personas he adopts: ‘cancer man’ and ‘Heisenberg’, his alias as the wizard of crystal methamphetamine production. One of the main tensions in the narrative is Walt’s increasingly desperate attempts to retain and maintain the boundaries of his normative self against the demands of his criminal career. Walt and Jesse’s actions in the criminal world lead to a chain of unintended consequences, the effects of which push against and infiltrate the boundaries of Walt’s ‘straight’ life.

Labelled as a terminally ill person, Walt enters into a landscape in which he is expected to conform to the ‘sick role.’ By refusing to respond to his diagnosis in a socially acceptable manner, Walt becomes a ‘doubly deviant’ cancer man. Walt’s stoicism in the face of death is unacceptable to his family and possibly unpatriotic. In Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World (2010), Barbara Ehreneich details the social pressures placed on patients to conform to the role of cancer patient. To conform, one must show the ‘correct’ outlook, most notably, an optimistic response to diagnosis and a positive, up-beat attitude, despite the fact that there is no scientific evidence to suggest that there is a causal connection between a positive outlook and survival rates (Ehrenreich 2010 :42). Furthermore, notes Ehrenreich, patients should be willing to engage in a range of health strategies to assist in the ‘battle’ against the disease. In extremis, cancer is viewed as a gift, a positive experience, survivors are heroes, and by implication, those who die are failures. Walt’s stoical response does not fit into this narrative and as such may be coded as un-American; his realism is coded as pessimism and ‘a kind of treason’ (Ehrenreich 2010:31) that goes against the grain of this medicalised version of can-do individualism. Walt’s reluctance to play the ‘sick role’ is reinforced by his overall attitude toward the disease. He does not take the group therapy sessions seriously and adopts a sceptical attitude toward his wife’s search for alternative remedies, unless they serve as an alibi to cover for his criminal activities.

At the same time, however, there is also a sense in which Walt’s stoical response is a marker of his adherence to dominant norms and values. His attempt to downplay the effects of the cancer is linked to his desire to maintain a sense of himself as a productive individual. As Chris Shilling (2002:623) reminds us, the sick role is viewed as ‘dysfunctional’ because it disrupts social roles and productive capacity, so one has to adopt the sick role to be released from the expectation of productive labour. Walt’s inability to relinquish this role and be ill is linked to his desperate attempt to ameliorate the impact of his failure to provide for his family in legitimate ways. His response to the diagnosis and his drive to produce enough crystal meth to provide for his family conforms to the ‘cultural value placed on instrumental action’ (Shilling 2002: 623), a form of action, which is used, in part, to legitimate both criminal and conventional behaviour within the series as a whole.

I am not the same

Walt’s diagnosis is the catalyst for self-analysis, but his actual self-transformation is anchored in his experiences as Heisenberg, the ‘artist’ of crystal methamphetamine production. The development of a heightened sense of awareness is facilitated through Walt’s emotional responses to his acts of deviancy, and he comes to the realisation that, up until this ‘fateful moment’, he has been sleep-walking through his life. These responses are also embedded in Walt’s sense of discontentment since he feels that his true worth has not been recognised. In the fifth episode, ‘Gray Matter’ (series 1), we learn that Walt was once a member of a cutting-edge group of scientists, but is excluded from their financial and material success. His prodigious talent is ‘wasted’ teaching chemistry in a high school, with this episode providing cues to Walt’s sublimated rage at his situation, most tellingly perhaps when he intimates that his colleagues stole his ideas, and by extension his true worth as an exceptional chemist. Walt reinforces his profound sense of alienation in ‘Gray Matter’ (1:5) when he explains his rationale for not undergoing treatment:

But what I want, what I want, what I need is a choice. Sometimes I feel like I never actually ... make any of my own ... choices. ... I mean. My entire life  ... it just seems I never, you know, had a real say about any of it.

We may question what constitutes an ‘authentic’ life, but it is clear that Walt’s decision to produce crystal meth provides him with a sense of autonomy and control, which had previously been missing from his life.

Walt’s revitalised sense of self is reinforced later, in episode eight, ‘Better Call Saul’ (series 2) when Walt states, ‘There’s more than one kind of prison’, to Jesse’s befuddlement. Walt has come to see his existence as Walter White as a deadening experience, smothering his creativity beneath a veneer of conformity. Walt is experiencing what Katz (1988:8) terms a ‘genuine experiential creativity’, which allows him to use his knowledge of chemistry to produce innovative responses to the dilemmas that his criminal activity produces. His creativity has shaken him out of his lethargy and has led him to question the nature of his existence. This representation of his criminal behaviour as a form of awakening taps into a more complex understanding of criminality framed in terms of pleasure, emotion and risk. The fact that Walt is willing to become a drug producer and dealer, yet unwilling to accept financial assistance to pay for medical treatment from his former friends and colleagues, reinforces the extent to which Walt’s foray into crime is about more than the money. His techniques of neutralisation disguise a more complex set of motivations: he gains a certain pleasure from the fact that he has the knowledge to produce the best crystal meth on the market, but this brings its own problems since in the latter half of the second series he is unable to tell his family that he paid for his treatment. Indeed, his actions have made his family, in the event of his death, financially secure. In the end, however, Walt’s front stage persona (Goffman 1959, 1975), the self he presents to his family, continues to be the man who is at the mercy of others, and he succumbs to familial pressure and undergoes treatment. This moment of acquiescence and conformity is shadowed by Walt’s other self: to pay for the treatment, Walt must produce more crystal meth. This need draws him inexorably toward an alternative moral universe, a universe from which he naively hopes he can remain detached. This detachment is equivocal, and it involves another doubling, a dark mirroring, because success in both worlds is defined by instrumental action, supply and demand, profit and violence.

Seven thirty seven

The instrumental rationality that drives production, distribution and profit under capitalism is mirrored in the production and distribution of drugs. After the initial drug deal goes wrong, Walt expresses concern about their ‘non sustainable business model’ and declares, ‘This is unacceptable; I am breaking the law here. This return is too little for the risk’ (1:6). The solution for achieving a sufficient return is obvious to both Walt and the audience: ‘We have to move our product in bulk, wholesale. Now, how do we do that?’ The attempt to increase profit is also matched by a concern with levels of ‘market penetration’ and in episode seven, ‘Negro y Azui’ (series 2), Walt persuades Jesse to expand their operation into untapped areas of Albuquerque. The language he uses mirrors many of the clichés of enterprise capitalism: ‘Now, this is our territory, right? Currently. Now, look at this. Here, here, here and here. What does that look like to you? Opportunities, golden ones; that’s what it looks like’. Instrumental reason is deployed against the boundary crossings and dangers necessitated by greater interaction with the professional inhabitants of the drug world. Walt’s asphyxiation of Emilio (Pilot) and the eventual murder of Krazy8 (1:3), both of whom are professional drug dealers, are necessary because it is a, ‘them or us’ situation. The attempt to kill Tuco Salamanca is also understood within this framework of self-preservation and shows that the logic of the drug business engenders violent and morally ambiguous behaviour, behaviour that is rooted in and emerges out of the same logic that drives capitalism. As Pat O’Malley argues, ‘risk-taking crime can appear not as an affront to the very image of the responsible subject, nor even as a form of resistance to dominant morality, but more frequently a mirror image –a subterranean expression of mainstream values’ (2010: 54). This subterranean expression of mainstream values is mapped out through Walt’s relationship with Gus Fring. Saul, described by Jesse as a ‘criminal lawyer,’ puts Walt in touch with Fring, an ‘honest-to-God businessman. Somebody who treats your product like the simple-high-margin commodity that it is’. While this ostensibly straight businessman, the owner of Hermanos Pollos, a fast food chain, is reluctant to deal with Walt, largely because of Jesse’s own drug use, he agrees to a deal because of the potential for a large margin of profit on the ‘purest…most chemically sound product on the market anywhere’. This deal leaves Jesse and Walt with a haul of $960,000 dollars and it is loaded with personal and moral consequences for both of them.

Breaking Bad cast and crew: creator Vince Gilligan, RJ Mitte (Walt Jr.), Aaron Paul (Jesse Pinkman), Anna Gunn (Skyler White), Bryan Cranston (Walter White), Dean Norris (Hank Schrader), and producer Mark Johnson.
The cast and crew of 'Breaking Bad': RJ Mitte, Betsy Brandt, Bryan Cranston, and Mark Johnson with the Peabody Award for Breaking Bad.

‘We don’t got the street cred to survive it’

Willem De Haan and Ian Loader argue that ‘We need to insist that perpetrators of crime are moral subjects striving reflexively to give meaning to their actions before, during and after a crime’ (2002: 245). The narrative of Breaking Bad turns on moments of crisis in which Walt and Jesse have to negotiate their actions in the spaces between the alternate moral universes they occupy. These moments of crisis evolve out of their status as novitiates in the world of serious drug production; they stumble into scenarios where the solutions to their crises are dependent upon an alternate set of rules to those that govern their everyday lives. These rules are dependent upon the will and when necessary the capacity to do violence. Herein lies the problem for both characters: neither Jesse nor Walt have, at this stage in their criminal careers, the moral will nor the physical and symbolic resources to do violence effectively.

After the deaths of Emilio and Krazy8, Walt tries to distance himself from violence, telling Jesse, ‘No matter what happens, no more bloodshed’. This statement is interspersed with a scene of carnage and devastation which is the opening salvo of Jesse and Walt’s interaction with Tuco Salamanca. This montage of images provides viewers with the foreknowledge of the functional impossibility of Walt’s desire for no more bloodshed, and an anticipation of the violence to come. The series suggests that ‘violence can tame violence’, echoing Richard Sparks 1992 analysis of the use of violence in television crime drama. As Sparks (1992:52) argues, such a suggestion leads one towards the ‘necessity of the imposition of force,’ thereby affirming the status quo. However, this depiction of violence may be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, we can see, following Sparks (1992), that the series may legitimate the ideology of order over law through the ‘poetic justice’ meted out to certain characters (Tuco, Spooge and Tortuga). On the other hand, however, if we understand that the ‘violence of things’ is ‘due to class and the kinds of conflicts it engenders’ (Thompson 1993:136), Breaking Bad can be understood as articulating the wider logic of the system as it negotiates a relationship between the legitimate social order and its ‘other’. The moral and emotional register of each moment of violence differs, however, and this process of differentiation means that the deaths in the series have different values and levels of worth attached to them. Alongside the characterisation of Walt and Jesse as reflexive moral subjects responding in a haphazard and often darkly comic fashion to the unintended consequences of their actions, there is another discourse where we are confronted by the crimes of psychopaths, monsters and low-life ‘skanks’. It is in the representation of these characters that we are led, in part, toward an orthodox understanding of violence, deviance and criminality. This understanding  is reinforced by Walt and Jesse’s desire to see Tuco dead and in their attitude toward the consumers who buy their product, exemplified by Jesse in the episode ‘Peekaboo’ (2:6) where he is clearly disgusted by the way in which two junkies treat their child.

Roaches and beans

Perhaps the most obvious indication of this orthodox understanding is in the representation and death of Tuco Salamanca. In ‘Crazy handful of Nothin’’ (1:6), Tuco beats a man to death in front of Walt and Jesse because of a perceived slight. To them, this action is irrational, an expression of rage that is unbounded. Jesse describes Tuco as an ‘insane ass-clown … dead eyed killer’ and a ‘psychotic piece of shit’ (2:1). Tuco’s violence is vicious, so there is ‘virtue’ in his death, a death which is framed within the narrative as a form of poetic justice. Viewers are not provided with any other frame of reference to understand Tuco, and he becomes the symbol of and cipher through which we are introduced to the psychotic and ‘animalistic’ workings of the cartels operating on the borderline between Mexico and the United States. In the episodes ‘Breakage’ (2:5) and ‘Negro Y Azui’ (2:7), Hank, as the authoritative voice on law and order, provides the audience with two classic metaphors about crime as ‘other’ and therefore outside the parameters of normal, civilised behaviour. In ‘Breakage’, (2:5), Walt, who is by now an established dealer and reluctant murderer, asks Hank his opinion on criminals: ‘What do you think it is that makes them who they are?’ Hank’s response, ‘Buddy, you might as well be asking about the roaches. All I know is there’s a whole world of them out there’, reiterates an established metaphor of crime as aberrant infestation rather than a product of the social order itself. In ‘Negro Y Azui’ (2:7), Hank is at the centre of a drug meet in Juarez that goes bad, and involves, tellingly, the use of an Improvised Explosive Device, decapitation, tortoises and loss of life and limb. It is a surreal, grisly act of violence, which is discussed by Hank and Walt in ‘Better Call Saul’ (2:8). Walt suggests that the experience was ‘terrible’, to which Hank replies: ‘What do you expect? Bunch of freaking animals. It’s like Apocalypse Now down there. It’s like Colonel Kurtz holed up in the jungle’.

Both of Hank’s statements serve to define the Mexican-American drug dealers as the irrational, inferior, criminal ‘other’; the hell of ‘down-there’ speaks to the dangerous liminality of deviant behaviour, the failure of the ‘war on drugs’ and, ultimately, the failure of containment. The porous US-Mexico border is unable to contain a criminality which is portrayed as more violent, more savage and pathological than its American counterpart. It is a contagion which seeps through the fissures, challenging both the geographical and moral boundaries of the United States. This is evidenced in Hank, Walt and Jesse’s reaction to the violence perpetrated by the Mexican-American drug dealers, which is constituted as different and untameable. This reiteration of racial and criminal tropes is undermined, however, by the narrative contexts in which Hank’s statements are uttered. Hank’s authority to define crime and criminality is weakened by his failure to recognise his brother-in-law as a criminal. Despite this challenge to Hank’s authoritative voice, it remains the case that Walt’s and, to a lesser extent, Jesse’s violence is framed within alternate moral boundaries to those of Tuco and his associates, although all are playing variations on a theme. As the episode, ‘Negro y Azui’ (2:7) suggests, Walt and Jesse have yet to understand the full score.

In contradistinction to the Mexican-American drug dealers, Walt and Jesse’s moments of crisis are contained, in the text, within a complex narrative framework. We see them as fully rounded human beings responding to the context and consequences of their actions. Walt’s sorrow works to ameliorate his violence, for instance, when he cries and apologises while killing Krazy8. When it comes to the death of the junky, Spooge in ‘Peekaboo’ (2:6), Jesse reveals his fundamental reluctance and ineptitude for the blood work associated with the drug trade. His short-lived reputation as a killer is based upon a nasty death that has nothing to do with him. Viewers are subject to a process of interpellation that ensures that we identify as far as possible with Walt and Jesse. This attempt to maintain an idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’ is undermined, however, by the way in which the actions of Walt and Jesse cannot in and of themselves be confined to this type of binary opposition.

This blurring of the lines between an ‘us’ and ‘them’ is demonstrated most clearly in the closing episodes of season two. We have watched Walt and Jesse hook up with a criminal lawyer and an ostensibly ‘straight’ distributor, we have watched their ‘foot soldiers’ sell drugs to every social class on the streets of Albuquerque, but it is in the fate of Jesse’s junky girlfriend, Jane, that Walt’s actions challenge the attempts to maintain a boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Walt’s failure to act in the episode ‘Phoenix’ (2:12), leads indirectly to the deaths of many innocent civilians (‘ABQ’ 2:13). Jane’s death in the episode ‘Phoenix’ (2:12) is due, in part, to Walt’s decision not to intervene: he allows her to choke to death on her own vomit, thereby neutralising her threat of blackmail and preserving his partnership with Jesse. As she begins to choke, he utters ‘No, No, No’, but allows her to die. A line is crossed, and viewers see the consequences of Jane’s death as her grief-stricken father is distracted from his job as an air traffic controller and causes a mid-air collision that drops plane debris on Albuquerque. Walt is not aware that his actions have led to the passengers’ deaths but in some senses the outcome is the same: we see the widening scope of what he is prepared to do, an expansion of his moral universe to encompass acts that cannot be so easily neutralised by some attempt at ‘us’ and ‘them’ or by staking out the moral high ground in his rejoinder to Skyler, ‘Do you know what I’ve done for this family?’ (‘Down’ 2:4).

Oh God! All the lies

The outcome of his failure to intervene and save Jane signals to the audience that Walt is in the process of becoming someone different. It is here that we see the working through of the logic of a liminal persona, a persona which sheds the attributes of the past as it moves toward a new but not yet formed state (Turner 2011:94). In this process, Walt finds it increasingly difficult to maintain the boundary between his two lives. The failure to maintain classificatory boundaries is regarded as ‘polluting and dangerous’ (Douglas in Turner 2011:109), and so it proves to be. The defence and maintenance of the boundary between Walt’s personas rests on the capacity to lie successfully, but this mode of defence proves fragile and unstable. The weight of the lies told and retold through the series proves to be a polluting force, the taint of which corrodes what Walt wishes to preserve: his family. From the outset, his wife Skyler is alert to the nuances of Walt’s behaviour and unbeknown to him she is aware, at an early stage in the narrative, that he is lying, but does not know what he is lying about. There are a number of occasions in Breaking Bad when Walt is called, in passing, to account for his behaviour. He explains his actions in relation to the effects of his treatment for cancer, an explanation accepted by his family. However, as the inconsistencies in his behaviour mount, Walt is confronted by Skyler and painful conversations full of lies and denials ensue. The scene in the episode ‘Down’ (2:4) is perhaps one of the most difficult to watch because Walt continues to lie under sustained pressure from his wife to tell the truth, to which Walt finally retorts, ‘Tell you what?’

One may argue that the act of lying is given greater symbolic weight here than murder and violence because the lies are the catalyst for the break-up of Walt’s family. Skyler cannot conceive of the actions behind the lies, so the lies themselves become the polluting force. At this stage in the narrative, Skyler generally exhibits a populist sensibility that suggests that the line between legitimate and illegitimate behaviour is unequivocal, rather than contextually and circumstantially defined. Her response to Walt’s lies is to maintain the boundaries of her symbolic and moral universe by leaving the family home, which, for her, has been contaminated by his deceitful behaviour. The fact that Walt seems to lose what he is trying to preserve works to reorder the moral frame of the acts carried out by the characters; the lies resonate because the audience can relate to lying and being lied to, the scenes of lying and deceit are, despite their quantity here, mimetic. The viewers’ discomfort may also be linked to this fact. This discomfort reinforces another important feature of the narrative of Breaking Bad, in that it attempts to ‘undercut viewer affect’ by eschewing ‘satisfying, emotionally charged conclusions’ (Klein 2009:179).

Breaking Bad’s disavowal of a sentimental journey is linked to the fact that Walt White does not come across to the viewer as a particularly likeable character. His liminal status as ‘cancer man’ provides the space for Walt and the audience to neutralise his deviance, but it does not translate into an unequivocal sympathy for his character. His refusal to play the role of a ‘victim’ battling cancer acts as a distancing mechanism within the narrative that affects not only the relationship between Walt and members of his family but also Walt and the viewers. This distancing effect ensures that viewers are denied some of the ‘key melodramatic pleasures’ such as the ‘catharsis of tears’ (Klein 2009:179) that may be found in other dramas. This denial ensures that viewers’ attention is oriented towards the wider processes through which the series frames its narrative, eschewing, ‘moral legibility’ and ‘narrative closure’ (Klein 2009:179). The lies are an important device in contributing to this ‘alienation effect’ and the discomfort they engender seems to be more present to the viewers than to Walt. This is due to the fact that there is only one point in the first two seasons, in the episode ‘4 Days Out’ (2:9), where we see Walt break down and really question his actions up to this point. He and Jesse are trapped in the desert after the battery of their Winnebago fails, and, after numerous attempts to rectify the situation, Walt states, ‘I have this coming, I have it coming, I deserve this.’ Jesse responds by saying, ‘everything you did, you did it for your family. Right?’ Walt responds by stating ‘All I ever managed to do ... was worry and disappoint them ... and lie. Oh God all the lies, I can’t even, I can’t even keep them straight in my head anymore’. Jesse challenges Walt on his ‘loser cry baby crap’ and their dire situation is resolved by Walt’s knowledge of chemistry, his construction of an improvised battery allowing them to escape certain death.

This solution allows Walt to bolster the narrative that underlies his actions as Heisenberg. At key moments in the series, Walt’s knowledge of chemistry gets both characters out of deadly spots, reinforcing the gap between Walt’s position as a high school teacher and his actual capacity and skill as a gifted chemist. His criminal activity allows for some form of recognition of his true talents and this recognition allows him to frame his actions in a manner that appears as deserving and righteous, at least to him. This emergent self challenges earlier incarnations of him as an acquiescent and weak person. It is in the gap between the instrumental and experiential that Walt’s character challenges the viewer’s empathy. In spite of his disclaimers about his family there is, to some degree, the sense that his criminal activities are, in reality about him. This suggestion of selfish, rather than self-less, acts works to counter-balance the claims of familial bonds made throughout the series and ensures that the moral complexities of the narrative are expanded and developed as Walt’s transgressive journey continues. A measure of his commitment to this journey is found in his response to the news in the episode ‘4 Days Out’ (2:9) that his tumour has shrunk by 80% and there are signs of remission. Walt responds with disappointment and anger, also asking, ‘Why me?’ (2:10). Walt’s life has been planned around his death and because he thought he was going to die, his actions were redeemable in his eyes. This unexpected diagnosis raises questions about the nature of his being in the world. The fact that he may survive rewrites his story and invalidates some of the neutralising techniques he has heretofore used to legitimate his criminal activity. A ‘tragic’ tale of a gifted teacher forced into criminality to pay for his unsuccessful cancer treatment elicits a different response to a tale of a seemingly improbable but committed criminal.

In this moral tale, disorder and disequilibrium are markers of the complexity of the social world and it would be difficult to imagine a resolution to Breaking Bad that successfully establishes the restoration of order, aside from the nods to the punitive forms of justice found within the narrative (Sparks, 1992). Viewers have to come to their own conclusions about the nature and the character of the behaviour shown to them, and, in so doing, we remain in the territory of the subversion of affect: where moral certainty is not offered as a ‘viable solution to the otherwise complex realities of contemporary social problems’ (Klein 2009:179). In the playing out of this narrative, the relationship between conformity and transgression is framed as complex and nuanced. In this way, Breaking Bad shows us that the line between crime and convention is not as neatly drawn as we are encouraged to believe.


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