Breaking Bad: It’s not Toxic Masculinity — It’s Toxic Humanity
— Why take a gendered view of good and evil?
Breaking Bad is one of the masterpieces of modern drama. It’s a riveting story of a simple, nondescript high school chemistry teacher named Walter White, and his surprisingly successful plunge into the violent world of international drug cartels. Like all great drama, it features a riveting character who we identify with, struggling with universal issues in a manner that leaves the outcome in doubt.
Walters story arc begins with him as a struggling, boring high school chemistry teacher, teaching an uninterested class, and forced to supplement his income working at a car wash. The discovery that he has lung cancer, and has only a few years to live, opens a deep chasm in his life, triggering a revolutionary change. In the course of the series, he develops into a calculating, Machiavellian player in the international drug underworld. He became known as “Heisenberg” in the trade, a willing, and successful practitioner of violence to achieve his ends.
It’s a compelling story — as Vince Gilligan, the series creator said: “Walt starts as Mr. Chips, and he ends up as Scarface.”
Since I’m an admirer of Breaking Bad, I was drawn to this critical essay on the show. I found it immensely disappointing, because it flattens out the rich story of Walter White into a formulaic critique of modern masculinity. The essay was by no means atypical in this regard. Once of the references is even more explicit that the story of Walter White’s transformation is yet another cautionary tale of toxic masculinity. I say “yet another” because masculinity critiques like this — university humanities departments are extruding them like linked sausages — all seem ignorant of the fact that they are all saying the same thing, over and over.
To give an idea of the “flattening” I speak of, consider the first referenced essayists view of Walt’s situation at the start:
Essay: Breaking Bad — Power, Ego and Masculinity in Quality TV
Presentation and Supporting document
When looking at the character of Walter White, his motives are intertwined with his masculinity. In series one, Walt is arguably already successful; financially well off with a stable job, helped in nobel prize winning project, founded Gray Industries, and has a loving family — but he feels he deserves more. He knows he’s smart enough to be rich, powerful and successful but has little respect. For Walt money equals success, and looking successful upholds his masculinity.
Despite what the reviewer says, it’s not primarily about masculinity. His life at 50 years old has just become an unsatisfying, relentless grind, but I don’t think that’s a problem unique to men. True he doesn’t have respect, but the disrespect he suffers is no different in kind than a female teacher would feel if she had to deal with snickering, baiting students who don’t care about the subject she teaches. Walt is humiliated at his car wash job when his boss tells him to leave the counter and join others washing cars by hand on the line, and he’s humiliated when he finds himself toweling down the car of one of his students. If you can picture a female teacher earning extra money as a hairdresser, and finding herself washing the hair of one of her students, you’ll see that the need for respect and status is not fundamentally masculine. Yes, Walt needs extra money, but if you think that the need for, and love of money, is a fault peculiar to men, then you’ve spent too much time studying humanities at the university.
The words I quoted illustrate the reviewers desire to present Walt’s journey solely as a performance of “Toxic Masculinity.” Walt’s story is scoured away, leaving only the aspects that show Walt as good, weak man at the beginning, who is transformed into a bad — but powerful — man at the end. It’s a Pilgrim’s Progress journey into masculinity, gratifying the reviewer’s preexisting, critical-theory suspicions of the Patriarchy.
Consider as well the reviewer’s summation of the triggering event — Walt’s discovery that he has only a few years to live:
Walt’s ethics are shook when he is diagnosed with cancer, it makes him feel weak, less of a ‘man’. Cancer acts as a catalyst to change himself — the desire to secure his family’s financial future once he passes plus the potential to save himself, leads Walt down a path to become traditionally masculine. Previously he saw himself as a pushover, fragile and lacking traditional masculine traits. Humiliated by his jock brother in-law, he turns to crime as a way to become dominant and assert masculinity.
To the reviewer, cancer just wounds his manly pride. Unlike women, who apparently would remain blissfully untroubled at the diagnosis of a fatal illness, since, being woman, they have a healthy disregard for maintaining control of their lives. As a man Walt is driven to become “traditionally masculine.” And by traditionally masculine, the reviewer discounts benign outlets like martial arts competitions, joining a heavy metal tribute band, or becoming a volunteer fireman. In the reviewers mind, if something isn’t pathological, it isn’t traditionally masculine.
Here’s some more evidence that the reviewer is forcing Walt’s story into a “Traditional Masculinity” narrative. In the very first episode, after his diagnosis and before Walt even considered the drug trade, he already manifests the signs of breakout. There are two scenes where this occurred. When his boss at the car wash asked him a second time to leave the counter and become a washer, he defiantly refused, and quit on the spot. The second is the famous scene when he and Skyler take his teenage son to buy pants. A group of young punks start mocking his son for his speech and his crutches. To everyone’s surprise Walt leaves the back of the store, circles around, storms back in the front door and kicks the ass of the biggest tormentor.
As someone said: “He walked out Walt; he walked in Heisenberg.” And that was before he cooked even an ounce of Meth.
The reviewers who force Walt’s transformation down the Toxic Masculinity don’t do justice to the full depth of the story, and they miss much of its nuance. His initial efforts at cooking meth left him standing in the desert in just his underwear, visually about as far from dominance and respect and “manliness” as you can get.
What transformed Walt was the knowledge he had nothing to lose. Once he knew he was going to die, it freed him from all other fears, liberating him to act first on his impulses, and then on his needs, and finally, on his desires and plans. It is a human, not just a masculine story, because women have the same fears and the same selfishness.
His ego feels humiliated by failing to fund his healthcare, support his family, along with jealousy of Elliott and Gretchen wealth. However it’s how Walt becomes accustomed to crime which is his downfall, becoming Heisenberg gives him a sense of fulfilment and allows him to assert a side of violent masculinity that he previously withheld. Some of the most poignant lines in BB, “Say my name” (Cranston, S5 Ep7) and “I am the one who knocks” (Cranston, S4 Ep6), both uphold Walt’s ego and masculinity — he’s no longer passive, but in control, the one who knocks.
I’m struck by the equivalence that is seen here between ego and masculinity, and it’s quite fascinating how the desire to support your family, and concern for their well being after you are gone, is framed as being selfish. Of course, in reality and in much fiction, both men and women exhibit concern for their loved ones, and both men and women judge themselves harshly if they fall short of what they expect. It’s quite correct to point out that while Walt’s initial motivation for adopting the drug trade was to get money for his illness, and his family, he found it fulfilling enough that it became an end in its own right. Again, there’s nothing at all masculine about embarking on a path for unselfish motives, only to lose sight of those motives when we become intoxicated with success.
I consider Breaking Bad as a story about humanity, not just masculinity, one that dramatizes the latent power we all possess, while at the same time cautioning us that that very same power, when not governed properly, can do grievous harm. We might claim, like Walt, to be acting on behalf of our family, only to admit after all the carnage that we did it because we liked it, and we were good at it.
That’st not a situation men alone find themselves in — I’m sure woman too question their true motives late in life. To me, applying a narrowing focus to Breaking Bad — seeing it merely as a critique of Toxic Masculinity — robs it of all its depth.