I have no disagreements with any of that.
However, I want to suggest that there are other depictions of masculinity that are not so toxic. For much of the series, Walt and Jesse perform a strange dance of interdependence - many times Walt could have allowed Jesse to be killed and did not. And in one of the most difficult scenes early in the series, Walt allows Jesse's heroin addict girlfriend to die of asphyxiation in her sleep rather than save her, ostensibly to protect Jesse from his proclivity for addiction.
It's Jesse who represents the best of masculine values, in spite of the chaotic world in which he lives. He loves honestly and consistently. He does his best to take care of the young woman and her son that he loves and had to leave in order to protect them from the dangerous people in his life, including Walt. When he escapes in the final episode after Walt rescues him, we can imagine he will find the young boy (his mother, Jesse's love, is now dead) and raise him as his own.
Throughout the show, Jesse struggles with addiction, goes to rehab, and struggles some more with addiction. He is beaten nearly to death by Hank, Walt's brother-in-law, and then for much of the last season he is beaten and tortured.
Jesse never gives up hope. And he never loses his sense of right and wrong the way Walt does as he seeks more money, more power, and does so with violence - including putting out a hit on Jesse.
It's too simplistic to say that Breaking Bad presents and represents toxic masculinity - it reveals the full spectrum of masculinity, from tenderness to toxicity, often within the space of a single scene.
Die Like a Man: The Toxic Masculinity of Breaking Bad
By Laura Hudson
Spoilers for the Breaking Bad finale follow.
“It felt right and satisfying and proper to us that he went out on his own terms; he went out like a man,” Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan shared in a recent podcast, describing the death of Walter White in the series finale.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because we heard Hank – his prototypically macho brother-in-law – say something very similar during Skyler’s intervention, when he defended Walt’s decision to refuse both financial charity and cancer treatment: “Maybe Walt just wants to die like a man.”
What, exactly, does it mean to be a “man”? It’s a question that sits at the dark, warped heart of the entire series and its anti-hero protagonist. A nerdy chemist whose brains haven’t earned him any power or respect from the world at large, the terminally ill Walt decides that he’s finally going to get that power and respect through whatever means necessary (and whenever possible, using science). The show doesn’t just trace Walt’s arc from Mr. Chips to Scarface, as Gilligan famously described it, or from Walt to Heisenberg; it also maps his journey from being a “pussy” to being a “man.” And while he succeeds in his goals, it’s a transformation that comes at a high price.
If we really want to look at the definition of a man within the world of Breaking Bad, it’s easiest to start by looking at what it says a man is not: the Walter White we meet in the very first episode of the show.
By some measures, Walt has had a successful life: He’s incredibly brilliant (we’re told his research contributed to a project that won a Nobel Prize, not to mention Gray Matter Industries); he’s a teacher; and most importantly, he has a loving relationship with his family, and another child on the way. But Walt still feels like a failure, particularly because he hasn’t achieved the sort of financial success he believes he deserved.
Money and masculinity are deeply linked by the series. Not only does money signify the value of the person who earns it, but also the control and self-sufficiency that comes along with it. This link between manliness, money, and power is a dangerous one for people who accept it. Walt, after all, would literally rather die than accept charity, because taking money from Gretchen and Elliott would somehow make him feel like less of a man.
Later, when Walt says that cooking meth has cost him his family, drug kingpin Gus Fring suggests that perhaps he’s looking at it the wrong way. Perhaps in alienating his family, he was actually fulfilling a more important role: “When you have children, you will always have family. They will always be your priority, your responsibility. And a man, a man provides. And he does it even when he’s not appreciated, or respected, or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it. Because he’s a man.”
This seems particularly prescient, because it’s the exact model of manhood that Walt embraces. By the time the finale rolls around, Walt is so alienated from his family that they neither want to see him nor accept his money, and so he must funnel his drug fortune to them without their knowledge, ensuring he receives no credit — no appreciation, respect or love. In Walt’s mind, the measure of a man isn’t his relationship to his family, but rather his ability to support them financially. Faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis, and the decision about what sort of legacy he truly wants to leave behind, Walt sacrifices the former for the latter. (Of course, as he admits in the final episode, it isn’t simply about the money, and it isn’t really for his family. Leaving them the money isn’t an act of altruism so much as it is an affirmation of his own power and identity: being a man who provides.)
Masculinity in Breaking Bad is a brittle thing, one so terrified of weakness that any display of vulnerability must be punished, and any slight against another man’s power answered with violence – or else perceived as a weakness. We see it in the hyper-masculine culture of both the neo-Nazis and the drug cartel, where the air is always dripping with machismo and vengeance is considered an almost sacred duty.
This model of manhood also requires control not only over your own life, but over the lives of others. Think about all of the most iconic moments of the show, the badass lines that made us want to pump our fists: “Say my name.” “I am the danger.” “I am the one who knocks.” “I won.” Every single time, it’s about dominance – not just about having power, but about taking power away from someone else.
The series begins with what seems like an odd image: a pair of pants, flying through the air. Much of what follows is about who gets to wear them. When Skyler shows up unexpectedly to threaten Jesse for supposedly selling weed to Walt, Jesse is quick to insult Walt’s manhood: “Good job wearing the pants in the family.” As time goes on, however, and Walt slowly dominates Skyler to the point that she would rather try to drown herself in a pool than speak up against him, the new status quo becomes clear: He’s wearing the pants now.
It’s also worth noting that when Hank finally discovers the truth about Walt, it’s while Hank is sitting on the toilet – literally, getting caught with his pants down. And while Walt may not have wanted Hank to die, Walt almost surely thrills a little to getting away with all his crimes under the nose of the man who used to condescend to him, enacting his own twisted version of the movie where the nerd gets one over on the jock. Once the truth is out and Hank assaults him physically, Walt fires back with a chilling warning, letting Hank knows that he is no longer a man to be trifled with: “If you don’t know who I am, then maybe the best course is to tread lightly.”
Their conflict is one of the most interesting in the show, not only because Hank serves as the uber-masculine counterpoint to Walt – the Charles Atlas to Walt’s skinny kid getting sand kicked in his eyes – but because their pissing contest in the garage isn’t just about who has more power. It’s about which brand of power is superior: brains or brawn. Ultimately, Walt doesn’t subordinate Hank by lifting weights, getting buff and beating him in a fistfight. He wins by outsmarting him, like Walt always does.
When we first meet Walt, he’s an object of ridicule to his students, trapped in a low status loop where his intellect isn’t valued and confers no power to him. The first sign that he is transforming into someone different is when he begins to push back, and lash out at the bullies around him – and of course, he does it with science. When slighted by a jerk in an expensive car, Walt manipulates the engine and causes it detonate. When a drug lord beats Jesse and takes their money, Walt shows up with an explosive designed to look like meth and blows up the building. When the feds get hold of the incriminating tapes from the superlab, Walt rigs a truck with a supermagnet, and uses it to erase the evidence from outside the building.
Walt and science, making everyone their bitch since 2008.
Which leads us to perhaps the most interesting and gender-charged word on Breaking Bad: “bitch.” Yes, yes, it’s just a word. But it’s also coded with some very gender-specific ideas about power and dominance – who has it and who takes it – that are fundamental to the conflict at the heart of Walt’s transformation.
The easiest way to deconstruct a word is to think not only about what it means but what it does, and how it does it. When you call a woman a bitch, you’re saying that she’s difficult, unaccommodating. By that standard, Walter White would be possibly the biggest bitch of all. Of course, that’s not the way it works. When we apply a female slur like “bitch” to a man, something strange happens. It stops meaning that someone is difficult or unpleasant – words that for men more easily be seen as signs of strength – and instead becomes an indicator of weakness and cowardice.
In short, calling a man a “bitch” is designed to diminish his power by comparing him to a woman. It implies that women are weaker and less powerful, and also that they are to be used and dominated. “Bitch” is linked to exploitation, to submission; if you make someone your bitch, you force them to submit to your will, in one way or another. (Despite being the most famous and popular insult of Jesse Pinkman, it’s worth noting that Jesse almost never uses the word to describe women.)
Similarly, “pussy” is a word used almost exclusively against men, for the very reason that it reduces them from masculine to feminine, from a higher level of power to a lower one. What these words tell us is that men aren’t just defined by what they are; they’re defined by what they’re not supposed to be. Over and over again, men in Breaking Bad send and receive the message that the last thing they want to be is women.
Jesse: The face of toxic masculinity
Jesse is highly aware of the very narrow cultural script for being a man, and certainly knows how to act it out. This is a guy who feels perfectly comfortable grabbing his crotch and telling Walt to “speak into the mic, bitch!” But despite his flaws and his posturing, he’s always been a good guy: compassionate, caring and even sensitive. Deep down Jesse is more creampuff than criminal, unable to take part in the sociopathy of the people around him and deeply traumatized when forced to commit violence. (Walt, meanwhile, just whistles.) We see Jesse cry on more than one occasion, and he has a particular soft spot for children, both very stereotypically feminine traits.
Needless to say, Jesse is punished for them. Expressing emotion is seen as weakness and liability, and the reason that Jesse ultimately ends up broken, enslaved and exploited by the final episode. Despite his attempts to ward off subordination with masculine posturing — like calling everyone in earshot a “bitch” — that’s exactly what he becomes. Manipulated by a long series of more powerful men, by the end of the series Jesse is shackled in a cell while the men around him watch videos of him weeping during his confession for entertainment. “Does this pussy cry through the whole thing?” asks Jack.
In many ways a boy trying to become a man, Jesse is the male face of the damage that toxic masculinity does – the cost it extracts not only from women but from men. He shatters against the rocks of the masculine ideal, and it’s doubtful he will ever be able to put himself back together. Taken to its furthest extent, this brand of masculinity punishes men for acting like Jesse, and instead produces men like Walt – and even Todd.
The irony of this perspective on masculinity is that for all its insistence on the importance of power — both having it and taking it — it often makes the people who adopt it weaker. Or as Walt Jr. says, when asked to discuss his father’s refusal to accept charity or get treatment for his cancer: “You’re a pussy.” (Of course.)
When Hank refuses to acknowledge his PTSD – or accept his physical weakness after his shooting – he prevents himself from healing both emotionally and physically. When Heisenberg’s crimes are pinned on Gale, Walt tells Hank that the other chemist wasn’t good enough to pull it off because his pride won’t allow him to give up the credit. And in the end, masculine pride is what makes Walt’s final act of revenge possible: By suggesting that Jack might have partnered with a rat — impugning his honor — Walt is able to delay his own death long enough to activate his machine gun.
Many have argued that Breaking Bad is an indictment of Walt, a critique of the male power fantasy rather than a celebration. How we respond to the ending and whether we’re still rooting for Walt in those final moments is indeed a measure of our own complicity – or Matt Zoller Seitz puts it at Vulture, “it’s an ending that leaves us alone with a mirror.”
While we may want to cheer for the character we’ve been identifying with for so long, what are we really cheering? What standards of success are we tacitly endorsing when we feel just a little bit pleased that Walt got to live — and die — “like a man”? The masculinity described in Breaking Bad is something deeply pernicious, a cultural dogma that damages, warps and limits men, isolating them from their emotions and from others. It promotes violence, retribution, and a hierarchy built upon the backs victims both male and female. Sometimes, it kills them. As Silpa Kovvari at The Atlantic observed, the masculinity of Breaking Bad represents “standards to die by, not to live by.”
Regardless of whatever personal triumph it represents to him, Walt’s is a Pyrrhic victory; he has achieved power only by stripping it from others, and perpetuating the same ruthless system that once humiliated him and treated him as worthless.
If we learned anything from the kind, brilliant Gale, it’s that the Walter White who dies at the end of the show would have had no problem shooting the Walter White of the first episode in the head if he got in his way. When the nerd who was bullied becomes the bully, should we really feel a sense of satisfaction? Or should we take a deep, soul-searching look at the sort of system that makes underdogs like Walt feel like the only way they can be men is by destroying and dominating everyone around them?
Breaking Bad was a show about a man with greatness inside him, and who believed that the only way to achieve it was by becoming the sort of man who whose greatness would be acknowledged and respected. While it’s obvious that Walt isn’t a “good” guy by the end, to many people he was still a sympathetic one. It’s far easier to high-five Walt for climbing to the top of the masculine power pyramid than to reexamine whether we should be tearing it down. Not only because of the collateral damage it does to people like Skyler and Andrea, but the damage it does to the men who attempt the climb.
While Gilligan has voiced his criticism and even contempt for the man Walt becomes on numerous occasions, the final installment is nothing if not a victory lap. Yes, Walt pays for his decisions in many ways, but it’s telling that all of those costs get extracted in the episodes preceding the finale. Taken on its own, the last episode of the show reads more like wish fulfillment than condemnation, as Walt dies surrounded not by his failures but by his triumphs, by the chemistry he loves rather than the family he sacrificed, and with a smile on his face. You can (and probably should) step back and view Walt’s final form as a critique, as something that ends in emptiness, but somehow that’s not the feeling the finale imparts. The show ends not by inviting introspection, but rather, as Gilligan said, offering satisfaction:
“As bad a guy as he has been, and as dark a series of misdeeds as he has committed, it felt right and satisfying and proper for us that he went out on his own terms. He went out like a man.”
Indeed he did.