Friday, September 28, 2012

Issues of Masculinity in AMC's Breaking Bad

A few weeks ago, Derek Johnson (who blogs at Thoughts of a Wandering Mind), wrote a brief post about the search for "true manhood" as depicted in AMC's Breaking Bad. It got me to thinking about this topic as I caught up on season four and the first half of season five.

[Spoiler Alert: I will be revealing details of the show that you may not want to know is you have not seen the show. I am assuming readers have seen most or all episodes.] 

If you have never seen this show (you're missing out on intriguing television, which is rare), the premise is that high school chemistry teacher, Walter White, is diagnosed with lung cancer the day after his 50th birthday. Being essentially broke, like most high school teachers supporting a family, he decides to enlist a former student who was making meth in upgrading the quality of the product and getting into the distribution business. Everything escalates from there, including the need to elude his DEA agent brother-in-law, his wife's increasing suspicions and infidelity, and various criminals whose turf Walter encroaches on.

Johnson (at the link below) sees Walter as an everyman, "the trapped and constantly marginalized American family man." He sees Walter's struggle in terms of the relationship with his wife, Skyler. Over the course of the four and half seasons aired so far, Walter becomes increasingly cold, calculating, and violent. He asserts his power and dominance over his wife, bonds with his teenage son, and rises through the ranks of the meth manufacturing underground.

There are a lot contexts of masculinity in this show. There's the hyper-masculinity of the Mexican drug cartels, the traditional masculinity of DEA agent and brother-in-law, Hank, and the ambivalent masculinity of the emotionally-wounded former student and low-level meth cook, Jesse Pinkman. There's also the spineless weasel lawyer, Saul Goodman, and the quiet, deadly, and loyal "mechanic," Mike Ehrmantraut.

As Walter and Jesse get further into the drug world, and are forced to do things they never would have imagined themselves capable, the interesting thing is that Walt, the dedicated family man and father is the one who seems to lose his moral sense and conscience. For him, money, power, and respect become foundations of his identity as a man and as a husband and father.

On the other hand, the street thug and addict, Jesse, is the one who is troubled by what he is becoming. He cries when he is forced to kill (video below). He stands up to his sociopath boss when kids are used to deal the drugs he cooks, and is devastated when one of them is killed.

In the 4th season, Walt poisons the son of Jesse's girlfriend to get him on board with killing their boss (blames it on Gus, their boss). Jesse is crushed when he initially believes it was his fault the child was poisoned. Unknown to Jesse, Walt had earlier allowed Jesse's previous girlfriend to drown in her own vomit (heroin overdose) when he could have turned her on her side and saved her life.

Walt loses his conscience, but Jesse never does - he holds onto his humanity and empathy, despite all the horrors and losses he experiences.

Walt is in most ways the (anti-)hero of the show, but Jesse (in his own wounded way) offers the most human depiction of masculinity - still manly, but also in touch with his broken heart.

Breaking Bad and the Search for True Manhood

Posted by on September 4, 2012

1 comment:

Liz said...

Dude, the spoiler warning goes at the beginning! Fortunately, I've seen them all.