Recently I have revisited the show that arguably, spare perhaps The Wire and The Sopranos, kick-started the TV and streaming revolution that has unfolded around us in recent years. In carrying out this exercise, of going back to Bad, I have understood it differently than I did on my initial viewing. The power of Breaking Bad as an amazing work is its ability to resonate in new ways as I have changed and the world has changed.
When I first watched Breaking Bad my angsty teenage outrage was drawn to the injustice of Walter not being able to afford his cancer treatment and the discrimination faced by his son Walt Jr. This time round it is clear that Breaking Bad was also a thoughtful exploration of gender; particularly of masculinity. Breaking Bad, ahead of its time, raised these issues as interwoven within its painstakingly and beautifully crafted narrative and serves a quiet and thoughtful reflection on this area of discussion, which has been ignored until recently.
We first look at Walter White. The show’s protagonist and anti-hero, who captures the viewer’s empathy and arguably holds onto to it for longer than is comfortable. We see Walter as a good man who turns bad. Heisenberg is the Hyde to Walt’s Jekyll. But on reflection we begin to wonder as to the validity of this judgement. Walter at the very beginning is completely passive. He is good through his inaction rather than anything he is actually doing. We empathise with Walter because he is completely downtrodden and routinely humiliated, but we cannot really say that he is good. Thus, the shift from Walter to Heisenberg is a move from inaction to action. When Walter becomes active it happens that his actions are violent and destructive. Yet we are encouraged, or choose ourselves, to be on Walter’s side throughout the near entirety of the series. The reason for this may just be found in how Walter’s masculinity is presented.
Walter’s Beta-male oppressed character is a trope we are familiar with in our culture. We are often encouraged to sympathise and root for this character. We forgive him his sins. We resent Skyler for being a hindrance for this new Walter who has finally become a ‘real man’. It is unclear to what extent the show runners engineered the series to create this reaction. However, we can say that for the first few seasons Skyler is presented as getting in the way of Walter’s agency as a man. Despite it being him who displays problematic or abusive behaviour, the audience blames Skyler. Walter lies, assaults Skyler and steals their baby. She is at fault for holding back Walter, his ego, and his ability to manifest it in the way he pleases. Skyler is the opposite to Walter so is naturally set up as the antagonist to Walter’s protagonist. In the opening episodes she is seen to strip away a traditional image of masculinity from Walter. She gives him veggie bacon, she tells him she wants him to get back from work on time. It seems as if she is at least partly responsible for Walter’s sad passivity. So, we find ourselves forgiving a man for murder but Skyler is irredeemable for being a little nit-picky.
Walt’s becoming Heisenberg fits into how we our socially conditioned to see masculinity. It is his duty or, more accurately, his right to go out and provide for his family and be powerful. Thus, instead of seeing the transformation to Heisenberg as a descent we see it as Walt reclaiming his masculinity. He is now a ‘real man’. Yet Skyler is a frustration to this, she often becomes an obstacle to Walt’s masculinity through her disinterest in being a ‘proper woman’. She is not submissive, sweet, and caring but rather assertive and steadfast in her values. It is arguable that this tapped a little too much into our ingrained collective traditions as actor Anna Gunn herself received threats on behalf of the fictional character, so much was the vitriol towards Skyler. The show runners played a dangerous game in unlocking and seemingly legitimising these beliefs about a man’s masculinity. However, as the series progressed the full vision of Skyler’s character emerged. The aggression felt to Skyler in early seasons show how malleable we are as audiences and how subservient we are to the institutional ideas of what man and woman should be allowed to be. Towards the end of the series the collateral of Walt’s expression of his masculinity becomes more and more glaring. At the same time, Skyler’s struggle to exist amongst this toxicity and resist it becomes more and more explicit. Finally, Skyler becomes the one who gains our empathy and the audience has been forced to confront its internalised misogyny.
However, this dynamic is not unique. The repressed underdog is a character type we are used to seeing in film and TV. It is one we are normally encouraged to empathise with. Although the majority of these characters do not have a start-up meth empire, they do often engage in inappropriate behaviour but because they are the under-dog they are excused.
This brings us onto Hank. At the start of Breaking Bad he is the antithesis to this trope and the opposite of Walt. He embodies a trope at the other end of the spectrum, that of the jock, the lad, the Alpha-male macho buffoon. Unlike the underdog type this character does not attract our empathy. This is because they embody the negative side of masculinity and wear it out loud and proud. In the opening of the series Hank is brash, casually sexist and racist, and only serves to undermine Walt’s own sense of being the man of his family. Hank finds it easy to be a ‘real man’ because his personality fits easily into the preordained macho ideal. However, Hank faces a series of crises to his health and career that leave him feeling emasculated. Hank is now the one plagued by his feelings of inadequacy as a man. Suppressing his emotions and seeing his mental distress as weakness Hank engages in violent outbursts, akin to Walt, that get him into trouble at work and ultimately lead to more tragedy for him. This results in Hank having lost everything he used to build his macho persona at the end of season three. Yet it is only at this point that Hank begins getting anywhere in finding Gus Fring and by consequence getting close to finding Heisenberg.
The turning point for Hank is a powerful scene where on the way to a meeting he breaks down in a lift in front of his wife. When the lift door opens he is composed and ready to face his colleagues as if nothing is wrong. Without words the show has captured the problem with our traditional notion that men must not show emotion to be masculine. This is shown to be completely baseless because it is the character who most easily matches this convention who is displaying these emotions.
At this point, Hank, although facing many challenges, is able to drop the cloak of traditional masculinity. Hank begins a journey of trying to catch Heisenberg without his bravado and hyper-masculine persona. At the same time Walt is on the rise in terms of masculinity as he becomes more assertive and powerful and the audience applauds him for it. However, the show ultimately displays how these attitudes that society instils in men are harmful to the person acting them out and those around them. Hank’s previous arrogance blinded him to seeing what Walt was doing right under his nose. However, the trials Hank faces give him the perspective he needs to see what type of character Heisenberg really is and lead him to Walt. Whilst this is happening Walter’s hubris has grown exponentially and he begins displaying the crudities previously associated with Hank. The excessive ego that is tied up with hyper-masculinity ultimately leads to Walter’s downfall and the removal of this pretension from Hank leads to his success. Hank is a more effective detective, and more considerate person when his macho bravado is taken away from him. Hank dies a hero, Walter a villain. Thus, the opposing journeys that the men of Breaking Bad take through masculinity present a nuanced portrayal of the harmful aspects that classical machoism has both on the men themselves and those around them.
Breaking Bad is an example ahead of its time in tackling gender with serious intent. It manages this without being overly didactic which could be detrimental to the storytelling. Sometimes this meant Breaking Bad strayed into murky territory. The show runners’ ambiguity with their intentions with the character of Skyler and holding her as an adversary to Walter led to extreme hatred to both the character and Gunn. The show’s warped lens of morality meant that it could not be made explicit that this behaviour, which is in line with Walter’s lashing out, cannot be legitimised. However, as the seasons progressed, the exploration of gender dynamics was continually developed and became crucial to the plot, ultimately making the audience question the unseen forces behind their initial allegiances. Breaking Bad continues to impress me as an impeccable work of television and as a pool from which we can draw the spark of many important conversations.