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Breaking Bad, Race, and Meth Addiction

Posted Dec 16 2013 6:37pm

by  Emma Haylett

As Breaking Bad ends a wildly successful season—don’t worry, you won’t find spoilers here—

the show is on many of our minds for many different reasons. While the idea certainly wasn’t

groundbreaking (there are so many that deal with drug and alcohol addictions and various forms

of recovery, to varying degrees of accuracy and success), it managed to capture the hearts

and minds of people across the United States. Likely it is because of the variety of emotions a

show like this evokes, often in the span of one episode. As humans, we crave a deep emotional

connection to the media we consume, and in an age of reality television, this may be lacking.

We want good guys and bad guys and carefully constructed (and filmed) plot.

Breaking Bad though doesn’t adhere to our ideas of good and evil, instead subverting them

over and over again. But we stay tuned because we’re interested in how far our own thinking

can go and transform, how like or unlike an addict we might feel in our journey with the show.

Strangely, or perhaps not, is the scenario put in place by writers and producers that even allows

for a man like Walter White to find himself in such predicaments.

For Walter White to make and deal methamphetamines, he had to get cancer, be unable to

treat it, be unwilling to accept money from friends, know a shady high school student, and be

later consumed by a world darker than he could have imagined. It’s an excellent premise e for a

show, certainly—but imagine the setup for a black man. Other shows have proven that we don’t

need to suspend our disbelief by establishing a crazy cancer scenario to believe that a minority

might make, sell, or do drugs.

And Breaking Bad has other issues with race—while Albuquerque, New Mexico is nearly half

Latino, Gus Fring is the only Latino character to reoccur enough to get a billing as regular cast.

In a Salon article titled “Breaking Bad’s Racial Politics Walter White, Angry White Man”, Todd

Van Derwerff suggests that it is the idea of the antihero that speaks most effectively to white

privilege. “His is the voice of white male privilege, the angry, unfiltered sense that one is owed

something and has had it taken away. Never mind that Walter built an empire worth $80 million.

He always wanted more—respect or fear or worship—and he never got it. He could never quite

get over the fact that other people weren’t placed on Earth to play supporting characters in his

own story, and even in the series’ pilot, he’s bogged down by an overbearing boss and a wife

who seems interested in anything but him,” writes Van Derwerff.

But Breaking Bad is good television, and, while ignoring some aspects of racial diversity, it

perhaps addresses the reality of methamphetamine in rural areas—states like Idaho and

Wyoming have documented problems with the use of meth. If we look at Idaho, 70% of drug

related offenses are meth related, which costs the state between $60 million and $102 million

for incarceration and arrest. 89% of women in Idaho jails are meth users, and 80% of children

placed by Health and Welfare are removed from their homes because of drug abuse—mostly

meth.

Meth is affecting areas that are not dirty or dangerous—teachers and factory workers, high

school students and high school dropouts are part of the growing meth problem and, if nothing

else, Breaking Bad has drawn attention to it. To the show’s credit, it doesn’t glamorize the

addiction or recovery from addiction in the way that some shows have—the characters who use

are decaying, they’re mean, they’re painfully addicted and involved in an extremely dangerous

world.

Ultimately, Breaking Bad presents a scenario in which the viewer is asked to examine the good

and evil within themselves. It is also (though perhaps not intentionally) raising a discussion

about race—who deals and uses, who produces, develops, and distributes meth. And that’s a

conversation worth having.

 

Emma Haylett is really good at thinking up nicknames, though she has few of her own. When she’s not

packing around a too-heavy backpack at graduate school or working as a Certified Prevention Specialist

Intern, you can find her advocating for healthy drug rehabilitation programs around the US.

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