Saturday, August 18, 2012

Be Your Own Boss: Breaking Bad and the Entrepreneur

The arc of Breaking Bad has been described by its creator, Vince Gilligan as going from "Mr. Chips to Scarface" as Walter White, the show's central character, makes the transition from high school chemistry teacher to drug kingpin. This probably best describes the show in a nutshell, and I would say that even at that the level the show is fairly innovative. Repetition defines television, and crafting a show in which the protagonist becomes a villain is a provocative experiment, flying in the face of conventional wisdom which sees any deviation from a show's initial premise as "jumping the shark." However, I think that show becomes even more interesting if you scratch beneath the surface, and see how much it has to do with work and the ideal of liberating oneself from work through the fantasy of being an entrepreneur. 

The initial glimpses we get of Walter's life prior the diagnosis of cancer are not images of the exploitation, but of the degradation of contemporary work. They are pictures of the particular indignity of work that serves others, teaching chemistry to disinterested students and washing cars. The diagnosis liberates Walter from this world as much as it destroys it. Part of what makes Walt sympathetic, makes him a fantasy figure, in the early episodes is that he is between two deaths; his death sentence has  freed him from the norms and strictures of daily life, especially those that require him to exchange his dignity for a wage. His death sentence frees him from the deferred gratification of daily life.

It is worth noting that Adam Kotsko has argued that this general idea of freedom from social norms and structures runs throughout "high end television." Tony Soprano, Stringer Bell, Dexter, House, Nucky Thompson, and Walter White could all be broadly categorized as sociopaths. As Kotsko describes this social type, "The fantasy of the sociopath, then, represents an attempt to escape from the inescapably social nature of human experience. The sociopath is an individual who transcends the social, who is not bound by it in any gut-level way and who can therefore use it purely as a tool."Walt definitely fits this formula, and increasingly does so, as each season culminates in act of moral transgression and manipulation, from letting Jesse's girlfriend die to poisoning a child. I do not want to spend too much time on Kotsko's book, which is definitely worth reading, partly because it is not really concerned with Breaking Bad  (spending more time on shows I have never watched, such as Dexter and House), but mainly because I am more interested in following the angle of work than that of social norms. 

As the series progresses Walt's initial act of liberation from social norms becomes a daily grind, as meth production turns out to be work. The progression of Walt's rebellion, his "breaking bad," which follows his personal transformation is mirrored and complicated by the transformations of his production process, and its particular social relations. Walt's first partner is his former student, Jesse; the division of labor between them is fairly basic, Walt cooks meth and Jesse sells drugs. This division is as much moral as it is technical, Walter White wants nothing to do with the unsavory elements of the drug trade. Jesse proves incapable of living up to the task, and the two find themselves immediately with supply chain issues. Walter and Jesse's search for a way to distribute their product is one of the major narratives of the show, constituting a climb up the ladder of the drug trade from local dealer to major kingpin. Central to this narrative, and taking up two and half seasons of the show, is their engagement with Gus Fring, the drug kingpin of New Mexico.

Gus is not just a drug kingpin, he is also the owner of Los Pollos Hermanos, a successful franchise of chicken restaurants. These restaurants function as the perfect alibi for a drug operation, providing cover for the production and distribution of meth around the southwest. The franchise also figures as the central allegory for Gus and Walt's struggle. Gus is presented initially as a consumate businessman, and as someone whose bearing and demeanor, right down to the volvo he drives, is thoroughly middle or managerial class. Gus initially refuses to  work with Walt and Jesse because Jesse is a"drug addict." The indignity of being refused work in a meth production operation for being a drug addict is reminiscent of being turned down grueling mindless work at a fast food restaurant due to a failed drug test. 

It is once Walt and Jesse go to work for Gus that the logic of the franchise really becomes central. Walt's relationship with Gus progresses from a mercantile relationship, with Walt as an independent producer and Gus as a buyer and distributor, to its formal and real subsumption. Carlo Vercellone argues that formal subsumption can be defined as a contradiction between the relative autonomy of the knowledge of the workers,  in this case the skill and talent of Walt as a chemist, and the dependence of the worker on the capitalist, in this case  Gus' distribution network. Walt continually leverages his skill and knowledge, his indispensable role in the production process, against Gus' desire for total control and efficiency. Like The Wire, Breaking Bad uses the drug trade as an allegory for capitalism, but whereas the former focused on the overall logic of capital, the ruthless drive for profit, the latter focuses on the mundane world of work. A world that is described as working for a boss that is a "dick," who in turn works for a boss that is a "super dick," and no one knows what is going on, in a word, "kafkaesque."

Of course the drug trade adds a bit of brutality to this alienation, but Gus' overall logic is that of the transition from formal to real subsumption, as the skill of the workers is broken down. In the world of fast food, this happens through the automation of the entire process, the replacement of fry cooks with fryolaters, but in the world of meth this involves the search for a replacement, another skilled chemist. The hapless Gale is brought in for this purpose, but Walt has Jesse kill him in order to protect his life. This act of killing his replacement can be read within Walt's position as a kind of fantasy figure for the white male middle class. His initial frustrations in Season One as a man who has worked hard his whole life to only have cancer, precarious economic status, and humiliation to show for it are echoed by the fantasy of being able to actually kill his replacement, to prevent downsizing by murder. Of course this fantasy is nothing compared to the ultimate fantasy, killing one's boss and torching the entire factory, which Walt and Jesse get to do in the end of Season Four. If killing the competition and the boss can described as working class fantasies, they are negative ones, destruction without solidarity or any idea of a better fantasy than becoming "one's own boss."

Season Five opens with an interesting paradox, on the one hand Walt and Jesse are now free from Gus, from working for the drug franchise, but on the other hand we begin to see how far reaching this enterprise was. Walt sees himself as someone who is liberated, who is now his own boss, but his work requires the work of many others, distributers, corrupt chemical company workers, lawyers, enforcers etc., This paradox is in part informed by the specifics of crystal meth, a drug that relies on industrial produced ingredients, either in the form of pseudoephedrine (extracted from cold medicine) or, in the case of Walter's innovative approach, methalimine. While it might be possible for growers of marijuana to make an ethic out of "grow your own," out of an independence from corporate control, every "cook," every producer of crystal meth is necessarily involved with other producers. These other producers and distributors, of chemicals and processes, are not directly known, or even interacted with, their relations are mediated by commodification. As long as others appear to one only as goods to be purchased, or lifted, then it is possible to believe that one is autonomous from them. 

To return to a passage that I have cited numerous times on this blog, Marx's formulation in the Grundrisse can be understood as the summation of this particular kind of sociality.

"Only in the eighteenth century, in 'civil society', do the various forms of social connectedness confront the individual as a mere means towards his private purposes, as external necessity. But the epoch which produces this standpoint, that of the isolated individual, is also precisely that of the hitherto most developed social (from this standpoint, general) relations."

This contradiction between autonomy and interdependence is illustrated in the fifth season of Breaking Bad by a scene in the third episode in which Walt, Jesse, and Mike (Gus' enforcer, now part of the new enterprise) stand over their gains, piles of money divided three ways. Mike then proceeds to subtract the cost of distribution and paying off various informants. (sorry could not find video for this).  This frustrates Walt as he sees his share, and his autonomy, subtracted dollar by dollar. What makes this scene, and the opening of the fifth season, striking is the fact these people, and the entire network of distribution they represent, have remained off screen for the viewer as well. Up until this point the narrative focus of the show has been on the conflict between worker and boss in the site of production, but now that the worker has become boss, the conflict expands beyond the interpersonal to include the networks of production and distribution that surround the enterprise. 

Since I have already written about meth as an allegory for American politics, it is hard not to read this scene against the backdrop of the current American political imaginary which is polarized between those who view society as a collection of "job creators," who create wealth through their skill and ambition, and the idea that "you did not build that," which stresses, however meekly, the dependence of wealth creation on the work of others. What is striking about this debate, beyond the crude nature of its imagery, something befitting a children's book more than a perspective on political economy, is how hostile the believers in "job creators" are to any suggestion about the necessarily social dimension of production. It is at this point that the reading of Walter White as a kind of fantasy figure for the declining white middle class becomes useful. Walter reveals that the logic of contemporary capitalism, the fantasy of being not only a provider, but a "job creator," of someone who is connected to no one, dependent upon no one, but others are dependent upon, is itself a kind of generalized sociopathy. 


seymourblogger said...

This is brilliant. Keep going on it. And get on disqus so your comments can be streamlined and simplified. You can still control them on disqus.

Traeh said...

I don't think "sociopath" is quite the right term for Walter -- though I've only seen the first three seasons and part of the fourth, so far.

My understanding of "sociopath" is that it is someone who manipulates others for the pleasure of it, or because that is the only way she or he knows how to interact with others.

Walter lies to, manipulates, and hurts others not because he enjoys it, nor because it's the only way he knows how to deal with others. He can relate to others honestly and with genuine love. For him, lies, manipulation, and violence are almost always to defend himself and his family in the deadly situations into which he has gotten himself. The show again and again presents situations in which self-defense requires or seems to require horrific actions of Walter.

In Walter, the show tries to achieve the feat of creating a character who is simultaneously a drug dealing criminal and yet somewhat sympathetic. He gets into it only because he finds out he has lung cancer and thinks his medical treatment will bankrupt his family and leave them impoverished after his death.

As he moves into the illegal world, we find that unlike some drug criminals, he tends to keep violence to the minimum amount possible and dislikes it intensely. He is ready to kill if necessary to protect himself or Jesse or family. The show presents Walter as mostly sensitive and kind and caring to his son and his baby, and loving to his wife, even while he lies to his wife for as long as possible -- not because he likes lying or because he is cheating on her -- but in order, he thinks, to protect her.

This humanization of a drug pusher makes me suspect that the show is intended as in part an allegory for the author's dark idea of capitalism. He's saying that capitalism is this monstrous and brutal competition that forces lovable people to do horrific, murderous things in order to survive -- Walter in his demeanor is almost a sort of father-knows-best figure -- thus everyone's dad, so to speak, turns into a killer killing people at times in order to save his family and provide for its survival. When Walter's wife goes back to work and has an affair with her boss, it turns out that the boss's above-board business is actually also an illegal operation -- in that the books are being cooked. We also find out that, according to Walter, a friend and a lover from Walter's graduate school days stole his work in chemistry and formed a company and thus got rich, without sharing any profits to Walter. So for the show, there is apparently not all that much difference between a "normal" business and a criminal drug dealing organization. Competition is as dishonest and injurious in the above-board corporate world as much as in the drug-dealer world.

And the whole criminal transformation is set off because Walter's health care insurance is inadequate. So the show appears to be in part an attempted indictment of American capitalism.

But even if the show is an allegory for the author's dim dark view of capitalism, the show is much more than an allegory. It's really a riveting story about exactly what it seems to be about: a slow motion metamorphosis of a soft high school teacher into a more hardened methamphetamine maker and dealer. It reminds me a bit of Huckleberry Finn, insofar as Walter again and again uses his brilliance and quick wits to say or do something to get himself out of impossibly tight spots.

unemployed negativity said...

I think that you are right about self-preservation, but (and I do not want to give anything away) self-preservation becomes less and less of an issue in the latest season.

As far as the term "sociopath" goes, I used it because of Adam Kotsko's book _Why We Love Sociopaths_ and I was working with his definition of the term. In general I am wary of using psychological terms for political critique.

Thanks for your comments.

Traeh said...

Ah, it goes beyond self-preservation as the show proceeds, eh? Yikes.

Well, I'm not really surprised, since the whole show has been remarkable as a slow-motion subversion and metamorphosis of Walter. I have been somewhat anticipating his further metamorphosis into a truly dark criminal character, it's true.

I wonder if the use a couple times in the show of the expression "Kafkaesque" was only incidental. Maybe it has more significance and is to some extent a key to the show. Perhaps the author is partly influenced by Kafka's Metamorphosis.

I'm of two minds about the show. On the one hand, I love gradual transformation or metamorphosis -- I think it's a fundamentally mysterious process that can be fully transparent to observation, and yet remain mysterious. It is mysterious not because something is hidden, but because in it everything becomes in a certain way visible for the first time. Metamorphosis -- I mean gradual almost imperceptibly slow metamorphosis, is too rarely represented by artists. Yet I think metamorphosis, if people observe it sufficiently, becomes a key to all the riddles of the world, and allows one to see and be touched by the ultimate ground of things.

The writer of Breaking Bad has so far done a wonderful job in presenting a mysterious metamorphosis. And perhaps it is analogous to Kafka's book of the same name -- in which a man turns into a cockroach.

I do have some qualms about the show's possible moral and ethical effects on viewers. I wonder if it doesn't tend to lower people's boundaries a bit with regard to unethical or criminal behavior. The show makes it incredibly easy to identify with and like this seemingly good high school teacher and father, and hooks us into him, while transforming him into a violent criminal in a way that makes him look -- at least by the end of the 3rd season -- sort of innocent and as decent as anyone could possibly be in criminal circumstances. He seems to be the most intelligent, decent, humane, hard core criminal ever to exist. Up to the end of the third season, he almost doesn't seem like a criminal, since all the violence he does is done very reluctantly and in self-defense.

So we are hooked into his humanity, come to care for him as a character, identify with him, and may find ourselves thinking as he thinks at times -- that is, lowering our standards of what is acceptable and moral behavior, and contemplating -- even if only for a moment -- a criminal life for ourselves, and not immediately feeling moral revulsion toward that. The show thus perhaps tends to desensitize and relax our moral inhibitions. So in that respect I find it worrisome.

But it's an incredible yarn, I give it that.

(continued in next comment)

Traeh said...

(continued from comment above)

Perhaps the show is the author's own brilliant and very serious attempt to understand the criminal mind, to imagine how it could develop and come into being. Even though the whole thing is built up on many purely fictional and implausible premises -- that's just the nature of fiction -- it remains an important and sustained exercise of the playful imagination trying to come closer to understanding the evolution of a criminal mind. While the show makes some headway in helping a viewer to understand how criminal minds might develop, at the same time, the show also respects the difficulty -- even the incomprehensibility and inconceivability -- of the process. Because even as we somewhat understand Walter's evolution to criminality, yet in many ways the whole process remains mysterious and astonishing to us, many parts of it remain dark and without explanation. But we understand better now. And we understand not in terms of some tidy scientific or psychological theory, which would explain far too little. No, now we understand in terms of unfolding life situations, and their moral ambiguities and confusions. The luminous mystery of living remains.

In relation to evil, the series somewhat reminds me of a recurrent theme in some of the epic fantasy novels and in any spiritual quest that seeks, among other things, to understand evil. There is a danger in understanding evil. To understand it, one must have some contact with it. That doesn't mean that, in an effort to "understand" evil one should ever deliberately do evil. But contact with evil does entail risk of falling into it.

So if you watch this show, beware. It seeks, with some degree of success perhaps, to plumb evil and to understand it.

Joe Clement said...

"He gets into it only because he finds out he has lung cancer and thinks his medical treatment will bankrupt his family and leave them impoverished after his death."

I think his affability is not so simple nor his motivations for pursuing money through drug-production. I'm only a few seasons into it now, but Walter is extremely prideful, grossly even. He's got his reasons for holding a grudge against his former colleagues, but they are harder to identify with especially when you're thinking this is a guy who'll put up with ethical compromises to get what he needs.

unemployed negativity said...

Oh, I think that you are generally right. The diagnosis is less a cause than a precipitating factor. Walter was already a man of pride and ressentiment, who saw his position in life to be something very wrong with the world.

As I wrote earlier,

It would be wrong, however, to see Walter as a rebel, as someone liberated from all societies norms; his entire criminal enterprise is all about one over-arching masculine ideal, being a good provider. It is one thing to escape the fear of death, a fear that keeps us from taking risks, it is another thing altogether to escape our most internalized ideologies. Walter, the formerly mild mannered chemistry teacher, can face down a drug kingpin, even commit murder, but he cannot stand the idea that his family would take money from others.

Joe Clement said...

I was mostly responding to Traeh's characterization, but it's good you bring me back to that particular passage of yours. I think it's probably hands down the most intense and possibly recurrently offensive aspects of the show, his return to a masculine ideal of provider. It's an amazing feat in evolutionary psychology, since his pride and investment in the provider-fantasy puts his family in all kinds of otherwise avoidable danger.