Sunday, September 29, 2013

"Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!": Breaking Bad as Austerity Allegory

What follows should perhaps have the subtitle "Scattered Speculations on Breaking Bad" because it started as a post a few episodes into the final run and was finished after the penultimate episode. Edits were made along the way, but it is less a coherent essay taking into consideration the entire narrative arc of the last season than it is a series of observations as it unfolds. It is a bit long, and, if you have not seen the last season, spoiler alert.

Before the much anticipated final season (or half season) of Breaking Bad aired at the end of this summer AMC ran the following trailer, or teaser.

Aside from obeying the strict "no spoilers" rule that has become something of a mantra in the world of television, and highlighting the show's use of the colors and scenery of New Mexico, the use of Shelley's poem underscores the central theme of Breaking Bad, that of legacy. What remains of us after we die? The show began with Walt's worry that his cancer and meager salary as a public school teacher would leave little for his family. As the seasons progressed, however, legacy was defined less in terms of inheritance and more in terms of empire. One of the many questions that confronts Breaking Bad in the final episodes is what would remain of Walt's Heisenberg's empire after his (almost inevitable) demise. 

Perhaps what is must striking about Breaking Bad is that for a show about the illicit drug trade, and the making of a drug kingpin (as well as the destruction of two other drug empires), it is relatively free of the conspicuous consumption, the bling, that we generally associate with the drug empire story. (Think of De Palma's Scarface which the show constantly references). Money is accumulated in massive amounts, piled, and even weighed, but it is rarely spent. The show dedicates a great deal of screen time to the physicality of money, the difficulty storing and concealing large amounts, but very little to what money is actually used for, buying commodities. I have already argued that this relation to money can be seen as a consequence of the Walt's quest to accumulate, which is more of a hoarder's quest than that of a capitalist. Hoarders by definition cannot spend and must ceaselessly accumulate. 

I would like to suggest that this relation to money can be seen as part of the show's functioning as a austerity narrative. Initially the shows relationship to austerity was foregrounded in Walt's lack of adequate health insurance. A point driven home by the often circulated joke about a French (UK or Scandinavian) version of the show which lasts for one dull episode as the protagonist of a country with nationalized health insurance realizes he has adequate coverage to pay for his care. While a certain version of austerity, or at least of public school budgets unable to care for their employees, set the plot in motion, the nature of austerity changed as the show progressed. Most notably, Walt's involvement with Gus' drug empire was framed through the intersection of layoffs and executions. The show used the drug world setting to put a dark spin on the struggle to remain valued and viable in one's job. As soon as one becomes redundant one is not so much handed a pink slip as the red slash of a box cutter.

Walt's knowledge and skill, his particular ability "to cook" (not to mention his own violence) protects him from a lethal layoff. The tenor of his struggle as an employee changes with the different employers. The struggle with Gus was primarily a struggle over the autonomy of knowledge.  After Gus's death, and Walt's brief stint as an independent businessman, he (also briefly) worked for Lydia. Lydia is an employee of the massive international Madrigal corporation who previously supplied the methylamine to Gus Fring. She briefly employs Walt to cook meth for export to the Czech Republic. Her attitude towards the production process is less about control over the production process than it is about maintenance of the brand identity. She understands the Heisenberg brand to be its signature blue color and purity. When Walt retires from the business, she is less interested in keeping him working than keeping the purity and identity of the brand. Much like her employer Madrigal, she is only interested in owning the brand, not controling production. As long as the numbers are met, as long the product has its identifying blue color and 92% quality, she does not care who makes it or how it is produced.

The three bosses of Breaking Bad, Tuco, Gus, and Lydia, follow a trajectory from feudal control of territory, Tuco; to Fordist standardization of production, Gus; and finally to Lydia's control over brand identity. In this way the trajectory mirrors The Wire's trajectory from Avon to Stringer and Marlo. It is a trajectory from control of territory through control of product to control over brand. What is Gus but a successful Stringer Bell? It would take too long to go into this, but it is worth pointing out that in each case the last one, the one concerned with reputation (in the case of Marlo), or brand (in the case of Lydia), is also the one who is most brutal, most comfortable with killing off the competition (even if, in the case of Lydia, she closes her eyes while walking through the corpses).

In the final season the logic of austerity shifts from work, from keeping one's job or becoming one's own boss, to keeping control of one's savings. It becomes a question of retirement. The massive piles of money is both the possibility of a future and the greatest risk to the present. Following Frédéric Lordon we could say that this anxiety over money, combined with the absence of any conspicuous consumption follows an affective shift in the relation to money, money is not an object of hope, the possibility of desires realized, but the object of fear, the fears and threats that it staves off and the threat of its loss.

What would become of Walt's empire is only one of the lingering questions that confronts the final season (or half season). The second, which occupies much more of the final episodes, is which of Walt's many enemies would be his demise, Jesse, Hank, Skyler, or cancer. The different possibilities can all be read as different statements about the nature of Walt's fate and transgression.

Overall the final season of the show has turned inward, focusing on the question of family and loyalty. This is a marked shift from the first half of the fifth season, which expanded the show outward, connecting the drug trade with multinational corporations, railroad logistics, the former soviet union countries, and white power gangs in the US. The fifth season's foray into the expanded context of the meth trade is matched in the form of the show. Breaking Bad's artistic innovations are rarely to be found at the level of dialogue or narrative, it cannot compete with the expanding neo-realism of The Wire. What it excels at is the "cold open," the five to seven minutes shown before the opening credits and first commercial. These are generally used to draw the viewer in, a teaser. Breaking Bad increasing uses them to posit a kind of riddle, as images that are disconnected from the current narrative are often presented without dialogue. Sometimes these are flash forwards, the pink teddy bear of the second season or the events of Walter White's 52nd birthday which began the final season, but sometimes, as in the introduction of Madrigal Electromotive in season five, they are displaced miniature films, disconnected from what came before. These brief vignettes suggest the expanding effects of the actions that make up the bulk of the series narrative, as a German executive morosely samples new dipping sauces before killing himself, his life ruined by his connection to Los Pollos Hermanos. A similar vignette gives us a brief glimpse of a kid riding his dirt bike and catching spiders, introducing us to Drew Sharp before his untimely fate. The central story line focuses on Walt and the family, its larger effects are only given episodically in these series of mini-films.

The turn inward of the final episodes is not a huge shift. Unlike The Wire, Breaking Bad was never really interested in institutions, in the politics of the DEA or the politics of healthcare. It is more interested in individuals, even going so far as to unmoor individuals from their institutions, Walt has not been teaching since the third season and even Hank is fairly isolated from the DEA in the final seasons. The turn to the family, to the interior space, underscores an aspect of the show that is alternately criticized or celebrated, its whiteness. Some have argued that Breaking Bad has followed a familiar racist fantasy, at work in everything from Tarzan to The Last Samurai, in which a white man enters a field dominated by another ethnic group and immediately excels at it. Crazy Eight, Tuco Salamanca, and Gus Fring all go up against Walt and are in some way obliterated, his crystal meth is the best around, and so on. While others have argued that the show reflects the decline of white masculinity; Walt's anger and frustration at his station and life would not be out of place on Fox News. These different interpretations hinge on whether the interior spaces of white suburbia and the anger and frustration of a middle class and middle aged white man are understood to presented critically or uncritically. The introduction of Todd's Uncle Jake and the Neo-Nazis as both hired henchmen and eventual antagonists seem to reflect this ambiguity. Walt's attempt to use whiteness as a connection and advantage on furthers his self destruction. One could draw a political parallel from this plot point to the fate of the ruling class in this country (as well as others) which tries to use white rage as a tactic to maintain power only to find that rage to be something uncontainable. Outsourcing muscle has its consequences.

Family is also presented ambiguously in these final episodes. It is both what Walt seeks to preserve, the purpose of his entire enterprise, and the source of conflicts. This is true of both Walt's actual family, as the lies fall apart one by one, and of his relation to Jesse, his meth family. With respect to the former, the season begins as Hank discovers Walt's identity as Heisenberg. He does so not as Heisenberg is continuing to expand his empire, but after he retires into a life of financial security and (relative) familial content. (The imperial ambitions of Walt/Heisenberg that have driven much of the show have subsided).  Hank's discovery is framed against the backdrop of a utopian moment, the entire family gathered around the table next to the pool. The utopian ideal is given before its dissolution into a conflict, a conflict that always simmered beneath it. The rest of the final season follows a kind of dialectic of ideal and conflict in which the ideal of the family is in contradiction with its reality, the one undermining the other. Walt considers both Hank and Jesse to be family, and thus he cannot kill either of them (at least personally), never really considering that his ideal of family conflicts with the reality of a DEA agent for a brother in law and a "partner" he has manipulated and abused. He pursues a series of "half measures" with respect to both Hank and Jesse; these half measures prove disastrous for Walt as well as his "family members"/enemies. Walt persistently overestimates the importance of family connections, failing to see how these connections have been destroyed by his own actions.

Walt is not alone in having a distorted view of family. Even before Hank stumbled across a copy of Leaves of Grass on the toilet, the show has focused on the family as a locus of a kind of constitutive blindness. The only way that Hank could not see that Walt was Heisenberg despite the fact that he had the classic combination of opportunity, motive, and ability (plus the sudden windfall of cash) was that he had become accustomed to seeing Walt as his nebbish brother in-law. A similar constitutive blindness befalls Walt Jr./Flynn who is the last to know about Walt because he is so caught up in the image and ideal of the father that he cannot see the lies. This is demonstrated in one of the episodes in the final season when Walt's painfully strained lie to explain the saturation of the living room rug with gasoline falls apart. Flynn/Walt Jr sees through the lie, but what he sees is not the truth of the matter, that the gasoline is left over from Jesse's attempt to torch the house, but his own fantasy image of his father as a noble cancer patient, covering up the fact that he is too sickly to pump his own gas. It is unclear is this lie within a lie was Walt's intent all along, but there are suggestions that Walt's best lies are the ones that manipulate the image he has in the eyes of others. He is a fox in Machiavelli's sense, able to manipulate his image in the eyes of others.

If this season (or half season) began with an image of heaven, a family joyous gathered around a table with enough money to fill a self storage unit, then its penultimate episode offers an image of austerity hell. Walt ends up in New Hampshire in a cabin. The details of life in this cabin read like a laundry list of modern conveniences cut from a shrinking budget. The cabin lacks cable and internet, only offering two copies of something called Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium for entertainment.  Walt has the money, a big barrel of it, but what he cannot afford are even the minimal social connections that such conveniences necessitate, even cable television requires a visit from the cable man. Marx argued that in capitalism, "The individual carries his social power, as well as his bond with society, in his pocket." Walt's situation reminds us that this power still requires a degree zero of sociality to function. No man is an island, even less one that has an industrial drum of money. Despite the unique situation of Walt's fate it also functions as an allegory of other, more common anxieties. It is the worst retirement ever, and I am fairly sure that if I drove from my home in Portland, Maine I could find someone who has just enough oil and firewood to get them through the winter and not much else. (Although they might own different movies) Jesse on the other hand is forced to work long past the point that he would like to retire. He is the very image of bare life stripped down to its capacity to work, to labor power. If, as I have argued earlier, the conflicts that animate this show are, at at least in part, conflicts between workers and capitalist, management and labor, pitting Walt and Jesse against Tuco, Gus, and Lydia, then Uncle Jake discovers that the best management technique is the most brutal. Whereas Gus went to great pains to interpellate Jesse into his enterprise, even sending him on "a self-esteem workshop" with Mike, linking his fate to theirs through a shared sense of value and importance, Jake and Todd resort to much more literal chains and much more brutal methods. Retirement into poverty and work without end, these are the shows vision of hell. Needless to say these images of hell are closer to the anxiety of the show's viewers than jail. Pushed to their allegorical extreme, however, they become the image of bosses and workers in post austerity America. The first, the boss is isolated in his compound, unable to even walk the streets, the second, the worker is forced to live in order to work past the point of any enjoyment.

At its best Breaking Bad is a kind of melodrama of daily life, taking the mundane anxieties of health care costs, unemployment, work and retirement and infusing them with enough of the danger and excitement of the illicit drug trade to make them (just barely) watchable and enjoyable. Now, with one episode left, it remains unclear how those anxieties will play out, but it seems clear that all the speculation on how it will end is also speculation of what will become of us.

4/11/14 update: A recent talk in which I do manage to say a few things about the last episode.


mapplega said...


I liked this post quite a bit--however, I read Walt's escape to the cabin a bit differently.

While I think the show is generally a certain kind of austerity narrative, I'm not sure this holds true for Walt in the sense that you describe. To me, his escape into the cabin is a different form of consumption--inconspicuous rather than blingin'. The cabin, and the money that allows him to afford it, preserve his freedom from prison. And in some senses, it preserves his wealth.

To me, Walt's escape to the cabin is like moving your money to an off-shore account or minimizing one's losses during an economic downturn, only to return full force when the market turns from bear to bull. This seems consistent with the end game--where Walt's wealth will ultimately afford him a pretty spectacular send off, dead or alive.

So perhaps this is still an austerity narrative, but one in which the conspicuous end of Walt's wealth building is suspended into it's climax and conclusion. (I think this is firmed up in that Walt is, despite his anonymity as Heisenberg, a conspicuous figure. He literally blows Gus up and his meth is blue, marking it off from all other kinds of meth produced on the market).

I guess this all depends on the final episode; however. I just imagine explosions and gun fights with everyone but Walt dying in the ultimate tragedy narrative.

Great post.

unemployed negativity said...

I see your point. I was also thinking of Walt's escape to the cabin as something of a king midas moment. He has all this money, although not all his money, but without people to buy and influence his money is useless. This resonates with the opening scene with Saul and Walt's attempt to come up with a list of hit men.

The idea of money as limited power also resonates with his scene with Robert Forester's character in which he pays 10,000 for some time paying cards.

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