Essay: Breaking Bad — Power, Ego and Masculinity in Quality TV

One of the most poignant motifs in the five season epic that is AMC’s Breaking Bad (2008–2013) is its fierce portrayal and criticism of masculinity. Breaking Bad (BB) has a wide array of academic writing, in addition to winning countless awards from it’s brilliant acting, to the writing and directing. The focus of this analysis will be on masculinity and how it’s idealised, threatened and abused by Walter White and other prominent male characters — demonstrating the different ways characters take control, feel power, and fulfil their ego. I will be utilizing theory from gender and men’s studies, semiotics as well as the plethora of academica on Breaking Bad.

Before examining masculinity, I will first define Breaking Bad of the phenomenon of quality TV, which can be described as the “cinematization of the small screen” (Buxton 1999:69). This is central in understanding the thematic complexity for both characters and wider social issues — as in the post network era, shows began to offer more complex stories. As Thompson states “Quality TV is best defined by what it is not: it is not regular TV” (1997: 13), these attitudes began as TV prior was seen as mindlessness entertainment. Cult TV shows in the early 1980s demonstrated that TV could offer complex stories, and by the 1990s shows such as Twin Peaks were “unlike anything we’d ever seen on television,” (Thompson 1997: 13) which led to a new breed of shows — coined as quality TV. It borrows many motifs from cinema, with its production “by people of quality aesthetics ancestry outside the field of television” (Flicker 2004: 14) but its unique qualities of “multiple overlapping plot lines” (Ibid) indicative of literature, with individual episodes like a chapter of a book. BB is undoubtedly quality tv; from it’s production by creator Vince Gilligan, to it’s narrative complexity, with controversial social issues and themes reflective of our own society. Quality TV is ultimately defined by complexity which Breaking Bad has in abundance.

When looking at the character of Walter White, his motives are intertwined with his masculinity. In series one, Walt is arguably already successful; financially well off with a stable job, helped in nobel prize winning project, founded Gray Industries, and has a loving family — but he feels he deserves more. He knows he’s smart enough to be rich, powerful and successful but has little respect. For Walt money equals success, and looking successful upholds his masculinity. Walt’s ethics are shook when he is diagnosed with cancer, it makes him feel weak, less of a ‘man’. Cancer acts as a catalyst to change himself — the desire to secure his family’s financial future once he passes plus the potential to save himself, leads Walt down a path to become traditionally masculine. Previously he saw himself as a pushover, fragile and lacking traditional masculine traits. Humiliated by his jock brother in-law, he turns to crime as a way to become dominant and assert masculinity, as “the criminal drug culture in Breaking Bad is coded as hyper-masculine with an emphasis on power, dominance, and aggression” (Pierson 2013:25). His ego feels humiliated by failing to fund his healthcare, support his family, along with jealousy of Elliott and Gretchen wealth. However it’s how Walt becomes accustomed to crime which is his downfall, becoming Heisenberg gives him a sense of fulfilment and allows him to assert a side of violent masculinity that he previously withheld. Some of the most poignant lines in BB, “Say my name” (Cranston, S5 Ep7) and “I am the one who knocks” (Cranston, S4 Ep6), both uphold Walt’s ego and masculinity — he’s no longer passive, but in control, the one who knocks.

Various characters whom Walt respects add to this outmoded masculinity. Hank represents the cliché of masculinity which diminishes Walter’s self worth. Hank asserts his masculinity from his violent DEA job, his home-brewing hobby, and unchallenged dominance at family gatherings. He defended Walter’s decision to refuse money, saying “maybe Walt just wants to die like a man,” (Norris, S1 Ep5) again reiterating what it means to be a ‘man’ by exaggerating the ideals of traditional masculinity — not just a code to live for, but to die for. Hank’s base sense of masculinity too is a desire to be self-sufficient, seen by his mirrored refusal of Walt’s money to help him walk again. Gus Fring in trying to manipulate Walter states, “A man provides for his family… When you have children, you will always have family. They will always be your priority, your responsibility. And a man, a man provides. And he does it even when he’s not appreciated, or respected, or even loved” (Esposito, S3 Ep 5). Walt ultimately dies by this, believing he provided for his family through Gretchen and Elliot, but does so without their knowledge being completely alienated from them. Walt’s ego is his driving force throughout the series, using this idea of being a ‘man’ to lie to himself that what he’s doing is right. The audience falls into a false sense of security as Walt’s actions seem logical in trying to provide for his family. Obsessed with his newfound power, his actions become more selfish in retaining power through callous actions, which when lost, he uses anger to uphold his masculinity. Walt, Hank and Gus may begin their journeys with honest motives — but ultimately it was for selfish gains of power, ego, and to uphold their masculinity.

The show directly critiques male pride and the destructive nature of masculinity. Dominance is foremost, and to display weakness or vulnerability one loses his masculinity. Damaged pride leads the characters into acting without logic, caught up in emasculating they act without thinking of consequences and become their most immoral. Masculinity in the protagonists is criticised by parallels to hyper-masculine violent groups such as the drug cartel and the neo-Nazis. It isn’t upheld by womanizing, as the cartel who are surrounded by woman still lose to Walt. Jesse is the only male protagonist who’s redeemed, likely due to being one of the few male characters who is open about his feelings, and doesn’t desire traditional masculinity. Jesse knows how to emasculate and to be confident, but underneath he’s compassionate and sensitive. Jesse’s youthful overconfidence is abused by his weakness of having no father figure, which both Walt and Mike fulfil this missing role in his life. Although this highlights Walter’s manipulative side with his relationship with Jesse, who still called him Mr. White, helping to fulfill his ego, and masculine dominance.

Structuralism and semiotics was developed by Roland Barthes (1977), mobilising Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s definitions. The core of structuralism is two components, the base word itself is known as the signifier, whereas the concept is known as the signified. The link “between the two is simply the result of convention — of cultural agreement” (Storey 2012:113). Barthes was interested in the formal structure of language, and developed Semiotics as the mechanism to apply to not just language but all aspects of culture. Making the distinction of denotative — the literal meaning, and a further second level of significance being connotation — the wider social context and ideology created. Storey summarizes, that “connotations are therefore not simply produced by the makers of the image, but activated from an already existing cultural repertoire” (2012:123). As stated prior, the word ‘man’ is repeated throughout the show, with different characters questioning Walt’s manhood, however two slurs used frequently in the show are used similarly. Both ‘bitch’ and ‘pussy’ are full of gender specific signs and used frequently throughout the five seasons, with Jesse using ‘bitch’ commonly. Who’s the ‘man’ and who is the ‘bitch’ is one of the many underlying motives behind Walt’s actions — it simplifies the idea of who’s in control and who is submissive into just two signifers. These words have gender specific meanings, as when calling a woman a ‘bitch’, it commonly means she is difficult, aggressive or selfish. However when calling a man ‘bitch’ the connotations shift, as stated prior aggression is commonly seen as a masculine trait to Walt. Therefore the word holds different attributes when said to a man, being a sign of weakness, of being a coward, and a slander which negates strength linked to exploitation of forcing someone to submit. Storey reiterates this in his summary of Barthes work stating the “nature of signs… is that they have the potential to signify multiple meanings” (2012:121). Interesting Jesse never uses the insult to describe women and only uses it to uphold his own masculinity in a way to weaken the other men around him.

In conclusion, Matt Zeitz on the end of BB stated that “it’s not merely a happy or sad ending. It’s an ending that leaves us alone with a mirror,” (2013, online) that mirror being as Darko Suvin states ”a mirror to man… not only a reflecting one, it is a transforming one” (in Baker 2014:16). Many themes discussed are meant for us to reflect upon, money for example is portrayed as a clear signifer for power, meant to demonstrate the value of the person who earned it, and for us to question this connotation. Morality is frequently questioned within the series, not just from Walt’s actions cooking and his increase in violence, but of the systems that caused Walt to turn into Heisenberg. Being reflective of the shortcomings of our current capitalist society — how a middle-class family with a stable job as a teacher can’t survive in American healthcare. This alongside the criticisms of traditional masculinity, how ego of being the one to provide and be in control is portrayed so negatively. It’s clear how “Walter White, represents all the crises, dilemmas and anxieties of the modern male,” (Burrows 2013, online) his ever changing identities encapsulate different angles of masculinity, built to be a relatable character to not just identify with, but to make us think about how we value self worth in our own lives, and to not repeat Walter White’s mistakes.

Word Count: 1648

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