[22 August 2013]
If the advertising one-liners for Breaking Bad‘s Fifth Season—“All Hail the King”—and the final eight episodes—“Remember My Name”—say anything about the show, it is that Breaking Bad is a show about mythologizing Walter White’s (or rather, Heisenberg’s) rise to power and wealth. What these promotions don’t highlight, and something the show is particularly adept at including in the setting and on the narrative fringes, is the “other” of the American West that stands affected in this old white male’s rise to power. Once a viewer starts tuning into the subtleties of those affected by the collateral damage of Walt/Heisenberg’s victories, it’s hard not to read the show as a satire that challenges us to rethink our romanticized assumptions about American Westward conquest.
Breaking Bad works as a satire because of a century old stereotypical image of the American West as first popularized in Owen Wister’s 1900 novel The Virginian (perpetuated in part by its countless stage and television adaptations). The Virginian‘s narrative is set in an unforgivingly dangerous land whose inhabitants were often corrupt and untrustworthy. However, those dangerous elements are deprived of their potency due to the emergence of the lore-worthy rugged type that could tame anything with ease and dismissive gaiety. In a sense, the image of the American West was transformed in the popular eye.
It became romanticized, defined by its cowboys and Indians, high noon shootouts; and good-ol-boy ranchers who, when not herding cattle and breaking horses, were off “re-educating” the newly transplanted spinster from the east. Perhaps most symbolically, this change in public regard for the West gave way to a false sense of achievement in its newfound aesthetic interrelatedness with nature made possible by the arrogant conquering, and thus supposed subordination, of the rugged landscape, wildlife, and its people—all vindicated due to the infallibility of Manifest Destiny.
Where this region had once been thought of as a vast immutable land full of beautiful, yet unforgivingly dangerous landscapes, and was full of foreign and domestic “others” in a time when the post-Civil War country was still largely concerned with anxieties of amalgamation, the land was now suddenly being marketed as tamable. Conquest was now an unquestioningly romanticized celebration rather than a dangerous and questionably oppressive endeavor in need of the justification through the ideology of Manifest Destiny.
Consider Breaking Bad‘s Western setting and use of character tropes that result in Walter’s donning of the iconic black hat (indicative of the Heisenberg alias/persona) as he heads to arranged meetings throughout the show’s run. The most notable scene that comes to mind is perhaps the desert meeting with Gustavo Fring following the events of the Season Three episode, “Half-Measures”. Or think about some of the heist schemes devised by Walter and company in some of the more recent episodes: the bank vault-esque evidence room magnet caper, and the train heist in the Season Five episodes “Live Free or Die” and “Dead Freight”, respectively. In the background of these narrative focuses are scenic homages to old westerns. The “Full Measure” desert meeting between Walter and Gustavo has all the characteristics of a high noon showdown, complete with extreme close-ups on Walter’s searching eyes. The show uses scenes like these to capitalize on the romanticized image of the American West. So how do we know that Breaking Bad isn’t just another addition to the cannon of stereotypes for the way in which Americans thinks about its country’s Western frontier?
The answer to this, and of course the explicitly satirized subject matter in Breaking Bad, can be found by looking to the fringes of the primary narrative. The story of Walter’s conquest may take center stage in the show, but it’s those affected in the wake of his efforts that give the show its darker atmosphere. It informs us not only about Walter’s development into Heisenberg, but also about the world that allows for an alter-ego like Heisenberg to be nurtured into existence, while unrecognized “others” quietly pay the price. But again, this piece is aimed at facilitating the observation of the many subtly satirical encounters that make up Breaking Bad‘s “other” story, and not as a new way of defining Walter (though one could certainly do so). To put it more succinctly, my goal here is to show that like Walter’s descent into moral decay that has, or will, lead most viewers to question their own support of the anti-hero’s chosen path, the American Western tropes utilized in this descent may at times—as with Walter’s “against-all-odds” victories—garner “hell yeah” cheers of encouragement from viewers, only to be punctuated by moral and social collateral damage to the forgotten “other” of the American West.
Before beginning, I will identify the two episodes I’ll be focusing on, and clarify the limitations of what I have provided in this analysis. First, this essay is not intended to be an exhaustive account of every instance wherein the show’s main characters interact with, and severely alter the lives of “others.” I wouldn’t want to write the lengthy piece that tried to do so, nor do I think it would provide as much of a benefit as a smaller sampling of standout moments that will hopefully enable viewers to look more keenly at instances like the ones I’ll be addressing here. Additionally, I don’t consider myself a scholar of American Western history, but do hope that the information I am able to put forth for consideration encourages some to expand their own knowledge and understanding in this area by keeping an eye out for literature, television shows, and films that offer depictions of the American West. This analysis will first define “conquest” as it pertains to Breaking Bad, and then analyze two allegorical moments from the show: the displacement of Native Americans in Season One’s “Crazy Handful of Nothin’”, and the romanticized train heist in Season Five’s “Dead Freight”.
Author Patricia Limerick addresses the myth of American Western conquest, wherein the conquered “other” of the American West extends from land acquisition and economic control to native and foreign peoples. Limerick describes this conquest as:
“the definition and allocation of ownership (personal, tribal, corporate, state, federal, and international), and the evolution of land from matter to property, [resulting in] the subsequent giving of meaning and power [...]. Race relations parallel the distribution of property, the application of labor and capital to make the property productive, and the allocation of profit. (Hugo Archilleya in Season One’s “Crazy Handful of Nothin’”)
Indeed, over the course of Walter White’s quest for power, a Native American man looses his janitorial job1, three Honduran women are deported after Walter manipulates them into cleaning his super lab (Season Four’s “Cornered”), and a Southeast Asian underling—though certainly partially culpable in his own fate—is murdered (Duane Chow appears in Season Three’s “Full Measure” and in Season Five’s “Madrigal”). All of this “incidental” fallout echoes the historical mythologizing tendency to ignore the inherent “conquered” whenever one uses a word like “conquest” as a positive. Breaking Bad is not just the story of an anti-hero that pushes the limits of viewers’ moral support; it is a satire that challenges the viewer to rethink his or her romanticized assumptions about the establishment and celebration of the American West.
In the background of Walter’s first day of chemotherapy and rebooted venture into meth cooking (“A Crazy Handful of Nothin’”) is Hugo Archilleya, a Native American Janitor at the high school where Walter works. Due to the side effects of chemotherapy, Walter has to make an emergency exit to the bathroom, perhaps a bit too conveniently interrupting a class lecture on the differences between gradual and rapid chemical reactions. In the bathroom, Hugo Archilleya kindly inquires after Walter’s well-being and takes care of the mess for him, saying, “Don’t worry Mr. White. I got it. You’ve got kids to teach.” This scene is reenacted a second time in the episode in order to establish Archilleya’s continuing care and concern for Walter. For a character that we never see again after this episode, these are moments that would have solely played as a sympathy builders for Walter’s failing health if it wasn’t for Archilleya’s subsequent firing and off-screen imprisonment later in the episode.
In fact, outside of his initial arrest (notably, while Archilleya is raising the American flag at the start of the school day, and the school principal stands by incredulously pleading on behalf of Mr. Archilleya’s character to Hank), we never see him again. The only information we receive from this point on is from Hank, who offers up selective evidence that is inadequate in explaining the extraneously hyperbolic charges. Here is the conversation that follows after Junior asks why Hank arrested Mr. Archilleya:
Hank: Well, turns out he has a record. A couple possession beefs. We figured he was the guy that was stealing your school’s chemistry gear. I mean, you know he had a key [pause] He fit the profile. And when we searched his truck, he had a big ol’ fat blunt. Which goes to show, big ol’ huge Hugo ain’t so cool after all.
Skyler: I can’t believe that the school system didn’t know about this guy’s record. I mean, that’s pretty scary. How could something like that just slip through the cracks?
Considering that the DEA was looking for a meth cook, and left with a “big ol’ fat blunt” out of a truck, Hank’s excuse seems beyond inadequate for Archilleya to lose his job and, according to Hank, “likely spend a couple months in [the] county” jail. Skyler’s reaction here represents society’s willingness to accept manipulated interpretations and half-truths. The entire series of events results in a scarier situation than the school system’s failure to identify Archilleya as having “a couple of possession beefs”—the public’s willingness to interpret this as a job well done by the judicial system.
Earlier in the episode, Hank refers to the cook site respirator as having been found on “some old Indian land.” I don’t bring this line up to suggest that it was intended to add further suspicion of Archilleya, but rather to point out that the landscape, coupled with the peripheral characters in “Walter’s story,” are present here as a reminder that there are stories that are not remembered in the Anglo American history of the West.
Thus what Breaking Bad critiques in this episode is the absence of a diverse axis of interpretation in a diverse country. The narrative follows this Anglo American architecture of cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, and us versus them. Archilleya’s story doesn’t fit into that architecture. As Hank says, “he fit the profile,” so we move on. Hank’s masculine chiding of Walter in the poker game at the end of this scene—“Ya gonna man up or puss out?”—transitions the story out of Archilleya’s near-miss encounter with societal import and consideration. Instead, his story is swept into unrecorded history, and we end the scene with a low-stakes standoff between two celebrated American Western figures—the lawman and the economically driven “self-made” man. Both Walter and Hank pretend to be donning white hats (black for Heisenberg) when in actuality, their true selves lie somewhere in an ever-changing grey.
While I think the show as a whole keeps coming back to this romanticized image of the Anglo American West, Season Five seems to have doubled down on this portrayal (or at least Walter’s schemes have). I’ve already mentioned the evidence-vault magnet caper and the train robbery, but I’d like to take a closer examination of the latter in its entirety.
The plan is to covertly rob a train in “a remote three mile stretch” of “dark territory,” an “area of no contact.” It’s probably the biggest McGuffin the show has ever presented us. Normally I would find this distracting, but what this allusion affords for is more than enough to make up for the clunky expositional dialogue that explains away the implausibility of a post-9/11 train robbery. What this “dark territory” narratively allots for is the setting and circumstances for the show to play out its quasi-temporal re-creation of an old-fashioned train robbery. With 20th century communication cut off, Lydia says it best: “It’s the perfect place.” Jesse’s comment during the scene, “You mean rob it? Like Jesse James?”, sounds more like nostalgic childhood wonder than an incredulous criticism. The heist is ultimately a chance for our anti-heroes (and the viewers via fictional surrogate) to be a part of the Old West mythology. Even though it’s a train robbery, it’s exciting—or at least it has been romanticized in Anglo-American history so much that it would seem that way. But as Jesse soon finds out, and Mike anticipates, that romanticism is far from reality.
There are two unexpected events that occur, ruining the expected adventure portion of the otherwise successful train heist, and both of them upset the idealized image of the West our anti-heroes are hoping for. The first is from a Native American (Mike names him, a “good Samaritan”), who offers his unsolicited help in removing the “broken” truck from the railroad tracks. The ethnicity of the driver certainly isn’t paid any explicit attention here, but in a turn of events that largely plays for laughs, it’s hard not to take a step back in contemplation of the situation as a whole.
In this scene, we have two white conductors trying to get their train moving, and four white bandits trying to carry out their twenty-first century idea of a train heist in “dark territory,” which more or less suspends the temporality of the 21st century setting, and then in comes the stage-right entrance of a selfless Native American with a Ford F 350, offering to remove the obstruction from the railroad tracks. It has already been established that our robbers are acting out a kind of romanticized endeavor, but it’s worth taking a moment to note that the American railroad system played a large role in westward expansion when it came to connecting the Atlantic and Pacific.
Undoubtedly, the railroad’s design in this expansion added to the continuing reallocation of lands and the displacement of Native Americans, but it was also constructed in large part with the use of slave-like labor of various minorities. There may be at least one discriminatory remnant of this exploitation a racial epithet for Chinese, “Chinks,” an onomatopoetic term which has some support for its etymological roots coming from Chinese laborers working on the American railroad system (From Huan Hsu’s “No More Chinks in Armor”, Slate). But information like this all too often takes a backseat to the preferred serialized narratives. If you could fit the entirety of this scene into a snapshot, it would feel as surreal as a Samuel Beckett play. But it only feels that way because it the scene defies the Anglo Western fantasy.
The other hiccup in the heist is of course the episode’s closing scene where Todd shoots the boy with the tarantula, first seen riding his motorcycle in the episode’s cold open (another motorized intrusion into the Anglo fantasy). This observation is not an identification of the show’s focus on the treatment of an ethnic “other,” but rather the American West as an ecological “other.” As the previous quote from Limerick suggests, the conquest of the American West was about more than the conquering of those in the way of the expansion justified by Manifest Destiny. It was also about the conquering of a land resistant to the superficial boundaries of society. The show frequently depicts settings with hard-worn fences and rugged terrains. At the start of this episode, we see shots of this landscape and a tarantula—a harmless creature many judge on sight as dangerous or unpleasant, running away from it, or outright killing it on sight. But the boy preserves it in a jar (there are air holes you can see in the final scene of the episode). There’s a reverence for life in this scene, unsullied by the desire to claim, to conquer, or to make a profit regardless of cost. That reverence for an interrelatedness with the Western land is shattered at the close of the episode, along with Jesse’s earlier excitement over the Jesse James-esque train heist. Todd’s reaction to the boy is not unlike what many would have done to the harmless tarantula.
I said at the beginning of this analysis that one has to look to the fringes—those background elements that deny or defy Walter as a centerpiece or lynchpin—in order to identify those moments as satirical. But I think as the show goes on, the physical, moral, and social collateral damage becomes harder to ignore. As the Anglo American lie of Western conquest becomes more transparent, so too do the injustices. It will be interesting to see how this trend plays out in the final episodes. But as Walter’s moral decay continues, it seems more and more likely that people are going to find themselves questioning the “Heisenberg” persona when reading the tongue-in-cheek advertising command: “Remember my name.” After all, like the remembered Anglo American history of the West, Heisenberg too, is also just a half-truth fantasy.