Frontier Masculinity and Desert Symbolism in ‘Breaking Bad: The Fifth Season’

Episode five of Breaking Bad’s fifth and final season opens with the image of a young boy riding his dirt bike through the desert. Although the boy’s pivotal role in the story is unknown at this point, the desolate terrain through which he rides has always exerted a powerful symbolic presence within Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) journey from high school chemistry teacher to ruthless drug lord.

The Western desert resonates within the American cultural imagination as the home of the mythical frontier with its masculine values of rugged individualism, self-reliance and freedom. Breaking Bad uses this archetypal imagery to reflect Walt’s single minded pursuit of these ideals throughout the series. But as his actions lead only to unthinkable depths of depravity and desperation, the desert also emerges as a visual embodiment of Walt’s barren moral landscape. The tension between the fantastical archetype of frontier masculinity and the destructive and dehumanizing potential of that very ideal has become the show’s central moral conflict, played out to the backdrop of the desert’s bleak and harsh terrain.

Two of this season’s most pivotal sequences take place within this contested space of the desert, and they reveal conflicting layers of meaning with regard to Walt’s embodiment of frontier masculinity. In “Dead Freight”, the aforementioned episode that begins with the boy in the desert, Walt, Jesse (Aaron Paul) and Mike (Jonathan Banks) plan to rob a freight train carrying a massive supply of methylamine, one of the key ingredients in the large scale production of methamphetamine.

As they prepare to execute the heist, it becomes apparent that their success will hinge upon their willingness to kill the two crew members aboard the train. Although Walter urges his partners to move ahead with the plan, revealing just how far he has descended into the depths of moral depravity, Jesse devises an alternative solution that will spare the lives of the crew members.

The heist scene itself is a nail-biting onslaught of MacGyver-style action television that involves blocking the train tracks with a stalled vehicle, siphoning off a thousand gallons of methylamine and replacing it with water to maintain the weight of the cargo. But the truly crucial moment comes just after they’ve succeeded in their mission. As Walt and Jesse celebrate, their newest partner-in-crime, the endlessly creepy Todd (Jesse Plemons) notices the boy from the opening scene, sitting on his dirt bike, watching the robbery unfold. The boy waves, and without flinching Todd shoots him dead, obeying his orders that “nobody else can know about this” with an inhuman certitude.

This tragic moment leads Jesse into an anguish from which he may never recover, buried beneath the cruel irony that his attempt at sparing innocent lives resulted directly in this most senseless and inexplicable of deadly acts. But Walter reacts by completing his downward spiral into the depths of his own ego, aligning himself with Todd, whose “interest is this business” and who justifies his act with the claim that he “chose us and he would do it again”.

In this terrifying scene, the desert landscape acts as a mirror to Walt’s internal emptiness, as the vast and all-consuming space of greed and pride that has replaced any semblance of empathy or moral responsibility within his character. However, a few episodes later, in “Say My Name”, that same desert scenery seems to radiate in celebration of those very masculine ideals—of an unbridled and unfeeling individualism, modeled upon the archetype of the mythical frontier—that have transformed Walter from a decent human being into a monster.

In “Say My Name”’s opening scene, Walter, Jesse and Mike drive far out into the desert, soundtracked by a rousing combination of electronic drums and steel-guitar twang, to meet a rival drug lord who hopes to buy their newly acquired supply of methylamine, providing them the opportunity to walk away from the meth business forever. However, through Walt’s masculine posturing in this (frankly ridiculous) scene, he somehow convinces his adversary to go into business with him instead, by claiming that compared to his own, their product is “grade school T ball versus the New York Yankees. Some tepid, off-brand cola versus Classic Coke (product placement perhaps?)”.

This scene is so rife with appeals to the same masculine values that have sewn the seeds of Walter’s moral descent, that it is impossible to read it as any form of critique. Rather, it feels like a celebration. And this tension which emanates both from the implications of Walter’s actions and from the multifaceted symbolic imagery of the Western desert, raises a key question with regard to Breaking Bad’s function as a popular cultural narrative: is the show a critique of the devastating potential of frontier masculinity or is it itself a masculine fantasy, complicit in its celebration of those same values that it might seem to undermine and contest? At this point, it seems that it wants to be both.

There is no doubt that Breaking Bad is a supremely entertaining, deftly acted and beautifully filmed work of television. But the resolution of these conflicts in the final remaining episodes will either result in a devastating critique of the harmful effects of frontier masculinity, or reveal the show’s role as just another purveyor of that myth.

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The Breaking Bad: The Fifth Season DVD release comes loaded with bonus features that will fascinate and entertain fans of the show including cast and crew commentary for each episode, deleted scenes and outtakes, several “making-of” featurettes and an interview with actor Jonathan Banks who gives a truly mesmerizing performance this season as Mike “The Cleaner”.

included in the bonus features is a DVD only scene in which Saul breaks up a private party between Jesse, Skinny Pete and a stripper. Ostensibly, this scene fills in a bit of exposition concerning Jesse and Walter’s rapidly deteriorating relationship, but is really just an excuse to indulge in the kind of Sopranos style gratuitous nudity that the show can’t get away with on AMC. Other than that wholly unnecessary detour, the bonus features provide an engaging glimpse into the nuts-and-bolts processes behind one of the most painstakingly crafted shows on television.

RATING 7 / 10