Is Breaking Bad racist?
Malclom Harris thinks so. I disagree. Spoilers ahead.
Walter White, a white, middle-aged genius-chemist-turned-teacher-turned-drug-manufacturer produces the purest crystal meth in America which beats everything else on the market, most of which is made by brown Mexicans. For Harris, the meaning of this is clear: “a white person is (and by extension, white people are) best at everything.”
In the entire essay, half of which is about race, this is the only proof provided. He declares it an example of the Mighty Whitey trope: a tendency of (especially Western) plots to portray the white outsider as superior to non-whites. I’m not denying that many novels, TV shows and (especially) movies use this trope. I am denying, though, that Breaking Bad is.
There are two ways of depicting white superiority in a work of fiction: (1) The white characters are portrayed having superior qualities relative to the non-white characters (they’re smarter, stronger, more honest, more resourceful, less barbaric, better trained etc) (2) Interactions between the white involve the white character(s) dominating the nonwhites – and this domination is portrayed positively. This domination can occur when the white character is cooperating with the nonwhites – for example in Avatar, where the human leads the natives against aggressors – or when he is competing against them – for example in Hidalgo, where a white man defeats native Arabs and Africans in a horse race. We can now ask two questions: In Breaking Bad, are the white people shown as superior to non-whites? Do white people dominate non-whites?
Harris believes that the answer to both questions are yes – white people make better meth, and after the dust settles, only the pale skinned are left. Let’s dig deeper, starting with Walter White’s qualities.
Walter is a brilliant cook but a lousy producer. Despite the quality of his meth, he burns through over half a dozen business models in a year. First, he attempts to sell his meth to his partner’s old buyer. This ends with two deaths and two bodies very awkwardly disposed of. He then establishes ties with the new local drug lord – and erects walls so badly he gets kidnapped from his own house. He tries distributing through Jesse – only to discover that boutique retail is a dreadfully slow way to earn the millions he wants. So he tries to set up his own distribution network: his dealers get killed (Combo) , arrested (Badger) or robbed (Skinny Pete). Turnover is high, and they can’t move their (large) inventory. He blows his first chance with Gus Fring by turning up at the meeting with an intoxicated partner. Fortunately the deal goes through and even better – Walter gets hired to cook meth in a superlab for millions of dollars a year! This particular relationship ends with Walter blowing up an old age home. He then forms a partnership with Mike and Jesse – and alienates them with his greed and ammorality. And as the references to Gray Matter – a company he starts and quits due to conflict with his co-founders – show, his inability to get along isn’t limited to people in the drug world.
He’s not much better outside work. As a husband, he’s borderline abusive. He’s good with his kids but his hubris repeatedly puts them at risk. As soon as he gets his hands on money, he spends it on fast cars and condos and, but for Skylar, would have been one of those criminals that get caught because they flashed more money than they could possibly have earned honestly. Be it business relationships, personal relationships or personal finance, Walter is a failure. He is very good at making meth, but lacks the restraint and relationship skills needed to build an empire.
Gus Fring, meanwhile, is everything that Walter isn’t. Until he starts cooking meth, Walter is a loser – his students don’t pay attention to him, his boss bullies him into doing demeaning physical labour and his brother-in-law dominates him at family gatherings. Gus commands respect. He builds deep relationships with his employees – Gale isn’t cooking meth just for the money – and with his potential enemies, the DEA. He’s careful, never dealing directly with durg addicts. He’s always calm and composed. He doesn’t toss around his money. He’s created the empire that Walter later craves.
And he’s Chilean, easily the least white character on the show. Despite being the principle antagonist in seasons three and four, he is never portrayed as being particularly evil. It isn’t until he threatens Walter’s family that we lose any sympathy for him (everyone else he’s killed, had killed or tried to kill is ‘in the game’).
In other words, as far as qualities are concerned, there is no clear white superiority. Many of the non-whites are admirable ( such as Tio Salamanca) and contemptible (Tuco). Many whites are admirable (Mike) and contemptible (the robber-junkies that Jesse is supposed to ‘handle’).
But don’t the whites win?
One, not always: the Mexican cartel executes a DEA informer and use him as bait to bomb DEA officers.
Two, the biggest ‘victory’ – over the Mexican cartel – isn’t Walter’s or Hank’s: it is Gus’s.
Three, many of the victories are close saves – a stray bullet, a convenient rock – that fall short of portraying victory as the consequence of white superiority, the way many other works of fiction do. Furthermore, these victories rarely come easy: Hank is bedridden for months after his clash with the brothers.
Four, but for the intervention of non-white Gus, many of the white characters (Walter, Hank) would be dead. In one, perhaps overly dramatic moment, the Mexicans are sitting in Walter’s bedroom with an ax waiting for Walter to step out of the shower. Only Gus’s summons stay their hand.
Five, some of the victories enjoyed by white characters would be impossible without the aid of non-whites: Tio Salamanca’s suicide bombing, for example.
And so on. Conflict drives drama and violent conflict drives gangster drama. If a show about drugs is truly race-indifferent (not the same as race-blind) and has individuals from multiple races, one would expect whites to sometimes defeat non-whites and vice-versa.
Harris cherry picks a handful of racial facts from a constellation of facts (some of which I’ve listed above) and ends up seeing white supremacist tendencies where there are, perhaps, none. He focuses on the situations where white characters are virtuous and ignores situations where they’re not. He focuses on instances where whites dominate and ignores instances where they’re dominated. The point I wish to make is this: accusing a contemporary writer (or team of writers) of supporting white supremacy is a serious charge in a world where racism is widely considered evil. It ought not be done lightly and high standards of evidence should be maintained. The suspension of disbelief or a few scenes given racial import by the critic does not cut it.
UPDATE: While I accepted White’s high quality meth and Jesse’s mexican cook as “victories”, this essay is a good rebuttal to this reading.