Nothing arouses the almost religious indignation of the U.S. populace (the educated liberal class anyway, and that means mostly white) than to criticize their favorite TV shows.
Vince Gilligan’s AMC series Breaking Bad has, as we close in on the final two episodes, reached clear cult status now. I’ve seen it compared to Dostoyevsky and Kafka.
What accounts for the show’s over-valuation? I think the clearest answer, the most simple, is that it flatters the intended audience.
Network Demographics has it this way:
AMC targets viewers 18-49, viewers 25-54, males 18-49 and males 25-54, according to its 2007 Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau profile. For full-year 2007 the network averaged 201,000 primetime viewers 18-49, a 2 percent boost versus 197,000 in 2006, as well as 246,000 viewers 25-54, up 6 percent from 233,000 in 2006.
AMC also averaged 119,000 male viewers 18-49 in primetime last year, up 5 percent from 113,000 in 2006, and 148,000 males 25-54, a 9 percent increase from 136,000 a year earlier.
The network says “Breaking” targets mainly the 25-54 demographic.
Breaking Bad followed up after AMC’s breakout show Mad Men. The interesting thing here is that the increasingly meaningless Neilsen ratings (still adhered to by sponsers) never had the Gilligan show in the top ten and it never topped 3 million viewers. Now clearly, this is a wildly lowball estimate.
But, it was a cult show, and it attracted a very media savy and educated (and rabidly loyal) following. As Dustin Rowles points out…
The fact that advertisers rely SO heavily on Nielsens is absurd. To actually believe that only 2.3 or 2.9 million people watch Breaking Bad in the first place is dumb. Hell, there are probably 2.9 million people commenting on episode recaps of Breaking Bad around the web. Why do all glossy print magazines devote so much copy to shows that only get 3 million viewers, like Breaking Bad and Mad Men, instead of giving every cover to the cast of NCIS?
There’s a serious disconnect between Nielsen ratings and reality.
Here’s an interesting juxtaposition that demonstrates the point. Over on IMDb, Breaking Bad has a 9.4 user rating. NCIS has a 7.8 user rating. American Idol has a 4.4 user rating. But let’s put aside the ratings, and focus on the number of users that voted. Breaking Bad has had 100,000 users vote in four years. NCIS, the top rated scripted program in America, has had 20,000 people vote in eight years. American Idol, the highest rated show for the last decade, has had only 12,000 user votes. What does that say?
Now, as it turned out, Breaking Bad, on its return, did officially top 6 million viewers. That however is not really the point. What is it that has attracted such devotion and enthusiasm in the viewership of this show? I think, as I said, it flatters its intended demographic, but that is wildly simplistic. The show is really, in the end, another colonial narrative, but slightly inverted. It is the reclaiming of the jungle left to mismanagement under the independent natives. The white chemistry teacher, nerd, and emasculated nerd at that, can go forth into the dark sinister frontiers of the underclass and come out the King. Most specifically, the latino immigrant underclass. The opening episode of this franchise, as Duncan Law rather brilliantly pointed out, is all about pants.
“Pants are an ongoing theme in episode one. They represent manhood and masculinity, obviously. The show starts with its protagonist without trousers – trousers run over by a vehicle, in fact. The emasculated, castrated protagonist will regain his trousers and virile manhood in the course of the episode.
Then we have a scene to establish that the episode will be going someplace exciting and action-packed, with dead bodies and guns, even though it starts slow. Protagonist (Walter White, hereafter WW) gives a speech to hand-held camera, without trousers, about how much he loves his family. Teary confessive love of family != trousers. Then he gets a gun out.”
Walter White, high school chemistry teacher, is diagnosed with cancer. The audience knows White is weak and emasculated because when we meet him, he *isnt* wearing any pants. He is cooking up meth in a trailer in the desert. And has no pants. This is crucial in a sense for establishing one of the central dynamics in this narrative, that of Walter and his wife Skylar. Its not an accident that fans have come out in such force to express hatred of the character of Skylar (to such a degree that actress Anna Gunn actually wrote a NYTimes piece on her confusion…and the fact the NYTimes saw fit to print this also says a lot, but more on that later). Skylar is the castrating female. Her sister is the neurotic less efficient castrating female. Her sister is married to an DEA agent. So right away we learn that Walter, the intellectual scientist is TOTALLY castrated, weak, and without potency, but the DEA agent is too strong, however much the show makes fun of his bluster, he remains potent, and so drives HIS castrating female into neurosis (and kleptomania).
Duncan Law again…..“The next 15 minutes or so of the show are devoted to establishing our protagonist (WW) as an emasculated hopeless victim of his family and work. Various scenes:
WW walking in one place, not moving forward, on an exercise machine. It’s a metaphor for his life!!! He is going through the motions but in stasis, not getting anywhere!!
We learn from a Nobel-citation plaque on the wall that WW was at one time a significant intellectual figure. No more, alas, he is caged in and hopeless!!
It is WW’s 50th birthday (past his prime!). His wife serves him vege-bacon for breakfast. He doesn’t get real meat in this life, just a poor substitute, because he is a hen-pecked and nagged husband, subservient to a restricting, scolding wife. WW’s teenage son has cerebral palsy, we learn here – another restricting misfortune.”
The series narrative is really a remade version of The Man Who Would Be King, the Rudyard Kipling story later made into a film by John Huston. The Kipling story was loosely based on the story of James Brooke, an English colonial explorer who fashioned himself into the White Rajah of Sarawak, in Borneo. What is interesting here, of course, is that this represents the reclaiming of the colonial narrative. What Walter actually achieves is to win back the colonial narrative for post colonial times. One could see the Giancarlo Esposito character as a sort of reimagined Nkrumrah figure almost. But evil, which is actually of course is exactly how all third world independence leaders were seen by the U.S. government. Esposito’s character, Gus Fring, is however, a figure that contains several meanings, and performs several roles for the narrative. He is the dark skinned other, the scary menacing emotionless evil mastermind….though one who serves white people their fried chicken. (Dont trust those smiling brown faces when they serve you!!!). Gus is smart, but smart the way the sinister natives are always smart. He is sadistic and without feeling. He is calculating, but he cant calculate with the white man, so that even a wimpy high school chemistry teacher can out think him.
It is worth noting that the backstory for Gus Fring indicates he studied chemistry in Chile, but was forced to leave under Pinochet’s dictatorship. He immigrated to Mexico, and finally the U.S. So the fascists drove his chemistry student out (not as good at chemistry as Walt, though) only to become a sort of fascist himself. The immigrant clears away fried chicken plates, smiles and tap dances for the Man, and all the while is biting the hand that allowed him into the country.
There is also the matter of Fring’s Germanic name, and the odd C-story of German industrialisits. So the subtle Nazis in South America sub text is at least hinted at.
The entire thrust of the narrative is the emergence of Walter’s latent masculinity. And his masculinity and potency further emerge as his exploration of the darkside of the underclass deepens. The further into this sinister world Walter goes, the more in touch he becomes with his own sense of power and virility. The narrative collaborates with the viewer in secretly cheering Walter on. NOBODY is not rooting for Walt as he comes up against various psychotic drug kingpins and junkies. Walter represents the civilized world, a world (so the show indicates) that has to, from time to time, return to the use of savage force. The natives respect nothing else.
Walter’s wife is there to limit and prohibit this emergent masculinity. If Skylar would just get the fuck out of the way, Walter could even conquer his cancer. And its interesting to note the cancer goes into remission about the time Walter kills his first brown faced dope peddler, and first underlcass scum junkie. Murder equates with beating cancer. Even cancer is afraid of the new Walt….who by now uses his nom de plume, *Heisenberg*. (we could, if we wanted, do a short critique of that name…but Id feel like Im piling on….).
The point is, this is the theme, the white man, even the whimpiest of them, can, when motivated, become better at what the natives do naturally, which is crime and drugs. Walter is the King of Karfiristan. He is reclaiming the motive force of Manifest Destiny. Now, there are several useful footnotes to all this. The first is that the mad powerful figure of destruction has existed in American literature since colonial times. From Capt Ahab to Judge Holden, the man doomed to destruction, is also often the one who holds the secret knowledge of power. Walter White is not exactly that figure, for he is not deep enough (and Vince Gilligan is not deep enough). Walter can share no secret knowledge with Jesse. The acolyte is simply destroyed. It is this failure of narrative balance that also creates, by season five, a sense of pointless repetition in story. The lip service paid to the fact that Walt has overreached, he has become, like the King of Karfirstan, drunk with his potency and power, are doomed. Jesse is the Ishmael figure in a sense, but again, he has learned nothing. There is a bourgeois frame for this show. The contempt shown the poor and dark skinned is consistent. The normative setting is tract home, two car garage, and white hierachical privilege. In the end, the figure of Hank, the slightly comical DEA agent, reclaims his potency through his pursuit of Walt. A pursuit that takes him through this new post colonial dark continent of the mind. Take back the streets!
A brief note on the production of the show. I’ve suspected from the start that one of the secondary causes for this success of this show has to do with how well shot it is. And that its filmed on location. There is no question that Michael Slovis created a distinct personality and look for the show. And the landscape of New Mexico was also somewhat unfamiliar. The importance of that sense of place (note how badly the U.S. version of The Bridge looks because of LA doubling for El Paso so much) is vital to sustaining the character of the show.
Ok, one doesnt need to belabor this further really. For there is a strange set of tropes being revealed in the current resurgence of cult-prestige programming (Weeds, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Sex and the City, Boardwalk Empire, etc). There are, in almost all of these, and other cult hits, a sort of constant interrogation of masculinity. It is the white educated (half) class and it’s demons, which have to do with virility and gender as much as race. I suppose it can’t be a surprise that a show based on Masters & Johnson’s studies is airing now. The questioning of masculinity though, is itself highly neurotic. The safety of period drama allows for a certain license in presentation, and lessening of the double neurotic tendencies in play, but if the narrative is set in some imagined present day, the backdrop is almost always the police and and the validating of violence. Crime cannot exist in the western imagination today without recourse to the police. The police as an institution is never questioned. Individual cops might be corrupt, even whole departments corrupt, and the war on drugs can be portrayed as pointless and contradictory and even hypocritical, but in the end, the message is always the same. We need cops, they are the thin blue line, etc, etc, ad nauseum. Narratives of violence are always, always, always included within the framework of institutional integrity. Now, it is less visible in some shows, but it’s always there. But let me return to this idea of white male potency and violence.
Violence is very often in place as a force of purgation. Violence is less destructive than it is cleansing. Increasingly, there is a disturbing trend in popular cultural product that displays violence without any repurcussion. The depiction may itself be hyper graphic, and sadistic, but the repurcussions are almost non-existant. The disposibility of human life is a constant drum beat. In Breaking Bad, violence is the graph or barometer for Walt’s sense of agency and male dominance. And again, the story line is to demonstrate white superiority over the dark skinned usurpers of this frontier region. It is a frontier space that is psychological and ideological as much, or more, than territorial. For they live among us, wiping off our tables and freshening up our iced teas. The theme of purity, in fact, looms large in this show. Walt, in the guise of Heisenberg, makes BETTER crystal meth than his competition. His meth is PURE. The topic of impurity resurfaces again and again. Heisenberg’s blue crystal is distinct, you can SEE it, and it’s better.
It is made by white hands. The evil Chilean chemist must hire Walt to make his evil product. Now, at the end of season four, Walt’s final line is “I won”. Ah yes, white victory. The metaphor is almost OAS nations kneeling in submission to North American power. Now, also, as one finds in Jenji Kohan’s shows, or those of Milch and a number of other big franchise creators, there are the liberal side bar apologetics or auto-critiques. Gilligan must poke fun at Hank and his buffoonish behavior, and his failure to speak Spanish almost costs him his life when he is re-assigned. You must learn the native tongue to survive. Not because of anything other than the need to decipher threats. And like almost all film and TV produced in the U.S., the depiction of Mexico is exoticized as a land of shadows and death. It is a place of tacit inequality and filth. The hospital that Gus Fring set up in Mexico is there because actual Mexican hospitals can’t be trusted. The land south of the border is a land of nightmares. It is pagan (Karfiristan). It is profligate and dissipated.
Here is Garland Grey on this topic:
“There is a problem with the way Breaking Bad portrays the aspirations of my race, people who look like me, and how those aspirations justify the deaths of people of color. There is a moment in the fourth season where Gustavo Fring orders Jesse to go do some bit of grunt work to leave Walt to clean up the mess from the cook alone, and Walt recruits three ladies from Lavandería Brillante to finish the job in the underground meth lab. This is the space Gustavo slit a man’s throat in, that he has been clear about being willing to murder people over. These women are not killed (which was a distinct and clear possibility) but they are deported back to Honduras. Their entire lives upended so that Walt could sit on his ass, shake a cup of coffee at a camera, and get one over on his boss. He had every reason to think he’d be dumping those women into barrels of acid, and he did it anyway.
There’s a mythology that undergirds this country’s understanding of race and seeks to explain why white people succeed at the things they do…and the name of that mythology is white supremacy. What I see in Breaking Bad is a story that is partially about how easily white people can dominate and outmaneuver people of color.”
One other note on the performative aspect of this show. Giancarlo Esposito, by virtue of his brilliance as an actor, sort of disturbs the balance of the narrative. Bryan Cranston, a ham-fisted and graceless actor, or over-actor, indicates his way along in stark juxtoposition to the economy and precision of Esposito. It’s a curious dynamic. And, as is the case with most successful shows, as the series gains popularity the actors start acting more. Find me an exception to this. You won’t be able to. There are narrative cul de sacs at work, too, in the final season. The biggest is what to do with the castrating wife. Skylar cant exactly embrace the immorality of her husband, and yet in a sense she does. The sort of sentimentalized melodramatic response of Walt Jr and of Skylar both, to the reality around them, feels oddly pasted on as something required. Its the spinach you have to eat so you can then enjoy the chocolate cake of Walt’s evil virility.
Now, here is now the New Yorker TV critic sees the show:
Again, the default (and unspoken) setting is white as normal. The system is in place and the villains and stories unfold within a clearly defined set of cultural markers that delimit a world of white male governance. And this is the heart of the problem, actually. To read critics on television, one would believe that shows such as Orange is the New Black, or Top of the Lake, or Girls are not somehow part of this same system. I am certain you cannot find a single institutional critic suggesting that these shows are not also, in differing ways, part of the same ideological framework.
On one level, it’s certainly wrong to criticize anyone’s enjoyment of this junk. I enjoy a fair amount of it. And part of that enjoyment is linked to the expanded narrative format. Such is the longing in all of us, I believe, for narrative, for long form storytelling of any sort, that some level of engagement allows the exercise of mimetic faculties usually battered into states of atrophy by the constant assault of advertising and sit coms and social media. The truncated state of discourse suffers from an embrace of the twitter model of almost hostile two sentence declarations. Twitter is just a punch in the face sort of experience. There is no real dialogue. There are only declarations. Statements of belief. There is a quality of intellectual bullying that accompanies this.
Now, a show such as Top of the Lake, deserves at least a brief comment. And it deserves this because it so utterly failed its rather extraordinary promise. Jane Campion’s New Zealand filmed crime story, starring Elizabeth Moss, was in its first half season a compelling examination of masculine sickness. What was so disappointing by the end was that apparently Campion had no idea WHAT the show was about. One could not but feel the sense of condescension to the form itself. And this is worth looking at. I’ve said before that all stories are in a sense crime stories. Part of all narrative relfects out own mental development and formation. Our own manufactured identity, and sense of place in the system. Genre structures are there, at least so I believe, to reveal the mysteries of everything. The point of great genre writing is not to solve the mystery, but to introduce the idea of mystery to life itself.
What happened in the Campion show was an increasingly sentimental and superficial “message” being foregrounded. The story just sort of died on the vine. There was no more urgency to the mysteries of this created world. Now, again, its not the solving, its the idea of mystery itself. It is what that mystery says about each of us. David Fincher’s 2007 film, Zodiac is an interesting case in point. A film about a series of real life murders that were never solved, became a film about the desire to solve things and the ways in which madness can follow. That the film did not do great box office is therefore not surprising. Campion could have delved into the darker reaches of sickness instead of just preach to us. The recourse to the sentimental of course is embedded in anything corporate networks and studios produce. The UK’s much applauded mini series Top Boy is another example. The story of youthful criminals and the underclass neighborhoods of London, were an intriguing locale, and a subject worth presenting, and certainly it was welcome to see an almost entirely black cast. However, its still a white show, and therefore the sentimentality of liberal paternalism eventually takes over the narrative. Written by Ronan Bennett, whose own story is itself a good deal more interesting than his work, the series cannot help itself from crass sentimentality and stigmatizing of the underclass. In a sense, this is much like David Simon’s The Wire in the U.S. Now, I admire a good deal of what The Wire did, and certainly found the show compelling on several levels. However, in both these cases, you have white men making shows about the black underclass and doing so against a backdrop of crime. The Bennett series however, cannot even sustain it’s genre demands. One cannot escape the sense of white virtue being paraded, and perhaps in one way this is just simply unavoidable. Here is Bennett on the inspiration for the show…
The white observer, the white tourist. The series becomes a story about white virtue in deciding to tell this “other” story. It is appropriating the stories of the other, and therefore, just another colonial narrative.
There is also the discussion of violence here. If one were to look at corporate TV and film product over the last decade, it would be contain almost impossible to imagine levels of violence. And who is perpetuating this violence? Not the state. And if its the police, it is seen in the context of a war on crime (even if that is made clear as a failure) but usually it is the violence of the underclass. No amount of sentimentalized concern for poor mums and no display of overt compassion on the part of the filmmaker, can change that fact. What is being reinforced is that the underclass are a problem, and a violent problem.
Malcolm Harris on meth and Walter White…
The horrors of Falluja dont seem to make it into primetime narrative, nor do the executions of thousands by police and white vigilantes after Katrina, in New Orleans. The countless shootings and fatal beatings of young black men by domestic police departments are not the standard plot elements in netwoork TV. The legacy of birth defects from depleted uranium is not part of the violence. Now, rare exceptions do occur, but their rarity only proves my point.
What one learns of the underclass on network and cable TV is that it is dangerous, untrustworthy, and a pollutant. The story of Gustavo Fring, Chilean national, immigrant, chemistry student, is left to be told in thumbnail asides, brief snapshots of a vague South American world where dictators rule (by nature) and where ungrateful unfeeling criminals come north. The violence against immigrants is invisible. We learn Gus’s partner was murdered. Details are not really important. Its a sketch to fill in the backstory. The Jewish lawyer, Saul…Just call Saul….(soon to be a spin off show) is just another cartoon. We know nothing about him, except he employs a freakishly large and strange looking black man to help him. No, the real agony and narrative detail belong to the white center of the show. Now, I expect fans of this show to object to such a critique as this. Brand loyalty being what it is these days. And I think its instructive to look at that, because again, this is very well photographed show, and one that utilizes both music and location to supurb effect. The problem is, its a show about white supremacy. And it is impossible to deny this. THAT is what is on the screen. The white center, and the dark skinned poor are dematerialized throughout. The vast “south” of this show is one suggestive of pre-modern thinking and values. What would this narrative look like if produced by a Chilean, and written by a Chilean, or Brazilian or Argentine? The workers at Gus’ cleaning plant are invisible, are props for the white protagonists. They have no story.
“…representations are ideological tools that can serve to reinforce systems of inequality and subordination and sustain colonialist or neocolonialist projects. A great amount of effort is needed to dislodge dominant modes of representation and subvert and challenge hegemonic ideologies. Self-representation may not be a complete possibility, yet is still an important goal.”
Anne Marie Baldonado
As Edward Said pointed out the depiction of the third world (the orient) is usually one of mass misery, of collective irrational movement and rage. The stories are submerged within a master narrative that indicates fear is the logical response of the white European. Fear of these irrational forces without stories. So, what one gets is either the condesencion of Ronnan Bennett, or the sterotyping of Vince Gilligan. The stories are appropriated one way or another.
“Parody is where mimicry exposes construction, suggestive of a new sort of anthropology, post-post-Frazerian, that defines its object of study not as Other but as the reflection of the West in the mimetic magic of its Others.’”
This quote of Taussig is important, and I think also often misread. For this is the problem of master narratives. And it touches on the problem of post colonial subjects who create within a vocabulary not their own. This is only indirectly related to this posting, but it’s worth mentioning. The new colonial narrative surfacing in studio film and network TV is one in which there is the creation of a new colonial ‘place’. It is not a real place. Gus did not come from a real Chile. He is not Chilean. He is a cartoon bad-guy. There is posited, though, within the creation of this cartoon, a world that only exists in the imagination of the privileged West. And it therefore reflects back an image of parody and a mis-reading of the former colonial subjects reaction to that ‘first encounter’. This is a topic for further discussion, because it is a big topic.
The representation of the underclass is also a part of this cartoon. The violence in TV and Hollywood film is now seen in daily life, but it is largely the violence of the state. News coverage of the Navy Yard shooter is feverish, and hysterical. The coverage of birth defects in Iraq is invisible. The coverage of another black teenager beaten or shot to death by local cops is muted if not invisible. The Navy Yard shooter, however, is a plot perfect for televsion. It resembles a movie. It’s an episode of Homeland. There are calls for gun control, calls for better security, for more vetting, and no doubt for more surveillance.
After all, the underclass is crazy on drugs, they cant control themselves, they are not smart enough to make pure blue meth.
A Charlotte police officer shot Ferrell ten times. Ferrell was unarmed.
State violence is widespread. It is increasingly being normalized. Poverty is on the rise. Here is the latest census info on New Mexico, home of the Walter White family. http://www.abqjournal.com/265639/abqnewsseeker/census-n-m-poverty-rate-increased-from-2000-to-2012.html
One does not see THIS poverty in Breaking Bad. One only sees tweekers, junkies, whores, and couch-lock pot heads. One sees a few Honduran immigrants. If one sees divine suffering, it is divine white suffering. There is a scene in the third season where Jesse has invited a bunch of homeless people and addicts to his house for a party. At one point he throws a wad of bills into the center of the room and sits back watching the great unwashed scramble and fight each other for each dollar. What is the message of that scene?
It is the message of the entire show, actually.