The Breaking Bad phenomenon

I have not watched the TV sensation that is now just two episodes away from the conclusion of its five-season run and that seems to have people completely hooked. But despite that, I did read the breathless coverage of last Sunday’s episode (it was impossible to avoid) that seemed to have been quite violent. As a result, I have (I think) a pretty good idea of the story line.

For those three people who are still unaware of what the show is about, it is the story of Walter White, a high-school chemistry teacher diagnosed with cancer who fears that his medical bills will result in him dying leaving his family impoverished and so decides to use his chemistry knowledge to make and sell the drug meth. But he becomes extraordinarily successful at it and enters the dark work of drug dealing.

What struck me is that this plot makes sense in the context of the current US health care system and hopefully in a few years the premise of the show will become untenable. If the US had a government-run, universal, single-payer health care system like any civilized country should, White would not have had to agonize about what to do and could have returned to teaching chemistry. Cartoonist Christopher Keelty has the right idea.



  1. colnago80 says

    If the US had a government-run, universal, single-payer health care system like any civilized country should,

    We do, it’s called Medicare; unfortunately, one has to be 65 to qualify.

  2. Jeffrey Johnson says

    I think the situation in Breaking Bad, and in American life, involves a couple of factors besides health care.

    Since White is a teacher, his biggest worry shouldn’t be health care costs. In general, teachers have better health care plans than most Americans.

    White is worried more about supporting his family after he dies. When he starts cooking meth, he expects to live for only a year even with the best health care. He has a wife and a special needs son with some kind of disability that requires him to use supports to walk and gives him a speech impediment.

    So the real question is how much retirement savings, IRA, 401K, and Social Security White can count on to support his family in his absence. To add to the concerns, they have a baby daughter during the show to add to the economic concerns for the future.

    Social Security, unlike Medicare, is financially in good shape, despite what Republicans who hate Roosevelt and the New Deal would have you believe. Some relatively minor adjustments to the current program would leave it solvent into the foreseeable future, yet Republicans want to cut it anyway just because they’d feel better if Wall Street gambling casinos were making more money off all that pension money. Or perhaps more accurately, the plutocracy has Republican politicians working hard at convincing voters that they would be better off if Wall Street casinos got their cut, but Social Security still remains resistant to cuts because too many Republican voters depend on it.

    Retirement and pensions are an issue that could use improvement in this country. Social Security isn’t that generous, and 401Ks, once thought to be the answer, are turning out to leave too many Americans with inadequate resources at retirement. Too many people either inadequately fund their accounts, or the volatility of investments in the accounts lead to inadequate growth or even losses. Poor management, or worse, management that violates fiduciary obligations, contributes to the problem. This places a burden on both younger generations and public services when retirees are stuck in poverty.

    In Breaking Bad, White is also driven by more than just basic support of his family. He dreams of leaving his family with wealth. Part of what White represents is the American obsession with glamour and wealth. The American dream no longer seems to be so much the dream of living in basic middle class comfort, but of acheiving riches. This dream is probably driven by a combination of Hollywood and conservative admiration for mega-billionaires. This new version of the American dream seems to play a role in middle and lower class conservatives supporting government policies that favor the plutocracy, an idea that one conservative politician dared to express recently by calling Republican voters the “soon to be rich” or something like that.

    During the course of the story over several seasons, White goes from a basic worry about his family to hoping to redeem the opportunity that he squandered earlier in life. Just out of college he had been a partner in a small chemical engineering startup with two friends. They had some process they patented. But White needed money short term to make housing payments, so he sold out his share early on for $5,000. His friends went on to become multi-millionaire owners of a successful business. It seems like it is the bitterness over this loss, in addition to the inadequate social insurance in the US, that drives White. He ends up accumulating a huge pile of cash, stacked in a storage locker, probably on the order of $50 to $100 million. He also ends up committing murder several times to protect his gains. But in the end he seems like he may be set to lose everything after all…

  3. says

    Part of what White represents is the American obsession with glamour and wealth.

    It’s also a representation of toxic masculinity. White is initially pressed by his feelings of impotency and a sense of “failure to be a man”. He feels that a man must be able to provide for his family…this is also why he turns down multiple offers of help.

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