Breaking Bad as social critique

I’ve blogged elsewhere about the many pleasures and interesting social critique tv mini-series offers viewers. My current series (three of four seasons done) is Sony AMC TV’s Breaking Bad, about a 50 year-old high school teacher who does the title move. A 50 year-old high school teacher like me would sooner or later find this at least interesting. How would an alter-ego, different version of the public high school teacher father, fare? What I have found on continued viewing, though, is a great extended monster story and some powerful implicit messages about our America.

The social critique of modern USA that Breaking Bad makes is targeted at at least three institutions: federal drug enforcement, the medical establishment, and the dismal state of schooling in the US. Leaving aside for now the points Breaking Bad’s creators make about the first two, one point about US education is especially poignant in the first season–in the debut episode. It happens in the context of cleaning, another of my previous blog topics.

Because he is merely a high school chemistry teacher, Walter White cannot afford his stay-at-home (and pregnant) wife and disabled child unless he has another job to bring in some additional source of income. The amount that his community has valued his work is less than a married man can sustain. So, pathetically, this 49-year old expert in applied science, an accomplished teacher, is reduced by his all-too-realistic set of economic circumstances to wiping down the wheels of his students’ cars on weekends and evenings. In a scene of crushing, perhaps traumatizing humiliation, Mr. White meets one of his less distinguished scholars in his role as tire-wiper. Talk about awkward.

Is this shameful moment enough, along with the additional humiliation of a cancer diagnosis, to “break” Walter bad? The show’s creators leave that judgment to the viewer. A more compassionate society, though, would provide treatment for addicts (and thus obviate the need for drug warriors and the demand for stupifiants), free medical treatment to the sick (thus obviating the need for Walt to find creative ways to pay for his treatments), and decent pay on which a teacher a could provide for his/her family (and thus eliminate the need for second jobs–which despite their “summers-off” posts–most of my colleagues have).

Like Deadwood or The Wire,  Breaking Bad is a show that could never be set in Finland, Germany, or European countries, where the community gives education, or maybe just frail humanity, more respect.

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