“Breaking Bad” and West Coast Culture

I’m not quite sure how “Breaking Bad” escaped my attention, but I discovered it only a month ago (it’s in its third season).

Without question, it’s a dark show –it is about a high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with cancer and decides to start cooking crystal meth.

But the writing is pitch perfect.  I couldn’t imagine a better skewering of West Coast hustler culture.

The show is based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a city I’ve never been to and know nothing about, but in my view the locale solidly captures the feel of major West Coast cities circa- 2011.

Here are the dominant macro themes I take from Breaking Bad:

1.     Decline in the legitimacy of wealth.

Unlike “Mad Men”, “Breaking Bad” never allows outside events to penetrate the story lines— the show focuses exclusively on what’s going on in Albuquerque.

With a light touch, however, “Breaking Bad” is always commenting on the broader societal context.   For example, in Season 1, there is an episode where we learn that, in addition to being a high school history teacher, the main character, Walter White, also works the register at a car wash.  In this episode, Walter’s boss tells him that the car wash is short-staffed and he asks Walter (not for the first time, it is suggested) to help wash cars for a bit.  Walter finds himself washing the car of a student who had been disrespectful in class that very day.   The car is of the $50k variety, and we are left wondering — where did this money come from?  The viewers mind wanders to various aspects of white collar crime that this student’s parents might be involved with.

2.     Rise of the dumb criminal

The show suggests that Walter was a promising research scientist in his early life.  He, nonetheless, becomes a high-volume crystal meth producer and distributor, and arguably not a very smart or careful one (he steals the necessary equipment from the high school where he works).

The show is full of crime that is particularly stupid and ill considered in its execution.   The statement here is:  dumb crime is much more problematic, societally, than smart crime.  Smart crime is just a simple benefit-versus-cost calculation; people coldly pursuing their self-interest.  Dumb crime speaks of desperation.  And widespread dumb crime suggests widespread desperation.

Smart crime is, in some ways, predictable.  Dumb crime is random and therefore scarier.  In Las Vegas, for example, I can put myself into the mind of a smart criminal and predict how/when/why he might act.  This allows me to protect myself to some extent.  But what does one do when crime is dumb and therefore a bit random?

See the Bellagio motorcycle thief for example….


The alleged thief, whose father is a judge, contacted gamblers on the site twoplustwo.com with solicitations to by Bellagio $25k chips.

3.     Randomness

The utterly dominant impact of chance on one’s life course is explored throughout Breaking Bad.

4.     Utter effectiveness of violence

As Walter White’s Albuquerque comes apart at the seams, violence becomes the key determinant of power.

5.     Ineffective law enforcement

In Breaking Bad, law enforcement is reasonably good-natured, but they suffer the public sector problem — they’re underpaid and therefore lacking in talent, and they have mixed objectives.

6.     Demoralization of service sector employment

One of Walter’s meth salesman was recruited from the ranks of costume-wearing, traffic-directing, living billboards.

7.     Labyrinthian health care system

Walter, an obviously smart guy, can never figure out how to navigate the health care system, and he is stunned at every turn by the cost.

8.     Ineffective public education system

“Breaking Bad” comments minimally on this, as it is well-trodden territory.

9.     The power of addiction

Various harmful addictions provide some level of continuity to Walter’s surroundings.  No one in the show who develops an addition ever kicks it.  The only avenue Walter can find for covering his medical expenses is catering to others’ crystal meth addictions.

10. Difficulty of criminal life

Walter’s life as a drug dealer is one of continuous struggle.  The suggestion is that Walter moved into selling drugs (or hustling, more broadly) because of desperation, but, in so doing, he had a lot of company.  The hustling world in this show is extremely competitive — more like Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day than Dr. Dre’s “Kush”.

11. Decline in attention span

No one has the patience to explore the problems they face in depth.  In class, Walter’s students furtively monitor their cell phones and pay absolutely no attention at all to his lectures.  There is a memorable scene where Walter’s wife is actively monitoring an ebay.com auction during sex.

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