SPOILER ALERT: Look away now if you’re not up to season five of Breaking Bad…
Breaking Bad is a fascinating study of the perils of masculinity as much as it is a viciously tragic drama. As the third season rolled around (the point where the show started to seriously take off, in my opinion), I was struck by how much the show deftly evokes and plays with masculine archetypes, through the larger-than-life personalities of the central male players.
The main protagonist, Walter White, a terminally ill High School chemistry teacher, starts out as a pleasant but repressed suburban dad, while his brother-in-law, DEA agent Hank, is a confident, swaggering, obnoxious man’s man. It seems that Walt has to learn how to take charge, while Hank has to “get more in touch with his feelings”, or something like that. There is evidence that Walt is walking this path in the first couple of seasons, as he takes his first hesitant steps into the meth trade. He acts out some clichéd, overblown male power/revenge fantasies as though he’s Wesley in the movie Wanted, such as blowing up the car of a smugly successful lawyer and defiantly storming out of his low-paid job after his boss sets him a task he doesn’t want to do. Meanwhile, Hank’s Supercop façade is chipped away by humiliations and setbacks that undermine his career and force him to mellow out and come to terms with his vulnerabilities.
A shallower show than Breaking Bad would have run out of ideas after the initial flourish of the “repressed nobody blossoms into badass criminal mastermind and runs rings around his tough-guy brother-in-law” conceit. There would have been twists and turns, and Walt would have continued to turn lawyer’s cars into fireballs or something similar, until the whole thing got tired. Instead, the show pursues Walt’s acting out of his power fantasies to their logical conclusion, namely a gradual, increasingly terrifying transformation into a sociopath, albeit a sympathetic one. Walt’s exploits in building his drug empire, whilst impressive, thanks in part to the obvious cunning, intelligence and ruthless drive behind them, horrify as much as they thrill. The mild-mannered school teacher has become a gloating, remorseless thug; when he sits in a room with white supremacists, orchestrating the grisly prison murders of a posse of potential squealers, he could easily be mistaken for one of his own hirelings.
But the truly noteworthy thing about Walt’s excesses is how rooted his drives and impulses are in certain assumptions about the meaning of being a man. The way he acts out – aggressive, dominant, commanding, touchy about respect, proud in his own abilities, and striving to be in control at all times – chime with numerous stereotypes about how a “man’s man” is supposed to behave. Hardened against more tender emotions but quick to fly into a rage, Walt is far closer to the twisted ideal of a ‘Real Man’ than Hank’s flimsy
One of the biggest ironies of the show is how useless and strangely pathetic Walt’s uber-masculine traits are. His furious “alpha male” instincts to mark out his territory may have led him to a fragile triumph, but it’s pretty obvious that his hour of glory in the first half of Season 5 is simply the calm before the storm, and that his final, tragic fall is just around the corner. All his pride, his ruthlessness, his toughness and his showy displays of individualism and superiority have managed to achieve is to get him into more and more trouble, and his gruesome devotion to the cult of success has been exposed as hollow now that he has more money than could ever be reasonably spent, money he will never get the chance to flaunt. In coming out of his shell in the face of adversity to embrace his “masculine” drives, Walt ends up as a hollow shell of a man, while Hank, through his own troubles, is clearly on the road to becoming an ever better one.