breaking bad and the cancer of neoliberalism

People certainly have written too much about Breaking Bad. And, no I don’t ever write about these kinds of things on this blog.

But Breaking Bad holds a dear place in my Albuquerque-missing heart.

Our house in Albuquerque was scouted as a possible location for Ted Beneke’s fall, but we missed out on that brush with fame. A fair bit of Season Five was filmed at the end of our street.

It’s not just proximity to the show, though. For me Vince Gilligan and the show’s production has shown Albuquerque and New Mexico as a place of beauty. For the landscapes involved, meth production and distribution are distractions to beauty and perseverance. The skies. The wind. The browns. And the saturating light.

I moved to Albuquerque in 1997 for graduate school. I chose UNM for what, by the standards of advice I give to students now, were very wrong reasons. Northern New Mexico reminded me of parts of Ecuador’s Andes. I wanted to be near that. In one of the first weekly issues published after I moved of Albuquerque’s weekly paper, the Alibi ran the results of a contest for a new nickname for the Duke City. I don’t remember what won, but runner ups included “Stripmallbuquerque” and “Shit Hole.” I laughed, but quickly came to see something else. I always liken Albuquerque to a dandelion growing through a crack in a worn piece of pavement. One can look at that and see failing infrastructure and weeds. Or, one can see perseverance and beauty in a stark landscape. That’s how I saw Albuquerque.

And that’s what Albuquerque does for a dark show set in a land of drenching sun.

So, I’m going to write about Breaking Bad a bit as the final season comes to a close, and probably in conversation with the show that has marked perception of my new city, Baltimore’s The Wire.

At the start of this final half season, one of the things strikes me most about the arc of Breaking Bad is the relationship between Walt’s cancer and involvement in the drug trade. Walt’s relationship to cancer is an inverse of his relationship to meth. Meth is a social and familial cancer, and it destroys everything around him. But it doesn’t destroy him. When he’s cooking he’s healthier, as if the act or decision itself is what staves off death. And, when he leaves the business, his cancer returns. The system he finds himself in is either one of corporeal decay or social decay. And, in both cases those processes are moderated by markets (one regulated, the other not).

In the beginning of the show, Walt was compelled to enter the drug trade in search of cash– to protect his family and to fund the exorbitant costs of cancer treatment. He becomes a knowledge worker in the unregulated, neoliberal market of illicit drugs in order to survive the regulated pharmaceutical cancer economy, at least long enough to do for his family what he believes needs to be done.

This decision, which sparks the emergence of Heisenberg, shifts Walt’s existence from one in which property rights (including the intellectual property rights of his wildly successful former friend and business partner) mask the social and personal violence of markets to one in which the reality of that violence is laid bare. As Walt embraces that violence, he gets relief from the compulsion of the licit pharmaceutical market and the cancer goes into abeyance. And yet, Walt has to embrace that violence to escape a repetition of the alienation of his labor that put him in a high school classroom in the first place. And so he rises as an antihero, who uses the violence-laid-bare of neoliberal markets to overcome alienation. It’s ugly, but its the underlying truth of neoliberalism everywhere. The cancer that symbolized his alienation is shifted to damaging, parasitic amorality at a social and familial level because that is what neoliberal markets do.

Some complain that, like Mad Men of late, there are no likable characters in Breaking Bad. And, maybe, as with Mad Men, that needs to be, because what the meth trade does is to show markets in their true colors, bathed in gorgeous light and framed by unending blue skies of expansive possibility.


Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

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One comment on “breaking bad and the cancer of neoliberalism
  1. Robert says:

    Got me thinking that the cancers are linked in another way. Walt is capital and is only healthy when expanding. When forced to stop he atrophies, and becomes not dynamic expanding capital but merely a static hoard of money. This jibes with Marx who always insisted he was not dealing with actual workers or capitalists but workers and capitalists who played roles in capitalism. They weren’t meant to be fully formed characters, only “bearers” (Trager) of those roles. But this means Walt isn’t Walt, he’s capital/cancer itself, and takes different forms depending on the social position he occupies at any one point. Another reason why setting is more important than character?

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