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american-breaking-gothic-breaking-bad-33126796-900-1072In an era of end-stage capitalism where life has become a sordid grab for dollars while the world lives on the edge of financial and ecological collapse, it comes as no surprise that America would be captivated by the story of a struggling school teacher going for the ‘American dream’ by crook or by hook. A tourist mystique has even been created in this show’s filming location of Albuquerque. The premise for this darkly comic tale is an all too familiar one for the average American family – the threat of bankrupting medical bills. Recently diagnosed with stage-three lung cancer and now at the end of his financial rope, Walter descends into the seedy world of illicit drugs in an attempt to save his family from economic ruin. Walter’s predicament represents the dilemma of most Americans who live quiet lives of desperation, just one paycheck away from hunger and homelessness. Ironically, the drug that Walter and his reluctant partner Jesse Pinkman wind up producing is also the drug of choice for many chained to the hamster wheel of capitalism:

…the rise of meth coincided with the rise of low-paying low-skilled service work, where people had to work multiple menial jobs to earn the same amount they used to earn in one manufacturing job, or other good-paying low-skilled position.

The CDC notes that some meth users rely on it to get “increased energy to work multiple jobs.” Researchers at Indiana University and at the Universities of Colorado and Kentucky have found that, “The long hours and tedious work in oil fields, agriculture, construction, ancillary health care and fast food restaurants may be more tolerable on methamphetamine. Users report using meth to provide the energy to work multiple jobs or be a good mother.”

Guides to identifying and treating meth addiction, like Herbert Covey’s “The Methamphetamine Crisis,” tell readers to look out for, “workaholics or low-income adults who use it to stay awake and perform in multiple jobs. Working low-income individuals find meth attractive because they must work several jobs or long hours to support themselves or their families. They find that higher energy and alertness (ability to stay awake for prolonged periods) helps them cope with the demands of multiple jobs.”

This holds up if you look at places where meth use is highest. Hawaii’s heavy rate of meth use has been attributed to its high cost of living and service-based economy. “If you’re doing mind-numbing, repetitive work, this enables you to overcome both the painful tedium of the boredom as well as increase concentration and safety,” Dr. William Haning, a psychiatry professor at the University of Hawaii, once told the Maui News…

From his former business partners at Grey Matter Technologies who stole his ideas and became incredibly wealthy to the demeaning work he endures at his car wash moonlighting job, the elusive ‘American dream’ has haunted Walter White. At first his scheme is to generate just enough cash to cover his medical expenses and secure a modicum of financial security for his family, but in a society whose primary metric of self-worth is the number of dollars one can accumulate, Walter quickly transforms into a cutthroat businessman bent on building an empire. His metamorphosis from a meek, mild-mannered family man to a Machiavellian drug kingpin is quite astonishing. Walter rationalizes and euphemizes his manufacture of the insidious drug meth by referring to it as his “product”, following strict steps to create “the highest quality product to perform as advertised.” “The chemistry must be respected,” proclaims Walter.

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In this world of hyper-exploitive capitalism, ‘staying in the game’ involves making choices that seldom include moral concerns. As the dead bodies continue to pile up around Walter’s drug operation, the more callous and psychopathic he becomes. Warren Buffet, the poster child for Capitalism, has praised the business acumen of the show’s main character while even tweeting a picture of himself as Walter White. Replace Walt’s blue crystal with iPhones or any other mass-produced product and the basic business model is eerily the same. The Economist even published an essay illustrating how ‘Breaking Bad’ was a “first-rate primer on business“:

…Mr White’s biggest failing is also a common one in business: hubris. The more successful he becomes, the more invulnerable he feels. The more rules he breaks, the more righteous he feels. And the more wealth he accumulates, the more he wants. An impressive volume of social-science studies suggests that leaders are more willing to break the rules than followers. There is no shortage of corporate examples, from Enron to Olympus, to illustrate this. Walter White is a thoroughly odd character: Mr Chips turned Scarface, as the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, puts it. But he also holds a worrying mirror to the business world….

Walter seals his own fate when he proclaims “there’s no stopping this train.” The accumulation of money becomes the “be-all and the end-all” for Walt’s existence, but for all the mountains of cash piling up in duffel bags, crawl spaces, storage units, and 55-gallon barrels, Walter and his family are unable to make much use of it and in fact are plagued by it. In the end, the money becomes a curse, destroying the very thing it was supposed to save… Walt and his family.

Walter White Meth Labs

Another irony among many is that the bruised and battered psyche of Jesse Pinkman, the drug addict ostracized by his well-to-do suburbanite parents, serves as the moral compass in a world of lies, deceit, and betrayal. Despite the fact that Walter and Jesse are producing one of the most destructive drugs in history, outright murder was never in their plans. Walter becomes inured to the killings, but Jesse is unable to cope. He sees their ill-gotten gains as “blood money” and gets rid of his share by tossing it all over a neighborhood. It’s quite fitting then that in the final conclusion Jesse ends up as the sole survivor of this trip through hell.

Interestingly, those who are masters at getting away with their crimes are the ones hiding in plain sight who have ingratiated themselves with law enforcement and other institutions of society. Behind the clean-cut and bespectacled mask of Gustavo “Gus” Fring lurks a cold-blooded drug lord whose meth superlab sits beneath the façade of an industrial laundry business. The distribution network of the drug is integrated into Fring’s fast food chicken chain. Gus Fring is a perfect representative for the psychopathic elite in our society who hide behind the phony rhetoric of PR firms, lobbyists, and dark money politics. I see an analogy with the toxicity of meth and the climate change wrought by fossil fuels. Industrial civilization’s addiction to fossil fuels is similar to the feeling of unlimited energy that a meth addict gets, but the downside is that both kill. For the psychopaths at the helm of industrial civilization, business-as-usual must be protected even as we race toward extinction. To quote a reader of this blog:

“…steady or rising coal and gas consumption in advanced countries (all countries, really), in the face of all this ecocide (not that so many actually consider it to be in their face) illustrates the inability of either producer or consumer to dial back within the confines of our system–a polygamy of empire and finance and thermodynamics. …we can’t get off the train…not in one piece anyhow.”

Walter White’s self-destructive end seems to be as tragic and foolish as the one capitalist industrial civilization is hurtling towards, or perhaps it’s simply the inevitable course of events governing all of life:

“As many of you know, I have a background as a chemistry teacher. I’ve come to realize that much of what I teach my students applies not only to what goes on in the classroom, but in life also. It’s not as crazy as it sounds. You see, technically, chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change: Electrons change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements combine and change into compounds. But that’s all of life, right? It’s the constant, it’s the cycle. It’s solution, dissolution. Just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation. It’s fascinating really. It’s a shame so many of us never take time to consider its implications.” ~ Walter White