My metric for good TV has always been Breaking Bad. For years now, I’ve been telling anyone who will listen just how much I love the show. It has the groundbreaking antihero, it has unparalleled acting, it has unexpected action and slow burn drama. Breaking Bad has those moments that good TV has, where the viewer’s mind is completely shattered by what just happened. The end credits roll, and I say to myself, “Vince Gilligan, you son of a bitch.”
I’ve never been alone in feeling this way, either. Breaking Bad is still regarded by many as one of the best shows of all-time, the shining star of the “golden age of TV.” That’s why it was at the top of the list of things to show my girlfriend when COVID-19 locked us in.
It was my first time in a few years watching the show again from the beginning, and after coming to it with fresh eyes, I have. . . fresh thoughts.
There are still so many aspects of Breaking Bad that I love, but this time around, seven years after the show’s conclusion, I’ve been acutely aware of how the show has aged, as well as how I’ve aged. I’m fascinated by TV shows like Breaking Bad that society deems the very best, favorites to individuals as well as TV history. Rewatching these favorites can be incredibly revealing and rewarding, but it can be difficult, too; even if there are undeniable merits to certain shows, does anything deserve to be put on such a pedestal?
Even if you weren’t onboard during the height of Breaking Bad mania, the premise is infamous at this point: Walter White is an average husband and father, an overqualified high school chemistry teacher who gets a cancer diagnosis, leading him to enter the methamphetamine business as a way to earn money for his family before he dies. His subsequent transformation from normal guy to drug kingpin is what drives the whole narrative.
White was the first antihero I remember encountering in media, back before I knew the word for it; I just remember the fascination of feeling myself rooting for a villain. One of the main differences in this rewatch, though, is that I don’t think I really root for White anymore.
Maybe it’s exaggerated by my girlfriend’s visceral and outspoken hatred for White as a character, or maybe it’s revealing of personal growth, but the empathy I used to feel for him as a protagonist is diluted and confusing. White’s storyline is not driven by cleverness or family, like I remember, even at the beginning.
A closer rewatch reveals that he’s mostly just an entitled white man with a pretty good life; he might be less than thrilled about his career path, and there’s the eventual cancer diagnosis, but he’s still a respectable man with a house, two children, and a wife who’s way out of his league. White breaks bad because he has this simultaneously pitiful and prideful air, an “all my life, I’ve been dealt a shit hand” sort of outlook. And he finds something he’s good at—cooking meth—in a world where his intelligence, pride, and frankly revolting ego can bring him success.
Thinking about White as a white man who doesn’t recognize his own privilege opens the door to Breaking Bad’s race problem. Especially with an international spotlight on the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality in the last few months, a lot of white people have been forced to reckon with the privileges and consequences of whiteness, and that includes media consumption. This process of rewatching bests and favorites can require this reckoning; sure, cultural context informs the analysis of any show, but the racial dynamics and police propaganda in Breaking Bad feel like more than just a sign of the times.
Think of it this way: White is an intelligent but altogether unexceptional white man who steps into the meth world. Immediately, he’s a natural at it, and his obsessions with cleanliness and purity mean that within a year, he’s made the best product and conquered everyone else in the game, cornering a market that includes Mexican drug cartels and a hugely diverse Latinx population in the southwest. There’s actually a name for this character trope: Mighty Whitey. And we see it all the time.
Even before actual neo-Nazis are involved, the story of Walter White is one of white supremacy, where white actors lead and a cast of people of color dominate the show’s body count. I like to think there’d be some pushback on this if the show premiered today, but Hollywood still has a long way to go; people are always ready to excuse racism, sexism, and homophobia for good TV.
To take a step back: I totally recognize that people of color and other viewers wiser than I probably picked up on these flaws in Breaking Bad a decade ago. Maybe I’m just having a collection of those “aha” moments common for white people as the veil comes crashing down. The point is that this moment in history can be a lesson in media literacy alongside personal and societal growth, but only with reflection and discomfort.
So go watch or rewatch Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and all the other shows considered groundbreaking, but this time with a critical eye. For every time you tell someone that your favorite show is Friends, The Office, or Sex and the City, go read an article about some of the harm it caused. Find shows with a similar vibe made by Black creators like Pose and Insecure. Enjoy the content you love, but don’t do it blindly; this is an opportunity to hold media to higher standards than ever before. v