Breaking Bad: masculinity as tragedy
By Scott Trudell
In the opening shots of Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, a pair of khaki pants is suspended, for a tranquil moment, in the desert air. The pants are then unceremoniously run over by an RV methamphetamine lab with two murdered bodies in back. When the camper crashes into a ditch, the driver Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) gets out, tucks a gun in in his underwear, takes a camera, and records a death note for his wife and son. He is wearing tighty whities.
We return this month to witness what, the series has led us to expect, will be Walt’s spectacular fall. The first half of this final season, which aired last summer, saw Walt at a brutal extreme, high on the power of the drug ring he has created. He began the series humiliated and enfeebled: washing cars to supplement his income as a high school chemistry teacher, terminally ill with lung cancer. His defiant rise to power was marked by cunning, manipulation, and violence — blowing up a building with himself inside of it, duping his only friend and sidekick, cowing his wife Skyler to the point that she is evacuated of any feelings for him but fear. Walt’s other victims have fared worse, leaving a trail of destruction that has drained our sympathy from him and prepared us for his reckoning. His journey from emasculated pushover to alpha-male kingpin has reached its apogee. Walt has become the provider, the head of household; he is finally “wearing the pants” in the relationship.
How could this end but in tragedy? The closer we look at Walt’s emergent masculine identity — his power to father, to provide, to be free — the more corrosive, and terrifying, it appears. We begin with the logic of the man of the house, the idea that, as Walt puts it in the death note of the pilot, “no matter how it may look, I only had you in my heart.” We view financial stability for Skyler, the new baby, and Walter Jr., who has cerebral palsy, as a preeminent, perhaps even primal need. Perhaps we even warm to the deeply misogynistic idea that a man is the victim of his voracious, unappeasable family, who are holding him back from personal freedom. And for our growing sympathies with Walt’s notion of manhood — let’s call it masculinity-as-martyrdom — we have a reward: we see Walt destroy what he claims to love.
Tragedy has often left us deeply uneasy about tough-guys with pants issues, launching radical critiques of its masculine “heroes.” From Oedipus Rex to Death of a Salesman, the genre presents protagonists who unleash their inner, violent, masculine needs on their families. Emasculated, desperate, crushed by forces outside of their control, who do these men annihilate? Inevitably, tragically, their families, together with themselves.
Breaking Bad places this conflict in the modern, molecular world. When Walt names his drug lord alter-ego “Heisenberg,” he alludes to the discoverer of the uncertainty principle, the fundamental limit in accuracy of physical measurements. When we look at something hard enough, when we distill it to its most fundamental properties, we both see, and cannot see its horror. “Breaking” Walt’s masculine drive for jouissance, reducing it to its chemical makeup, still we cannot see it for what it is, cannot fully acknowledge the terrible entropy at its root.
We experience a similarly terrible gaze, anticipating quantum mechanics, in the denouement of Othello. When the great general’s wife lies suffocated on the bed and Emilia’s stabbed body lies next to her, Lodovico commands Iago to fix his gaze on the wedding sheets, and we cannot avoid staring with him:
Look on the tragic loading of this bed;
This is thy work. The object poisons sight,
Let it be hid. (5.4.426-28)
Aristotle might call this anagnôrisis or “recognition” — the sublime knowledge that is naturally dictated by the events of the plot, a realization of what in some sense we already know. But why, then, is this spectacle “poison”? Why must it be hidden as soon as it is revealed? Is it in fact the “viper” Iago’s work, or is it Othello’s, or even our own? Do we see in that bed our own relentless gaze on what happens in Desdemona’s bed, our bloodlust as eager onlookers of this tragedy, telling us something about ourselves?
In the final shots of Breaking Bad on air last summer, Walt’s brother-in-law and foil, the FBI agent Hank, sits on the toilet with a copy of Leaves of Grass inscribed by Walt’s victim and former co-conspirator, “To my other favorite W. W.” Hank has already seen these initials in his investigation and, at this moment of anagnôrisis, recognizes what he has already half-known. Hank’s trajectory in the series has been the direct inverse of Walt’s, from fun-loving tough-guy to clueless Gringo, and only now, on the toilet with his pants down, does the sinking feeling set in. Emasculated, humiliated, he glimpses a hint of Walt in himself — a hint of what a tragic “hero,” self-martyred and desperate, is capable of. Tragedy brings us to this threshold, to the edge of what masculinity means — continues to mean — to its victims.
Scott A. Trudell is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is currently writing a book about song and mediation in Renaissance England, and he is a contributor to Early Modern Theatricality: Oxford 21st Century Approaches to Literature (Oxford University Press, 2013) edited by Henry S. Turner. Follow him on Twitter @Scott_Trudell.
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Image credit: All images from Breaking Bad on AMC. Images used for the purposes of illustration. All rights reserved.