This article contains spoilers from the series “Breaking Bad.”
The first acquaintance Walter White ever killed almost escaped with his life, twice. Walt (Bryan Cranston, “Sneaky Pete”) strangled New Mexico-based, Latino methamphetamine distributor Krazy-8 (Max Arciniega, “Bosch”) three episodes into the five-season run of “Breaking Bad.” Over the next several seasons, Walt gets much more practice eliminating his opposition in the drug trade and his murder methods becoming more laissez-faire, but at the time Krazy-8 posed a legitimate challenge to the nascent drug lord. His second, nearly successful attempt to convince his captor that he deserved to live was lengthy, involved. Life stories were exchanged and morals were appealed to over the piss-bucket and the meals Walt would bring to his prisoner, who was bike-locked by the neck to a pole in Walt’s partner Jesse Pinkman’s (Aaron Paul, “BoJack Horseman”) basement. Krazy-8’s first escape attempt was much simpler, though, as he merely limped down the road outside the suburban house, illegitimately claimed by Jesse from his late aunt, on foot. It is that scene — Walt driving down the road and depositing Krazy-8’s body into the trunk of his Pontiac Aztek — that haunts me.
How is that? In a show that includes shots of a man’s face, half-intact, half-skeletal, after a bomb detonates, a show with sequences inside a neo-Nazi torture chamber, how did Krazy-8 getting caught and dumped in the protagonist’s trunk get its staying power in my brain? While the shock and vulgarity of the latter scene is much less obvious, it is more affecting for its insidiousness, its absurdity. Because one man plucked the other man he hadn’t finished killing yet right off the street. A suburban neighborhood in Albuquerque, by no means unpopulous, had nothing to say in response. He got away with it without the added stress of hiding it.
More than 11 years have passed since that episode aired, just under six since the series finale, and now the makers of “Breaking Bad” have another episode in store. The film sequel, “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie,” is set for limited theatrical and digital release on Netflix Oct. 11, a week from today. The only concern expectant fans seem to have for “El Camino” is whether or not it will live up to the original incarnation’s dramatic caliber, reminiscent of the fanatic intellectual gridlock that blesses revered stories’ adaptations into other mediums. Aren’t there better questions we might hazard to pose?
I’m afraid we’re too enamored with Walt’s story and the show’s glory to question it at all, including when we look to what this film will have to offer. The untouchability of the show and the untouchability of Walter White are so entangled that the inner workings of the show, at times problematic and overly romantic, are hidden. My aim is to begin to untwine them, to bring them to light, so that we might assess whether “El Camino” is being used as an opportunity to revel in these fantasies further, or to outgrow them.
The Suburbs: How to hide in plain sight
“I’m supporting my community. I hide in plain sight, same as you,” says Gustavo “Gus” Fring (Giancarlo Esposito, “The Get Down”) to Walt in a crowded hospital wing, in an episode of Season 3 titled “I See You.” Both men are waiting to hear about the condition of Walt’s brother-in-law, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris, “Scandal”), a DEA agent who has just barely survived a violent altercation with two men from the Mexican drug cartel, twins Leonel (Daniel Moncada, “Justified”) and Marco Salamanca (Luis Moncada, “Queen of the South”). To no one else’s knowledge, however, Gus is also there to assess the condition of the other survivor, Leonel, who was not supposed to come out of it alive. Gus knows that because he orchestrated the whole thing.
But let’s back up. Because, while it is true that Gus was the man behind the attack, both Walt and Gus share responsibility for the violence that almost claimed three lives. Several episodes prior, Leonel and Marco’s cousin Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz, “Major Crimes”) was Walt and Jesse’s distributor. Later kidnapped by the violent, volatile, drug-addicted Tuco, Walt and Jesse try (unsuccessfully) to poison him to save their own lives. In the end, though, they don’t have to. Hank, who was tracking Jesse’s car as part of an investigation of Walt’s disappearance, ends up on the right side of a shootout with Tuco. To avenge his death, the Salamanca family at first turns their attention to Walt. But Gus, dependent on Walt for his product of unrivaled purity, first warns the Salamancas to wait until his business with Walt has concluded, then redirects their attention toward Hank, the man who actually pulled the trigger.
All that and yet there the two of them stand, conversing in a sea of cops. Wearing clean button-downs, untouched by the carnage of the battles they mechanized. Hiding in plain sight. How do they do it? Where does their camouflage come from?
It has something to do with their button-downs. Something to do with the houses they drove from to get there, the homes they will return to when they leave, that won’t have cops parked in their driveways when they get back. Not everyone can hide in plain sight, can they? Could a Mexican-American man have inhabited that same space in the hospital free of attention, suspicion? Could Jesse — in his baggy, ever-oversized sweatshirts and jeans, with his designation as resident meth-head? Hiding in plain sight requires a particular set of conditions.The camouflaged must satisfy a number of invisible checkboxes before their surroundings cooperate, before they fade into the landscape. One of the foremost checkboxes Gus and Walt fill (but Walt most readily) is that of suburban existence, and the status that comes with it. The suburbs have a hand in protecting these two participants in the drug trade.
Let me be clear: I’m not talking about merely physical plots of land on the outskirts of a city, or implying that a picket fence will fend off the DEA. I’m talking about the ideology and social constructions that are as foundational to suburbia as the cement and steel upon which the suburban homes rest. I’m talking about the suburbs as a narrative about its inhabitants, which subsumes their individual narratives and tells an incorrigible story of good citizenship and clean records. I’m talking about the people who are rarely cast for the narrative — particularly people of color and unmarried folks. I’m talking about a myth, but a powerful, historical, lasting one, with wordly implications.
Historian Elaine Tyler May has written at length about the distinct effects of postwar suburbanization on the American family. In “Containment at Home,” the first chapter of her book “Homeward Bound,” May evaluates the role the suburbs were supposed to play during the Cold War. They were envisioned as a “bulwark” against the most prominent political concern of the day — that is, communism and class relations. (It is not difficult to see how this stolid bulwark might remain in place even as the political climate changes, deflecting our evolving concerns.) The latter portion of the chapter May devotes to analyzing survey data from suburban-American husbands and wives from the Cold War Era. Unsurprisingly, these firsthand accounts of the costs and benefits of suburban life suggest that suburbanites maintained a good deal of faith, however unrealistic, in the pacifying effect of the suburbs. One man in particular, Joseph, husband of fellow interviewee Emily, was recorded going on a jaded rant in which he remarks, “Love of neighbor … get him before he gets you.” May follows with an interpretation of how Joseph’s outlook on the world affects what he expects from the suburbs in turn: “Joseph’s cynicism toward the wider world made him place even higher hopes on the family to be a buffer.”
I think May’s term buffer might be a more precise representation of what suburban status offers. What buffer accounts for that camouflage doesn’t is that the protection goes in two directions. The protective sphere of the suburbs absorbs the shock of social ills, but also deflects accusations of complicity in those ills. The suburbs are presumed “safe” from the outside world, so it follows that the outside world has nothing to fear from them. This cycle of mutual protection is only sustainable, however, when it’s left untouched, unspoken of. Don’t let in anyone new, anyone who doesn’t look the same, and no flags will be raised.
Jesse Pinkman may have grown up in the suburbs, but he loses that source of protection four episodes into the series. His parents have no tolerance for his drug addiction and selling and will not let him inhabit their sanctum. The irony is that their younger, high-achieving son Jake (Benjamin Petry) uses drugs as well — he just hides it better. In Season One, Jesse asks to stay with his parents for a couple of days, but when their housekeeper finds a marijuana cigarette in his bedroom, they kick him out. Before he leaves their house for the last time, Jake runs outside and thanks his big brother for covering for him — the cigarette that lost Jesse his suburban family life was actually Jake’s.
Walt’s role in his suburban household is more gridlocked. He’s the provider, the father of two children. Even when his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn, “Shades of Blue”) figures out where Walt’s additional money comes from, she does not turn him in. She tries multiple times to divorce him, but he almost always finds a way back into their home, to the point where it seems inevitable, or at least by social design. Walt does not go on the run until the third-to-last episode of the series, after his wife and son find out that Walt’s actions led to his own brother-in-law’s death.
Whereas Jesse loses the protection of suburban existence almost instantly, Walt never quite does until the very end. And it shows.
A comparison of two bodies’ experiences of violence across five seasons
The bodies in question are that of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. For the purposes of this comparison, I will not count the havoc lung cancer wreaks upon the former’s body; I seek to compare the violence inflicted by external forces. For that reason, I will not record self-inflicted injuries either.
Cumulatively, Walt takes nine punches over the course of five seasons. Seven of these blows are delivered in the course of one, uncharacteristic fight, four seasons in; he goes two full seasons without sustaining any physical violence against him. Although the chart does not reflect this reality, it is worth noting who typically perpetrates violence against Walt: Half of the instances of the violence are arguably domestic, or at the hands of family and close acquaintances. His partner, Jesse, attacking him; his brother-in-law, punching him in the face; his wife, swinging a knife that slices his palm. One is at the hands (or, more precisely, pepper spray canister) of a cop. The other was a beating from a mutual contact, but not a partner, involved in the drug trade.
Jesse, on the other hand, receives at least one beating a season. He is hospitalized twice, but probably should have been more often, given he sustains life-threatening injuries every other season on average, complete facial disfiguration often coming along with it. And unlike Walt, nearly half of Jesse’s beatings are at the hands of other participants in the drug trade. Dissatisfied distributors take their dissatisfaction out on him; buyers assault him while they’re high; the neo-Nazis Walt partners with torture Jesse for information, to keep him quiet and to ultimately enslave him. Even the cop who attacks Jesse does so as a result of his awareness of Jesse’s activity in the drug trade. It is difficult to point to one reason why Jesse and Walt have such a violent confrontation in Season Four, but in the conversation leading up to it, Walt touches on what he sees as Jesse’s treachery for protecting Gus, their distributor at the time.
An important comparison to make note of is how dramatically Walt’s and Jesse’s experiences with police violence differ. Walt, when pulled over for a broken windshield, hurls insults at a cop and refuses to cooperate with procedure; as a result, he gets (one) several warnings, (two) pepper-sprayed and (three) off with no charge. On the other hand, Hank Schrader, blaming Jesse for a false tip he received that his wife was gravely injured which, in reality, Walt orchestrated in order to throw Hank off their trails, arrives at Jesse’s home without a warrant, marches up to his front door and brutally assaults him. It can be telling, how differently the police force views certain bodies — fictional or otherwise. The rest speaks for itself.
Selective silences in “Breaking Bad” (after Langston Hughes)
Héctor Salamanca (Mark Margolis, “The Affair”) doesn’t speak. He appears to have suffered a debilitating stroke sometime before Walt entered the drug trade; he lives in a nursing home and uses a wheelchair. Instead of speaking, he communicates primarily through the use of a bell: a ding means yes, silence means no. The only time we hear his voice is in flashbacks, in which he speaks his native Spanish.
When characters confront him about his past as a member of the cartel in Mexico, or to inform him of the repercussions from his fraught past that his family members now have to bear — I’m thinking of a scene when Gus shares that he just murdered the last of Don Salamanca’s descendents, terminating the Salamanca line for good — all the elderly man can do in response is breathe more vigorously, curl up his lip and dart his eyes around the room in a wild fury, not unspeakable, but unspoken.
Only white drug dealers
Allowed to speak?
Don Salamanca’s twin nephews Leonel and Marco do not speak, either. That is never explained. They communicate through nods, glances and choreographed acts of violence. We hear their voices in one flashback, speaking Spanish, and perhaps one other scene. Aside from that, we never hear why they do the horrific things they do.
Will we ever
To Latinx voices?
The perimeter of Walt’s drug empire is always quiet, untouched until he and his associates arrive. It made for some beautiful, disarming cinematography: open desert, terracotta-tinged landscape, the lone vehicle coughing out its cloud of dust as it makes its way across the screen, uncontested. It is with shame that I admit it did not hit me that these supposedly empty lands are actually reservations until Walt says the title of Season 5, episode 13 — “To’hajiilee” — aloud and adds that it’s the name of a Native American settlement. The random Native American character, usually performing a Good Samaritan function, showed up here and there, but not enough to make their existence felt or relevant, to the purposes of the show.
How many people
Did “Breaking Bad”
In “Breaking Bad,” identity and place of origin quietly dictate not only what you are able to get away with, but also how much of a story you get to have. This reality has large, obvious, somatic manifestations in the physical violence different bodies are susceptible to, even though many of them operate within the same economy; I could compare Walt’s wound log to those of many other characters, and the results would be similar, if not more dramatic. But there are also subtler manifestations of this insidious determinism, equally worth noting, in the violence others’ stories and ethnic identities sustain.
Revoking the power of a disenfranchised people to tell their own story is an injustice. To continue this disenfranchisement in today’s political climate, however, would move from unsettling to outrageous, to corroboration in today’s more concerted destruction of immigrant and indigenous peoples. “El Camino” would do well to begin the work of refusing these silencings. To start, perhaps it should remember its very title comes from the language of the characters it tried to silence for five seasons.
The other Heisenberg effect
“I think the reason why viewers, myself included, continue to root for Walt, even in this tough final season, is that he continues to serve as a fantasy figure,” said Dr. David Pierson, a professor of media studies at the University of Southern Maine, in an interview published by Pacific Standard two days before the “Breaking Bad” series finale “Felina” aired in 2013. “By living a double-life and identity as Heisenberg, he is able to take charge of his life, to become more assertive and to become a self-sufficient entrepreneur. For the first time in his life, he is able to effectively use his talents as a chemist to build an empire. He also does it for the right reasons, to secure his family’s future for a couple of generations.”
Contrast Pierson’s latter assessment with one of the final confessions Walt makes to his wife Skylar in “Felina.” He begins, “All the things that I did, you need to understand — ” She cuts him off: “If I have to hear, one more time, that you did this for the family … ” He interjects. “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really … ” After a long pause: “I was really alive.”
So yes, there were times, thankfully, when the show wrested awake from the fantasy Pierson describes, moments of consciousness, of reflexivity. A lot of these moments were clustered in the final two seasons of the show — which are also arguably the best two. I believe it happened every time something forced Walt to lose his illusion of control, of invincibility; these moments seem to coincide with times when the writers also remembered Walt’s situation was a cautionary tale, rather than a fantasy for viewers to crave.
There were of course, other times, when Walt’s invincibility high was so potent, we got a secondhand high. The finale of Season Four embodies this, when Walt finally outsmarts Gus, leveraging Jesse’s loyalty and Don Salamanca’s revenge wish in the process, and kills his biggest rival to date — he then declares over the phone to a suspicious Skyler, “I won.” These were the moments that engendered Walt’s aspirational quality, as well as irrational hatred for characters who disrupted his fantasy. We might call the sum of these moments the other Heisenberg effect: Writing that made Walt’s invincibility seem the result of his intellect alone changes the nature of his reception by audiences.
At any point, “Breaking Bad” was in flux between reveling in Walt’s fantastical double-life and exposing the dramatic moral compromising and social positioning that granted Walt the ability to lead those two lives in turns. While the show may be a combination of both, what is the net effect? I’m not positive the moments of reflexivity sufficed to force its audience into the same consciousness, the same awakeness. Fantasies have an inertia that is difficult to overcome. It seems to be the inertia that rests on the minds of the sizable proportion of audience members who expressed severe hatred for Skyler White — likely on the basis of her continual resistance against Walt’s manipulation. Among these fans are Facebook users who created a “I Hate Skyler White” page on the site, and a man who expressed a desire to kill Anna Gunn — the actress who plays Skyler — online, as Gunn herself noted in an op-ed for The New York Times. I think it’s safe to say that it will take more than two seasons and a handful of lucid moments to undo these kinds of illusions.
In another scene from “Felina,” before Jesse escapes and sets the stage for where “El Camino” will pick up a week from today, Walt asks one last thing of Jesse. Having just orchestrated the decimation of the neo-Nazis holding Jesse in captivity, but having also taken a bullet in the process, Walt asks Jesse to kill him. Pull the trigger, end his misery. Jesse, absurdly loyal to Walt for the past five seasons, finally defies him. Jesse, the character whose life was much closer to trauma-pornographic nightmare than aspirational fantasy, denies Walt his final wish, his fantasy death. Perhaps, that makes Jesse a wise choice in terms of who should carry the narrative forward. We soon shall see.
When I started writing this piece, “Breaking Bad” alumnus Bob Odenkirk (“Better Call Saul”) had just broken the news in an interview that the show’s sequel film was not only happening, but had completed filming. Within days, various news outlets responded with articles, many of which carried a similar, comically serious title. Newsweek published “The ‘Breaking Bad’ Movie Has ‘Already Been Shot’: What We Know So Far.” VICE titled their piece, “The Secret ‘Breaking Bad’ Movie Is Already Done Filming, Somehow.” Even BBC’s article had a subsection titled “So … what do we know?” I couldn’t help but notice how these titles mimicked those otherwise reserved for unfolding tragedies and serious political events. A few weeks before Odenkirk’s breaking news: “What we know about the shooting in El Paso” from CNN. Most recently: “The Whistle-Blower Complaint and the Impeachment Inquiry: What We Know So Far” from The New York Times. It is difficult to dispute the level of reverence and seriousness this show commands.
I’m hardly a stranger to this reverence. I remember preparing to break my own news at a family gathering on my mom’s side — that I had finally started watching “Breaking Bad” — and how it felt like I was entering a secret society, clued into references and characters discussed with the same familiarity as a family friend might be. Somehow, membership in this society gave me a pass to greet my uncle with a “Yo, bitch!”; the only criticism I got for it was for not quite matching the tone with which Aaron Paul would deliver his signature phrase — and from my dad, who is not a fan of the show.
Which made it all the more daunting to confess to my mom that I was writing a piece about “Breaking Bad” and that it would not treat the show reverently. My mom is not alone in her almost unshakeable love of the show; although the original series concluded five years ago, there remains a relative dearth of criticism. And, in that sense, “Breaking Bad” is not unique either; it seems whenever we as fans receive a miraculous sequel to a beloved story, our worries never seem to exceed the concern that the newest chapter will not live up to the original’s might.
What if we instead looked at these continuations as opportunities for growth? Instead of worrying whether Walter White will be confirmed dead in “El Camino,” what if we challenged the writers not to romanticize him now that he’s gone? Instead of merely revisiting key episodes and scenes from the show, what if we rethought them, poked holes in them?
What if we asked not just for more of the story, but for a better, more holistic and reflexive iteration of it?
“If I have to hear, one more time … ” I’ll interject this time: You don’t. You can dare to ask for something more. Something truer.