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Duly Noted

Thursday, Sep 13, 2012, 9:34 am

Is Breaking Bad Racist?

By Lindsay Beyerstein

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WilzDezign, Creative Commons.

Is Breaking Bad racist? Malcolm Harris argues that the show’s premise is an excuse to revive old white supremacist TV tropes.

Breaking Bad is a fish-out-of-water story: A disgruntled white chemistry teacher applies his scientific genius to the manufacture of methamphetamine, discovers a revolutionary new synthesis, and claws his way to the top of the Southwest drug trade.

Harris sees the whole premise of Breaking Bad as a Mighty Whitey trope, wherein the white lead immerses himself in a foreign culture and beats his hosts at their own game, thereby proving that white guys are the best--the best Mohicans, the best Samurais, the best aliens, the best breakdancers....

That’s a premature accusation. It’s only a Mighty Whitey if the white guy wins. If the white guy barges in where he doesn't belong and falls flat on his face, it's not a Mighty Whitey. Walt inserted himself into a unknown world, but he hasn’t won yet; and judging by the flash-forward at the beginning of Season 5, in which he’s a fugitive buying a machine gun in a Denny’s bathroom, his odds don’t look good.

Harris writes:

“Because of their (third-)world-beating products [...] Walter and Jesse, attract the interest of the big bad other in the American drug imaginary: Mexican cartels. The cartels (usually referred to in the singular, as if monolithic) are merciless and invincible, with money and power that seems limitless. But for all their government connections and firepower, the cartels have a Kryptonite: white people.

You see, the Mexicans need white college graduates because only they know the secret drug recipes. But these white craftsmen don’t want to work for such swarthy operations, and so, despite being far outmatched in both resources and experience, they contrive plots to bring down the heretofore untouchable organizations.”

Actually, in Breaking Bad--as in real life--Mexican drug cartels are already using college graduates to produce meth in industrial-scale superlabs. They’re not waiting around for the white guys; they know how to cook meth scientifically. Walt made a discovery that promises to revolutionize their field and, like all consummate professionals, they want to know all about it.

Sure, Walt's a white guy, but giving him a pivotal discovery isn't a racist trope unless the non-white chemists are depicted as incompetent, and they're not. Science advances unevenly. Someone gets a brainsorm and everyone else races to catch up.

Walt's not your average high school chem teacher, either. We're told early on that he's one of the top chemical minds of his generation. His last big discovery led to the creation of a multi-billion-dollar company. Vince Gilligan isn't asking us to believe that a random white dude with a teaching credential could best the finest meth cooks in the Western Hemisphere.

According to Harris, the scene in Season 4 where Jesse cooks for the Juarez Cartel is "full of supremacist glee" because "there’s no competing with the only white guy in the room."

That episode isn't about a white guy dazzling brown guys with sciene. Jesse has no scientific credentials whatsoever. He’s just following Walt’s recipe and, of course, the Cartel’s real chemists see right through him. To everyone’s surprise, Jesse executes Walt’s recipe competently and the quality of the product speaks for itself.

Recall that Jesse goes to Mexico as a low-level functionary of Gus Fring, a black emigre from Chile, who built his fried chicken and meth empire on cutting-edge chemistry and high-tech management from day one. In this episode we learn that Gus rescued his future business partner, Max, from the slums of Santiago and sent him to the finest schools to earn advanced degrees in biochemistry and chemical engineering.

Pinkman wows the guys in the lab, but his performance turns out to have been a dog and pony show. Jesse's just a patsy for Gus, who arranged this demonstration as an excuse to get close enough to the leaders of the Juarez Cartel to assasinate them. The Mexicans are bested by Gus, not Jesse.

Harris has a theory that Breaking Bad makes the drug trade more palatable to a middle class audience by setting up Walt and Jesse as artisanal meth craftsmen:

As far as Breaking Bad is concerned, Walter’s meth is bought and used in unadulterated form, whereas in any believable scenario distributors would dilute (“step on”) the product for sale. Finally toward the end of the fifth season, Walter is forced to explain to a new organization that customers will pay more for his product than, say, one that was 85 percent pure. The other manufacturer seems to accept Walter’s logic even though, as an ostensibly experienced dealer, he should know it doesn’t make any sense.

In fact, Breaking Bad never says that Walt's meth hits the street unadulterated. The cops know it’s purer than other products out there, but that doesn’t mean it’s even close to pure.

All that matters to the story is the purity of the finished product in the lab. It makes no difference how much Walt’s drugs get diluted between the lab and the corner. When Walt measures the purity in the lab, he’s figuring out how much of the expensive and tightly controlled precursor chemicals became saleable product and how much went to waste.

When Walt and Declan the Meth Lord of Phoenix face off in the desert in Season 5, Walt’s math makes perfect sense to Declan, regardless of how much he plans to dilute the finished product. The purer Walt’s product, the more Declan can dilute it.

Harris writes:

A Breaking Bad in which the street dealers were diluting the product would have had Walter and his partner Jesse Pinkman competing with every local operation, struggling to set up a larger distribution network without costly middlemen and, well, interacting with meth users a lot.

Wrong again. Once Walt and Jesse graduate from retail drug sales, it’s irrelevant to them whether end product is diluted. Gus was happy to pay Walt and Jesse handsomely to convert Madrigal’s chemicals into crystal blue. Declan’s willing to distribute Walt’s meth because Walt can make so much more drug out of a finite amount of methylamine that he still makes more money distributing Walt's product than he would by making his own.

Far from being a celebration of artisanal craftsmanship, Breaking Bad is about the triumph of industrialization and globalization. Gus Fring built his drug empire within a fast food chain. Numerous montages underscore how much functional overlap there is between a fast food chain and a drug empire. You need trucks and warehouses and loyal employees to deliver your product, whether it’s chicken batter or meth--or both in the same barrel.

Fring partnered with Madrigal, a global conglomerate that deals in industrial chemicals and fast food restaurants. Madrigal’s immaculate food lab echoes Gus’s gleaming superlab. You can see how these folks can do business together. They all specialize in whisking highly profitable and addictive products around the globe with great efficiency and utter indifference to human suffering.

If Breaking Bad were trying tell us that quality trumped all, Walt and Jesse wouldn’t have needed Gus in the first place. They only approached the chicken man because they had 38 pounds of first-rate artisanal product they couldn’t sell on their own. Gus changed everything for them because he had the distribution network to bring their product to market.

Gus put up the capital for the super-lab. Walt’s revolutionary P2P cook made business sense for Gus no matter how much the end product might be diluted. Walt’s method yields more meth per unit of precursor chemicals. Less waste means more profit, just like in the restaurant business. If you make chicken nuggets, you want to steam-blast every usable gram of protein off the chicken carcass, even if you cut the pink slime with sawdust before serving.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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