By MATTHEW T. HUBER
SPOILER ALERT! Read only if you have finished watching Breaking Bad!
What does AMC’s “Breaking Bad” have to do with oil? Not much, you say, and you’re probably right. That said, on a surface level, you can easily see that much of the show centers around a certain depiction of oil powered automobility. Walter White’s 2004 Pontiac Aztek was a kind of character in the first four seasons. The SUV-like car stood as an extension of Walt’s growing power over the landscape of the meth trade. Most spectacularly, the Aztek played a central role in Walt rescuing Jesse from certain death by plowing into rival drug dealers (Se3Ep12, “Half Measures’). On a more banal level, Breaking Bad depicts the soullessness of much of the American suburban landscape made possible by oil. In Albuquerque, strip malls, economic decline, and four lane highways provide much of the backdrop to Walt and Jesse’s adventures.
However, I do not wish this essay to be a platform to point out the most obvious connections to oil and the landscape of Breaking Bad. Rather, I want to argue that a central part of Walter White’s character reflects a society and politics made possible by but not reducible to oil. In my book, Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom, and the Forces of Capital, I argue that oil-powered suburbanization provided the material conditions for the privatization of social reproduction through single-family homes, private automobiles, and commodified access to the necessities of life itself. In short, it powered a geography of privatism. I suggest that this increasingly generalized mode of existence lead to a specific vision of life itself. Drawing on French philosopher, Michel Foucault, I call this vision “entrepreneurial life” – a view that life success itself is reducible to individual choices, work ethics, and competitive tenacity. This vision of life grew during the postwar era and – along with suburbanization – it became the populist basis for the neoliberal offensive in the 1970s. This ascendant neoliberalism celebrated individual freedom and was based upon a critique of any kind of centralized power – most notably the state, but also corporate monopoly power – that threatened to render the “market” uncompetitive for the millions of hard-working, tax-paying atomized individuals living in the suburbs or beyond (indeed, historians have shown rather convincingly that the suburbs represent the electoral basis of the rightward shift of American politics since the 1970s). From the perspective of entrepreneurial life, life success was a product of individual effort – and taxes, wealth redistribution, and social welfare programs were demonized as an unjustified form of expropriation.
So, what does this have to do with Breaking Bad? I would argue that so much of Walter White’s character was based on his attempt to convince himself that he – and he alone – had the entrepreneurial power to not only make millions of dollars but also build an “empire” out of his own sheer will, work, and tenacity. Walter White, the broken down chemistry teacher, felt like he was “cheated” out of the wealth and success that he was instrumental in building with Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz – what became the multimillion Gray Matter Technologies. As he explains to Gretchen in Season 2: “It was my hard work. My research. And you and Elliott made millions off it.” (Se2ep6, “Peekaboo”). Even more important, Walt’s belief in his own entrepreneurial power to create success for himself was central to what I see as the critical plot shift of the entire series – his refusal to take a job and money from Gretchen and Elliot to help pay for his cancer treatment (Se1Ep5 “Gray Matter). Of course, had he swallowed his pride and taken the money, Walt’s series of sound decisions and rational small business management would have never taken off like it did. For Walt, taking Gretchen and Elliot’s money would violate a central tenet of “entrepreneurial life” – life is only legitimately made through individual effort severed from any relations of dependency upon external forces. Of course, under neoliberalism, the most obvious “dependent” villains became the poor and social welfare programs, but it is worth pointing out how many of us intuitively judge anyone who is in a position of dependency (say, a person who depends on their parents for income). Walt refused such dependency and decided to pay for his cancer treatment himself using his own chemistry talents to build a meth business.
So much of Walt’s rise to meth kingpin is about his own sense of individuated power – a sense that he had finally used his talents to build something successful on his own. What the show reveals – and what our neoliberal society could learn much from – is that such a privatized vision of social worth reproduces a narrow and self-destructive narcissism that puts self-interested gain above all other social relationships (Jesse and his family become expendable in Walt’s quest for more power).
The final episodes reveal much about the vision of entrepreneurial life that shaped Walt’s actions. For example, when Jack and his band of Nazis killed Hank and Gomez and stole approximately $69 million of Walt’s money, I expected Walt to finally realize that things had gone too far. Hank was dead – mostly a result of Walt’s actions. Yet the next episode “Granite State” begins with a vengeful Walt – not mourning, not regretful – who declares to Saul in the bunker of the vacuum repair shop that “I am going to kill Jack and his entire crew and I am going to take back what is mine and give it to my children and then and only then am I through.” Walt felt that his money was taken from him just as by Gretchen and Elliott, and he could not accept losing what he had earned…again. And, at the end of that same episode, it is Gretchen and Elliot’s denial to Charlie Rose of Walt’s role in Gray Matter that infuriated him into abandoning New Hampshire and going on one last Heisenberg quest to punish those who stole what he had made for himself. When he visited Gretchen and Elliot, she asks where the pile of money he presents came from. Walt’s reply is direct, “I earned it and you are going to give it to my children.” Moreover, he is insistent that none of Gretchen and Elliot’s money be used in the process of this transfer (again his refusal of dependency). Finally, most agree that the pivotal scene of the final episode is when Walt admitted to Sklyer that his real goal was not really family security but self-aggrandizement: “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it…and…I was alive.” In our neoliberal age, Walt feels most alive when he finally felt like he was no longer a defeated soul working in the public sector (as a middle class teacher – the horror!): he was building success on his own.
Again, oil’s role in Walt’s stubborn belief in the power of entrepreneurial life is indirect and almost tangential. But I argue that it is the geography and lived experience of privatism itself – made possible through the power of oil allowing millions of private individuals to live in private households and travel vast distances in private cars – that lends credence to the idea that lives – and businesses – can be made solely through individual hard work and effort. In such a society, it is self-evident that any force larger than the individual – the state, the public sector, taxes – is a threat to the freedom of that individual. What Breaking Bad reveals is the self-destructive consequences of an individual hell bent on the idea of self-made success. If only our society and politics could figure this out as well.
Matthew T. Huber is an assistant professor of geography at Syracuse University and the author of Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom and the Forces of Capital (University of Minnesota Press, 2013)