Breaking Bad vs. Badly Broken
Call it what you will—coincidence, cultural zeitgeist, or just dumb luck. But the proximity of the October 1st federal government shutdown to the September 29th broadcast of the last episode of the television series Breaking Bad will “forever”—i.e., in our increasingly amnesiacal society and culture, approximately five minutes—link the two events in the minds of the media-savvy.
As someone who very proudly “killed her TV” for most of the ’90s and ’00s, it is with more than some slight embarrassment that I identify myself as one of the millions of current Breaking Bad fans. Even worse, I must also admit to having jumped on the show’s bandwagon very late, in 2012. That’s when, according to Variety, as a result of “digital syndication” via Netflix, live show viewership increased from an average of 1-2 million to approximately 6.6 million (the season finale had a reported 10.3 million live viewers, 500 thousand digital pirate viewers, and an as-yet unreported number of millions of paying digital viewers the day after the live broadcast).
Part of the new binge-streaming demographic for short-form video entertainment (or that which was formerly known as TV), I am neither proud nor entirely apologetic about my recent over-consumption of junk food entertainment. While I still regularly watch Tarkovsky films on the weekends, on weekdays after work, when I am too tired to read, I must admit to being very happy to curl up next to the meth-fuelled virtual fireplace that is Breaking Bad and follow along as its darkly comic and perfectly structured plot lines unfold.
Season 6 did not disappoint. The almost embarrassingly rave reviews from TV critics globally may have made me long for at least one dissenting voice amongst critics, but I can only imagine that alleged death threats to the author were part and parcel of the voluminous comments on the Time.com article by Lily Rothman entitled "Why I Don’t Watch Breaking Bad.” Still, the amen chorus did not curb my interest. How would it end? In all likelihood, just as it began: in an hysterical and melodramatic manner with just the right amount of references to both high and low culture to keep everyone feeling ever so aesthetically compromised but equally likely to go back and binge watch the show again. We all knew this, which is at least part of the reason why the show is so popular.
It is at this point in my analysis when I could go down one or more well-trodden editorial paths. The first would involve proposing that the October 1 U.S. government shut-down and the Breaking Bad season finale both reflect the moral bankruptcy of this country, where what is often estimated as a majority of the population do not see healthcare as a basic right. That I do not believe, which is why I will not try out that path. The second would be to speculate that both are identical media events taking place in a socio-cultural sphere so totally saturated with media that there is no reality left to be concerned about. Though I do not totally disagree with that interpretation, I will forego that one as well. The most sardonic interpretation, one which suggests that the most obvious connection between these two events is that Vince Gilligan should be running the communications division of the White House, is probably also the truest.
However, all joking aside, what I am left with is the sense that whatever moral ambiguity was evident in the final episode of Breaking Bad is not one that can be tolerated in government. However crazy it may sound, I truly believe that this government shutdown may signal the end of the U.S. public’s tolerance of Washington’s belief that it is representing the needs of its constituents by placating the interests of big business. Vince Gilligan may have ultimately decided to portray Walter White as just another intelligent, workaholic, adrenaline-seeking American out to prove he “deserved” way more than “just three pairs of Dockers.” Indeed, there is much to admire in Gilligan and Company’s not-so-veiled suggestions that the drug business may have many more similarities than differences from various and sundry legal multinational business enterprises. But it is exactly there, at the end of Walter’s fictional narrative, where the stories we watch and the narratives we live diverge.
Despite the persistent fantasy that capitalism is some kind of never-ending fairy tale, it is not ultimately a narrative construction being controlled by some very creative writers. The moral ambiguity of capitalism is not an occasionally rogue characteristic, but rather a fundamental part of its definition. Vince Gilligan may or may not have intended to offer the last episode of Breaking Bad as testimony to why it is time to stop pretending that the U.S. government is nothing more than an extension of late capitalist business as usual, but that is exactly what he did.