Saturday, August 10, 2013

How Breaking Bad Subverts the Masculine Power Fantasy

The Sopranos is my favorite show of all time, but sometimes I hate the television landscape that it created.  Sure, it ushered in the golden age of television, paving the way for great shows like The Wire and Deadwood, but it also gave other creators the false impression that all they had to do was follow the template of The Sopranos and they'd have a high-quality drama on their hands.  Thus, for the last decade we've gotten so many shows centered around male antiheroes, despite the fact that The Sopranos was about so much more than that.  I'm sick, sick, sick of stories about male antiheroes.  When done well, you get a show like Mad Men, which is the closest successor we currently have to The Sopranos.  But when done wrong, you get a genre that I like to call "male fantasy" -- shows like Ray Donovan, Sons of AnarchyHouse of Cards, etc.  These shows are all about men being "cool" and "awesome" and "dark," in a way that makes the men who watch them feel vicariously fulfilled.  Usually, these shows have weak female characters, to cater to the kind of men who prefer to think of women alternately as obstacles or sexual objects.  I don't want to make assumptions about what some Breaking Bad fans think the show is, but Walter White certainly thinks he's living in a male fantasy show, and that's what will ultimately be his downfall.

At its core, some of Breaking Bad has always been driven by the idea of frustrated masculinity.  It's about men who are trying to live up to the idea of manhood.  The impetus of Walter White's evolution has always been his desperate need to no longer feel weak.  Even before his diagnosis of cancer, he was a lowly bumbling chemistry teacher, a man without power.  But the writers subtly highlight that Walt's hubris and skewed sense of self was something that was always within him, and that getting cancer just gave him a reason to assert himself.  Throughout the course of the show, we've seen his efforts to gain power -- over both his own life and the lives of others -- but any shred of power he gains just makes him want more.  He's driven by the brutish, masculine concept of "winning," but he's chasing goalposts that continuously reset.

This sense of frustrated masculinity extends to Hank and Jesse, just in slightly different ways.  Hank's story is a series of events that shake his constitution: the shooting of Tuco early in season 2, the tortoise explosion later in that season, and the attack that left him incapacitated in season the middle of season 3.  As much as he wants to be the alpha male drug-busting cop, these moments take a toll that's both physical and mental.  The events of "One Minute" were the jumping off point for the arc that he'll follow until the end of the series -- the desire to catch whoever is at the center of all this destruction in his life.  Where Walt is a man thrust forward by his own ego, Hank is pulled by an obsession to get back in the saddle again (a term that brings forth the vision cowboys, another masculine ideal).  On the other hand, Jesse's frustrated masculinity seems to be the most reluctant.  Instead of being ruled by the idea of winning and losing, Pinkman is almost always driven by others.  Whenever he's asked to kill or do some otherwise criminal offense, it's usually because somebody else asks him to, almost as if he's trying to live up to the expectations placed upon him.

The difference that makes Breaking Bad fall outside of the realm of male fantasy lies in who we're supposed to root for.  While we're supposed to cheer on Ray Donovan as he apathetically bangs another impossibly hot chick who for some reason is attracted to him, or raise our fists when the Sons of Anarchy crew live to see another day, it became increasingly clear that we're not supposed to root for Walter White.  The best antihero shows have a level of self-awareness about their protagonist, and Breaking Bad is able to get away with all of the deplorable things that Walt does because it exists in a highly moral world.  None of us know exactly how Breaking Bad will end, but we're all pretty sure that Walt will get his comeuppance for all of his transgressions.  Actions have consequences, and anybody who's still on the Walter White train should hop off quickly, because it's going down and it's going down hard.  Essentially, the world of Breaking Bad has no room for anybody who's interested in the idea of male fantasy.

Another thing that elevates Breaking Bad past male fantasy is its female characters.  There are some people who think that Skyler is a terrible, useless character, but those people are simply incorrect.  Skyler has flaws, but they are no more outsized than any of the male characters' flaws.  Plus, unlike women in male fantasy shows, Skyler is three-dimensional and has her own agency.  Although we may not want to admit it, because her actions stand in the way of us getting a more wanton and insouciant show, she's the most pragmatic character in Breaking Bad's universe.  And while Marie isn't as important to the story as her sister is, she still has her own quirks and nuances, and provides great comic relief.  On Breaking Bad, the women are the sympathetic ones, often caught in the wake of the actions of men, and left to pick up the pieces.  The show would be a much less interesting and layered without them.

Breaking Bad may be a show full of violence, explosions, and meth cooking, but it's mostly about exploring the psychological makeup of these characters and the sliding scale of morality on which they function.  Whenever the show occasionally falters, as it did a few times in season 4 and the first half of season 5, it's when the writers rely too much on the "coolness factor" of the story, veering dangerously close to male fantasy territory.  The first of the final 8 episodes airs tomorrow night, and hopefully it remembers that the show is at its best when it's condemning the idea of masculine power, not when it's playing into it.


  1. Missed this when it was first posted, although I'll be curious to think what you think of what I believe to be two of the best episodes of the entire series thus far that have aired.

    I agree; especially now, about Walt not being who to root for anymore. At this point I'm full tilt on Hank and Jesse getting out of this, but I'm not so sure either will. I'm curious what those "weaker" moments you are specifying from Season 4 and 5 are, so if you don't mind getting specific I'd like to know (does this get into the hate you had for the way they handled who poisoned Brock?).

    I know you don't like House of Cards but I don't think you can say that Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) is a weak female character. At the very least she was definitely given a lot of time dedicated to her stories. I'm guessing a better example would be Zoe Barnes? (Kate Mara)

  2. I think that sometimes at the end of season 4 and in the first half of season 5, the show teetered into the territory of being "the cool show where cool stuff happens." I like explosions and bullets and train robberies as much as the next guy, but I'm more into the ideas of morality that the show plays with. One of my problems with season 4 (which I still love) is that the storytelling felt a little too neat. Breaking Bad has always been a show that has a very clockwork, every-fits-in-place style of storytelling, but I feel like when they rely on that too much, it can feel mechanical. On the other hand, I found season 5a (that's what I'm calling the first 8 episodes of season 5 from last year) to be a tad too messy. Like I wasn't wholly satisfied with Mike's death or Hank finding out about Walt, because it felt kind of rushed due to there only being 8 episodes. Basically, I'm impossible to please!

    The first two episodes of 5b have been terrific, fearless television though.

    As for House of Cards, time dedicated to a character does not mean that the character automatically becomes interesting or three-dimensional. Full disclosure: I'm only on episode 10 of House of Cards so maybe I'll change my mind when I finally get around to finishing it later this week, but I don't find any of the characters to be that great. I think House of Cards falls more into the idea of "male fantasy" because it feels so much like a show that's just constructed from the spare parts of every other male anti-hero show that's ever existed. But still, I'd merely call Claire an okay character. Zoe, on the other hand, is a pretty problematic character -- inconsistently written, and serving more as a plot device than an actual person.

    1. I'm curious, did you finish House of Cards yet? What did you think of the rest of it?

      In my opinion Corey Stoll's character (Peter Russo) is very good.

    2. I finished it and I felt the same way about the rest of it that I did of the first 10 episodes. I feel like maybe my opinion of the show has been a little warped -- I don't think it's a bad show. It's just really generic. Like a prestige drama without the soul or subtlety. And because I'm so baffled by the enthusiasm some people have for it, I have occasionally over-exaggerated my dislike.

      Like when I said there are no good characters. Peter Russo is indeed a great character. But as a whole, I think many of the characters are paper thin.

    3. Fair enough. Maybe its just because I haven't watched enough of these but I really enjoyed Kevin Spacey's manipulation and moments where he would talk to the audience.

      Keep in mind I haven't yet watched The Sopranos or The Wire and I have no interest in Ray Donovan (clearly just riding off the final season of Dexter at the moment) and Sons of Anarchy.