Breaking Bad and the Search for True Manhood
September 4, 2012
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I had been watching various clips of Breaking Bad online for quite some time. It’s not one of my favorite shows, mainly because of its Fargo-ish humor, but I appreciate the show because it gets one of the most under-appreciated aspects of American society dead-on: the dilemma of the trapped and constantly marginalized American family man.
Die Hard was the first incarnation of this struggle, but that film’s 80′s camp suppressed the realism that bleeds through Walter White: a schoolteacher who’s been the gracious provider who starts to do heinous things when faced with the reality that his loved ones will go on without him. While I don’t think Vince Gilligan is reacting directly to feminism, it’s hard not to note Bad‘s reaction to it: an ordinary man who starts pursuing dangerous things in the face of a wife who starts loosing interest.
That is the dilemma for men today, isn’t it? Women demand to be treated as equals in marriage but below the surface, they only give respect to a man who can take care of them. Women expect their men to share with their feelings (even if this isn’t what they do naturally) and aren’t content with a man’s physical provision. But some men, maybe most men, can only express their love for their women through the act of physical provision, and when push comes to shove, they throw themselves into work. After all, hard work is the only way to guarantee a woman’s respect.
It is also through this work that Walt gains the platform to put himself above his wife. Consider the scene where Skylar confronts her husband about the death of a rival meth cook. She urges him to go to the police, fearing he’s in danger. Walter responds by putting himself on a higher plane. He tells her that she doesn’t know how important his business is, and reveals to her (by inference) that he ordered the hit she’s referring to. (Like all uber-successful people, Walter White doesn’t take it well when others question his authority.) It is through this act of defying his wife that Walt, in a twisted way, somehow gains a piece of his manhood back. If only he could have gained it back through love, respect, and good will, not cooking meth.
It is a sad dilemma that faces not just Walter White, but the American man. Our society has become so much more fragmented when it comes to childbearing (out of wedlock, single women having babies via sperm donation and adoption, parenthood redefined) and “equal” marriage, the world of Walter White seems strangely fair. That’s what makes it really sad.