† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
Five grueling seasons of the record-breaking Breaking Bad have come to the conclusion fans hoped for and I feared. Yes, the aptly named Walter White – Mitty-esque middle class middle age High School Chemistry Teacher turned sociopathic Meth Overlord aka Heisenberg – is really a Good Guy after all, vindicated as few other “gangsters” before have been. All the loose ends tied up with some truths told, revenge and vindication all around, still the Smartest Guy in the Room.
Dead, yes, as we knew he would be from the onset, but on his own terms. Walter White went out – not as the “monster” many of the cast referred to him as, as many viewers claim they think he is– but as a sort of Hero.
As Steve Almond asks in American Psycho: Why We Root for Walter White: “For those with the good sense to be distressed by this fact, the question remains: where does that leave the rest of us?”
Oh I know there are those who will object to this critique. “Lighten up — it is just a TV show! And one that was well-written and acted at that.” Others will claim that there is nothing new to see here — that we have always been fascinated by various iconic gangsters and drug lords – most recently and famously Tony Montana, Michael Corleone, and Tony Soprano. “Same as it ever was”, they say.
But it is not. Walter White is, well unambiguously white, no ethnic identity attached – past or present - that once compromised “whiteness”. He “breaks bad” rather than being “born bad” or at least connected from the outset to criminal subcultures. He chooses, and he prevails, unlike the others whose ultimate ends serve as a cautionary tale.
Despite terrorizing both his immediate and extended family, despite subjecting his former student/partner to an array of psychological and physical abuses, despite leaving behind a mountain of mostly brown bodies , despite becoming a ruthless Drug Kingpin in the midst of a Law and Order/War on Drugs era – Walter White goes out a Winner. Because that is what the viewers wanted.
And this, reveals more than just our penchant for gangster thrillers, it reveals, at rock bottom, our deeply rooted cultural construction and sometimes, celebration, of White Male Criminality.
Medicalization and White Mitigation
Much has been written here about the over-arching tendency to mitigate white criminality with claims of “illness” ( see Aurora,”Whiteness”, and the Double-Standards of Deviance/Social Control ) while simultaneously constructing a racialized archetype of the Criminal Black Man (see The War on Black ~ “Color-blindness” and Criminalization, Part 1 and Part 2 ).
The white racial frame shapes the labels we attach to aberrant white behavior and the systems called upon to control the related deviance. When confronted with white criminality, several options exist to divorce suspects/offenders from normative whiteness. Media coverage plays a crucial role in managing perceptions . Race is never discussed as a key signifier when crimes are committed by whites. Whiteness is largely absent from the discourse; it hovers unnamed and unnoticed, the unmarked marker..
In addition to de-emphasizing race in white crime, there are efforts to exceptionalize the crime/criminal. Often the systemic nature of corporate crime is attributed to a few ‘bad apples’ . In cases of individual white criminals, media accounts often are sure to present the suspect in everyday photos -as opposed to mug shots- replete with neighbors or family “witnesses: who express shock, disbelief and attest to the character of the alleged perpetrator or the neighborhood from whence they came. This is often the case in the plethora of “reality” prison shows too; white inmates have a ‘story’ that in some ways explains their incarceration, humanizes them and evokes sympathy in viewers . In highly publicized cases of extreme white violence such as mass shootings, there are often immediate appeals to the medical model to explain the deviance as “sickness”.
Although the most serious of white criminals do indeed face serious criminal charges, it is the medical model that is called on to “understand” them. They are not totally ‘bad’ — they are ‘sick’. Someone should have or could have helped them before it was too late. Of course, one of the key features of the medical model one of the key features of the medical model involves mitigating deviant behavior by attributing it to “sickness rather than badness” with a particular focus on the condition rather than the behavior and treatment as opposed to punishment.
All of these tropes are deployed in Breaking Bad, a show devoted to luring us into us “understanding” and yes, sympathizing with the travails of Walter White. And of course, Walter White breaks bad because of sickness. Not mental illness either, but a diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer that leaves him with at most years to live and insurmountable medical costs. He is pushed to the wall, and he – and we too – continue to contend that his murderous descent is all for the “sake of his family”, his wife, his infant daughter, and his son. In case our sympathy wavers, his son is “sick” too, afflicted with cerebral palsy.
So what’s a “good” father to do??
Meth and Sympathy
Additional sympathy is extended to Walter White by his choice of drug for manufacture and sale — methamphetamine. He isn’t selling heroin or cooking up crack or even growing marijuana — drugs that have all been historically “tainted” by their association with racial and ethnic minorities. Oh no, Meth is an over-whelming white drug, associated with rural populations rather than an “urban” crowd.
Although meth arguably has more devastating effects on both users and the environment than crack, the official response has been far less hysterical or criminalizing. The earliest warnings of the “epidemic” came quietly in agricultural magazines such as The Land, warning farmers to lock up their anhydrous ammonia tanks. The public relations effort around meth focused on the “tragedy” of addiction, and relied heavily on defaced and defiled white females’ looks and morality as the deterrent to use. The vilification accorded crack users is absent. In Why Meth Babies will never be the New Crack Babies, Shane Roberts notes this:
The coverage of meth will be treated as a news story with the common dramatic story lines that engage any audience. But unlike crack babies of the 1980s and 90s, the contrast lies within the humanization of white sellers and users, both rogue players who will never define whiteness or white people…This invisibility is what allows white meth mothers to be sympathetic victims of any drug addiction not just meth. They’re written and profiled as rouge individuals who have made bad choices but are not a reflection upon white women as a whole…
Despite the medicalization frame, use, possession and sale of methamphetamine is a Schedule I Drug Offense. In fact, increased arrests of white women for meth may be behind the declining racial disparities in female incarceration. The Changing Racial Dynamics of Women’s Incarceration a 2013 report from the Sentencing Project finds this:
Some observers have suggested that changes in women’s incarceration by race are driven by increased arrests for prescription drug offenses or changes in the drug of choice among those who engage in such practices. Because of the rise in the use of methamphetamine, a drug which is proportionately used by whites and Latinos, in certain regions of the country white women may now be more likely to come under criminal justice supervision. At a national level, there is no breakdown of drug offenders in prison by the type of drug that they used or sold. But there is some modest, and mixed, evidence on this at the state level. For example, the Minnesota Department of Corrections reported that nearly a third of the increase of 3,000 prisoners (male and female combined) from 2000-2007 was due to a rise in the number of methamphetamine offenders…
Ironically, the increased incarceration of whites, especially women, on meth charges, may lurk behind recent calls to reduce imprisonment for drug crimes. The War on Drugs was designed as a post -Civil Rights era project in racialized control, as a “color-blind” and coded War on Black and Brown. Isn’t it a fascinating coincidence that the right white, Right on Crime crowd is suddenly concerned with mass incarceration? Asking questions about lengthy drug sentences and proposing alternatives to prison? Oh they will say it a reaction to rising Big Government costs, but look closer. Race is never far below the surface, and it is entirely possible that resistance to Drug War incarceration – just now! – is at least partly linked to the increase in white (and white female) imprisonment, primarily for meth.
So far the evidence is largely anecdotal, but it points to a theme that deserves closer examination. Again, from The Changing Racial Dynamics of Women’s Incarceration , this illustrative story:
A recent federal case demonstrates how stepped up methamphetamine enforcement combined with harsh sentencing policies can contribute to escalating prison populations for these offenses. Lori Newhouse, a 32 year old Iowa woman with a lengthy history of substance abuse, was convicted of manufacturing or attempting to manufacture 5 grams or more of pure methamphetamine in 2012. Federal District Court Judge Mark Bennett described her as a “pill smurfer” who purchased legal cold remedies that she supplied to methamphetamine producers in exchange for the drug. Under federal mandatory minimum penalties she was subject to a 10 year sentence, but based on two previous drug convictions in 2002 her sentencing guideline range would be enhanced to 21 – 27 years due to federal Career Offender sentencing provisions… Judge Bennett rejected the Career Offender guidelines based on a policy disagreement and taking into account Newhouse’s substantial assistance to prosecutors, imposed the lowest sentence available to him of 8 years in prison, which he described as “still exceptionally long.
So, back to Walter White. He makes the right ( read “white “) choice of substance to sell. As long as the show didn’t linger too much on the ravaging effects of meth on the users (and it did not), then he is free to cook and concoct at will, devoid of much drug war stigma.
“Stiffed” on Speed – The White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy
In spite of the meth war distractions, at the core, Breaking Bad is about little more than the angry white man and his raging demands to get his “entitlement”. Walter White is one of those guys Susan Faludi so eloquently describes in Stiffed, a White Boomer Son denied his rightful “requisites for manhood: the promise of a frontier to conquer, the promise of “a clear and evil enemy to be crushed,” the promise “of an institution of brotherhood in which anonymous members could share a greater institutional” glory and the “promise of a family to provide for and protect.”
Walter White, once emasculated and dis-counted, his true genius unrewarded with the riches he believes he is owed, rises to rightly claim his White Male Birthright. And of course it is claimed — claimed back – from those who have supposedly denied it, namely people of color and women.
White supremacy is a central theme throughout. (See From Mr. Chips to Scarface, or Racial Capitalism in Breaking Bad and Walter White Supremacy). Walter White is Mighty Whitey Writ Large, better than any of his competitors, who are primarily Latino. His product is “purer’, his meth labs are “cleaner”. He is a “scientist”, even when cooking out of an RV nonchalantly parked on Indian Lands. Those who ultimately sell his product are his “racial inferiors” - “dominated by a contemporary kind of borderland capitalism based on the incorporation of low wage Latino workers defined as disposable, both structurally and in cultural representations like Breaking Bad.” By Season 5, only white men are left standing — Walter White, his immediate consorts, and an Aryan gang he enlists for a coordinated prison hit, and later does business with remain. His competitors — international Latino-run cartels – are all disposed of despite stunning advantages in experience and weaponry, leaving us with the unlikely crowning of the former milquetoast as “gringo capo.”
Master of the Universe.
Misogyny is central as well. Race is a never mentioned visual backdrop to the tribulations of Walter White, but women are clearly portrayed as the immediate root of denied male success. Walter White leaves a former girlfriend and the now lucrative foundation they co-founded because of his own inadequacies, yet blames her. His wife Skyler is presented as an on-going obstacle to his meth empire, so much so that fans of the show dedicated hate websites to her and threatened the real life of the actress who plays her. Skyler and the entire family Walter claims to be “protecting” is manipulated, abused and terrorized – psychologically and physically – throughout the series. Other women fare no better. Many are just disposable props, flawed and passing love interests to Walters’ student/partner Jesse Pinkman. Sister in-law Marie, who is often correct in her advice – is presented as an annoying nag. Lydia Rodarte-Quayle, a corporate executive and arguably the most savvy “business” person/survivor in this mess, is both lusted after and reviled as a man-eating b%^ch. So, she must be poisoned.
Because It is a Man’s World.
Bottom line, even the meth doesn’t matter here, this is just the convenient device of the moment. Walter White could be running guns or Wall Street. White supremacist, patriarchal and capitalist empire – that is the centerpiece and ultimately, the appeal.
Perhaps trillions of words have been written about Breaking Bad, most of them laudatory. Along the way, the white supremacy and sexism have been questioned, often times with the hope that the show’s writers were exposing white male entitlement and offering some embedded critique of the white male psyche.
That may have been once possible, but the finale turns the other way. Walter White doesn’t die alone and demoralized in that Granite State cabin, all that money and hubris for naught. He isn’t left in shame and regret for the carnage he has wrought. Hell, he isn’t even arrested. No, Walter White succeeds where other gangsters have failed – preposterously defying all odds to make small amends to those he has manipulated and tormented, saving the money, exacting a revenge on the rest, and distancing himself from the really bad white guys, those overt Aryan supremacists, once allies, now enemies in the end.
And therein lies the danger and the double-standards – this is not a critique, but a celebration of the triumph of the Angry White Man who Broke Bad. This, while we continue to vilify and incarcerate literally millions of Black and Brown bodies for so much less. For nothing even.
And celebrate that too.
Yes, popular culture is entertainment, but it a window too – what resonates, both reflects and reveals. Walter White is Every Lost White Man Ascendant – his anger and resentment – towards women, towards people of color – runs deep. He will get what he is entitled too – at any cost.
The Way They Say It Should Be.
And yes, Walter White is a fictional character, but how different is he really from those who still make/enforce the laws, who punish the poor and cage the once free? How different is he really from those who now hold an entire nation as hostage?
You tell me…