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Friday, 14 September 2012


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Malcolm Harris

I'd agree that he's no savior of any sort. Mighty Whitey isn't the same as the white savior, more like a rectangle and square problem. I don't think that Lindsay dealt with the purity issue, more like restated the position I was critiquing. If you buy the premise that this guy is so much better than everyone else at meth (which, actually, no one really can be because it doesn't work like that [street purity ranges from 50% to 97%]) then it makes sense. But the premise itself is racist in its absurdity and they get away with it because of assumptions the class the show is directed at make about markets. And even if most consumers are white, 90% of meth production happens in Mexico. As for a lack of cultural synergy, I don't know what you're talking about. Science (white) + guns/brutality (brown) = profit. As for guns and brutality being much more white than brown in the first place, we know that, but the show clearly doesn't.

There's a lot there, I'm better at Twitter.

Malcolm Harris

And the cleanliness stuff! The pic I used has him standing in front of brooms, promo stuff for season 4 had him in front of a clothes dryer, his wife runs a car wash, the super lab is below a laundry, I'm sure there are a bunch more. The show is obsessed with bleaching itself.


There's a lot there, I'm better at Twitter.

We are men of conflicting mediums! (And also, you're a liar. Your essay was coherent and interesting. You can do long-form fine.)

Mighty Whitey isn't the same as the white savior, more like a rectangle and square problem.

It might not be, but the examples you cited (and most of the ones at TV Tropes) are classic examples of the White Savior, which is why I balked at the description. You're right that he's not trying to save anyone but his family, and that he's willing to exploit the "natives" for his own gains, but even the "Mighty Whitey" trope has a larger social scope, e.g.

[S]ometimes the Mighty Whitey is there to lead or inspire the Noble Savages or bring some aspect of modern technology or knowledge to their aid, something they presumably could not do before he showed up. One particular version has it so that the sympathetic Author Avatar whitey is not only now the Great White Hope for the non-white Noble Savages, but is very often defending them from other evil whites.

I don't think that describes Walter very well at all. By "cultural synergy," I was just referring to the tendency to have the white character be technologically superior but need, in the end, to rely on some "native" technology that he's acquired to complete his quest, whatever it may be. (Avatar is the modern locus classicus for this trope, to my mind.)

Malcolm Harris

We agree, but again, note the "sometimes." The vast majority of rectangles might be squares, but this is one of the other times.

The "native wisdom" he requires is psychopathological. Think about his interactions first season - he makes this face a lot: Compared to season five when he makes this face a lot: Walter learns how to be "the one who knocks" from the "natives." Combined with his science, he's equipped to be the mightiest of all blah blah blah.

Malcolm Harris

And the point I make at the end of the article is that the drug industry and the war on terror are the only two narrative scenarios I can think of in which you could do a non-savior Mighty Whitey story without it just being blatantly racist. So it's not a coincidence or anything.


I think a better image is the angry white Randian (of the Ayn variety) here -- ala Falling Down. It is more about his feeling of moral and intellectual superiority and the idea that he had been given a "raw deal" because he'd been playing "nice" and "good with the cultural others -- both raced and classed. Now it is "his turn" to rise to his position because he can. And as Rand tells us, that is his responsibility. It is a story that is less about colonialism and more about abject capitalism (I suppose you can't really separate the vestiges of the history of colonialism, but his use of the term Empire -- as in he wants to build one -- is interesting here). Because as Hardt and Negri tell us, an Empire is not a colony -- it is not about social and cultural superiority or "saving" but about controlling the GDP. Its all about the Benjamins.


Walter learns how to be "the one who knocks" from the "natives."

That's a good point. Damn it, I'm on vacation, and you're making me think...

I think a better image is the angry white Randian (of the Ayn variety) here -- ala Falling Down.

The only difference there is that Walt's ressentiment is tied to his cancer. I know that might sound like a cop-out, but as someone who's had cancer, I can't emphasize how deeply felt the bodily betrayal is. I mean, this is your own body trying to kill you. I completely understand how that leads to the belief that you belong to the preterite, damn it, and you're sick and tired etc. etc.

Lindsay Beyerstein

Declan admits during the standoff in his desert that his product is only about 60% pure, vs. Walt's >99% pure product. That's a big spread. If everyone else is cooking a 96% pure product, Walt's >99% pure product is not that big a marginal advantage. But if the difference is 60% vs. >99%, and you have to rob a train to get more methylamine, Walt's skills are very valuable.

Purity isn't the only reason Walter's product is valuable to big time drug dealers, though. He invented a methylamine cook, which has other advantages over the pseudoephedrine cook that the competition is using. (The characters talk about "bullshit pseudo cooks" a lot.)

Walt's breakthrough has real life historical precedents. The book Methland talks about how chemical breakthroughs reshaped the economy and geography of the U.S. meth trade. Sometimes the game-changer was a higher yield, sometimes a less tightly controlled precursor, and so on.

(Sorry if this comment is a duplicate, I'm not sure if my last attempt got lost, or went into moderation.)

Peter Erwin

He’s no more a Hawkeye out to preserve Mohican culture from white incursion ...

My impression is that's not really something you'd find in Fennimore Cooper's novel(s) -- though I haven't tried actually reading any of them, so I might be missing something. It's certainly not part of the only movie version I'm familiar with (Michael Mann's 1992 film). It's a case where Mighty Whitey really isn't the White Savior.


I can't emphasize how deeply felt body betrayal is.

Point taken. But even from that vantage point, I think perhaps a term here that could help clarify his motives and changes is -- Legacy. WW begins with the intent to leave a Legacy (monetary security) for his family, yes? Because of the Cancer, because he is not only betrayed by his body but also his job, position in life as worker, and all the bureaucracy which that life entails. BUT then as he continues to cook AND meets Gus, his notion of Legacy changes -- it becomes more about his own image of himself and his legacy, rather than the legacy he leaves for his family.
And at this point, it is not as if he watched Gus closely and "learned from the native how to run an Empire." Even Mike comments on this early in the season and right before his death. WW wants to make his own empire -- and that will be the legacy he now leaves.

Lindsay Beyerstein

The text doesn't support the idea that Walt is motivated by racial grievances. Let's take a closer look at who's oppressing Walt in his own mind. By and large, it's not minorities or immigrants.

As far as Walt's concerned, his life went to shit after he left Grey Matter, the company he founded with his white ex-girlfriend Gretchen Black. Gretchen went on to marry their fellow white grad school buddy Elliot and the two now preside over a multi-billion-dollar empire while Walt is stuck teaching high school. Then his wife gets unexpectedly pregnant. Then he gets cancer. Walt's mean, overbearing boss at the car wash is Romanian, and thus ambiguously white, but he's about 10th or 15th on the list of Walter White's grievances against the world.

When he finally snaps his first victim is a white guy in a BWM and then a gaggle of white kids who are picking on his son.


I think perhaps a term here that could help clarify his motives and changes is -- Legacy.

Agreed. I think the initial conditions create the sympathy, and that it lingers as Walter's motivations change, but as this point in his downward spiral, I can honestly say that I don't sympathize with him anymore at all. I think once he poisoned children for fun and profit, that went out the window. The question is -- and I think it's an interesting one -- is what will happen if he tries to redeem himself. If he tries to repent, will he regain the sympathy he's spent the past three seasons losing? I don't know. It depends on 1) how quickly his cancer returns and 2) how harshly Hank treats him. I can imagine a scenario in which his cancer comes back strong at the same moment that Hank, feeling rightfully and righteously betrayed, comes at Walter with all guns blazing ... and that that would drum up sympathy for Walter again. Larger point being: a complex sympathetic scenario's been created and I don't think we can boil it down to Malcolm/Kotsko's "we're all sociopaths" theory. (That said, that was a really productive conversation with Malcolm, even though I still think he's wrong.)

The text doesn't support the idea that Walt is motivated by racial grievances.

Absolutely. If Walter were motivated by racial grievances, I'd be the first person to point it out. (Ahem, Avatar, ahem.) I just don't see that as being the case here. I think something's going on with all the colors, obviously, be they white or black or purple or blue, but I don't think it maps neatly onto American racial politics.


(And the captcha on my comment was "wrong asshole." I don't know what my blog is trying to tell me, but I don't like it, not one bit.)


As far as Walt's concerned, his life went to shit after he left Grey Matter

This and the subsequent hyper-capitalist system he becomes subject to seems really key to Walter's devolution. He makes overtures toward knowledge for the sake of knowledge and to the importance of teaching. Yet he's keenly aware that he's stuck in an economic structure that cares so little about his profession and the inherent value of his specific knowledge that students who couldn't pass his class will earn more than he will just by slinging meth on the streets; and his profession as a teacher really isn't socially worth more than his side-job at the car wash. That's the same economic structure that neither offered health care options he could afford (this show started before health care reform), nor left him financially prepared for the double-whammy of a baby and cancer (most high school teacher's, especially with families, don't have rainy day funds). His grievances -- his emotional cancer -- seems far more class-based than race-based.

But there's probably a couple of other dynamics to consider which complicate race relations in the show (and the Mighty Whitey trope). I wouldn't swear to this, but meth basically took the place of cocaine, and the cocaine cartels as well as BB's chief meth producers/market managers are specifically Latino. There are historical reasons for this -- cocaine grows in South America, and various groups have taken control of parts of that trade route north from its location of production to its main location of consumption. The fact that they're Latino/brown seems to be an accident of ecology and geography, but at the same time they still managed to effectively overtake a chunk of the U.S. black market that was once controlled by mobs (which has its own ethnic issues).

Walter White's incursion into that Latino-dominated market seems less of a white thing and more about a person who was put under extreme distress by a ruthless capitalist structure, and then found a way to game that structure. Doesn't that seem to reflect what a lot of drug lords from the Latino world have done by overcoming economic and social pressures that arose largely from a capitalist structure that is primarily driven by U.S. economic policy but the pressures of which are felt more keenly in U.S. spheres of economic influence? Isn't that in a way Gus's story? In other words, it seems like Walter is a kind of local reflection of a more global issue, the point being that the category 'white middle class Americans' are no longer protected from those same pressures (and I guess that arguably means the category 'white middle class American' is losing its meaning).

On the other hand, there's also Gomez, Hank's partner. In many ways, he's the one who keeps Hank going when his wife is a clepto basket case while Hank doesn't even realize he's being played by his extended family. The Latino DEA agent Gomez is the pillar Hank leans on to maintain some semblance of "manly cop guy," can absorb Hank's casual racism without hurt, and he's a fairly good at his job, which means protecting all groups including white people. He's arguably a more effective cop than Hank, who has a couple crack-ups. Yet Gomez isn't white-washed; he retains his ethnic identity throughout the show. So if Walter is the Mighty Whitey from a localized drug perspective, what does that make Gomez from a law enforcement perspective? The Brown Touchdown?


The question is -- and I think it's an interesting one -- is what will happen if he tries to redeem himself.

To be honest, I kinda hope Walt ends up in a wheelchair having to bang a bell to communicate with people. That'd give the show an interesting balance.

Malcolm Harris

This argument gets a lot simpler if we all can agree that white supremacy isn't like an add-on to capitalism, but a core and, more importantly, necessary tenet. My point isn't that Walter White is any more racist that the capitalist structures that surround him (though we all remember when he got the women at the laundry deported so he wouldn't have to clean up after himself? and how he talked to them?). But he's sure going for the whole capitalism thing, and that means exploiting and killing a bunch of brown people, as it always has. He's no exception. Where we can argue is whether the viewer is supposed to identify with the character/in what ways. I can't think of another show where the character endorsing products isn't the one the viewer is supposed to see the world through. And given Kotsko's detailed work on the pattern of sociopath use in current TV shows, I think you'd have to do some serious twisting to imagine Walt isn't part of the same lineage.

Producing meth at 60% purity makes absolutely no goddamn sense.

And I really thought we were all past the "it's not race - it's class!" argument.


Just to be clear, you're saying that Walt isn't necessarily a overtly conscious racist (like the thugs he gets to do the jail job for him), but that capitalist structures inherently bring white supremacist tendencies to those who participate in them at the upper levels.

And if that's the case, were Gus Fring and the Salamancas also white supremacists, or did they just participate in upholding a white supremacist structure. That's fine, if that's your argument, but such cases always seem to get fuzzy when looking at specific examples. The slave trade as we know it today (last 500 years or so) is definitely a white supremacist thing, but slavery itself existed as an institution long before "white" really existed as a category and white Europeans were even all that connected to the rest of the world. I don't think anyone's arguing for a binary distinction between race and class (that seems a little straw-manny), but how one influences the other is certainly not neatly delineated.

Just to step outside of the race equation here, not sure why producing meth at 60% purity doesn't make sense. Lots of coke dealers cut it with baby powder to save on costs. You have Declan who wants a product that has great street value (Walt's), but doesn't have the knowledge how. If he can make a knock-off product and save a little money by defraying the costs to make a better product, he increases his own profit. Walt's argument to him is that Walt brings the knowledge and ability to make a better product, and with Declan's distribution channels they can both make more money than they currently are. Without a Heisenberg, it probably makes perfect goddamn sense for Declan produce a lesser product. It's kind of like selling generic meat-aisle sausage with more byproducts in it because you don't have access to the recipe for the really good stuff that's sold under glass in the deli. If the generic sausage maker could make a better product and not lose on costs/distribution, and if that meant improved sales, why wouldn't that make sense?


I'm more inclined to agree with Harris. While invoking TVTropes' Mighty Whitey led the discussion down a tangent which you rightly point out has cultural details that differ from the situation in Breaking Bad, there is still a subset of the trope that is at work here. Last Samurai and Avatar do have the cultural element of the hero going native and teaching them in their own ways, it's true. But in cases like comics' Iron Fist, or G.I. Joe's Snake Eyes (and Avatar's Jake), we also see a lot of white protagonists who are inexplicably better than nonwhite people. Whether this is explicitly tied to some facet of white culture that made them superior or not, the imagery of the native practitioners of an art being in awe of or jealous about the white hero's skills in their domain, be it fictional kung fu or meth chemistry, seems to me a common thread with Breaking Bad.

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