On Sunday night, 10.3 million viewers tuned in to watch the final episode of the greatest show that has ever been on television. The drama to which I am referring has been so ubiquitous as of late that I need not mention its name or its plot, but for the uninitiated, here’s a refresher. In this AMC original series, down-and-out chemistry teacher Walter Hartwell White breaks the proverbial bad. He takes on the role of a meth-king, Heisenberg, and peddles truckloads of the blue stuff from El Paso to Prague.
This past Sunday, I dropped everything to learn what would become of Albuquerque’s unlikely Scarface. And let’s be clear: the series finale was a triumph. But as we bid adieu to Breaking Bad, it’s worth reflecting on the show’s nebulous relationship with the war on drugs, and what that might mean for its legacy.
I say war on drugs, and not drugs themselves, for a reason. After all, Breaking Bad is really about a topic truly much sexier than meth: regulation. Whether Walt’s slinging blue crystal, spilling state secrets or peddling counterfeit goods is irrelevant, as long as it’s illegal. Consider this scene in first season finale: Walt and Hank sit poolside with two Cuban cigars and a bottle of hard liquor. “If we were drinking this in 1930, we’d be breaking the law,” Walt muses. He tips his glass and gives the cigar a puff. “Who knows what will be legal next year?” Walt’s suggesting, of course, that the bright lines of regulation are arbitrary — his brother-in-law, ever the DEA agent, remains skeptical.
But Walter White has a point. The rise of the black market made Prohibition a self-defeating policy. Poolside at 308 Negro Arroyo Lane, Walt invokes its history, and challenges Hank and us with the same question: To what extent is today’s war on drugs similarly misguided? After five seasons, Breaking Bad failed to provide an answer. Fans should have demanded more.
Breaking Bad will be remembered as deeply conflicted on the morality of the drug war. On one hand, the series depicts addiction with unflinching honesty. Episodes like second two’s “Peekaboo” and three’s “Full Measure” illustrate the human cost of drug use and the drug trade in vignettes of families lost and lives destroyed. These are the images we expect from DEA propaganda (the character Wendy — who serves alternately as prostitute, single mother and deus ex machina — comes straight from the script of an after-school special), but no one would mistake Breaking Bad for a 1980s PSA. The show references libertarian arguments in favor of legalization and pokes fun at political debates about property rights and unlawful search and seizure. In season three’s “Sunset,” Jesse fights for his constitutional rights in a scene that makes viewers cheer — until, perhaps, we remember he’s cooking meth inside that RV.
As viewers, we’re conflicted. We swoon when Walt dons his Hazmat to “Crystal Blue Persuasion” and wince when that same blue crystal results in the death of a child. And yes, the drug war raises complicated moral questions. But a show that spent five seasons thinking about drugs and the war on them should have a clearer worldview than the murky mess of mixed messaging Breaking Bad has left behind. As the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, told Vice Magazine: “you’d think I’d have a stronger opinion on [the drug war], but I spend all my time thinking about this one character and not the politics at large.”
This is from a show that has taken political stances, and responded to criticism from fans. When Breaking Bad fans reacted to a character with such bitter misogyny it warranted an op-ed in the New York Times, Gilligan stood up for strong women in the show’s final season. Similarly, liberals and conservatives have both heralded Breaking Bad as the great parable of the drug war age. They shouldn’t both be right, but show’s ambiguity leaves room for both arguments.
I don’t know the stance the show would have taken, or whether I would have agreed with it. I don’t know what it would have looked like, either, but I’m sure one of the greatest writing teams in history could have figured it out. In the end, Breaking Bad gave many Americans their first taste of realities of the drug war. For a great work of art to introduce these questions, then actively refuse to answer them, is cowardice.