Accusations that 'Breaking Bad' Is Racist, But Is It Really?

Breaking Bad, which saw its penultimate episode air Sunday night, has often been called the greatest show on television. Between the writing by creator Vince Gilligan, the incredible performances by stars Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn (who won a much-deserved Emmy Sunday for her portrayal of Skyler White), and Aaron Paul, and the insane-yet-somehow-believable plotlines, it has everything. Of course, I'll be sad to see the series end next week (and I still have a lot of questions remaining — just who is the ricin for?), but I can't even be too angry about that. After all, I respect Gilligan for ending the show at an appropriate point (avoiding the pitfalls experienced by Dexter, which aired a dismal series finale Sunday after too many seasons on the air).

But some people take issue with the color of bad. Todd VanDerWerff wrote at Salon.com, "What’s interesting about this is that Breaking Bad is not an exceptionally non-white show. People of color are barely represented in the series’ universe, even though Albuquerque’s population is nearly half Latino." VanDerWerff argues that Breaking Bad puts heavy emphasis on the non-white villain, while the show's antihero and the people that surround him are primarily white. 

He notes there was one difference between Walter White and the show's most fearful and piercing villain, Gustavo "Gus" Fring, the meth kingpin who owned Los Pollos Hermanos: Gus had to act like the pre-Heisenberg Walter White in order to avoid suspicion. He had a respectable franchise, was beloved in his community, and kept a neat home. Gus was aware of every mistake, every detail. While Walt emulated this in the beginning, the more he became Heisenberg, the more reckless he became — he wasn't afraid of losing everything, mostly thanks to his position as a Caucasian male who is less likely to draw suspicion.

There's also the obvious: The color-obsessed show connects Whiteness to Goodness, a common cultural trope that has often been deemed racist. Walter's last name is White, his meth is the purest, he's obsessed with cleanliness in his lab — in a way, it might seem to some like Breaking Bad is glorifying drug culture when it's fronted by a white man.

And I agree with these points, actually. It is disappointing that more of the show's main characters aren't people of color. Jesse Pinkman did not have to be played by a white man, however revelatory Paul may be in the role. Hank also did not have to be white — these were conscientious choices. And while the show condemns Walt's ego, it makes sense that much of his sense of entitlement stems from his long life of white privilege. (Or as much privilege as a low-paid high school chemistry teacher can have.) 

Still, let's not write off Breaking Bad as racist. After all, it doesn't vilify people of color more than white people. It just doesn't have as many visible people of color, which, admittedly, isn't great either. That said, the main villains in this final season (besides Walt himself) are Caucasian Neo-Nazis. And Walter is aligned with them, whether he likes it or not, and is far more similar to them than he thinks. So maybe white does equal bad after all.

Because Walter is pure evil. VanDerWerff agrees Breaking Bad doesn't glorify privilege but rather highlights the danger behind those who can, and will, have it all: "The genius of Breaking Bad lies in the fact that it can look with clear eyes at this privilege and entitlement and can see that even when Walter has millions upon millions, it will never be enough. It’s the center of the show’s portrayal of the American white guy psyche, the man always pointing at something somebody else has and saying, 'Gimme that!'" Still, I can't call Breaking Bad racist. But maybe only because I love it too much. 

Must Reads