The Representation of Drugs Via Microfeatures in Breaking Bad
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The Representations of Drugs through micro features in modern American television – Breaking Bad and Weeds “Yes, there is a Blacklist—a code of censorship imposed by Washington—that nearly everyone in Hollywood religiously adheres to. The Blacklist is so ubiquitous that most people are not even aware of it any more. It just is. What is on this Blacklist? The D-word. Drugs. Specifically, any mention of illicit drugs as enjoyable, productive, illuminating, or healing. ” – (Drugtext. Anonymous. (2008). An Open Letter To The Entertainment Industry.)
Over the last 50 years drugs have cemented their place in popular culture as one of the ‘big issues’ of society, a subject covered daily in public news and media and the prime object of countless films, TV shows and books, from the assault rifle-wielding kingpin Scarface to the gritty streets of America in The Wire. In recent years, American TV has seen a wave of high-budget critically acclaimed dramas influenced by such shows as criminal dramas such as The Sopranos or The Wire, and in recent years led by successes like Mad Men and, in turn, the drug based drama Breaking Bad. The thesis of this study is to compare and contrast the construction of Breaking Bad’s drug representation against that of the modern US TV series Weeds, both with their own takes on the drug issue.
Breaking Bad has become the most successful of all drug focused TV shows, and indeed one of the biggest in modern TV as a whole. Premiering in 2008 on the US cable channel after a 3 year unsuccessful campaign of pitching by writer Vince Gilligan (The Telegraph. Martin Chilton. (2012) Breaking Bad: Vince Gilligan Interview), the show has progressed to a total run of 5 increasingly critically acclaimed (the first half of season 5 receiving a 99% positive reception, as based on Metacritic) and highly-viewed seasons, the final episodes scheduled to air in early 2013.The show portrays Walter White, a chemistry genius turned high school professor who is diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer. He meets previous student Jesse Pinkman, now a drug dealer on the run from Walt’s DEA brother in law Hank, and decides to use his chemistry knowledge to partner up with Jesse and cook meth in order to gather money to leave his family after he’s passed on.
Placing such a heavy focus on drug manufacture and both sides of the trade, Breaking Bad has an ambiguous representation of drugs that dips in and out of the moral spectrum, but leans heavily towards negative anti-drug connotations. The Showtime and Lionsgate comedy drama Weeds takes a different spin on the middle-class drug serial however, making it a good match for a contrasting study. Created by US TV writer Jenji Johan and running from 2005 before concluding on its 8th season in 2012, the show follows single mother Nancy Bodwin in her bid to support her two sons via marijuana selling after her husband’s death. The show has parallels to Breaking Bad in the narrative idea of selling drugs for the family, portraying deeper levels of the drug business as the series goes on.
The world of Breaking Bad is gritty and offbeat, portraying a vast array of colourful characters and settings across the social spectrum while remaining a high degree of realism. Vince Gilligan constructs a mix of dark humour and moral conflict in the show that contrasts the dangerous and lethal underworld of drug culture with the everyday world of lawful life, resulting in a setting that holds both positive and negative connotations to the drug issue. One of the key features of representation used in the show is that of colour, an essential element in the visual construction that connotes specific meanings throughout the entirety of the programme – a detail to which Gilligan takes almost an obsessive level of care (NY Times. David Segal. (2011).
The Dark Art Of ‘Breaking Bad’). In the beginning of the series, the world of Walter White is both visually and narratively mundane. Walter is living a dead-end life with his wife and disabled son, teaching chemistry, his life’s passion, to groups of unenthusiastic high school students, after quitting his founded position at the scientific research organization Grey Matter. In relation, the mise-en-scene of the world is dull, each setting features little colour or stylized shots and natural lighting is used to denote a recognizable, average world. Walter White himself epitomizes these connotations (a big tool in BB), wearing a stereotypical middle-aged teacher’s outfit – beige jumpers, brown trousers and a simple haircut – and Bryan Cranston’s performance portraying a hesitant and weak-willed man.
In sharp contrast, the introduction of drugs into the narrative sees a parallel increase in both colour and style, the bright baggy black and reds of Jesse Pinkman’s clothing counteracting the dull of Walt, and the settings changing from the greys and browns of everyday life to the rich blue skies of the Albuquerque desert. This theme of bright vs dull continues through the entirety of the show, the two sides of the show’s world playing off each other to form a clear connotation that the drug world is more exciting than an everyday life. However, while the law-breaking life is certainly vibrant, this feature becomes more relevant as a warning as the show progresses – the suggestion that colour connotes a form of morality, bright reds indicating criminal intentions (Jesse’s first outfits, the meth lab in season 3 onwards, the front of kingpin Gus Fring’s restaurant facade) while yellow connotes strong danger (relapsing Jesse, Gus Fring’s suits, the desert sands of the show’s standoffs), to name two examples.
Weeds takes less of a dramatic approach to its use of stylised micro features however, and chooses to keep more of a consistent style in its world construction. The world of Weeds is glossy and glamorous, employing high-key stylised lighting and vibrant colours to connote a wholly exciting world both in and out of the drug trade. Nancy’s clients are mostly everyday people, her friends and social neighbours for example, giving her selling of drugs a degree of community. Being partly a comedy however, Weeds exaggerates these features to emphasise the bizarre nature of the middle-class mother becoming a drug dealer, and this is relevant not only in the show itself but also the promotional campaigns – glossy magazine like photos of a posing Nancy in ‘pin-up’ style, colourful shots of the laughing characters in stereotypically family settings, such as a grassy park or restaurant – which advertises Weeds as a high-budget comedy-drama, with drugs more as a feature than the main premise.
In the case of characterisation, Breaking Bad plays very much on the subversion of the dominant ideologies surrounding drug-related characters, and stays mostly away from stereotypical representations. One of the most prominent examples of this is the multi-millionaire drug kingpin Gustavo Fring, who is introduced in season 3 and becomes, in narrative terms, the show’s primary antagonist. Gus’s character represents the real-life modern drug business: professional, organised and extremely cautious, a sharp difference from the violent street culture that the show’s original drug leaders Tucow and Crazy 8 occupied. Using his ownership of a large chain of fast food restaurants, Gus constructs a lucrative drug empire behind a completely conspicuous image, a friendly, innocent businessman involved in charity and fundraising around the community. Wearing smart, well-coordinated suits and glasses and almost always in his business character, Gus challenges the dominant ideology of a rich drug lord to a dramatic extent – so much so that he is completely ignored by Walter (and, via careful camerawork, the audience) on his first introduction to the show, an arranged meeting between the two drug leaders – playing on the psychological idea of “invisibility” via obvious facts (Gustav Ichheiser. (1949).
Why We Are Often “Blinded” To Obvious Facts. American Journal Of Sociology. Volume 5. 1-4), as Gus’s character is wealthy, intelligent and secretive yet remains undetected by the DEA because of his care in using these qualities as a facade for his real operations. Counteracting this representation of a kingpin is Gus’s long time enemy Don Eladio, the leader of the Mexican drug cartel that recurs via various members throughout the show as antagonists. While Gus portrays an image more akin to a toy shop manager, Don Eladio supports the classic ‘Scarface’ ideology of a rich criminal boss, lavish exotic home, open-shirted clothing and jewelry and a large crew of bodyguards and women. A relatively minor character in Breaking Bad, Don Eladio is introduced via flashbacks of Gus’s first experiences in the drug business, Don Eladio being at the height of power and meeting Gus and (subsequently killing) his partner for a major deal. Representing the stereotypical drug boss, Don Eladio has clear connotations of power through his wealth and influence in the flashbacks, however he is eventually cheated and killed by Gus’s organised intellect on re-meeting. This serves to subvert the ideologies associated with Eladio’s stereotype, while once it was the mansion-owning Al Pacino kingpin who held the power in the dominant representations, it is now the cold calculation of the businessman who leads the modern drug trade.
One other important element in Breaking Bad’s representations is the introduction of Walt’s professional alter-ego Heisenberg, a persona he invents for anonymity and intimidation when making deals with the higher bosses. In comparison to the nervy Walt, Heisenberg is almost an opposite in personality, a harder, more confident demeanour is taken on by Walt while in persona – a feature which in itself could be said to relate to Levi Strauss’s theory on binary opposition (Pieter J. Foure (2007). Media Studies, Volume 1: Media History, Media and Society. Juta. 249-251.) ; the two split sides of the character’s personality represented through a classic black/white ideology. Black being the optimal word here, as Heisenberg is denoted by an all-black outfit, sunglasses and pork-pie hat – a collective of stereotypical criminal clichés assembled by Walt as his egotistic ideology of a drug boss. The character is almost comic in appearance, and is first introduced fully via a secret deal Walt arranges in a junkyard, overwhelming stereotype of the situation leading Jesse to exclaim “This is just like every non-criminal’s idea of a drug meet”. This in particular is a scene that could be suggested at showing Breaking Bad’s post-modern representations of drug culture, a parody of the Hollywood fuelled ‘super-villain’ ideology of the class A dealer.
In quite a stark contrast, Weeds employs quite a heavy use of stereotypes in its characters and settings, which is pushed and emphasised throughout the series as a comedic feature, the idea of ‘false appearances’. Weeds plays on the concept of subcultures through this representation, the notion that a neglected group of people come together through a shared feeling of resentment or ideals (Hebdige, Dick (1979). Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Routledge.), which is found in Weeds by the collection of dead-end middle-class characters and their subsequent involvement in Nancy’s drug operation. Nancy Bodwin represents the dominant ideology of a middle-class American mother – social, stylish and attractive, as seen in shows like Desperate Housewives or Sex and the City. Occupying the suburban lifestyle via her late husband’s engineering career, Nancy employs a mix of dainty motherly charm – starting her criminal career via marijuana mixed brownies – and sexual allure in her dealing, seducing those in her social circle and beyond to progress her business and branding her product, and sub textually herself, ‘MILF’.
This light-hearted approach to drug culture takes a substantial leap from the hard-hitting representations in Breaking Bad, and while the character of Nancy supports the stereotypical image of a single mother in US TV, she also challenges the ideologies surrounding drug culture – the humour stemming from the idea of an ordinary mother dealing drugs in a seemingly ‘nice community’. A big example of stereotype usage in Weeds is that of the cartels and existing dealers who are introduced at various points throughout the series and eventually play a large part in the narrative. The criminals involved in the gangs are typical of the ideology, clad in sports gear and tattoos, slow-witted and aggressive, and non-white in ethnicity – denotations that support the stereotypes associated with criminal culture (leading to criticisms from some) on characters that retain a high degree of power. While Nancy is the ‘fish out of water’ in the drug world, the cartels symbolise the real leaders of the business, similar in some ways to Breaking Bad, however it eventually subverts the stereotype by removing the power from these ideologies.
The main ideological focus of Breaking Bad is the moral decline of a person introduced to a life of crime, creator Vince Gilligan’s original concept for the show in fact being ‘Mr Chips transforming into Scarface’. Drugs originally serve as a saving grace for Walt, a forbidden and lucrative world seen only by Walt through films like Scarface (Gilligan uses this concept quite far, Walt is in fact showing the film to his son in a metaphor-heavy scene in Season 5) and Hank’s heroic stories, one that while dangerous, provides a way out of a dead-end life, a way to provide for his family in his remaining lifetime and become the masculine breadwinner he once was. Through drugs, Walt slowly regains confidence and masculinity through his progression to kingpin status, the success of his and Jesse’s business giving him back his scientific merit and leading to one scene in Season 5’s “Say My Name” where Walter voices to his partner his eventual pride and pleasure of being ‘the best at something’, in this case cooking crystal meth. By the point of the final season, Walt has lost his original purpose for cooking, but has become vastly rich, not so interested in using the money as simply owning it – as a gauge of his power.
But while Breaking Bad clearly shows the profits and personal gain made possible by the drug business, everything from the visual and character representations to the entire narrative connote one main point: Drugs destroy the life that Walt intended to protect with them. Even while refusing to become a consumer of drugs, the process of involvement in the trade erodes his moral nature and the death and destruction that the trade brings desensitises him into accepting events like the murder of his ex-lab partner Gale in the finale of Season 3, or the death of an innocent child in Season 5 as ‘part of the territory’, passing them off as risks to further his grasp on the drug trade and power that he assembles over the entirety of Breaking Bad. In addition, the caring family he possessed at the start of the show drifts further and further away from him, who in turn loses interest in being part of them at all, his wife Skyler eventually admitting that she’s no longer frightened of the trade, but Walt himself.
In conclusion, while the premises between the two are similar in narrative, Breaking Bad and Weeds have differing representations of the modern drug world in their characters and ideologies. While Weeds plays on stereotypical ideas for humour, lightening the issue of drugs with a glamorous representation, Breaking Bad highlights the strong moral conflicts of the modern drug business, employing complex connotations through micro features and characterisation that, while definitely denoting the pros of drug manufacture, serve to represent the destruction that drugs bring upon those involved in its business.