Sunday, September 15, 2013

Ethnic Cleansing in Breaking Bad

This has nothing to do with music, but I wanted to write this down while it's in my head.  I've been thinking about the meaning of Walter's last name for awhile.  It doesn't send as clear of a message as, say, Jesse Pinkman's, which suggests his feminine qualities and even hints at his unresolved Oedipal complex.  But I do think Walter's last name--White--is meaningful; in fact, it directs our attention to a highly disturbing trend in Breaking Bad.

White suggests not only purity and simplicity (neither of which Walter seems to have, which may explain his need for a new name, Heisenberg), but also Walter's race-- his whiteness.  I want to highlight the racial politics of whiteness in BB to point out a pattern that begins when Walter starts cooking meth: the repeated killings of non-whites.

The first fatalities are Emilio and Crazy Eights, but admittedly Walter had no other choice but to kill them (otherwise he'd die, and likely his family, too).  Yet when Walt meets Tuco, he decides to embrace a new identity: Heisenberg.

By taking his alias from a Nazi scientist during WWII, Walter raises the issue of racial cleansing, and, as he works his way up (or down) the subterranean drug ladder, he and the show enact violence against non-whites, persistently eliminating anyone whose race isn't "pure."  The trick of the show is making us think this violence against non-whites is excusable--even warranted.  Look at the main antagonists of the seasons: the "homicidal maniac" Tuco, the horrifying Salamanca twins and their cruel uncle Hector, Gus Fring, and the Mexican cartel that threatens Jesse.  Possibly the best examples of antagonistic non-whites are Gus's henchmen: Victor, the very Spanish looking worker, and Tyrus, the dark black man who often lurks in the shadows, especially around the White residence at night.  These men are stoic, cold, and utterly unhumourous; they stalk our protagonist and lead Walt, and consequently us, to feel discomforted, threatened, and paranoid.  We do not like them; they're perceived as nothing but enemies that need to be eliminated.  And when they are, there is a sense of relief, even accomplishment.  This pattern of killings, I suggest, is no accident.  The show's search for racial purity parallels Walter's and Jesse's quest for the purest meth.

A skeptic might respond: Okay, so the show has a few non-whites as its villains?  Can't it just be a coincidence rather than an obsession with eliminating non-whites?  I'd say that this murderous trend runs even deeper than I outlined.  For example, when Walt and Jesse start selling drugs, Jesse has three dealers: two white guys and one Spanish guy.  Quickly, Christian "Combo" Ortega, the Spanish guy, is killed at the hands of Tomas Cantillo, the Hispanic kid who is later killed by two Mexican dealers (likely sanctioned by Gus).  Then what?  Walt runs over the rival, child-murdering dealers, culminating a long series of murders of Hispanic boys and men.  I could offer more plot details, but you can take a look at the long list of non-white fatalities for yourself at this website.

And then there are the white characters' deaths, which deeply resonate with other characters and with whom we, the audience, often greatly sympathize and mourn.  To begin, there's the likable but obviously flawed Jane.  Her promise of a sober future with Jesse (however skeptical we may be of their willpower) offered him an escape from all the horrors that had, and will, ensue.  Then there's Gale, a light-hearted, hard-working, and highly likable character whom Jesse must murder to save himself and Walt.  Walt even tells Gus that he deeply regrets Gale's death (and we can tell Jesse feels the same, as he shakes with tears overflowing when he shoots him), but Walt informs Gus that he would do the same thing if it meant choosing between Gale's life and Jesse's or Walt's.  We cannot disagree with Walt's rationale, but this murder, like Jane's, hurts us to see.  We can, however, disagree with Walt's impulsive, violent, and just awful decision to murder Mike, the sarcastic curmudgeon whom we just cannot help but love, not only for his impressive competence (who's more efficient than Mike?) but also for his selfless love of his granddaughter.  Mike's murder is tragic, heart-wrenching, and completely unjust, and it makes us see Walt (temporarily, at least) as someone wildly irrational and horribly corrupt.  These murders leave us on edge, and it's not a coincidence that these deceased all share the same skin color.

Jack Welker
Principal Carmen
And then there's Walt's new band of friends: the neo-Nazis who do his murderous bidding.  The man with White as a last name and Heisenberg as an alias now aligns himself with a group of abhorrent racists that promote ethnic cleansing.  Notice a trend here?  It's interesting to ask why.  What fuels this hate and from where does it originate?  I think we can look as far back to the first episode, where Walter is shown as a subordinate to foreigners--his Hispanic principal and Turkish(?) carwash owner.  We ultimately see Walter release his aggression on both, whether through sexual harassment (remember how he repeatedly tries to kiss the principal?) or physical violence (destroying the interior of the carwash, and eventually usurping the demeaning owner, asserting his superiority and power).  Was Walter weak precisely because he, a white man (in a racially diverse Albuquerque), was the subordinate to those he deems an inferior race and gender? I think this plays a part in his goal to assert masculine, white power and reclaim something he feels entitled to but never accessed (much like his son's loyalty and devotion, which Walter had to share previously with Hank).  I'll leave the Oedipal conflicts for another blog post.

This is not at all to say Breaking Bad harbors any racist sentiments; it endorses racism as much as it does meth cooking.  But I think the racial "purity" trend adds yet another layer of complexity to Walter's morally complicated/convoluted character.  And I think the very short term implications are that there's almost no chance for Steve Gomez to survive this shootout.  Hank's another story.  Steve is the only non-white person in the desert, and judging from Breaking Bad's history of destroying the non-white Other, that doesn't bode well for him.

I'd like to hear comments.  Please let me know what you think!


  • Skyler and Walter's daughter Holly both fit the Aryan ideal: blue eyes, blonde hair.
  • Yes, Gomez dies, and unceremoniously between episodes, too.
  • The neo-Nazis imprison Jesse, with Walt's permission, in a prison that is eerily suggestive of a concentration camp.


  1. You forgot to mention the deaths of Jack and his gang. They happen to be white, and the show didn't make it so the audience would mourn over their deaths.

  2. Not every time Neo Nazis take prisoners do the prison cells suggest concentration camps…?! And what point would it make?
    Apart from that: interesting Ideas, thank you!