Friday, July 27, 2012

Breaking Bad’s Suburban Shock Doctrine

In season four of AMC's Breaking Bad, fast food store manager-drug kingpin Gus Fring smoothly offers a first and only piece of personal history in response to DEA agent Hank’s probing questions: there is no record of him in his home country of Chile because he escaped during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, whose regime kept notoriously bad records. This detail and Gus’s (real or invented) history is never mentioned again, and by the season finale, Gus is dead anyway. But this quick and easily dismissed reference to Pinochet’s Chile may just have everything to do with the entire plot and trajectory of the series—not so much in Gus’s story, however, as in Walt’s.

In her brilliant book Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein explains how proponents of Milton Friedman’s Chicago School economics took advantage of natural or man-made disasters to institute otherwise unwelcome free market policies. The aggressive privatization schemes quickly implemented in the aftermath of 9/11 or Katrina offer recent examples of this strategy, but for Klein it was Chile that was the ground zero for this practice of disaster capitalism, the Trinity testing site, if you will, for radical free market economics. Pinochet’s U.S.-backed coup d’état of then-President Allende brought Chicago School economic ideas to Chile, resulting in substantial economic growth for the country and a vast personal fortune for Pinochet himself. It also brought a brutal regime of repression, torture, and violence that resulted in thousands of murders and tens of thousands of tortures.

These two faces of disaster capitalism are exactly the two faces of Walter White, and Breaking Bad plays out a version of the shock doctrine in the dry suburbs of the American southwest (where the Trinity testing site is literally on the road from Albuquerque to the border of Juárez, Mexico, a gorgeously harsh landscape that visually defines the show). Walt’s unexpected diagnosis of terminal lung cancer (surely a nod to the region’s radioactive history, especially given his explicitly non-smoker status) sends him into a domestic financial panic which is relieved only by the entrance of the absolutely unregulated market of the illegal drug trade. By season four we learn, along with his accountant wife (once employed by the clueless, free-spending, and tax-evading businessman, Ted Berneke, whose name is easily confused with that of Federal Reserve chief Bob Bernanke), that Walt is now pulling in the equivalent of $7 million/year as a crystal meth chef, a considerable improvement over the public school teacher salary he once supplemented with a demeaning part-time job at a car wash. The problem is that Walt’s sudden ascent from the 99% to the 1% comes, just as it did in Chile, with unavoidable and terrifying bloodshed.

When Walt’s bomb explodes under Hector Salamanca’s wheelchair, it leaves Gus with half of his body burnt to a crisp, his right face sheared off and raw, his eye socket a dark gaping hole, even as from his left side he continues to look his respectable businessman best, tie straight, composed, calm. This gothic Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde image—exposing the menacing and violent criminal beneath the calm and dependable businessman—is a dramatic visual representation of what Walt, too, has become: the struggling middle-class suburban family guy whose desperate participation in free market economics implicates him in a brutal criminality from which he first can’t, and then doesn’t even want to, escape.

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