AMC’s Breaking Bad and the Myth of the Frontier

Curator's Note

According to Slotkin, “…the Myth [of the Frontier] represented the redemption of American spirit or fortune as something to be achieved by playing through a scenario of separation, temporary regression to a more primitive or ‘natural’ state, and regeneration through violence” (1992, p. 12). AMC’s Breaking Bad reimagines these stages of the Myth of the Frontier in the character of Walter White, a science teacher turned crystal meth maker. The series evokes the Myth of the Frontier through its exploration of tensions between nature/civilization and individuality/community. Walt physically separates from the suburbs by driving his RV into the uninhabited desert to cook meth, just as pioneers separated from the colonies in their covered wagons to settle the land. Walt’s criminal activity also enacts a rejection of civilization’s rules. Walt’s removal of clothes before cooking meth symbolizes a shedding of civilization’s constraints. Walt’s RV provides self-sufficiency and mobility, while the desert offers freedom from surveillance and escape from society. Walt’s identity as a scientist situates him as someone who manipulates the elements of nature to serve his own purposes. Walt applies his scientific knowledge to increase his fortune by producing high quality meth. He also uses science to make tools of violence—poison gas, ricin, and explosive mercury. Most of the targets of Walt’s violence are Mexican.

Walt and his partner Jesse are both white (underscored by last names White and Pinkman). Just as white people in westward expansion considered the Native Americans to be savage (largely to justify their violence towards indigenous people), Walt’s Mexican rivals are often depicted as savage. For example, Walt describes his rival Tuco as being “an insane degenerate, a piece of filth, who doesn’t deserve to live.” As Walt expands his drug territory from local to international, he increases his fortune but also decreases his own independence. Ironically, when Walt links up with an international drug kingpin, he shifts from working independently to working for a boss in a modern tech lab, complete with a quota and surveillance. As Walt colonizes more drug territory, he himself becomes more deeply colonized by the drug world and loses much of his autonomy. The theme of colonization also resonates with Walt’s cancer, a disease which “colonizes” the body. References Slotkin, R. (1992). Gunfighter nation: The myth of the frontier in twentieth-century America. New York: Atheneum.


This is a stimulating and exciting post! What I find most compelling is how the concept of otherness seems to maintain its central point even in this modern re-envisioning of the Western aesthetic. What does it mean for the other to be re-situated from the native to the Mexican in this moment? Or is the other a static concept, the simply not-white? (Take White in either manner). I wonder if the use of Walt's cancer, especially in your motivation of it as a sort of colonization, functions as a critique of the Manifest Destiny inherent in so much of Western Mythology. Is the Western hero, and the settlers that follow akin to the cancer? Does this denote a sort of "pureness" of the body of the West prior to expansion?

Thank you for your comments and questions. In response to your question about Manifest Destiny, the wilderness was often conceived of either completely blank and ripe for development or filled with savages and in need of cleansing. Both of these are of course, incorrect--the native Americans were inhabiting the land before European colonizers came along, and native Americans were more often the victims of savagery than perpetrators. The strategies for "otherizing" the native Americans such as portraying them as irrational, violent, and untrustworthy are present in the portrayals of Crazy 8 and Tuco. Tuco's avenging cousins are depicted as animalistic and heathen; they primarily communicate nonverbally and also crawl on the ground as part of a Santa Muerte ritual. It's also interesting that the word "Salamanca" can be translated as witchcraft. In reference to Walt's cancer, I had only considered it ironic that he was colonizing (in the world of meth-making) and trying to fight back against colonizing (in his cancer treatment). The borders of his territory expand and contract just as his cancers spreads, retreats, appears and disappears. Colonizers often rationalize the destruction of the indigenous people as necessary for progress, however the colonized indigenous people experience this so-called "progress" as oppression and cultural fragmentation. The idea of purity that you bring up is interesting--certainly purity is a theme within the show in the cancer/cancer-free dichotomy and also in Walt's striving for a pure and uncontaminated product. In the pilot, Walt uses the language of capitalism " advertised" and science "no adulterants" to contrast his product (and by extension himself) with "garbage" cooked by other meth-makers.

In thinking about the colonization of the west in Breaking Bad, it seems worth distinguishing a kind of dual movement that the show takes up: the economic/neoliberal movement of whiteness, and the narrative colonization of the Western space. In the former, White's business eventually grows beyond regional and national borders, resulting in a neoliberal organization of power that's rooted in the American West (between Walter, the European business ties, and the Neo-nazis, there's a whole lot of "White" colonizing one of the most diverse places in the U.S. by the end of the show's run). The latter continues a century-old trend of imagining the American West as a whites only space in the national domestic-imaginary. The American West has become a narrative space where white males can practice/imagine/construct their identity through a myth of the American West that celebrates its conquest, while ignoring those conquered in the process. The fifth season's train heist episode ("Dead Freight") is perhaps one of the better examples of this. In it, a literal train heist occurs in a "whites-only" bubble in theory, but is comically interrupted by some pesky Good Samaritan "others" in a large American-made truck, and it tragically ends with a child's dead body beside this one-time romanticized railway.

Thank you for your comments! Your idea to separate the movement of whiteness and the narrative colonization of Western is very useful. You make a very good point about the whiteness of the meth business in the last season of the show. White characters Mike, Jesse, Walt, Lydia, Declan, Todd and the Neo-nazi gang reap the rewards of the elimination of brown-skinned drug king pins Gus (who is Chilean) and Don Salamanca (who is Mexican). Walt is able to capitalize on tensions between North and South, Gus and Salamanca so divide and conquer "the Other." It's also interesting that Walter White owns a car wash, perhaps a nod toward the concept of "white-washing" that is taking place in the drug empire of New Mexico. Your comment about how white males are able to explore their identity through the "myth of the American West that celebrates it conquest, while ignoring those conquered in the process" also rings very true for Walt's character. Walt often conquers non-whites (Crazy 8, Tuco, Gus), which fits with the narrative of white men in the myth of the West. The train heist episode highlights another theme of masculinity in the American West: protector of children. In the myth of the West, Native Americans are often depicted as child-killers, while white men are celebrated as child-protectors. (Some New West films that come to mind are True Grit and The Missing). Walt starts out as trying to protect his own children financially, but then allows Jane to die after ironically having a bonding conversation with her dad. Walt's act of allowing Jane to die then sets into motion a plane crash that results in another child being killed (a pink stuffed animal from the plane lands in Walt's pool as if to indict him for his part in the tragedy). Walt saves his surrogate child Jesse's life (who is seeking revenge against child-killers) in Season 3, but then poisons Jesse's surrogate son Brock in Season 4. The irony of protecting some children by putting others in harm's way deconstruct Walt's "the ends justify the means" plan of protecting his family, and reveals a double-standard between one's own children and those of the "Other."

Interesting post! It strikes me that your reading of white colonial expansion in Breaking Bad resonates profoundly with current shifts surrounding marijuana legalization. In the past, this industry's criminalization provided a legal basis for disproportionately policing and incarcerating hundreds of thousands of people of colour. Now, as marijuana becomes increasingly legalized, the primary beneficiaries seem to be white industrialists who are corporatizing production and distribution. There seem to be very similar colonial dynamics at play.

Thanks for your comments, Sasha. You make an excellent point about the similarity between present day shifts in marijuana's association with race and Walt's colonization of the drug world. It also seems to me that the legalization of marijuana and association with medical uses effects the same sort of "baptism by capitalism" that Walt tries to use to justify his making of a dangerous drug.

In my appreciation of Lisa's Weckerle's post and its subsequent comments, I would like emphasize the dual consideration of mythological "continuity" and "reconfiguration." To appreciate that both may be occuring simultaneously complicates any reductive notions of a specific, unilaterial "myth," per se. And so, in this case, "Frontier" as a white American construct or conceit, rather, should be seen as polyvalent, inconsistent, and/or always contestable. It seems Breaking Bad, at least according to certain episodes, fits well within conceptualizations of an emerging subgenre we would call the "New Western," where white protagonists are positioned as antiheroes and then pitted against non-whites in modern contexts. And the ultimate "showdown," or at least a pivotal "showdown," occurs within a peripheral desert wasteland. Another such entry would, of course, be No Country for Old Men, which just predates the AMC series under consideration here. And these recent narratives can be treated as "anticipated" by Easy Rider, where white criminals also use their drug money to afford their mobile existence across so many peripheral zones. Or to pit such antiheroes against Mexicans within similar landscapes, we could consider Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and then discuss how a New Hollywood Western like The Wild Bunch is simply repositioned in a modern context here, according to the same trappings. An earlier Western credited for inspiring New Hollywood directors along these lines is, of course, The Searchers, whose white protagonist must finally choose between rescuing his abducted niece from an enemy tribe or succumb to his racist inclination to dispatch her for assimilating their culture. And then, going further back, there is Duel in the Sun, whose female protagonist is half-white, half-Native American, and so who struggles between devotion to the model upright citizen and his criminal brother, seemingly as if her two bloodlines predetermined each proclivity--and who must finally resolve this struggle within a peripheral desert landscape. All these examples would seem to suggest a continuity of the selfsame myth of the "Frontier" as place to be "civilized" by white American culture. 

At the same time, one can see complications in determining a precise notion of a "Frontier" myth within this "continuity" of motion picture narratives. The conceit of white supremacy in a classical Hollywood Western like Duel in the Sun is not exactly the same as the antiestablishment critique of American capitalism found in New Hollywood films and in Breaking Bad, whose "frontier" peripheral zones may seem to offer a temporary alternative to society's rules, just as they anticipate death for any nonconformist who ventures into them.

I think what I would prefer to say is that, in all these films, the peripheral zones remain the same across time--they are just that: peripheral, inhospitable landscapes immune to colonization (even if indigenous peoples may dwell within them). But, as such, they are not always imagined as the same "frontier." These frontiers may be reflective of cultural conceit, or they may be reflective of a critique of conceit. It is suggested that Walter White, an American everyman seeking merely to support his family, was ultimately a victim of his own society and its system--and for this reason we loved him no matter how many lies he told in the process. At the same time, he was pitted against Mexican gangsters (at points), who would seem no less stereotypical or "deserving" of death than the Mexican general and his peripheral fortress minions--all annihilated in a dazzling slow motion.

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