As the acclaimed series comes to a close, critics have routinely repeated the claim of Breaking Bad’s creator, Vince Gilligan, that the show traces Walter White’s transformation from Mr. Chips to Scarface, but the larger implications of the character’s arc are rarely investigated. “Mr. Chips” is the nickname of an initially stern but ultimately kindly English public school teacher in the 1939 film whereas “Scarface” is the alias of Tony Montana, the ruthless Cuban immigrant drug lord in Brian De Palma’s 1983 film of the same name. As played by Al Pacino, Montana is perhaps the most iconic Latino character in Hollywood history, inspiring a host of imitations and homages in film and music. Indeed, the figure of Scarface anchors multiple forms of mimetic desire whereby his fans feel compelled to repeat his best, heavily accented lines (“Who do I trust? Me, that’s who”; “Say hello to my little friend”). In analogous ways over the course of 5 seasons Walter White has come to copy the Latino drug dealers he triumphs over. In fact, the character’s transformation is represented as a kind of “becoming Latino” in ways that presuppose a broader borderland political economy, built on sedimented layers of colonialism, that depends upon the incorporation of low wage migrant labor.
In the first three episodes of the series Walter must kill and dispose of the bodies of two homicidal Latino drug dealers, Emilio Koyama and Domingo Gallardo “Krazy 8” Molina, before he and his partner, Jesse Pinkman, can in effect assume their places. Subsequently, he turns the table on the psychotic Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz), mimicking the drug lord’s violent outbursts by threatening Tuco with an explosive chemical reaction until he pays Walter for the meth he has stolen (1.6, “Crazy Handful of Nuthin”). In preparation for his showdown with Tuco and his posse, Walter shaves his head, making him resemble the Latino gangsters he confronts. (The filmmakers emphasize the resemblance with a shot-reverse-shot sequence focused on the cropped heads of Walter and one of Tuco’s henchmen and then a low-lit two-shot in which it is difficult to distinguish between Walter’s bald profile and the second Latino gangster who frisks him.)
For the remainder of the series Walter’s shaved head, combined with a goatee and a menacing gangster glare, would become the show’s most visible avatar. And while the shaved head/goatee combination is a fairly widely disseminated masculine style, I would argue that historically and particularly in films and TV shows about drug traffic, the look has been strongly associated with working-class men of color. And while a number of other ruthless Anglos in Breaking Bad also sport similar haircuts, including Walter’s DEA agent brother-in-law Hank Schrader and the drug syndicate “fixer” Mike Ehrmantraut, in the context of the largely Latino milieu of the show’s Albuquerque, New Mexico setting, they could all similarly be interpreted as whites who have partly incorporated brownness.
Season two of Breaking Bad self-consciously references Walter’s incorporation of “Latinoness” in the episode “Negro y Azul,” which opens with the performance of a Spanish-language narcocorrido, “Negro y Azul: The Ballad of Heisenberg,” by grupo Los Cuates de Sinaloa. As I noted in my book Drug Wars, the Political Economy of Narcotics (2004), narcocorridos are ballads about drug traffic and enforcement popular among Mexican audiences on both sides of the border. Like Los Cuates de Sinaloa, who migrated to Arizona from Sinaloa, many narcocorrido performers come from working-class migrant backgrounds and they address their working-class audience with tales of drug traffickers who become mass-mediated folk heroes because they defy state authority. For Breaking Bad, however, Gilligan collaborated with Los Cuates de Sinaloa to write a narcocorrido extolling the exploits of White’s alter ego, “Heisenberg,” the “gringo capo.” Here it is as if Walter has displaced the conventionally Latino narcocorrido protagonist by outdoing him, by becoming a better Latino gangster than the Latino gangsters. (In the same episode it is revealed that the DEA engages in a similar kind of mimicry when one agent explains to Hank that he keeps on his desk a bust of Jesus Malverde, the popular patron saint of Mexican drug traffickers, in order to better know his enemy.)
At the end of season 4 Walter engineers the death of the Juarez cartel’s patriarch Hector Salamanca, played by Mark Margolis, who previously starred in Scarface as a Latino hit man. (The cast of Breaking Bad also includes Steven Bauer as cartel leader Don Eladio Vuente, who had earlier played Tony Montana’s partner.) At the same time Walter kills an evil Latino genius named Gustavo Fring, played by Giancarlo Esposito (4.13, “Face Off”). A black Chilean, Fring runs a fast food chain called “Pollos Hermanos” that serves as a front for the distribution of crystal meth, and with the blessing of the Juarez cartel he controls much of the market in the U.S. Southwest. In a brilliantly complicated set of machinations, however, Fring further expands his empire by ultimately murdering the entire cartel leadership. Fring is a larger than life character and a fitting subject for a narcocorrido himself. Walter can thus only become the boss of bosses–or as they say in the narcocorrido world, el mero mero—by killing Fring. The title of the season 4 finale–“Face Off”–signifies the climactic confrontation between the two men while making a macabre joke: Walter engineers a second chemical explosion that rips off half of Fring’s face, revealing his skull. As if inverting the title of Frantz Fanon’s study of colonial racism, Black Skins, White Mask, in the following season Walter White effectively puts on Gustavo Fring’s face, taking over his dominant role in the regional drug market. Recalling anthropological accounts of cannibalism in which the cannibal gains the power of the enemy he consumes, Walter displaces his Latino competitors by symbolically incorporating them.
While as of this writing it remains difficult to predict how the series will end, what are we to make of the transformation thus far from “White” to “Brown,” or from Mr. Chips to Scarface? In Drug Wars I argued that Scarface and other films, TV shows, and music about the U.S. war on drugs during the 1980s and 1990s constituted cognitive maps for popular thinking about political economy. Building on Fredric Jameson’s theorization of cognitive mapping, I argued that drug war narratives were influential cultural forms for organizing thinking about state power, capitalism, and labor. Of particular significance for Breaking Bad is my analysis of “the drug-war poor” by which I mean the large number of disposable black and brown extras routinely dispatched in drug war films. In Chuck Norris’ Delta Force 2: The Columbian Connection (1990) a sadistic Latin American drug lord ruthlessly exploits Indian workers on his coca plantation while in the Harrison Ford vehicle Clear and Present Danger (1994), U.S. special forces kill a large group of Columbian workers in a cocaine-processing plant. Meanwhile Scarface ends when a ragged army of Latino mercenaries, employed by a rival drug lord, descend on Tony Montana’s estate; in the final scenes numerous brown extras fall before Montana is finally killed. In these and other ways such films foreground drug manufacture and distribution as forms of labor and, more broadly, represent fanciful reflections on political economic contexts characterized by the incorporation of low-wage migrant workers.
I understand Breaking Bad in a similar way. The show has often emphasized the work of meth making and selling with recurrent montages of Walter and Jesse cooking, and of Jesse and other street-level sellers selling. The episode that shares its title with the narcocorrido, “Negro y Azul,” partly focuses on Walter’s efforts to expand the number of dealers working for him, the majority of whom are poor Latinos. Moreover, in season 3, Walter and Jesse manufacture meth in a lab beneath an industrial laundry facility owned by Fring; in one episode Walter commanders the labor of two Latina sweatshop workers, telling them to clean the lab. The show emerges from a world, in other words, where men—not always but in this case white men—are used to commanding disposable raced and gendered migrant labor. Or in the words of “Negro y Azul, “Now New Mexico’s living up to its name/Looks just like Mexico/In all the drugs it’s hiding/Except there is a gringo boss/And he’s known as Heisenberg.” The show’s New Mexican setting resembles Mexico not only because of drugs but also because of the presence of low-wage migrant workers, and we can read the “browning” of Walter White as a character-based representation of how Anglo America incorporates such workers by consuming their labor.
The setting for Breaking Bad has long been a site of colonial labor relations and forms of unfree labor, including debt peonage and enslavement for Latinos and Indians during the 18th an 19th centuries. In Drug Wars I argue that an earlier New Mexican “drug war” in the 1930s, when the state cracked down on marijuana, constituted a mode of labor control by other means which targeted striking or unionizing workers of color in mining and agriculture. I further show how the emergence of the famed modernist art colonies associated with Santa Fe and Taos in effect depended on the policing and exploitation of racialized low wage labor, and how their art works tended to reproduce images of docile workers of color. While it is embedded in a very different context, Breaking Bad can nonetheless be situated in relationship to that history. If we think of drug making and dealing as jobs, then to date Walter has not yet found a Latino worker he can’t dominate and dispose of, from Krazy 8, to Tuco, to Gustavo Fring. Similarly, the producers of the show have themselves employed a remarkable array of talented Latino actors including not only Cruz, Esposito, and Bauer, but also Javier Gajeda and Danny Trejo—all of whom have been killed off.
What is more, in its mode of production, Breaking Bad benefits from contexts of racialized low wage labor. One of the poorest states in the union, New Mexico has in recent years instituted various incentives to attract capital investment, including from Hollywood filmmakers and TV producers. In an effort to compete with runaway film locations outside the U.S., New Mexico offers filmmakers substantial tax rebates. While the aim of such incentives is to generate jobs, many of them will of course be low wage jobs, and low labor costs remain a major attraction of New Mexico for investors. As a strategy of development, New Mexican film incentives have recalled recent contexts where poor countries of the global south could only attract IMF and World Bank loans if they made cuts in tax-supported social spending. More recently, New Mexico has passed the “Breaking Bad” bill that increases tax rebates so the state can better compete with other U.S. states in the context of contemporary austerity measures. By all accounts the cast and crew of Breaking Bad have been good guests in New Mexico, hiring local talent and even donating costumes to a local homeless shelter, but individual acts of charity do not change the structural fact that racialized low wage labor is a significant part of the appeal to Hollywood.
Which is also to say that Breaking Bad indirectly represents contemporary forms of what Cedric J Robinson has theorized as racial capitalism. In his groundbreaking study Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (University of California Press, 1983), Robinson demonstrated how the construction of Black people as racial inferiors was not incidental but integral to the historical development of capitalism. Simply put, capitalism has been wedded to white supremacy, and anti-black racism has helped make capitalist exploitation seem not only necessary but also right. Robinson subsequently developed this theory in his book, Forgeries of Memory and Meaning: Blacks and the Regimes of Race in the American Theater and Film Before World War II (University of North Carolina Press, 2007), where he argues that racial representations in classic Hollywood cinema constituted a kind of popular pedagogy of Black inferiority which served to reinforce racial capitalism. To paraphrase Robinson for the present context, we might say that the U.S. Southwest is dominated by a contemporary kind of borderland capitalism based on the incorporation of low wage Latino workers defined as disposable, both structurally and in cultural representations like Breaking Bad.
Curtis Marez is associate professor and chair, Department of Ethnic Studies, University of California, San Diego. He is also president of the American Studies Association.