When Waltz meets Walt: The international relations theories in Breaking Bad (2008)

ImageA recipient of countless awards and accolades, including the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series last year, Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad is regarded as one of the most remarkable drama series ever made in modern television history. The protagonist of the story is Walter White (exceptionally portrayed by seasoned actor Bryan Cranston), a struggling high school chemistry teacher who was diagnosed of advanced-stage lung cancer. In order to secure his family’s financial stability before the inevitable would come, he ventured the industry of manufacturing and peddling methamphetamine (meth) along with his former student Jesse Pinkman (played by the equally talented Aaron Paul). From the main characters of the series, we cannot only see a picturesque depiction of tragedies and triumphs, but also predominant views in the field of international relations.

Warning: The text below contains spoilers.

The Waltzian realist that is Walter White

Just like a realist State which considers survival as its principal goal, Walt thinks that it is his responsibility to ensure the well-being and financial security of his family. This is why after Walt found out that he suffers from a chronic lung disease, he teamed up with Jesse to cook and sell meth. While thinking of his family’s security, Walt also employs all means to secure his place in the meth trade. Over the seasons Walt would later be popularly known in the empire as Heisenberg who produces blue meth, regarded as the purest of its kind. Since the notorious world of drug dealing is virtually anarchic and no codified rules are in place to regulate the operations, Walt puts himself in a situation where external threats are imminent and use of force is deemed a legitimate way for settling disputes. As threats became manifest, Walt maximized his security to the point that he killed Krazy-8 Molina to protect his family, and eventually Gustavo Fring’s cohorts to protect Jesse.

The drug industry, just like world politics, is a struggle for power. Walt further solidified his power and influence by working with drug kingpin Gus Fring. At first, we see that Walt exhibits the characteristics of a rising hegemon thanks to Gus’ connections and access to wide range of resources. But in the end Walt emerged as the new hegemon in meth trade, eliminating Gus in the process. Walt behaves in the same way a rational State–actor would be expected to behave: advance material interests necessary for self-preservation, augment power capabilities if threatened, and strengthen hegemony and rule.

The constructivist that is Jesse Pinkman

Unlike realism which regards the international as an anarchic realm and a place where threats of war loom, constructivists argue that this cannot always be true. For constructivists, state systems and international institutions have certain meanings; they are not objective facts. If we are to understand State behavior or construe these meanings, we have to consider the social context: its norms, values, ideas, history, and beliefs. While Walt aims to infiltrate the complex system of doing meth trade with influential drug lords, Jesse offers an alternative way which he believes will still yield them more money. Jesse claims they are better off in cooking meth inside a recreational vehicle and peddling it to loyal patrons with the help of his trusted friends Badger and Skinny Pete, but Walt thinks he is running out of time so he has to ally with the powerful in order to maximize profit. Jesse is reluctant in supporting Walt’s proposal as it could lead them to danger and cost them innocent lives. It appears to be overwhelming to Jesse as he is not at all used to the intricacies of dealing with such prominent names in drug industry. He does not aspire to become a hegemonic meth lord, yet later he would succumb to the idea of becoming one. Even so, it is clear that all he wanted is his share of the profit and, if circumstances would allow, to walk out from a chaotic world that is named drug trade.

The liberalist that is Hank Schrader

As a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent, Hank Schrader personifies the values of justice, order, and liberty – the same values a liberalist seeks to project. Liberalism is known for its commitment to freedom in the economic and social sphere, and emphasis on norms and rules for governance. Liberalists posit that institutions such as these can shape the characteristics of States in their international relations. Utterly serious in implementing the law, Hank is committed in pursuing Jesse who he reckons is the culprit behind the proliferation of drug dealing in Albuquerque. Hank wants to thwart the expansion of meth trade not only because he is bound by duty to do so but also he views it as a rogue industry which can instigate disorder and instability in the city.

The feminist that is Skyler White

The prevalence of male worldview and patriarchy in world politics are few among the key points of the feminist theory in international relations. The feminist theory emphasizes gender relations as a variable of interest in explaining State behavior. Throughout the series, one can notice that no woman holds a notable position in the Albuquerque drug trade. The one we got closest into is Skyler White, wife of the esteemed Heisenberg. Skyler’s behavior is shaped by Walter’s actions as shown by how she compromised her values to keep her husband safe from potential arrest. While doing so, Skyler is torn between her duty as a mother who wants to keep her family intact and her duty as a citizen who does not intend to challenge the laws of her land.

From these analyses, we can see that Breaking Bad is more than a story of how the characters broke bad in their own ways. In conclusion, let me reiterate the words of a political science scholar to whom I share the same thought: “Breaking Bad is as much about inter-state relations as it is the people at the heart of world politics.”

 

*This article was published at ‘A Different View’, the official online blog of the International Association for Political Science Students (IAPSS), on 11 May 2014. To read the articles written by my colleagues, click this link: http://iapss.org/index.php/articles 

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