The great White west: Breaking Bad as Western

Breaking Bad is a kind of contemporary western. In various ways. Of course there’s the New Mexico landscape. Breaking Bad uses that landscape cinematographically to romance the story. The romance of the western. Great open spaces. Freedom. Lots of heat and danger, risk.

If you’d wondered ‘why all those car ads?’ especially in the finale but also lots of them throughout the series, consider this. Cowboys got their hosses. Cars, in Breaking Bad, do all the work of hosses in westerns. That’s why the car advertisers eat it up. For instance, when Walt’s black Chrysler SRT8 takes a bullet in “Ozymandias”, he doesn’t just lose a car. He’s on the way down after that. That black car symbolized the power of the evil drug kingpin he had become.

But there are other more interesting elements of the western in Breaking Bad. Westerns give their heroes and villains special powers. Sort of like super heroes but not quite. Sort of like the powers of fighters in kung fu movies who fly and so on. But not quite. Western heroes can kill a lot of bad guys in a shootout and/or they have great marksmanship or they are as tough as a grizzly bear or whatever.

Walter White can kill everyone with science, cleverness, and lots of guts. Gus Fring kills all of Don Eladio’s henchmen with a bottle of booze and a lot of guts. Walt blows up Tuco’s lair with fulminated mercury and a lot of guts. These are all improbable events. But the improbability is masked with science, realism, and good storytelling. We *want* Gus to win against overwhelming odds when he kills Don Eladio and all. We suspend our disbelief cuz we want exactly that outcome.

Emily Nussbaum, in the New Yorker, objects to the improbability in the finale (spoiler alert) of Uncle Jack giving a damn that Walt says Jack is partners with Jesse. Very true. It does seem out of character. But we also want him to go get Jesse. Our objection to the improbability and out of characterness of his action is mollified by our desire to get Jesse involved in the finale.

Westerns are rarely strictly realistic. BB also is sort of like a comic book at times.

Like in “Face Off” when Gus gets killed. He walks out of the room that has just exploded like nothing happened, straightens his tie–and then we see half his face has been blown off. He looks like something out of a comic book or a slasher movie, at that point. Then he falls down and dies. The unrealistic nature of it jars a little bit with Breaking Bad’s realism, but our objection is offset by the frisson of the emergence of the death head and devil from the villainous Gus Fring. He is suddenly what he is. He has hidden in plain sight for so long.

Suspension of disbelief is all about suspending our disbelief cuz we want to. Not cuz we’re asked to.

2 Responses to “The great White west: Breaking Bad as Western”

  • Fascinating, Jim : oh dear, I may have to watch some of the series. My fave “westerns” are of the spaghetti variety, where realism is never on the table. Then there are those (Tarantino and his clones) who take the cartoonish to silly extremes, which for me is just flat out boring and tedious.

  • Yes, same here about the spaghetti variety. My dad liked his ‘dusters’, his westerns. The Good, The Bad and the Ugly was one of the few I liked as a kid. And, yes, I agree also about the gooey extremes of many Tarantino films, although I loved Pulp Fiction.

    I’ve been musing about ‘special powers’ in fiction the last day or so. Why give fictional characters special powers? From super heroes to anti heroes, they usually can do things that either are more or less impossible or highly improbable.

    The simple answer is “That’s what makes them heroes or villains. Heroes do heroic things; heroic things are things that most people can’t do; heroes need special powers to do them.”

    But that’s a dumb or at least incomplete notion of heroism. The special power of real heroes is mostly loyalty, conviction, an understanding of justice, perseverance, bravery, wisdom, forbearance and the like. Not simply special worldly powers. Wise use of what power they have.

    And that sort of understanding of heroism is almost always present but the mental conflicts are given physical, visible manifestation and exaggeration via battles between heroes with special powers and villains who also have special powers. The special powers are usually metaphorical of the inner powers.

    So special powers make telling a story easier. Special worldly powers are easier to understand and show than inner powers. They amplify and exaggerate just like the levels of goodness and villainy are usually amplified and exaggerated in drama. They make telling a story simpler and they’re meant to amplify the level of drama, entertainment, and excitement.

    Often these issues are dealt with in a very ham-handed way. But other artists think very deeply on the special powers they give their characters. Breaking Bad is pretty interesting in that regard, often. For the most part, it’s ‘realistic’. But when Walt becomes Heisenberg, we enter a subtly different world.

    If you’re going to watch some of it, Gregory, I strongly recommend watching the first episode first. There are several that are as good or better than that first episode, but it’s certainly one of the best.