Alyssa Rosenberg has a great post up arguing that Breaking Bad might well be a conservative show. E.D. Kain speculates that this relates to something fundamental about crime dramas buying into the status quo.
The key reference point, which Alyssa brings up, is The Wire: a show with a very clear focus on sociology that embodied the worldview of a pair of policy liberals opposed to the war on drugs, David Simon and Ed Burns. The Wire‘s thematic consistency made its politics quite clear, even as the show didn’t shy away from acknowledging the complexities of its stance.
The wide view and HBO funding of The Wire, however, made for a show that operated on a far different scale than Breaking Bad. Given its small cast and intense focus, what Breaking Bad has to say about broader drug policy is perhaps more limited. Looking too deeply at the implications of its DEA characters and the dramas it chooses and chooses not to depict may provide a reading of the show that isn’t there. But granting that we shouldn’t assume Breaking Bad is simply falling down on the job, and that its fewer specific details may still merit careful attention, I think there’s another significant aspect that shouldn’t go missing: Breaking Bad takes place in New Mexico, not Baltimore.
Even someone entirely opposed to the War on Drugs has to acknowledge that in the short-term issues of enforcement, police power, and the drug trade are very different when in close proximity to a burgeoning, violent conflict like Mexico’s current drug insurgency. The “war on drugs” in Baltimore really does look like an obscene framing of institutionalized social injustice, but it’s a fair and legitimate description of the situation in many of Mexico’s northern provinces.
Another key difference is that Baltimore drug gangs on The Wire aren’t making any attempt to establish total dominion over their territory, nor are they seeking to seriously change the established order. (First season spoilers ahead.) The drug dealers and the lesser soldiers are acutely aware of the police being a force to be accommodated rather than something to challenge. After all, when Kima takes some shots in the line of duty in Season 1, Avon and Stringer move immediately to eliminate the shooter and then send his accomplice into hiding. They don’t decapitate people to send a message that they can act with impunity to the law, and the fifth season doesn’t see the Baltimore Sun besieged and its reporters killed. All of the drug gang violence intended to send a message is directed to others “in the game,” most prominently the display of Brandon’s corpse to warn off Omar.
In Breaking Bad, the cartels are openly targeting law enforcement. That should and does change what the audience must factor in to its evaluation of the characters. There’s every reason to believe that the basic critiques of the war on drugs and the way it causes systemic, violence has as much responsibility for violence in northern Mexico and the American border as it does in the streets of Baltimore. But in the short term, the DEA not only represents the blunt hammer of police power but is also part of a group of actors trying to maintain basic state sovereignty over a long stretch of territory. That may be a case that Breaking Bad needs to articulate more carefully, but it’s (I believe) an admirable goal, and in the context the DEA characters are likely to come off sympathetically.
For all that, I think Alyssa is right that Breaking Bad has some very conservative elements, and it’s a richer show as a result. But it’s important to remember that the show’s creators may not be blind to the implications of their chosen setting, any more than Burns and Simon were of theirs.