Breaking Bad seems to be trying obnoxiously hard. By that I don’t mean that it strives for relevance or for aesthetic bona fides, though there’s certainly a big dollop of that of that in its we’re-serious-because-we’ve-got-cancer-and-also-meth plotting. But what’s most striking about the writing isn’t the angst or the realism. It’s the events. Our hero, high school science teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) has barely been diagnosed with cancer before he decides to become a meth cook, and he’s barely cooked his first batch before his life is threatened by thugs, and then, hey! he’s killed his first man. This is all within two episodes — as far in the series as I’ve gotten.
None of which is especially improbable for television. But that’s just saying that it’s really extraordinarily improbable. The drug industry is very violent, but if everyone who ever got involved in the industry killed someone in their first day on the job, you wouldn’t have a drug industry, because everyone in the industry and probably in the country would be dead I’m certain meth addicts and providers off each other, but surely they usually take a week or so, at least, between violent murders.
Which is to say that while Breaking Bad makes some gestures at gritty realism, it remains a genre television series. As such, it’s driven by the demands of drama; something has to happen. Guns, car chases, sex, dead bodies, lots of messy blood — you get them all and get them often, because that’s what the audience wants. There wouldn’t be much point in watching a show where a high school scientist just quietly started selling meth out of a trailer, made a lot of money, and then socked it away for his kid’s college fund, right?
There’s a very similar dynamic on the very similarly-themed show Weeds. Like Breaking Bad, Weeds is a story about an everyday middle-class parent (in this case Nancy (Mary-Louise Parker) who experiences a personal tragedy (in this case the death of her husband) and so turns to selling drugs (in this case marijuana.) Weeds is played more as comedy than tragedy…but it, too, is tied to the remorseless genre requirements of having something happen. Nancy is constantly being robbed and shot at when she isn’t having sex with a series of more or less unlikely partners, her travails ever-escalating until the end of the third season when she actually burns down her entire town in a fiery apocalypse.
In the fourth season, Nancy’s family heads to the Mexican border, where she hooks up (in various senses) with drug runners. Said drug runners use Nancy as a front; she is given ownership of a store selling maternity clothes. The store has a tunnel going under the border, allowing the Mexican gangs to transport drugs into the U.S. In theory, this should be a dream come true for Nancy; she is being paid a ton of money, isn’t endangering her life, and can actually spend time with her family. She works nine to five, and then can go home to her kids.
Instead of being pleased, though, Nancy is bored — which doesn’t make a ton of sense for the character as we’ve come to know her, but does make a lot of sense in terms of genre conventions. It’s not Nancy who can’t stand the day to day tedium of not getting shot at; it’s the viewers. If the story is to go on, Nancy needs to do something other than sell maternity clothes…and so, sure enough, she (for our benefit) starts poking her nose where it doesn’t belong. Thus she is confronted with a Moral Dilemma. In the last episode I was able to make myself watch, Nancy sees a young woman come through the tunnel, and figures out that the maternity store is being used as a front not just for drugs but for (gasp!) trafficking.
Sex trafficking is here deployed in a wearisomely cynical fashion. Neither the show, nor Nancy, nor the viewers actually care about the woman who we see supposedly being trafficked. She’s just there there to be young and pretty and victimized; a totem of how far Nancy has sunk. There’s never a question of whether or not she wants to be crossing the border, for example — of where she’s coming from, or where she’s going to. Nobody asks her, nobody gives a shit. She’s not a person — just an excuse for moral panic that can move the narrative along.
This dovetails in depressing ways with how sex trafficking is actaully used in political discourse. As Laura Agustin, who researches migration and sex work, argues, sex trafficking as it is usually portrayed in the media barely exists. Most women (or men) who cross a border and are paid for sex aren’t victims of kidnapping, and while they would certainly benefit from more sympathetic immigration policies and a whole host of services, they don’t necessarily need or want “rescuing”. At the very least, they need people to listen to their stories of themselves, rather than jamming them into somebody else’s simplistic genre narrative of villainy, moral commitment, and heroic salvation.
It’s hard to get away from simplistic genre narrative though. As Breaking Bad and Weeds both know, no one wants to sit down for an evening and watch paint dry. Entertainment is supposed to be entertaining; narratives are supposed to be filled with event. We don’t love violence qua violence, necessarily, but we seem to have a hardwired ineradicable bias in favor of having something — anything! — happen. I think that rage for sequence has a lot to do with (as one example) our inability to turn the drug war off. Kill the bad guys, save the babies, experience moral ambiguity, tune in next week. Nancy and Walt and the viewer turn off their own lives and take a walk on the wild side where, we all like to imagine, stuff happens. Narrative is its own addiction. Who wouldn’t, like Walter and Nancy, give themselves over to its rush?