Mad Max: Fury Road – A Feminist Film for Right Here and Now

Every once in a while a film comes out that really touches a nerve. When Avatar came out in December of 2009, the heads of conservative pundits collectively exploded while they denounced the film’s various progressive themes. Those efforts were in vein as Avatar clearly struck a chord with the masses, and it went on to become the highest grossing film ever. It was the right film at the right time.

While it probably won’t end up making $2.7 billion at the box office, Mad Max: Fury Road also seems to have touched a nerve. George Miller’s new film appears to be a piece of art having a profound political impact on society, igniting a fierce debate about women’s equality. Like Avatar before it, perhaps Fury Road is the perfect film for this moment.

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Prior to Fury Road‘s release, “men’s rights” activist (or MRA) Aaron Clarey published a blog post on the website Return of Kings warning men not to be “duped” by the film which appears to be a “straight-up guy flick” but might actually be a “Trojan horse” designed to “force a lecture on feminism down your throat.” This post went viral on the internet and the topic was picked up by many mainstream news outlets. Since then, Mad Max: Fury Road has become almost impossible to see without considering the political subtext in some way. 

Mad Max: Fury Road is the fourth Mad Max film George Miller has made, and the first since 1985′s Beyond Thunderdome. Fury Road is not exactly a direct continuation of the original series, nor is it quite a re-boot. Perhaps it could be called a “re-imagining” of the franchise, or simply a new stand-alone episode in Max’s life. But whatever it is, Fury Road is an immensely visceral and entertaining piece of cinema. However, while on the surface it appears to be a simple film, one that functions perfectly well as a straight forward action adventure, upon closer examination a very sophisticated piece of work is revealed. In fact, part of what makes it so entertaining, and so powerful, is that its momentum organically flows from a high-level understanding of the political terms involved in the struggle for women’s equality.

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Fury Road begins with Max alone in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Australia, surviving on his own, searching for a “righteous cause,” as the opening narration states, after failing to protect his family during the collapse of society. The film jumps straight into the action, and he’s quickly captured by scavengers belonging to a society ruled by a man known as Immortan Joe, a warlord who has established a patriarchal dictatorship centered around a worship of cars and the glorification death in combat. Immortan Joe hoards resources and puts a strict limit on how much food and water is distributed to the general population. It’s a cult-like society defined by masculine violence and the repression of women. With sickness and death rampant, Immortan Joe is trying to produce an heir to continue on after him, and so he keeps sex slaves who function as “breeders” imprisoned, separated from the rest of society.

By chance, at nearly the same moment Max is brought into the Citadel, a woman named Furiosa begins to carry out a plot to rescue Immortan Joe’s “Wives” by smuggling the five of them out under the false pretense of an assignment to acquire gas from a nearby town. Once Furiosa’s true intentions become apparent, a wild chase begins, which Max is forced into against his will. What unfolds is one of the most breathtaking and visually amazing action films in recent memory, in part because it’s so unlike most modern blockbusters. While films like The Avengers: Age of Ultron or The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 are basically soulless products of a corporate assembly line, Mad Max: Fury Road is obviously the result of a singular artistic vision. But as visually amazing as this film is, George Miller clearly had something more than simply creating an awesome thrill ride in mind.

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It’s a film about a world in which women have been stripped of their agency by a warlord who champions macho violence, and uses religion as a tool of manipulation. The Citadel’s women appear to be kept mostly out of sight. They are used as incubators to produce more “war boys” and literally milked like cattle for the benefit of the elites. And even Furiosa, who appears to have some level of rank and authority, was originally brought into Immortan Joe’s society as a result of post-apocalyptic human trafficking.

Misogynists like Aaron Clarey fantasize about a world like this becoming reality and claim that women being forced into servitude and becoming nothing more than objects who need the benevolent protection of men to survive is the “natural order” of biology. George Miller’s film seems designed explicitly as a polemic against this idea, and it makes its case in a radical way.

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While the first act of Fury Road reveals the horror of a reactionary’s fantasy world, the rest of the film is carefully crafted to show just how unnatural and fundamentally unjust that kind of society is. The film is loaded with nuance that undermines misogynistic ideology. For example, the kick-ass female lead character played by Charlize Theron is something idiotic men’s rights crybabies have bemoaned as “unrealistic,” but, in all honesty, there’s nothing new about a film with a strong female lead. But what is progressive here is the way that Miller refuses to sexualize Furiosa. Theron isn’t rehashing her Aeon Flux role here, she’s playing someone who is every bit as grounded in reality as Max, someone who is simply a strong human being who happens to be female, not a male-fantasy action vixen in skin tight leather.

In addition to having a strong female lead, Fury Road makes a point to emphasize things that are supposedly evidence of women’s weakness, and it turns those things into strengths. The Wives turn their pregnancy into a weapon, using their bodies as shields to protect Max and Furiosa. Later in the film the group is joined by a band of elderly female warriors. In the end, they form a cohesive team of pregnant, elderly, and disabled women, supposedly the weakest and most vulnerable members of society, yet they prove to be a force to be reckoned with. Max stands along side them side by side as an ally, and an equal.

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Also, in a powerful symbolic statement Miller underscores the importance of women in society. “Mother’s milk” is one of the only viable forms of nutrition in the wasteland. In a world of insane masculine violence, women become a life sustaining antidote to the madness. Their emancipation is the righteous cause Max was searching for, and together both sexes stand against a system of patriarchal oppression.

But even while Fury Road has an obvious feminist theme, acknowledged by both reactionaries and progressives, there are also people on both sides of that ideological divide who want to downplay or flat out deny the the film’s feminism. There is one moment in the film that is frequently pointed to as evidence that the film isn’t as feminist as it may appear. After the first major chase sequence, Furiosa’s rig is stopped in the middle of the desert. Max, who had been thrown from a vehicle, wakes up and stumbles over to the rig. As he walks around the large tanker truck, all five of the Wives are revealed on screen for the first time, bathing from a hose attached to the rig.

At first glance it might appear that Miller is guilty of objectifying the women on screen, sexualizing the moment, but upon further reflection this isn’t the case at all. These are women who have just escaped from sex slavery and spent a couple hours stowed away in a sweltering metal truck. They are still wearing the skimpy outfits they had on at the time of their rescue. Should Furiosa have packed them a change of clothes before sneaking them out of Immortan Joe’s compound? And what exactly are these women doing at that moment out there in the desert? They’re using bolt cutters to free each other from the chastity belts they’ve been forced to wear, which are then kicked angrily into the dirt. Plus, the first moment Max sees what’s going on, everyone freezes and time seems to stand still for a few seconds. It’s a split second of humor in a film that hardly gives you a second to breathe.

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Miller seems to have orchestrated this moment as if to deliberately mock the kind of exploitative film he didn’t make. In a lesser film, the camera would have lingered on the beautiful bodies on display, but Miller quickly subverts expectations by turning it into a fight scene, and there’s nothing very sexy about it. So, the moment that is frequently sited as proof of the film’s non-feminism is actually a scene where emancipated sex slaves are literally removing the chains of their bondage, and fighting to maintain their new-found freedom. 

Mad Max: Fury Road has a bold, clear aesthetic and an obvious style that distinguishes it from most major blockbuster films of this era. It takes artistic risks. There are times when the film is sped up, paying homage to the look of the original Mad Max series, and Miller also uses a couple long slow-motion shots. The characters fully inhabit this post-apocalyptic world, thanks mainly to Miller’s savvy direction. People speak in a dialect that is just the right balance between understandable and realistically detached from modern speech. Charlize Theron in particular steals the show as Furiosa, and her performance is likely what will be most remembered about this film. Tom Hardy gets the job done as Mel Gibson’s replacement, though the few times he has to speak come off as a bit unnatural, perhaps intentionally. All the supporting roles are filled out nicely. Nicholas Hoult is memorable as the deceptively well-developed character Nux, and all of the women who play the Wives and the Mothers add interesting individual flare to characters that could have been generic in the wrong hands.

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Of course Mad Max: Fury Road is an action film, and the majority of the film is an extended chase sequence without much exposition. It could almost function as a silent film since the narrative is propelled primarily by the action rather than dialogue. 2013′s Gravity was similar in this way, and director Alfonso Cuarón actually thought about doing that project as a silent film. But Fury Road is perhaps better compared to another 2013 film, Snowpiercer. It is also a thrilling action film populated by characters pursuing a simple objective, and like Fury Road its narrative is defined by a sense of forward momentum. But Bong Joon Ho’s film also functioned as a highly sophisticated microcosm of revolutionary theory and could practically be used as a guide on how to overthrow a system of oppression. Indeed, BuzzFeed contributor Laurie Penny similarly describes Fury Road as “a feminist playbook for surviving dystopia,” and she’s right on the money.

The chase in Fury Road makes for very entertaining cinema, but the film’s central conflict is also symbolic of something much greater. It’s the struggle for what kind of future we want to have; one where women are the possessions of men, objectified, defined by their sexuality, and used as incubators, or a future where women are fully equal human beings with free agency to determine the course of their own lives. That is really what the women of Fury Road are fighting for, along with their male allies, and the action takes on a sense of urgency because the stakes are so critically important, both in the fictional post-apocalyptic future, as well as right here and now. That is why the Aaron Clareys of the world are so thoroughly threatened by this film, because what could be scarier to misogynists than a world where women not only refuse to meekly accept their cages, but where they are strong enough to dictate their futures on their own terms?

We live during a time in which the powerful would like the oppressed classes of the world to believe that the battle is over and that they have achieved victory. They point to Obama in the White House or female CEOs in the business world as proof that things have changed. But these are illusions that belie the continued brutality and discrimination women face because the system that perpetuates inequality and oppression is still in place, and the desperate struggle to achieve genuine equality is still ongoing.

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This is why films like Avatar and Mad Max: Fury Road are able to provoke such vile reactions from those who benefit from the oppression of others. These are films about the destruction of their reactionary ideology after the oppressed dare to stand up and say, “no more!” This message strikes a chord with society because the struggle is right now. Both Avatar and Fury Road feature a man and a women standing together as equals to resist oppression. The battles fought by Jake Sully and Neytiri and by Max and Furiosa reflect the very real battles being waged on the streets around the world right now, because they recognize not only the need not only to escape oppression, but but also the importance of defeating the system that perpetuates it. Films like Mad Max: Fury Road should be celebrated for infusing the complicated terms of radical struggle into their stories in such an easily accessible way, allowing them to resonate so profoundly with the masses through the power of pure entertainment.

[EDIT] Soon after publishing this piece I realized that I left out something very important I had planned on saying. Sometimes I get too close to my writing and forget to take a step back to make sure all the proper bases are covered, so I hope to correct that here, below.

There are people out there who have seen this film and think it’s awesome, but deny that it’s feminist. They want to enjoy the action without acknowledging that the film is putting forward an ideology they can’t stand, and so they make excuses and rationalize things. They say that it’s “just” an action film and that any feminism is a mostly accidental byproduct. Well, unfortunately for those people, that simply isn’t the case.

George Miller knew he was making a film with heavy feminist themes, and he wanted to make sure he got it right. So, to help him through the project he called in Eve Ensler, the feminist playwright and activist, to be a consultant on set. Miller wanted Ensler to speak to the cast and crew about the violence women continue to face around the world, especially in war zones. A Time Magazine interview with Ensler can be read here.

Miller also wanted the film to have a feminine touch in post production, and so he asked his wife Margaret Sixel to edit the film, even though she had never worked on an action film, or a film as large in scope. When asked why, Miller said, “Because if a guy did it, it would look like every other action movie.” Clearly he was after something different than the standard action film, and it’s fair to say that was achieved. An article about Sixel’s experience on Fury Road can be read here.

Twerking for the Man: Fallout from the 2013 VMAs

During this year’s wild Video Music Awards on MTV, there was a brief interlude about a third of the way through the broadcast where comedian Kevin Hart talked about the show’s performances up to that point. His main contribution to the show was his surprise that Lady Gaga had such a big ass. He commented that he had been checking it out during Gaga’s show opening performance, which featured the performer going through multiple costume changes on stage, ultimately ending up in just a tiny thong and a seashell bra. As if that weren’t bad enough, Hart then went on to discuss the most controversial performance of the night: Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke’s rendition of Blurred Lines.

Though he was going for humorous effect, Hart stumbled onto a serious element of truth with his analysis of the duet. He said that Miley should probably get a pregnancy test after grinding on Thicke during the performance, and that other young girls should stay away from Thicke unless they want to end up on an Amber Alert. Given what had just transpired on stage, let alone the fact that women are still kidnapped, raped, and killed by men at a horrific rate, it definitely wasn’t funny.

But even though Hart’s critique of the performance was crude and inappropriate, at least he found the right target, Robin Thicke, unlike the mainstream media and social media universe. Following Cyrus’ performance, in which she brought “twerking” fully into the mainstream, Twitter exploded into a frenzy, setting a record for the most tweets per minute on a given subject at over 300,000, which is even more than the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, most of the Tweets and Facebook posts, as well as the reaction from the mainstream media focused almost exclusively on Cyrus. There was lots of “What was Miley thinking?” and “Should your daughter be watching Miley Cyrus?”, plus all sorts of extremely derogatory name-calling through social media.

Granted, while it is unfortunate that Miley Cyrus bought into this performance and allowed herself to be brought down to such a low level, the truly awful aspect of it was the way it illuminated the double standard women face under this system. Almost none of the negative reaction went toward Robin Thicke and the performance of his extremely misogynistic song “Blurred Lines,” a song that is all about pressuring women into sex. The chorus “you know you want it” (which is often the last thing a woman hears before she gets raped) repeats over and over. The song’s music video features topless women prancing around for men’s amusement, and during the VMAs Miley Cyrus essentially played that role. She stripped down into a skimpy two-piece outfit and twerked and grinded in front of Thicke.

It’s extremely telling that in our society a man can sing a song with lyrics that compare women to dogs and promotes a misinterpretation of “liberation” in order to pressure women into giving over their bodies for a man’s pleasure, and then when a woman actually does exactly what the man wants, strips down and dances and grinds for his pleasure, she’s instantly labeled a “bitch” or a “slut” or a “whore.” Meanwhile, the man who pressures women into a subservient, objectified role and benefits from the kind of behavior that Cyrus demonstrated doesn’t get criticized at all. It’s the male privilege under this system to exploit women sexually and skate away clean, while women must endure and defend themselves against the backlash that results from daring to be openly sexual. The Cyrus/Thicke performance has perfectly demonstrated the double-standard women face on a daily basis.

Again, it’s unfortunate that Cyrus participated in a performance that reduced her to nothing more than a sex object for a man’s pleasure, but to be clear, the villain here is the patriarchal system of male privilege that allows men to encourage the objectification and the exploitation of women, and then turns around and viciously attacks women who actually conform to those demands. “Don’t be such a prude,” followed by, “You’re such a filthy slut!” Under this system women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Miley Cyrus was damned because she did, taking all the backlash that should have been aimed at Robin Thicke.

However, while the 2013 VMAs will forever bare the black-eye of the Cyrus/Thicke performance which was controversial for all the wrong reasons, there were some positive moments from the broadcast.

Justin Timberlake cemented his status as the coolest human being alive with an epic greatest hits performance that featured a brief reunion with his boy-band N*Sync. Taylor Swift’s fantastic video for “I Knew You Were Trouble” won the award for Best Female Video, and Jason Collins, the first active athlete in a team sport to come out as gay, introduced a great performance of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s song “Same Love” which puts forward a powerful pro-gay message. And the show ended on a strong note with Katy Perry performing her hit “Roar” for the very first time.

It’s interesting to contrast Miley’s performance with Katy Perry’s. Cyrus is a huge star in her own right. She developed a massive following while performing as Disney’s Hannah Montana, and she successfully transitioned into a career under her own name. She is one of the wealthiest young people in the world with a media empire dwarfing that of her father’s, country singer Billy Ray Cyrus. And yet, all that wealth, power, and industry clout was meaningless on stage during the VMAs. Instead of taking her career to even new heights and solidifying herself as a powerful female mega-star, she took a back seat to the up and coming misogynist Robin Thicke. It was a degrading performance that in one stroke showed how good it is to be a man under this system, and how difficult and complicated it is to be a women.

Perry’s performance on the other hand was much closer to what Miley’s should have been. She was sexy without objectifying herself, dressed up as a boxer, and in an extremely well choreographed performance lit up the night under the Brooklyn Bridge with a display of raw female athleticism, power, and talent. She didn’t take a back seat to any man or play the part of the slut, she sang a good pop song on her own terms and ended a controversial award show on a generally positive note.

“The Empire Business”: Breaking Bad, Capitalism, and the Family

“Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” – Edward Abbey

 

Last year on AMC’s Breaking Bad, during episode 506: “Buyout,” Walter White has a conversation with his partner in crime, Jesse Pinkman. Jesse is trying to convince Walt to retire from their illegal meth operation. They have an offer on the table to sell their supply of methylamine to a rival organization for $5-million each. It’s more money than either of them ever imagined they’d make when they began, and more than enough to comfortably set them up for life. Walt rejects Jesse’s plea to take the deal and drop out of the business by telling a story about his past, the content of which spells out Walt’s true motivation and illuminates the thesis of the show.

He explains that back in grad-school he co-founded a company with two friends, Gray Matter. Walt even came up with the name, but he took a buyout before it became profitable because of an affair with one of the other co-founders. The amount he took: $5,000. He tells Jesse that today the company is worth billions and that he looks up its value every week, knowing that he could have been immensely wealthy had he not sold his stake in the business. Walt scoffs at the measly $5-million buyout Jesse is advocating. “I’m in the empire business,” he proclaims.

Though it may have taken five seasons for Walt to clearly and honestly express his motivation to another character, the audience should have already had a pretty good idea of what motivates him. It’s amazing how many seeds of who Walter White would later become were planted in the very first episode.

At the beginning of the series, Walter White is an overqualified, middle-aged high school chemistry teacher. He has a teenage son with cerebral palsy, Walter Jr., and is in a relatively stable marriage with Skyler, who is pregnant with an unplanned baby. They live in a modest house, but are having trouble making ends meet. Their rusting water heater leaks and turns their water brown, Skyler lectures Walt about using the wrong credit card at Staples, the glove box in his car is broken and won’t stay shut, and in order to make some extra cash he works a part-time job at a car wash after school. Though hired to work the register, his boss forces him to wash cars outside, where he’s humiliated by one of his students (who drives a much more expensive car than Walt does). At home his sex life appears to be passionless; Skyler seems more involved in selling their household items on Ebay than sharing an intimate moment in the bedroom, and Walt has trouble getting “inspired” anyway. To make matters worse, Walt has a loudmouth, alpha-male brother-in-law, Hank, who has a flashy job as a DEA agent, which is infinitely more impressive to Walt Jr. than his gig as a chemistry teacher.

Right away, we can see that Walter is a 50 year old man whose life didn’t turn out how he envisioned. He feels beaten down, stretched thin, passed over, cheated, emasculated, exploited, unfulfilled, and even his great talent, chemistry, falls on the deaf ears of his students who couldn’t care less. And then the cancer hits.

But even before his diagnosis he felt like a failure, unable to adequately provide for his family, or, more specifically, to fulfill the role expected of a man in this society. Learning that his life will be unexpectedly cut short, coupled with the knowledge that he’s going to leave his family bankrupt, is the final slap in the face, the last humiliating insult life can dish out.

When Walt partners up with Jesse, one of his former students, to make meth, his stated motivation is his family. He says that before he dies he wants to be able to take care of his loved ones. Practical things, mostly. He wants Skyler to be able to pay off the mortgage, to cover college educations for his children, and medical bills for the whole family. At one point early on he even calculates an exact figure of how much money he needs to make in order to provide the essentials for his family over the next 20 years ($737-thousand), and then he’d quit selling drugs once he reaches that number.

Becoming a meth manufacturer is morally dubious, but even though the audience might disagree with his choice, given the state of Walt’s life, it’s understandable why he would make that decision. At first, anyway. After all, Walt is a victim of the capitalist system. He has been dealt a terrible set of circumstances in a world based on exploitation, and he is virtually powerless to change them by legitimate means. Though he’s still a member of the comparatively better off middle class, the anger he feels about having to scrounge for every dollar while being trapped in an monotonous cycle, his life passing by day by day without any joy or fulfillment, is legitimate, and it’s compounded by the importance placed on the “traditional” patriarchal family unit, as well the pressure and expectation put on men to provide for their families under the capitalist system. A man who can’t isn’t really a man, goes the thinking.

By the end of the first episode Walt has survived his first foray into the dangerous drug underworld, and while it was life threatening, terrifying, and violent, for the first time in years he feels invigorated. He goes home and sleeps with his wife. Skyler, surprised by his sudden sexual advance, asks, “Walt, is that you?!” as she gasps for breath and the credits roll.

And there it is. That’s really what it’s all about for Walt. While he may say that he just wants to support his family before he dies, what he really wants is to finally be a man, a real man, and to get all the privileges that go with that. His family is just the excuse he uses, the lie he tells himself to justify his actions. He wants to shed the image of the nerdy science teacher who can’t take care of his family. He wants authority and power. He wants respect. The tone is set for the rest of the series as Walt seeks revenge against the society that screwed him over, undervalued his worth, and overlooked his potential. From the moment of his diagnosis forward Walt will take what he wants and he will prove to any doubters that he’s man enough for anything, by any horrific means necessary.

Later on, when Walt and Skyler need to buy a business to launder their drug money, Walt is determined to purchase the very same car wash that wounded his pride. He refuses to let the previous owner keep his framed dollar on the wall, and out of spite Walt uses that dollar to buy a soda from the vending machine. It’s clear that Walt is more interested in getting revenge than providing for his family.

Though while Walter was right to feel angry and bitter about the unfortunate hand he’s been dealt, his mistake is that instead of channeling that frustration into exposing and tearing down an unjust system, a system that exploits and oppresses millions around the world, he goes about trying to place himself atop that system of exploitation. He doesn’t want out of the system of oppression, he wants in. He doesn’t care about the plight of other oppressed people, he only cares about his own misfortune, and as a result, while he is attempting to rebel against the capitalist system, he adopts that system’s own ideology, and thus dooms himself to failure. As he said, he’s in the “empire business.” He wants to conquer, to dominate, to bend the world to his will, and enrich himself without limit for the sake of obtaining power, everyone else be damned. His idea of revenge isn’t to bring down capitalism, he wants to become the ultimate capitalist, and in this way, his successful rebellion against the system is just as bad as failure.

The show, in effect, becomes an allegory of capitalist-imperialism, clearly indicting a system that allows a tiny minority to profit off the misery of the vast majority. As Walt delves deeper into the criminal underworld he increasingly sees people as expendable pawns, who he either manipulates to further his interests, or eliminates. Early on, Walt has great difficulty bringing himself to murder, but by the end of season 5, he barely gives it a second thought. Nothing can stand in the way of his growing empire, and being in a position of power numbs his empathy for other human beings.

Walt’s rise to power mirrors the classic capitalist model. In order to survive as a capitalist you must expand or face being overtaken by your competitors. If you don’t ruthlessly expand your business, someone else will, and you lose everything. Likewise, every time Walt is forced to make a choice between backing out or doubling down, he always doubles down. Every time he comes up against someone with more power than he does, instead of retreating he systematically destroys them and takes their place. First Krazy 8, then Tuco, Gus, and finally Mike, until only he is left holding the keys to the kingdom.

It’s also important to note that it’s always other people who pay for Walt’s crimes. He makes a huge profit off of the poor people addicted to his product, with absolutely no regard for the damage done to society. In fact, he thinks of drug addicts in the worst possible terms, as if they’re less than human, even though he’s more than willing to exploit them for his own gain. In his wake, thousands ruin their lives using meth, many people are murdered, and he’s even responsible for a major air disaster. The damage ripples through society while he profits and gains power. It’s a perfect allegory for the way wealth flows from the exploited masses to a tiny elite, and shows how under capitalism, if you’re willing to brutally exploit, oppress, and destroy other people you can achieve a great measure of what’s considered “success.” And Walt is very successful by that standard.

The family is also a major theme in Breaking Bad, and it can’t be overstated how important the concept of the “traditional” patriarchal family is to capitalism. It’s a model that by design teaches individuals to value the well-being of their relatives over those of everyone else in society. This may not seem like a big problem at first glance, but the net result is a society where everyone does what’s best for their family, even if it comes at the expense of everyone else. Society becomes about competition, rather than collaboration, and people often abandon their moral or political principles when faced with a choice that might negatively impact their family. It’s an institution that keeps the masses pacified as individuals become preoccupied with maintaining the well-being of their family unit, preventing the people from uniting to struggle for justice for all, relatives or not.

Walt frequently uses the concept of family as a justification for his actions. “When we do what we do for good reasons, there’s nothing to worry about, and what better reason is there than family?” Walt assures Skyler, who is struggling with the collateral damage inflicted upon her former boss, Ted Beneke. He’s paralyzed while trying to flee from a pair of goons Skyler dispatched to force him to pay off his debt to the IRS, preventing the government from catching on to the Whites’ illegal drug money. Skyler and Walt do what is best for their family, and the result is devastating to other people. Breaking Bad brings this issue to the forefront, and the fact that Walt is so frighteningly at peace with this justification should force the audience to call into question its own morality. How much damage would you be willing to inflict upon society in order to protect your loved ones?

Given the state of the world today, considering where the lines of battle are being drawn in society, it’s possible that Breaking Bad is currently the most politically relevant show on television. America’s capitalist-imperialist empire is beginning to rot from the inside, but before it crumbles the establishment will use all available options to maintain power, brutally suppressing the masses if necessary. Breaking Bad has clearly been an allegory for the moral vacancy of obtaining power through the capitalist system, and it shows the horrific consequences of going down that path. Is it worth it to enrich yourself if you destroy the world in the process? Walter White says ‘yes,’ and his example should be a blueprint for how not to think and for what not to do.

The problem with building an empire is that there’s no end point. There’s always someone else to conquer, more power to be gained. This is where Walt lives now. He built his capitalist empire with brutal violence, and enriched himself beyond his wildest dreams, but when is it enough power? When is it enough money? It’s worth noting that Walt does not stop producing meth after he surpasses his goal of $737-thousand.

When you’re on a mission to prove to the world how great, powerful, and manly you really are, there’s no logical stopping point, and you expand or die. You keep growing for the sake of growth because you have to, just like the cancer that resides inside Walt’s body, until it spreads too far, consumes all life, and kills its host from the inside. That’s what has happened to America. Breaking Bad might be the Moby Dick of this era, with Walter White as the new version of Captain Ahab, and Gray Matter, Walt’s long lost opportunity for wealth and power, as the illusive white whale, taunting him, luring him further into the void, and hastening his destruction.

The show is crafted with such care, and such attention to detail. The acting is impeccable, the cinematography unmatched, and the music completely absorbing. Bryan Cranston (Walter) and Aaron Paul (Jesse) are obviously the standout actors on the show, but the entire ensemble plays their parts with great nuance. Taken as a whole, Breaking Bad is a masterpiece unlike anything else on television, and it’s clearly more than just an entertaining story about a chemistry teacher turned drug lord, though it is that, too.

What it might lack in realism it more than makes up for in allegory. It’s telling us something about who we’ve become as a society. It’s warning us that next time, when we’re faced with a choice between taking a step back or doubling down on a misguided course of action, when we hear that voice inside our head, the lie we tell ourselves that rationalizes evil as long as we do it for a “good reason,” like protecting our families no matter the cost to others, we need to ignore that lie and take that step back. At some point the chain has to be broken and we need to put the greater good ahead of our own individual interests.

Walter White is more than just an isolated cautionary tale about drugs and violence. He represents something bigger. He symbolizes the attitude of America on the global stage and he wields its greatest weapon, capitalist-imperialism, to benefit himself, to give himself a sense of worth and pride, and he justifies his murderous greed by claiming he’s just doing it for the good of his family. That lie is the American way. Underneath that thinly veiled altruistic excuse is a naked desire to dominate others for the sake unfettered growth and power.

If you watch Breaking Bad carefully, you’ll notice that Walt is just itching for the chance to tell his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank that it’s actually him, the mild mannered chemistry teacher that everyone’s always overlooked and laughed at, who’s been behind the legendary blue meth all along. It’s that reckless desire for masculine pride that causes Walt’s empire to swell beyond control, and it’s what will cause his inevitable downfall, even if it’s everyone else who pays the price for his crimes.

There’s a brief but significant moment of note toward the end of the first episode. Walt is standing on a desolate road in the middle of the desert. Sirens are approaching and he believes he’s about to be caught. He pulls out a gun, puts it under his chin, and pulls the trigger. He hears the click, but no bullet is fired. The safety is on. He fumbles with the gun and accidentally fires a shot into the ground. After feeling the force of the gun in his hand he loses his nerve and goes on living. The sirens turn out to be firetrucks, not police, and Walt is relieved. In hindsight, knowing the monster he will later become, it’s hard not to think that the imaginary world of the show would have been a better place had the safety been off. But the great thing about art is that it can help us understand the real world. Walter White’s fictitious journey illuminates a very real and inconvenient truth about our society, and being deprived of his horrific transformation on Breaking Bad would be a major loss, not only culturally, but politically, because it demonstrates how deeply out of order our priorities are under capitalism.

:::Please see follow-up piece about Hank not being “the good guy”:::