31st March 2014

‘BREAKING BAD’: markets, healthcare and drug money


This article contains spoilers

The TV series Breaking Bad reached its conclusion at the end of September last year.  This acclaimed drama has been described as: the most revered show of the modern golden age of television; as Dostoevsky in the desert; and it has even been asked if missing it is akin to not bothering to see Hamlet? Commentators have praised the tight multi-layered narrative, the sophisticated characterisation and the stunning cinematic quality of the series.  As Chris Hardwick has said, those of us who watched it regularly now have ‘Breaking Bad sized holes in our souls’.  However, one aspect of the drama which has not been so widely commented on was the (often implicit) critical analysis of the role that markets play in our lives.

The synopsis of the show is simple enough: an Albuquerque chemistry teacher, Walter White, is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer but has no health insurance. To pay for his treatment, provide for his family and pay for his children’s college education he teams up with a former pupil, Jesse, to ‘cook’ and sell crystal meth.  The cost of medical treatment, in a country with marketised healthcare system, is a constant and unusually overt theme throughout the series.  Walt’s first consultation with an oncologist was noted to cost $5000 and this was a fraction of the overall expense of his treatment; elsewhere he voices fears that his diagnosis would ‘bankrupt his family’.  This is a not unrealistic concern, medical care is the leading cause of bankruptcies in the US. Later in the series Walt’s brother-in-law is seriously injured and his physiotherapy treatment costs total $177,000 – an expense that his employer paid insurance will not cover, even though he is a high ranking government official (he is an Assistant Special Agent in the Albuquerque office of the Drug Enforcement Agency). These medical crises spark a slow, but sure, slide into an ever increasing series of moral and ethical nightmares that end in tragedy with the ‘blood money’ earned eventually offering little solace.  The repeated return to issues of marketised healthcare costs press home the point that even those with professional jobs are helpless when they ‘face a health care system designed to meet the needs of the wealthy, powerful, and privileged’.

Another way in which the role and influence of markets is developed in the series is through the focus on the ‘free market’ of the illegal drugs trade.  After a shaky start Walt becomes the type of entrepreneur that any capitalist would admire.  In a validation of Walt’s role, The Economist boldly stated that if you are interested in the dynamics of modern business practices it is possible to save the $90,000 fees of a Harvard MBA and simply buy the “Breaking Bad” box-set.  Walt follows a classic entrepreneurial model: he innovates in the production process, producing a crystal meth of unrivalled purity; his product is distinctively branded by its  characteristic blue tint (something that apparently real life drug dealers are now copying); and he amply demonstrates the forces of ‘creative destruction’ by violently eliminating all those he comes into conflict with, whether they be rivals, distributors or even his own partners.

The whole series can be read as a biting critique not only of the illegal drug trade but also of the world of commercial activity driven by the need for increasing profits no matter what the human cost.  Crystal meth production is represented as a business that is irrevocably entangled with ‘legitimate’ commercial concerns and which, to all intents and purposes, is part of our economic system.  In one scene, Walt menacingly explains to his wife, Skyler, what would happen if he stopped making meth – ‘A business big enough that it could be listed on the NASDAQ goes belly up’.  In another episode, an associate, Todd (known to fans as the ‘Murder Spock’) justifies why, despite bringing in tens of millions in cash they need to continue making crystal: ‘No matter how much you got, how do you turn your back on more?’  The writers of “Breaking Bad” often temper the most brutal episodes with more subtle critical touches.  Thus as the camera pans around the apartment of one of Walt’s murder victims the shot lingers momentarily, no doubt ironically, on two book covers – ‘The Collected Works of Marx and Engels’ and ‘The Fundamentals of Marxism–Leninism’.

The analysis of the drug trade in “Breaking Bad” is in some respects similar to David Simon and Ed Burns account in “The Corner – the book that inspired “The Wire”.  While “Breaking Bad” concentrates on the production of drugs, “The Corner” focuses on inner-city consumption.  The book shows how failing city localities are increasingly being powered by the economic fuel of the drug trade:

In neighborhoods where no other wealth exists, they have constructed an economic engine so powerful that they’ll readily sacrifice everything to it. And make no mistake: that engine is humming. No slacking profit margins, no recessions, no bad quarterly reports, no layoffs, no naturalized unemployment rate. In the empty heart of our cities, the culture of drugs has created a wealth-generating structure so elemental and enduring that it can legitimately be called a social compact.

What “Breaking Bad” and “The Corner” so effectively illustrate is the powerful nightmare that the invisible hand of the market can produce in both healthcare and the drug trade.  Namely a health system that is only truly available to the rich and powerful; and inner cities in which drug prohibition and the so called ‘war on drugs’ has not only failed, but actively colluded in the production of evil and violence on an unimaginable scale.

“Breaking Bad” can be viewed in the UK on Netflix.


As part of our inter-network collaboration, this article is reproduced from an original post on the “Cost of Living” blog.