“Breaking Bad” Reflects our Cultural View of Disability and Illness

Why Flynn is the real hero of “Breaking Bad” – By Anna Mae Duane
http://www.salon.com/2013/09/29/why_flynn_is_the_real_hero_of_breaking_bad

“it is illness, with its attendant specters of disability and death, that flips the switch that breaks Walter White bad”

Kudos to Salon for this perceptive critique of the current faith in “self-efficacy”, which these days is too often promoted as the ultimate treatment for “all that ails you”.  The author exposes some interesting generalities and some deeper insights::

  • It’s the deeply entrenched, and deeply American sense that we are entitled to bodies that function perfectly.
  • insisting that we can apply a can-do attitude to all the body’s vagaries and ailments implies that living with less than perfection is just not an option.
  • If you can’t fix it, then you just must not be trying hard enough.
  • Flynn understands that neither his life nor his body will ever be “perfect”
  • living with brokenness is the only hope any of us have of beating back chaos and the dark.

Medical practitioners rightly applaud this sort of take-charge attitude. Self-efficacy, as it’s called, is a prime indicator of a how well a patient will do.

In the face of the uncontrollable chaos that cancer threatens, a plan and a cool head can, doctors often tell us, prevail.

Walt is far from the model patient. He is, however, a model of self-efficacy. He has a plan. Hoo boy, does he ever. The cancer, like all the other forces in “Breaking Bad,” is brought to heel by Walt’s formidable will and intellect. Just a matter of showing that cancer who’s boss, it seems.

disability studies scholars have pointed out the flaws in the mind-over-matter model that Walter’s story seems to tell.

While being empowered is certainly important, insisting that we can apply a can-do attitude to all the body’s vagaries and ailments implies that living with less than perfection is just not an option.

Walt’s decisions stem from a fundamental desire to be the one doing the breaking, rather than the one who has to live with the uncertainty of being perceived as broken.

If you can’t fix it, then you just must not be trying hard enough.

In the face of such superhuman control, Flynn’s disability in particular has likely always felt to Walt like one of the unfair strikes against the perfection he seems to think he’s due.

But Walter White’s flat-out run into the arms of Heisenberg is powerful testimony to just how badly he doesn’t want to feel what it’s like. His successful “battle” against cancer, his canny entrepreneurship, his ruthless empire-building, all reinforce the idea that a real man, a real American, makes it all himself, his body just one more tool in the arsenal he controls.

Like an addict chasing that high that won’t crash, he convinces himself that after just one more scheme, one more death, he will have fixed everything perfectly.

a conqueror of the chaos and darkness that comes with being embodied, with being human.

Flynn is the only character who never gets sucked into Heisenberg’s justifications, never becomes complicit in Heisenberg’s assurance that he can work it all out, never decides to keep the secret to himself to come out looking better in the end

And it’s Flynn, whose disability has taught him that neither his life nor his body will ever be perfect, who squashes his father’s last-ditch scheme to send some money home.

If Walter White, the great manipulator both of chemicals and of people, could have learned from the son he likely deemed a burden, he would have learned that living with brokenness is the only hope any of us have of beating back chaos and the dark.

Also see related articles:

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2010/jan/02/cancer-positive-thinking-barbara-ehrenreich

http://www.copower.org/models-of-disability/181-medical-model-of-disability.html

6 thoughts on ““Breaking Bad” Reflects our Cultural View of Disability and Illness

    1. Zyp Czyk Post author

      Indeed! I was amazed at the meanings Ms. Duane was able to find in this TV series. I’ve only watched it a few times, too few to understand the characters deeply enough to see the underlying cultural assumptions she mentions.

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      Reply
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    1. Zyp Czyk Post author

      I thoroughly enjoyed your article with its unusual angle. You made me see how a subtle negative view of disability is so deeply implicit in our culture, that even this progressive show unwittingly, though correctly, portrays and embodies the same old devaluation of people with physical limitations.

      I’m glad you didn’t mind my extensive quotes, because your point is an important one, and subtleties are always more complicated that simplistic slogans.

      Like

      Reply

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