I’ve been watching “Breaking Bad” like millions of others and though I’ve been “drawn in” I haven’t been captivated–a distinction reflecting disability and cultural theory as opposed to more ecumenical views regarding embodiment and agency. The latter are, to quote Susan Sontag, matters of lying, as in lying about cancer and then lying about our social circles: “patients are lied to, not just because the disease is (or is thought to be) a death sentence, but because it is felt to be obscene–in the original meaning of that word: ill-omened, abominable, repugnant to the senses.”
From the outset it would be wrong to characterize “Breaking Bad” as simply a cancer narrative but it is nearly so since Walter White’s diagnosis is the incitement premium (as Freud would call it) the idea at the top which gets all that art and anxiety going. Walter is ill and though physicians don’t lie to him, he absorbs all the ill-omened, abominable, and repugnant pathos of his diagnosis. Dark history now and then will grant a man permission to behave as badly as he wishes to. Walter becomes an agent in the original sense of the word: someone or something who produces an effect. He’s cancer-man; unbridled; unhouseled–he eschews salvation; he’s vengeful. He understands class distinctions and the cultural impediments to achieving freedom. He’s a contemporary middle class American, one who is falling from the wheel of fortune; he’s every man in the age of the affordable health care act and shrinking jobs; he’s the pure product of Paul Fussell’s status complex–Fussell who said famously, “Americans are the only people in the world known to me whose status anxiety prompts them to advertise their college and university affiliations in the rear window of their automobiles.” Walter is an embittered status hound. He’s terminally ill. He’s going to produce effects. With his slacker ex-student Jessie Pinkman he’s going to “cook” and make money, beat the clock, provide for his family before the big “C” gets him.
It’s hard to like cancer. But aside from the whack-a-mole portentousness of Walter’s diagnosis, the narrative incitement of “Breaking Bad” has everything to do with dark agency: accordingly the show depends on unabashed ableism. By this I don’t mean simple “discrimination in favor of able bodied people” but what David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder call “narrative prosthesis”–disability as a vehicle employed to reinforce normalcy. Narrative prosthesis deflects the abnormal body by dramatizing its unseemliness and presuming its incompatibility with our better natures. This is “Breaking Bad” in a nutshell.
What makes narrative prosthesis palatable? The answer (as Dickens well knew) is the Tiny Tim effect–the cripple must stand for something larger or more urgent “right now” in culture. You might not ordinarily think of Walter White and Tiny Tim in the same room, and if you were inclined to think of Tiny Tim at all in the context of “Breaking Bad” you would most likely imagine Walter’s son Walter Junior who is portrayed as having mild cerebral palsy. This is a clever prosthetic red herring, a ruse on crutches, for Walter is Tiny Tim in the purest sense: he reflects cultural ideas about illness. Why? Because his diagnosis is inseparable from his latent capacity for dishonesty and cruelty–a matter the show labors to prove throughout its first season as we see him despise friends and former business partners and family members who wish to help him. He’s Ahab with cancer and no health plan and a chemistry degree. He’s a figure for our times: smart, ironic, bitter, a little crazy, shrewd, vengeful, oddly nostalgic for his nuclear family, entirely creepy. But while the show strives to make these qualities digestible its larger Aristotelian template is a simple reduction of ableist ideas about serious illness. Everyone will be made ill by Walter. Everyone is rendered a cripple by Walter from his brother in law the DEA agent to his wife to Jessie Pinkman. And this is the oldest and most repulsive idea about cancer of them all. Cancer as metaphor. Intoxicating. Everyone alive with vices. Even the environment has cancer. The houses. When ableism really works its best magic the city is cancer. As Sontag says: “Before the city was understood as, literally, a cancer causing (carcinogenic) environment, the city was seen as itself a cancer–a place of abnormal, unnatural growth, and extravagant, devouring, armored passions.”
There is one other dichotomy of cancer as metaphor that “Breaking Bad” exemplifies to the hilt. Because cancer functions metaphorically as a reification of capitalism, Walter engages in two kinds of symbolic behavior: before his diagnosis he stands for early capitalism with its sagacity, accounting, and thrift. After his diagnosis he is the embodiment of post-industrial capitalism–expansionist, excessive, speculative, or as Sontag would say he represents “an economy that depends on the irrational indulgence of desire”).
“Breaking Bad” positions cancer as loathsome and fatal and morally contagious. In this way it subverts healthy bodies and disabled ones.