Breaking Bad: Rhetorical Analysis #1

Posted: 2nd February 2011 by Catherine Arruda in Dramatism

Debuting in 2008, Breaking Bad is a critically acclaimed and award-winning television drama.  Created and produced by Vince Gilligan (most known for work on The X-Files), the drama follows the life of Walter White, a father and high school chemistry teacher, who begins producing and selling crystal meth.  Played by Bryan Cranston (best known for his role on Malcolm in the Middle), Walter begins these criminal activities after learning that he has terminal cancer, in an attempt to prepare for his death and secure his family’s financial future.  In addition to being entertaining, Breaking Bad challenges stereotypes and suggests that things should not be thought of in simply black and white.  (The below analysis will focus on the first season of the series)

To analyze the series from a dramatistic perspective, it must be dissected into the five elements of the pentad: act, agent(s), agency, scene and purpose.  To review this quickly, act refers to a rule-breaking behaviour within the drama, agent(s) refer to the character (or characters) that commits the act, agency refers to the means by which the act is committed, scene refers to the location and situation in which the act occurs, and purpose refers to the motivation behind the act.  In Breaking Bad, the predominant rule-breaking act is Walter’s production and sale of crystal meth – both of which are illegal activities – and the agent is Walter.  The agency refers to any tools, means or techniques used to accomplish the act.  In Breaking Bad, Walter utilizes a trailer (which he has transformed into a self-made drug lab), lab tools and his own chemistry knowledge to produce the drug.  He also uses a partner, Jesse Pinkman, to sell the drug.  The scene is present-day Albuquerque, New Mexico.  As scene refers to location as well as situation, it is important to note that Walter’s drug activities occur when he is terminally ill and his family is in financial need.  The purpose behind Walter’s rule-breaking act is to provide for his family.  That is, to secure his family’s financial future.

In this analysis, I believe the dominant elements are scene and agent.  More specifically, I think Walter’s pressing situation (scene) as well as dissatisfaction with life and idealism (characteristics of the agent) are the dominant elements in this drama.  Walter White is a husband, and father to a teenager with cerebral palsy and a soon-to-be newborn.  He is an under-achieving genius who works full-time as a high school chemistry teacher and part-time at a car wash.  He is under-appreciated in both positions but maintains them in financial preparation for his newborn.  I believe it is Walter’s dissatisfaction with his boring but rule-abiding life that makes him willing to break rules.  Moreover, the combination of his pressing condition (terminal cancer) and his idealistic hope to financially provide for his family’s future leads Walter to commit the ultimate rule-breaking act (producing and selling crystal meth).

To further make this case, act, agency, and purpose are dependent upon scene and agent.  If either element were changed, there would be no purpose, act or agency.  For example, if Walter’s health were in good condition, there would be no pressing need to provide for his family’s financial future and, subsequently, no production and sale of an illegal drug and no tools to produce and sell it. Similarly, if Walter’s character were different and unwilling to break rules, no rule-breaking act would occur, no tools would be necessary and purpose would be irrelevant.  As yet another example, if Walter’s character were different and held no idealistic hope to provide for his family’s financial future, there would be no motivation to produce and sell the illegal substance, no production and sale of the substance and no tools would be necessary.

Because Walter’s motive for producing and selling crystal meth is to secure his family’s financial future, his guilt is absolved through transcendence.  More specifically, his guilt is absolved as his actions are driven by his love for his family and concern over their future well-being.  It is important to note that although society-at-large would forgive Walter for his transgression, the law would not and would, instead, punish him for it.

For this dramatistic analysis, the over-arching motive is that rules are not absolute.  That is, there are circumstances under which rules can be broken.  In the case of Walter White, though he engages in criminal activities that are punishable by law, viewers are not led to be condemning nor critical of his behaviour.  Instead, they see his behaviour as acceptable or, at the very least, forgivable.

The benefit of the Dramatistic perspective is its emphasis on character and motivations.  By looking closely at Walter White and his motivations, it becomes apparent that Breaking Bad defies stereotypes.  Firstly, Walter is Caucasian, middle-aged, a father, timid and a criminal.  In the media, however, criminals are typically portrayed as minorities, young, childless and aggressive.  Secondly, the motivation behind crime is typically portrayed as greed in the media, but in Breaking Bad the motivation is love.

In summary, Breaking Bad is a television drama that lends itself well to the Dramatistic perspective.  The predominant rule-breaking act in the series is the main character’s production and sale of crystal meth, the dominant elements are scene and agent and the over-arching motive is that rules can be broken.  Furthermore, the main character’s guilt is absolved through transcendence.  By applying the dramatistic perspective, one of the show’s strengths is highlighted – that it defies stereotypes.  Ultimately, with its breaking of stereotypes, over-arching motive of breakable rules and portrayal of a well-intentioned crime, Breaking Bad suggests that things are not and should not be thought of as simply black and white.

  1. narmis68 says:

    Breaking Bad is a great example of an artifact that can be examined from a dramatistic point of view. As was mentioned in the post, Walter engages in the ultimate rule-breaking behaviour by producing and selling crystal meth. I agree with the fact that the show can’t be looked at simply as black and white. While Walter’s actions are obviously very wrong and dangerous, it is still hard for the audience to look at him as the bad guy. He may be breaking the law, however the audience is able to forgive him due to his absolution of guilt through transcendence. His actions are justified because he is trying to look out for the well being of his loved ones, which anyone in his position would want to do. As a viewer, I can’t help but empathize with Walter, and want to see him succeed in whatever he does, as I get to see that he is a caring person, devoted to his family. There are negative side effects to the show, as it may be sending out the wrong message to viewers. A show like Breaking Bad could have the potential implications of sending out the message that it is okay to engage in criminal behaviour such as Walter’s, as long as there is a legitimate reason to justify such actions.

  2. bdidly says:

    while i think you make a point with walt’s idealistic hope to provide for his family’s financial future, i think his diagnosis was the catalyst for stirring up something that was brewing in him. walt was emasculated in every aspect of his life. by his wife, by his job, by his status, by his brother-in-law, by his former business associates. walt’s diagnosis awakened in him the desire to succeed – i think he convinces himself it’s for his family and in the beginning it may have been but i think a lot of this now is ego-driven.