It is impossible to watch Breaking Bad today as anything but a national allegory foreshadowing the current administration’s politics of white male resentment. Walter White is a genius, but nobody cares. He lives in a liberally carpeted bungalow with kitschy wood-paneled walls; in the hallway hang hand-drawn portraits of Walt, his wife Skyler, and his son Walter Jr.—smiling, unpersuasive faces that only underscore the bankruptcy at the heart of white suburbia: Walt’s sexless marriage, his shit job, his other shit job, his unpaid bills, his wife’s unplanned pregnancy. The tumor comes to kick him while he’s already down, a biological punishment for his failures as a man, husband, father. Cancer is the ultimate illegal immigrant, squatting in the body, putting the locals out of work, reproducing at an alarming rate. It brings disease, and it brings crime.
Walter White is meek and hunched; he wears dad khakis and oversized Oxford shirts. The camera loves Walt’s skin, craggy and granite like the Albuquerque Basin; his head, once he shaves it, is a desert of its own, miles of scalp occasionally punctuated by a scab or a colorless mole. This is a man who deserves better. We know from the pilot that Walt is a brilliant chemist vastly overqualified for his public school teaching job. When Walt and Skyler attend the birthday party of Walt’s former lab partner Elliott—Walt dons a gold-buttoned double-breasted sports coat and a tie bursting with paisley whorls, like a sea captain who owns a furniture outlet—we learn that Walt’s lab partner Elliott Schwartz, a Nobel laureate who resembles a political cartoon of himself, used Walt’s research to build a two-billion-dollar pharmaceutical company Grey Matter Technologies and is now happily married to Walt’s beautiful ex-flame Gretchen. What this means is that Walt is literally a cuck, having lost his woman to the man who bought him out of his own company for lunch money.
I’ve seen every episode of Breaking Bad, but Sally had never watched it, so a few days ago we started from the very beginning. “This show is really about the revenge of the beta,” I remarked to her, as we watched Walt stagger about the desert in his underwear. Recently, for book research purposes, I’ve been poking around the so-called manosphere, which sounds like what Hank Schrader would call one of his balls, and I’ve been fascinated by the posture of aggrievement its users adopt. Posters to the subreddit r/TheRedPill—a reference to the pill which frees your mind from the Matrix in the films of the same name—frequently preface their angry rants and seduction tips with brief biographies: how they were bullied, ostracized, disrespected, degraded. In this way the ex-cuck remains forever attached to his erstwhile cuckness: he must constantly relive his feminization at the hands of other men in order to ground his present sense of mastery.
This is to say, in other words, that the red piller’s journey is one of gender transition: from beta to alpha, pushover to boss, milquetoast Walter White to unflappable Heisenberg. I don’t make that comparison lightly. The parallels between extremely online trans women discourse and MRA talk are striking: each group has a vested interest in demonstrating a recurrent failure to be men that culminates in a gender epiphany. It is hardly an accident that, in rallying behind the red pill, the far right has appropriated what in retrospect is an obvious metaphor for hormone replacement therapy: Matrix directors Lana and Lily Wachowski have both come out as trans women in recent years, and the most common form of prescription estrogen when the first Matrix movie opened was a smooth beet-red pill made from the urine of pregnant mares.
We could speculate then that the resentment the white male alt-righter projects onto immigrants, black people, George Soros, and the soy milk industry is, among other things, sadistically displaced gender dysphoria. The red piller radicalizes—becomes a Nazi troll, bashes gays, starts a drug empire—as an alternative to MTF transition, the way some closeted trans women join the military in a desperate attempt to get the girl beaten out of them.
Transition isn’t easy, after all, whether from male to female or beta to alpha. Walt will be kidnapped, beaten, shot at. His wife will ask him where he’s been. His body will change, and his medicine will have debilitating side effects. It’s only after he thinks he’s killed two men that he can get a hard-on.
But what is an alpha after all? At first glance, the dichotomy in Breaking Bad is simple: Walter White, the beta, high school chemistry teacher, a failed husband, and oppressed intellectual; Hank Schrader, the alpha, DEA agent, representative of the police state, with a nice house and a hot wife. The brothers-in-law mirror each other, chiral isomers like those described by Walt in a classroom lecture. But the truth is that Hank, too, is a beta: his cowardice, his tryhard laugh, the constant stream of inappropriate jokes. Over barbecue at the Whites, he gives Walt Jr. dating advice that could have been pulled straight from the pick-up artist forums. “You just gotta have . . .” He pauses, clamming his lips together like a man about to throw a left hook. “Confidence. Confidence, and persistence.” His voice is a hamburger commercial. “I chased your Aunt Marie here all over creation. Kept bugging her for a date, she kept saying no. What I asked you, like, fifty times?” His larynx is a griddle his lungs are working minimum wage to scrape grease off of. Marie nods, sighing as she speaks, “Yeah it was before they tightened the stalking laws.” Hank lets out three discrete chuckles, like the puffs of a depressed chew toy. He knows she’s not really kidding.
Hence an epistemological question that grounds the entire series: Are there any true alphas? Or are all alphas just betas pretending? Call this the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: if you know where your gender is, you don’t know where it’s going; if you know where your gender’s headed, you don’t know where it is.
Hi folks! I’m taking next week off for Thanksgiving, and then I have surgery on the 29th, so this is the last Paper View you’ll read of mine until late December. However! In the meantime, I’ve enlisted several very special guests to fill in for me, starting with award-winning writer Carmen Maria Machado on December 3.
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