A Cultural Study of "Breaking Bad"

Image (c) AMC TV.
Last spring, the College of Communication hosted “DePaul Talks: Making Meaning of Violence” an interdisciplinary symposium on contemporary iterations of violence. Undergraduate students in Assistant Professor Luisela Alvaray’s Media and Cultural Studies course shared research they conducted on the violence in AMC’s “Breaking Bad” at the symposium’s student showcase.
 
AMC’s “Breaking Bad” premiered in 2008 and attracted a devoted following during its five seasons on the air. The series stars Bryan Cranston as Walter White, a terminally ill science teacher who becomes a methamphetamine kingpin after his diagnosis. Throughout its run, “Breaking Bad” received extensive acclaim, including 10 Primetime Emmy Awards, as well as designation by the Writers Guild of America as one of the best-written television series of all time.
 
For Assistant Professor Luisela Alvaray, the show’s popularity made it an obvious choice for her Media and Cultural Studies class. “Most students in the course had seen the show and all knew about it,” she says. “The series had ended recently with very high ratings—it was the talk of the town.” At the same time, the series’ violent underpinnings made it an interesting cultural study. Alvaray challenged her students to ask tough questions of “Breaking Bad,” such as, “Can we relate the popularity of the series to the violent content?” and “What social discourses and ethical questions are raised through the characters and the stories?”
 
Students Patricia Cando, Victoria Howard, Chloe Maguigad and Mary Maloney dove into critical writing about the series. “We had to analyze different debates and perspectives published about the show, reflect on its controversies and analyze its connection to violence,” explains Maguigad. As the students read critics such as Jessica Winter, senior editor at Slate, and Ross Douthat, op-ed columnist at The New York Times, they narrowed in on three specific critical frames: sexism, Latino stereotypes and white hegemony. “In our presentation, Victoria talked about sexism pertaining to Skylar White [Walter’s wife] and how audiences usually dislike both her character and how Walter White treats her,” Maguigad says, noting that Skylar is viewed as annoying and overemotional, even though she’s a victim of domestic violence.
 
Another group focused on narrative and stylistic interpretations of violence. For example, they found that certain scenes used inventive, narrow shot angles to “showcase the character’s claustrophobic state of mind.” A third group of students conducted a comparative analysis to assess how the violence in “Breaking Bad” stacks up against other violent dramas, such as HBO’s “The Sopranos,” the CW’s “The Vampire Diaries” and Showtime’s “Weeds.” The students concluded that the popularity of “Breaking Bad” stems in part from “the appeal of an evil yet sympathetic main character” and “stylized cinematic violence.”
 
While the course used “Breaking Bad” as its thematic center, the projects enabled students to deploy a full range of critical tools useful for analyzing any media phenomenon. “My biggest takeaway was that there is more than what meets the eye when it comes to media,” says Maguigad. Alvaray echoes this point. “This kind of collective deliberation around one topic, such as violence, is an excellent way for students to reflect and understand how the issue is treated officially and how it is negotiated by different social actors and through distinct media,” she says. “In this manner, they get an all-encompassing perspective and a more profound comprehension of how diverse discourses about violence circulate in our society.”
 
Read more about “DePaul Talks: Making Meaning of Violence”, including DePaul initiatives to combat violence and a related anti-violence event on women in the prison system.

Republished courtesy DePaul Magazine.