Library Dissertation Showcase

Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair: Neoliberalism in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul

  • Year of Publication:
  • 2021

A shadowy basement on the edges of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Two men – one perched on the edge of a futon, the other scribbling notes over a barrel full of money with the possessed fervency of Klaus Kinski’s Aguirre – make each other uncomfortable. The penultimate episode of Breaking Bad (Granite State, 5.15) finds two of the ‘Third Golden Age of TV’s defining anti-heroes – Walter White and Saul Goodman – at the end of their roads. Despite their differences, both are fugitives, known to most of the world via pseudonyms, finding themselves at the end of a series of awful decisions fuelled by twisted rationalisations. How could these two men – a reserved scientific genius and a fast-talking “humanities guy” (Breaking Bad, 2.8) – find themselves in such a specific situation? Strangely enough, the answer may lie in the last fifty years of global economic policy.

Vince Gilligan’s critically acclaimed crime dramedy Breaking Bad, and it’s equally acclaimed if lesser known prequel/spin-off Better Call Saul, are perhaps the most powerful artistic engagements with neoliberalism of our time, wrestling with the cultural-economic theory in their formal experimentations and representations, through allegory and construction of identity. This dissertation utilises textual analysis to explore the ways in which each series does so.

Chapter One outlines neoliberalism’s development, its effects on Ideological State Apparatuses, and the relationship between neoliberalism and neoconservatism/fascism as outlined by Polanyi, before focusing on how 21st century ‘Peak TV’ both relies on and critiques neoliberalism through the anti-hero. David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2007) will be particularly important in establishing neoliberal ideology and the neoliberal state, with additional reliance on Steger and Roy’s Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction (2010); once focusing on ‘Peak TV’, Brett Martin’s Difficult Men (2013), Althusser’s On the Reproduction of the Conditions of Production, and Levine and Newman’s Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status (2012) combine to build an understanding of the politics of taste underlying ‘Peak TV’ as well as the functions and appeal of the 21st century anti-hero archetype.

Chapter Two applies this understanding to Breaking Bad’s Walter White, with focus on the series’ representation of whiteness and masculinity, it’s understanding of criminology, and its generic inflections. Pierson’s Breaking Bad: Critical Essays on the Contexts, Politics, Style, and Reception of the Television Series (2013) is key in building a general critical understanding of the crime-drama, before Johnson’s article ‘Walter White(ness) Lashes Out: Breaking Bad and Male Victimage’ (2017) complicates this understanding.

Chapter Three examines Better Call Saul as a ‘correction’ to Breaking Bad by using its protagonist Jimmy McGill (Bad’s Saul Goodman) to disrupt whiteness and complicate the neoliberal homo-economicus in order to advance Bad’s critique of neoliberalism. Tedesco-Barlocco’s ‘It’s (Not) All Good, Man: Better Call Saul and the Nostalgic Reconstruction of an Ever-Longing Character’ offers a fruitful analysis of the series’ complication of Bad’s Saul Goodman, and Duffy’s Who’s Your Paddy? (2014) helps to position McGill’s Irish heritage as complicating whiteness and offering a meta-commentary on the politics of taste within ‘Peak TV’, attacking neoliberalism in the process.

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