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New Book Takes Scholarly Look at "Breaking Bad"
09/27/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

Millions of Americans are anxiously awaiting the season finale of Breaking Bad this coming Sunday. What will be the fate of the show's protagonist Walter White, the High School chemistry teacher turned crystal meth drug lord? Will he get his share of the loot? Or will he go out with all guns blazing? Well, regardless of the final outcome, USM Media Studies professor David Pierson said the series tells us a lot about American society in the early 21st century. Pierson is releasing a new book on the show, called Breaking Bad: Critical Essays on the Context, Politics, Style and Reception of the Television Series. It's a compilation of essays by academic scholars who offer differing perspectives of the series.

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Professor David Pierson Tom Porter: "Professor Pierson, the first point that occurs to me is that while you were compiling this book, why didn't you wait for the series to be over so know exactly the fate of Walter White and how it resolves itself, before you compiled this book?"
David Pierson: "Well it was sort of a negotiation with the publisher and the publisher really wanted the book to come out around the same time period as the ending of the series. And it's not unusual for scholarly books to come out before the series is finished. As a matter of fact there are a number of books out about Mad Men, and theres's really enough of the seasons, of Breaking Bad out there, for scholars and critics to really make an assessment of the show and pick up particular themes that run through the show."

TP: "The themes aren't going to change suddenly because of last episode."
DP: "No they're not."

TP: "Let's talk about Walter White, the central figure, and it seems key to his popularity is how he transforms from a mild-mannered schoolteacher to a ruthless drug baron. What is it about this character's portrayal that makes him so appealing?"
DP: "I think it some ways he sort of serves as a bit of a fantasy figure, because what he does is he constructs his own double life, as a Heisenberg, that's his alias in the show - and through living this double life. He's able to assert his aggressiveness, he's able to take what he wants, he's able to use his talents as a chemist to the fullest because I think he feels like his talents are not being appreciated by being a High School teacher. So in a way, I think part of the popularity of Walt is that maybe he serves as a fantasy figure for a lot of people out there that, you know, maybe in the back of their minds they would love to live this double life."

TP: "And one of the chapters addresses "American Masculinity" and how Walter White embodies the "contemporary struggles and frustrations over American masculinity", so there's a lot of frustrated American males out there who would really like to be a ruthless criminal in their fantasy world?"
DP: "Well I think that's always been one of the pulls of the Hollywood gangster figure, is because the Hollywood gangster figure, they're able to, if they see something they want, they're able to just go ahead and take it, whereas most of us in our lives, we have families, we have responsibilities, although we'd like to maybe tell the boss shove it we really can't do that."

TP: "But most criminal heroes, anti-heroes, whatever you want to call them, Tony Soprano, western outlaws, the appeal is that there's some underlying goodness there, they've just gone off-the-rails a bit, but with Walter White, you really began to doubt his morality towards the end a bit don't you?"
DP: "I think you do, but one of the things that makes Walter attractive is that everything that he does, or least he tells everybody, he's doing it for the right reason, he wants to secure his family's future, for several generations."

TP: "But it seems go do beyond that, and it's almost like that's a mantra that he's persuading himself, he's justifying his actions by saying that."
DP: "I agree. Walter is like the most rational person in the series, but I think that this rationality's only taken him so far, and in this final season everything's coming home to roost."

TP: "Talk about some of the other themes explored in this book. We've talked about the character of Walter White but there are a number of other things you look at like the setting, and that kind of thing."
DP: "Yeah, I think the setting is really interesting and the fact that it's set in the American Southwest, which is sort of like the new frontier for global trade, particularly after NAFTA, but it's an area where there's a great disparity between the wealthy and the poor and there isn't a lot of social support programs so in a way it is kind of the new frontier of neo-liberalism."

TP: "That is to say minimal governmental control over economic activity - the modern day Wild West?"
DP: "Yes, I agree, and also a connection with the old West. That's the reason why the desert factors in so strongly."

TP: "Anthropologists in 500 years time looking back at this series, wanting to look for clues about American society in the early 21st century, what will Breaking Bad tell them?"
DP: "Well I think it would probably tell them just how obsessed we are with money, maybe an an obsession too with family. I think it also, the show is a good example of just how harried and busy our lives are."

TP: "And I know you're a fan of the show professor Pierson, are you looking forward to Sunday, what are you hoping, expecting?"
DP: "Well, I"m expecting Walt, I think he wants the rest of his 80 million dollars, so I think he's going to confront Todd's uncle. I'll think he'll also have a final face-to-face with Jesse. What will happen I don't know."

TP: "Well thanks for talking."
DP: "Thank you."

Professor David Pierson's new book, Breaking Bad: Critical Essays on the Context, Politics, Style and Reception of the Television Series will be published in November by Lexington books.

Photo by Tom Porter.


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