‘Breaking Bad’: When Pop Culture Takes on the Drug Trade

Since its debut in 2008, the critically acclaimed television show “Breaking Bad” has enjoyed great success and a devoted following. It’s a classic Dr. Jekyll turns Mr. Hyde story that features deadly methamphetamine, the black market and one man landing himself in the middle of it all. But what message does “Breaking Bad” send to viewers, especially the younger set? Some of the show’s critics say it trivializes and even glorifies methamphetamine, while others insist the show serves more as a cautionary tale to viewers.

The Storyline

AMC’s “Breaking Bad” first aired in 2008, and this summer marks its last season. The series centers on protagonist Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher whose life is changed forever when he is diagnosed with lung cancer. To continue to support his family in the face of high medical bills, Walt teams up with Jesse, a former student, and turns to manufacturing and distributing potent methamphetamine. “Breaking Bad” has earned critical acclaim and huge popularity during the last several years, and has launched the dark world of the drug trade into the public eye.

Why Meth?

Dubbed “America’s most dangerous drug,” methamphetamine is notoriously addictive. Scary stories about this substance and the lives it ruins can be found in the news on a weekly basis. One of the most destructive drugs of them all, it has the reputation of sending respectable, responsible adults and teens into a dark spiral of addiction, unpredictable behavior and can cause both brain and physical damage in a matter of weeks.

During a 2008 interview, “Breaking Bad” writer Vince Gilligan states that the show is “about taking a good guy and turning him bad. Meth is a good engine for that … I chose meth as the central plot device of ‘Breaking Bad’ simply because it was so horrible.”

What the Reviews Say

Critics of this show’s portrayal of meth point out that bringing such a volatile substance into a fictional drama can just as easily numb Americans to the idea of methamphetamine addiction as it can educate them about its dangers. Also, just by having the protagonist involved in the drug trade promotes a sense of empathy toward a meth manufacturer from the audience. The way meth addiction itself is portrayed in this show is whitewashed when compared to reality as well. The character Jesse, who struggles with meth addiction throughout the series, manages to retain healthy white teeth and lacks the loose, scabbed skin that is so common among addicts. This doesn’t come as a surprise—Jesse is a main character in the show and therefore needs to have some likeability—but it still glosses over the severity of meth’s effect on the body and the mind.

What the Supporters Say

For all its critics, “Breaking Bad” has also earned a great deal of praise. Some of the show’s fans point out that drug use is consistently portrayed in a negative light. A character dies from an overdose, and Jesse’s struggle shows the downward spiral of addiction. Supporters of the show also point out that the plot revolves around Walter White’s transformation from a good character into an evil one, and that his actions and decisions, from manufacturing methamphetamine to disposing of dead bodies and even endangering a child, are terrible and not something the show intends to glorify.

“Breaking Bad” isn’t the first time that hard drug use has come to the big screen. “Requiem for a Dream” and “Trainspotting” come to mind. “Trainspotting,” for example, is a 1996 British film about heroin addiction. When I saw this as a teen I figured it was dramatized quite a bit but I knew one thing for sure: if the reality of heroin use was anything like what the film portrayed, it was something to stay far, far away from. I wasn’t the only young viewer to have this impression either. I distinctly remember a conversation about drugs with some friends a while later, and when heroin came up, everyone had the same reaction, something along the lines of “F— that, haven’t you ever watched ‘Trainspotting?’ ”

Methamphetamine Rates Falling

The portrayal of methamphetamine in “Breaking Bad” can be viewed either way, but what do the numbers say? Recent statistics show that, rather than increase since 2008, meth use has leveled off and even decreased in some areas. The number of meth users during the drug’s peak from 2002 to 2006 was around 700,000, but by 2012 that number had dropped to just over 400,000 users. In short, meth use rates have fallen while meth arrest rates have risen since “Breaking Bad” debuted. Officials won’t comment on whether the show has had any effect on the rates of meth use, but it’s unlikely that “Breaking Bad” has made a significant impact on its own.

Maybe in this case, as with other dramas involving crime or violence, silencing “Breaking Bad” may do more to avoid the issue of meth in this country than address it. While “Breaking Bad” glosses over reality a bit (as Hollywood tends to do), it still shines a light on a deadly substance and brings it into the national conversation. The protagonists may enjoy some brief shining moments, but at no point does this show illustrate methamphetamine in a positive light. Perhaps the best approach is to take the show’s popularity as an opportunity to communicate with your teen about the high risks of this dangerous substance, and that the reality is even worse than what you see on television.

There is still hope.

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