Why We Love Breaking Bad, Reason #4: Symbols of Contamination and Corruption

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Maybe this is why “I” love the show? And perhaps I’ve been too presumptuous all along about what “we” (meaning you) love? Hello? Eh. I’m taking liberties here with the quiet crowd. 

Corruption.

It’s there from the beginning of the show with all the references to the “purity” of the chemical process—ironic, of course, since the purer the meth, the more corrupt its creator becomes. And, of course, outside the neat and tidy meth lab, we see how the other half lives: the dirty and run-down tenement housing, and the squatting meth-heads whose bodies and faces are covered in oozing sores (see “Peekaboo,” 2.6, and “Cornered,” 4.6)—the end result of Walt’s chemistry genius.

The many images of ruined toys or children’s playthings, during the build up to the cataclysmic denouement in Season 2, suggest—at least for me—some sort of message about the corruption of the young. Of course, that mangled B&W teddy bear stands out above all: the half burnt face, the protruding tongue, and the missing eye. After finding the teddy bear’s detached eye in his pool filter, Walt keeps it with him for some reason, though we might trace it to his conscience, and it could also relate to the constant feeling of being watched.

“Fly” (3.10) is one of the more important episodes about corruption, though it seems, on the surface, a silly, frustrating episode. In it, a fly enters Gus Fring’s super meth lab, and Walt becomes obsessed with eliminating it to avoid “contamination.” It’s probably one of the funniest episodes since it depends so heavily on physical or slapstick humour (including Walt’s bumbling efforts to kill the fly, which lead him to spend the night in the lab after he takes a header off one of the chambers). But the episode does lots of interesting things, not the least of which is a subtle commentary on the show’s focus on spiritual contamination. And the giddy/freaky thing about the camera work in the episode is that we get the fly’s point of view—and, what’s worse, get to hear the sound of the fly scratching itself. Yuck. Talk about contamination.

The Albuquerque desert itself can be associated with the wasteland of morality—a sort of corrupt, fallen world that we see in The Sopranos, though creator David Chase had used the soulless industrial parks and suburban life of New Jersey to explore this theme. The desert is a punishingly hot, merciless landscape, and makes a perfect setting in Breaking Bad, which is a series about crime and punishment, murder and revenge, and the “hollow men” that T. S. Eliot spoke of in his poem of the same name. And Walt, physically corrupted by cancer and morally corrupted by pride, is an appropriate inhabitant of this wasteland.

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