Breaking Bad and Disability Narratives

I tried to watch Breaking Bad years ago with the rest of you, but as the story quickly unfolded around questions of disability and cancer, I had to stop, for personal family reasons.

Now, the show long over and the spoilers nicely spoiled, I’m trying again (on the treadmill). Disability informs so much of the show in complex, and somewhat troubling ways.

Here’s a critique by disability studies scholar Stephen Kuusisito [my emphasis]

It’s hard to like cancer. But aside from the whack-a-mole portentousness of Walter’s diagnosis, the narrative incitement of “Breaking Bad” has everything to do with dark agency: accordingly the show depends on unabashed ableism. By this I don’t mean simple “discrimination in favor of able bodied people” but what David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder call “narrative prosthesis”–disability as a vehicle employed to reinforce normalcy. Narrative prosthesis deflects the abnormal body by dramatizing its unseemliness and presuming its incompatibility with our better natures. This is “Breaking Bad” in a nutshell.

What makes narrative prosthesis palatable? The answer (as Dickens well knew) is the Tiny Tim effect–the cripple must stand for something larger or more urgent “right now” in culture. You might not ordinarily think of Walter White and Tiny Tim in the same room, and if you were inclined to think of Tiny Tim at all in the context of “Breaking Bad” you would most likely imagine Walter’s son Walter Junior who is portrayed as having mild cerebral palsy. This is a clever prosthetic red herring, a ruse on crutches, for Walter is Tiny Tim in the purest sense: he reflects cultural ideas about illness. Why? Because his diagnosis is inseparable from his latent capacity for dishonesty and cruelty–a matter the show labors to prove throughout its first season as we see him despise friends and former business partners and family members who wish to help him. He’s Ahab with cancer and no health plan and a chemistry degree. He’s a figure for our times: smart, ironic, bitter, a little crazy, shrewd, vengeful, oddly nostalgic for his nuclear family, entirely creepy. But while the show strives to make these qualities digestible its larger Aristotelian template is a simple reduction of ableist ideas about serious illness. Everyone will be made ill by Walter. Everyone is rendered a cripple by Walter from his brother in law the DEA agent to his wife to Jessie Pinkman. And this is the oldest and most repulsive idea about cancer of them all. Cancer as metaphor. Intoxicating. Everyone alive with vices. Even the environment has cancer. The houses. When ableism really works its best magic the city is cancer. As Sontag says: “Before the city was understood as, literally, a cancer causing (carcinogenic) environment, the city was seen as itself a cancer–a place of abnormal, unnatural growth, and extravagant, devouring, armored passions.”

So, that’s a pretty harsh indictment.

I’ve only seen the first few episodes, so have no real comment yet, other than finding the performative masculinity linked with ableist dialogue interesting (and pretty sure it was an intentional move on the part of the writers).

What else should I read about it?

One Reply to “Breaking Bad and Disability Narratives”

  1. Lydia X. Z. Brown says:

    Shain and I are watching it now, started a few weeks ago and are about two thirds of the way through the fourth season. We've both had a lot of thoughts around the show's portrayal of disability and representations of ableism and ableist representations. I will likely write more when we're done.

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