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Latinx On the Margins of American Television: Breaking Bad

Jack Love • Texas A&M University

AMC’s acclaimed television series Breaking Bad positions itself in a long line of media and other popular texts that address remnants of American colonial enterprise still prevalent today. The show follows Walter White’s (Brian Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman’s (Aaron Paul) descent into the criminal underworld of methamphetamines in the borderlands of New Mexico. Though the primary characters throughout the series are white, various Latinx figures appear on the margins of the story, pushing along White’s ultimate transformation to “break bad.” Most of the Latinx characters, apart from DEA agents Steve Gomez (Steven Michael Quezada) and Tortuga (Danny Trejo), appear as antagonists to Pinkman and White, or even as villains, in the vicious capitalistic drug trade that circulates transnationally. The interactions between White and the Latinx characters of the show reveal elements of a colonial ideology and mythic perception of the west that has been promoted among white Americans for centuries.

Breaking Bad participates in this discourse by marginalizing or refusing to fully characterize Latinx characters. While white characters receive full backstories that frequently justify their involvement in the meth world, their Latinx counterparts do not receive the same treatment. Additionally, Walt’s descent into the criminal underworld transforms him from a family man to a hyper-masculine villain. This transformation occurs as White interacts with Latinx characters whose masculinity is depicted as divergent from the hegemonic expectations of American society. He repeatedly defeats his counterparts in the drug business because he is better able to replicate an idealized form of American masculine identity. Breaking Bad upholds tropes developed from the colonial world through its use of an imperial gaze and affirmation of an American masculinity. However, it is also worth noting how the show criticizes American imperialism and domination in the borderlands of New Mexico. Vince Gilligan, the creator of the show, primarily does this by displaying White’s failure to conquer the meth empire at the hands of a white supremacist gang and through the complex characterization of the Afro-Latino kingpin, Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). Replacing cartel members with white supremacists in the final season of the show serves as a mirror to help the audience understand Walter White’s transformation. He is no better than Todd Alquist (Jesse Plemons) and Uncle Jack (Michael Bowen) who terrorize the protagonists throughout the final episodes with obscene acts of violence that outrival any previous conflict in prior seasons. Breaking Bad often projects stereotypes of Latinx characters by placing them on the margins of the story to allow for the white protagonists to possess a more centralized role; despite propagating an American colonial ideology, the show simultaneously criticizes it as the series progresses to the end of White’s story.

The main way the series marginalizes Latinx characters is through its unwillingness to explore their motives behind entering the drug trade. Audience members completely understand the motives of Walter White from the outset of the show. Viewers follow him from his cancer diagnosis to the announcement of that diagnosis that he makes to his family in a rather poignant scene. 1  Viewers also follow Walt as he joins his brother-in-law Hank on a ride-along to observe a DEA drug bust. 2  This, of course, serves as the motivating factor for him to enter the drug trade as a methamphetamine cook. The substantial money to be made from an illicit product sparks Walt’s interest as he worries about his family’s financial future in the wake of his absence. As an American man, he understands his role in gender dynamics as one who should be a provider. Michael Kimmel notes in his study on masculinity, “the one thing that has been non-negotiable” towards proving one’s manhood “has been that a real man provides for his family.” 3  Indeed, as many critics claim, the entirety of the series revolves around “Walter’s struggles to represent the traditional models of masculinity.” 4  He realizes that the money to be made in the drug trade will more than quadruple his meager salary as a high school chemistry teacher. Associating Breaking Bad with tropes of the American western, Ian Dawe suggests that Walt behaves as the archetypal family man throughout the show. He is a figure common in the American western “who stands on the barricades against the forces of chaos and natural decay.” 5  He fulfills this role by attempting to provide for his family, even assuming that they will not be able to sustain themselves after he succumbs to lung cancer. From this viewpoint, his violent and unlawful actions are justified because it is all to provide for his family unit. At least at first, he appears to be this figure, willing to do anything to provide financial security to his wife and children.

Walter is not the only white character who receives sustained attention. Other white men like Jesse Pinkman, Mike Ehrmantraut, and Saul Goodman (who has an entire spin-off series titled Better Call Saul) are provided with back stories that provide insight behind their choices. In each characters’ case, their backgrounds are explored, and the audience cares for them in their respective endeavors even as they commit heinous crimes. In one of his articles on the show, Mark Bernhardt provides an extensive list of minor white characters who receive some element of background either in Breaking Bad or one of the two spinoffs—Better Call Saul and El Camino. 6  This list, which includes seven characters, contrasts with the Latinx individuals in Gilligan’s universe. Though many do receive greater attention in the spinoffs, Latinx representation remains on the fringes of the series as a whole.

The audience is supposed to care for the white characters in the show and, as the critical acclaim testifies, Gilligan accomplishes this feat quite well. Gilligan’s series speaks to a trend in television media that Jason Ruiz terms the suburban crime drama. This subgenre essentially “grapple[s] with the seductive aspects of crime and explore[s] the ways in which crime does indeed pay even for characters who only haplessly enter that world.” 7  A key aspect of this style of television is the interracial interactions represented on-screen where a white protagonist—a typical suburban type who has jumped into the world of crime—frequently must work with or oppose a person of color who embodies a stereotype of the criminal underworld. 8  As such, the target audiences of suburban crime dramas are white Americans who can relate to the “simplicity” of the protagonist. Walter White is a high school chemistry teacher with a wife, two children, and a hefty medical bill that he cannot afford. Immediately, his characterization relates to most of white, suburban America. This subgenre then effectively relates to a dominant American audience while also reinforcing “underlying assumptions about Latinidad.” 9  By focusing exclusively on white characters throughout the series, the show positions the Latinx community on the margins as the criminal “Other” who acts in opposition to the white protagonist.

Walt and Jesse face a gauntlet of Latinx drug peddlers, hitmen, and kingpins who intensify as the show progresses throughout four of the five seasons. This gauntlet acts much like a type of game where the opposition progressively becomes more challenging as the main player moves through the various levels. Walt and Jesse start with low level dealers like Krazy 8 and work their way up into an international business that is managed by the coldblooded Gustavo Fring. Each of the Latinx dealers who Walt and Jesse face act out some stereotype engrained in the American imagination, even though many are multi-dimensional.

As mentioned above, the first contact White makes with the criminal underworld and meth empire is through a minor character named Krazy 8 (Maximino Arciniega). This drug dealer serves as a low-level peddler who works for the powerful Salamanca family on the northern side of the US-Mexico border. Like Walt and Jesse, Krazy 8 is just as vulnerable in the dangerous and violent drug market. After a mishandled drug exchange between the two parties, Walt utilizes his chemistry knowledge to set off a chemical reaction that incapacitates Krazy 8 and kills his partner, Emilio. 10  Walt and Jesse kidnap the dealer and hold him hostage while they consider their next plan of action. Taking a macabre turn, Walt finally determines they must kill Krazy 8 after realizing the young dealer has stashed a shard of shattered plate to use as a weapon of defense and escape. After an excruciating couple of episodes, Walt finally murders the desperate dealer, disposing of his body by dissolving it in hydrofluoric acid. 11  Jason Ruiz points out that this scene itself “became a source of fascination and disgust for early fans (and created a sensation that undoubtedly led to new fans).” 12  More importantly, the murders of Krazy 8 and Emilio illustrate “simply the first time in which Walt and Jesse meet terrifying Latino nemeses and then outsmart them. This enables them to survive and face the next in a succession of brown-skinned bad guys.” 13  Though only in Breaking Bad for the first three episodes (and his subsequent appearances in Better Call Saul), Krazy 8 introduces the audience to a series of Latinx criminals who oppose Walt and Jesse. His gruesome death is a catalyst that sets in motion the primary pattern of the show.

After taking down some of the Salamanca’s lowest dealers, Walt and Jesse then move to work in proximity with the infamous Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz). Though he only appears in four episodes, Cruz’s expert performance of this drug kingpin has produced some of the most memorable and frightening scenes throughout all Breaking Bad. Despite the captivating nature of Tuco Salamanca’s character, he is also the clearest stereotype of a Latino man in the entire show. Ruiz suggests that this kingpin “embodies a vision of out-of-control machismo that has long haunted representations of Latino men on (sic) film and television.” 14  Even Andrew Howe, who argues that all the Latinx characters in the series are complex, agrees that Tuco is quite clearly a caricature of “Mexican-ness.” 15  Tuco is first introduced on screen when Jesse visits the dealer at Walt’s directive to sell their product to his distribution network. Tuco, wearing a bright silver grill on his upper teeth, is protected by two other Latino men at an apartment complex. A pop tresillo beat plays in the background. The apartment building is covered in graffiti and wooden boards cover each of the windows. While conducting the negotiation, Tuco snorts some of the meth product that Pinkman brought along to sell, whooping in satisfaction at the quality of the drug. Already buzzed on the meth, Tuco grows irrationally angry when Jesse asks for the drug money up front. He stashes $35,000 cash in a pillowcase and beats Jesse ruthlessly with it as his bodyguards stand by, unaffected by their boss’ rage. 16  After violently proving his point, he screams at Pinkman, “Nobody moves crystal in the south valley but me, bitch!” 17  In another instance, Tuco incidentally murders one of his own bodyguards in front of Walt and Jesse for making a comment that appears to undermine his authority. 18  To make matters worse, his addiction to meth causes him to act out sporadically, killing and severely injuring several characters during his short run on the show without being fully cognizant of his actions. He is a representation of the “historical Latino criminal image […] exhibited through his machismo and uncontrollable rages.” 19  He follows a long line of Latinx criminal types, the most popular of which is Al Pacino’s performance of Tony Montana in Scarface. At no point during Tuco’s screen time does the audience receive a complex reason for his motives in participating in the drug trade. Rather, audiences become accustomed to viewing Latinx dealers as psychotic addicts who merely act violently to impose their authority and to attain money. Tuco enjoys the violence of the drug trade as much as he loves the drug itself.

Besides desire for authority and wealth, Ruiz also suggests that Tuco and the other members of his crime family act out of “a pathological devotion to family.” 20  While the value of family is a common trope in both Latinx media and crime drama, the Salamancas’ devotion stereotypes Latinx culture. Along with Tuco, his uncle and cousins act out violently due to their perceptions of family vengeance. They are consistently looking to “even the score” with their enemies whether it be the DEA agent who murders Tuco or competing drug dealers like Gustavo Fring. As the patriarch of the Salamanca family and uncle to Tuco, Marco, and Leonel, Hector’s view of vengeance replicates itself and even intensifies in his nephews. Though he is restricted to nonverbal communication in Breaking Bad, the rare instances where he plays a lead role displays his propensity for violence in the name of family. The prime example of this is Hector’s rivalry with Gustavo Fring that extends back to the 1989. 21  This feud ends twenty years later when Hector Salamanca, with help from Walt, crafts a bomb that he detonates, killing Gus and himself in the process. 22  Hector Salamanca commits suicide in his nursing home room to defeat his enemy and, because of Fring’s opposition to Walt, audience members welcome his violent demise regardless of the widescale destruction it causes.

This desire for revenge intensifies in Marco and Leonel Salamanca (Daniel and Luis Moncada), the stoic twins who seek retribution for the death of Tuco. Like Hector, they have no issue murdering others in cold blood—even migrants attempting to cross the US-Mexico border. 23  Their very appearance in Breaking Bad is predicated on Tuco’s death at the hands of Walter White (they later realize Hank, Walt’s brother-in-law and DEA agent, actually killed Tuco). In a striking opening scene in the third season of the show, the Salamanca twins participate in the Santa Muerte death ritual, placing the iconic illustration of White as his criminal alias, Heisenberg, at the death shrine. By doing this, the two are committed to hunting down White no matter the cost. Andrew Howe suggests this ritual adds a complexity to the Salamanca twins because “[m]ost narratives would not provide such insight into antagonists destined to inhabit only half a season.” 24  Because of this apparent complexity, Vince Gilligan “humanizes them by displaying an interesting character quirk, simultaneously shedding light upon another aspect of border culture.” 25  While it is true that this sequence delves into the background of the antagonists more than other narratives, it also relates back to white stereotypes that position the beliefs of both Spaniards and Indigenous peoples as fundamentally inferior to that of a white Protestantism. Placing the Santa Muerte scene as the teaser of the entire third season primarily accentuates that there is difference between the twins and Walter White. The audience is afraid for Walt’s safety even before he realizes the twins are after him.

Along with the difference in characters, the ritual scene reinforces tropes of the religious mysticism that white Americans have constructed as inferior to Protestantism. Howe notes that the Santa Muerte cult “is a hybridized collection of beliefs and rituals deriving from both European and non-European origins […] the combination here is Catholic and Meso-American, and the focus is very much upon death.” 26  For white Americans, this hybridization between Catholicism and Mesoamerican practice results in an inferior belief system to that of their own. According to Linda Fregoso, there is a direct link between the English-Spanish colonial rivalry and the variations of Latinx stereotypes in American popular culture. 27  Arnoldo De León also traces this pattern back to the early colonial period where “[t]he English mind readily thought in terms of a Catholic-Spanish alliance, conjured by Satan himself, from which nothing less than demonic designs could be expected.” 28  Additionally, 19th century white Americans were aware of the “Aztec practices of human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism” that they construed into a negative portrayal of Latinx people collectively. 29  As De León clearly explains, Latinx representation in the American imaginary stems from a conglomeration of the perceived negative attributes in these two distinct cultures. 30  In Breaking Bad, it is not the Santa Muerte death ritual itself that is an issue of representation but its placement as the opening scene of season three. By opening in this borderland space, Gilligan and the show’s other writers utilize a colonial trope to emphasize the looming threat to the white protagonists.

With each of the drug traders mentioned, audiences are often left to question if there is any reasoning in the motives of a character like Tuco Salamanca. Mark Bernhardt suggests that the show often gives “the impression that the drug trade’s money is an adequate explanation for all Latinx.” 31  In addition to the ludicrous profits in the trade, the Salamanca twins appear to be solely driven by their loyalty to family. While this may appear valid as it appears in other crime narratives like The Godfather, it pushes Latinx characters in the show to extreme courses of action. In every case, the motives of Latinx drug dealers are present but they are marginalized to make space for the dominant white character plotline. Therefore, Breaking Bad quite clearly has an imperial gaze. This gaze acts as “a structure of looking that provides a reductionist view of non-western peoples and nations, in that the Breaking Bad story is told from the perspective of white American who view Latinx character and Mexico through the lens of the drug trade.” 32  First termed by E Ann Kaplan, the imperial gaze is a theory applied to early 20th century American Hollywood. Kaplan distinguishes the term ‘gaze’ from ‘look,’ claiming that “looking will connote curiosity about the Other, a wanting to know…while the gaze…involve[s] extreme anxiety—an attempt in a sense not to know, to deny, in fact.” 33  In the show, this gaze both reinforces white centralization in the narrative and reveals the fact that Latinx characters do have backgrounds that are only ever explored through Walt, Jesse, and other white Americans.

The imperial gaze corresponds with Charles Ramirez Berg’s theory of the triangulated viewer that he discusses in Latino Images in Film. Berg’s use of triangulation derives from Murray Bowen’s theory first applied to family therapy in psychiatry. Bowen suggests that two dominant members of a family manage their anxiety and insecurity by finding a defect in a third, less powerful person in the group. 34  For example, a mother and father might harp on their child’s own faults to cope with their own anxieties surrounding parenthood. Applying this to film and television, Berg contends, “the classical Hollywood film sets up a stereotyping triangle with the dominant ideal […] at its positive apex, the stereotype in the negative corner, and the viewer as the third.” 35  As a result, “the viewer thus chooses a point of the triangle to identify with, one with which she has the most in common.” 36  Because Breaking Bad explores the depths of the white characters in the series, audiences are partially forced into supporting them throughout the story.

Often, Gilligan rather brilliantly places Walt and Jesse or Walt and his wife Skyler into conflict with one another in creative ways, further executing the triangulation process. Yet, viewers have the choice to support either character because of the depth each receives from the series’ plotline. In the case of a triangulation between the white protagonists and the Latinx marginal characters, Walt and Jesse win the support of the viewer in almost every instance. This triangulation is why Berg and most audience members side with Indiana Jones at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark rather than the Latinx guides who seemingly double-cross him. 37  Something similar is happening in Breaking Bad where the show repeatedly convinces viewers to side with the white protagonists who face off against the Latinx criminals of the methamphetamine underworld. They receive more screen time, leading the audience to identify with them on a much more frequent basis. Unlike Raiders of the Lost Ark, however, Breaking Bad suggests that all Latinx characters do have a background and a motivation, it is just rarely depicted on-screen.

A character study of Gustavo Fring provides a useful example of Berg’s triangulated viewer theory. As many critics have noted, Fring is by far the most intimidating and mysterious antagonist in the series. Indeed, Giancarlo Esposito’s performance is a large part of the reason why Breaking Bad has experienced so much success to this very day. It has led him to star in other antagonistic roles like his sinister portrayal of Moff Gideon in the Star Wars streaming series The Mandalorian. The mystery that surrounds his character in Breaking Bad, however, plays into the imperial gaze of the show, leaving “viewers unable to determine Latinx characters’ motives for involvement in the drug trade [which] keeps the focus on Walt’s story and his motives.” 38  He is a powerful individual whose presence often looms in the background of the show. He is a master manipulator and businessman who prides himself on his work ethic. His underlings, like Walt and Jesse, always meet with him on his terms, and he seems almost omniscient in his knowledge of the whereabouts and backgrounds of those who work for him. Additionally, various characters hint at Fring’s background throughout the show. 39  From these hints, viewers learn that Fring is a Chilean Afro-Latino who served in Augusto Pinochet’s regime during the late 20th century. Thus, he has a long experience with violence, authoritarian control, and brutality. Also, as the flashback sequence in episode eight of Season Four makes clear, Fring is a gay man. All these traits distinguish Gustavo from the other Latinx drug traders presented at earlier moments in the show. He is a brutal, Chilean expatriate who is also a homosexual man. He is a powerful drug trader, but he masks his identity by managing a chain of fast-food restaurants named Los Pollos Hermanos. His traits defy stereotypical representations of Latinx criminals and even drug kingpins in television media. The great villain in Breaking Bad diverges from flat representations of Latinx depicted through the Salamancas and Krazy 8. Yet, the audience only grasps Fring’s incredibly complex back story in a few thrilling episodes.

In the final episodes of season four (specifically episodes 8 through 10), Gustavo receives an extended focus through the show’s use of a flashback and his placement as a central character in the plot progression. In both instances, the setting of the narrative is placed in Mexico rather than its typical Albuquerque suburb. In fact, the only reason the show depicts the Northern Mexican countryside is due to Jesse’s forced migration at the request of Fring and the cartel elites in Mexico. While the flashback of Fring as a young drug trader only includes Latinx representation, the present-day narrative related to this past event is illustrated through Pinkman’s position in Mexico. Viewers begin to understand Fring’s motives for entering the drug trade in the season four episode titled “Hermanos.” 40  In a brief and violent flashback, a young Gustavo Fring and his partner Max meet with Hector Salamanca and Don Eladio (Steven Bauer) at a lavish villa in Northern Mexico. During their meeting, Don Eladio threatens Gus and Max for peddling meth products in his drug territory. When Max attempts to defend Gus, Hector Salamanca murders him at the behest of Eladio. In her study on masculinity in Breaking Bad, Jaime Pond argues that this tragic sequence emasculates Fring, which is the driving factor for his desire to obtain revenge. 41  Before Max’s death, Pond also notes that the partners “endure homophobic remarks and gestures from Hector.” 42  This flashback establishes Fring as a complex character with a unique background while also furthering Latinx tropes through Hector Salamanca’s extreme brutality. Nonetheless, this scene, along with Fring’s position in the series as chief antagonist for two seasons, “represents a shift in the show’s vision of Latinidad.” 43  He has faced horrific violence in his dealings with the cartel. As a result, his entire business enterprise revolves solely around a desire for revenge. Despite Fring’s complexity, viewers only see his revenge scheme come to fruition through the placement of white characters in the narrative.

Two episodes later, Fring, Jesse Pinkman, and Mike Ehrmantraut cross the US-Mexico border to discuss business with the leaders of the Mexican cartel, including Don Eladio. 44  Unlike the flashback, Gustavo’s revenge story is depicted because of Jesse’s position in the narrative. After all, the trio is only in Mexico because of the cartel’s interest in the blue meth product Walter and Jesse cook for Fring’s dealing industry. As the plot progresses, the three find themselves at the same villa of Don Eladio’s that appears in the flashback two episodes beforehand—the very place where Gus watched helplessly as his partner died. All the important cartel members attend to celebrate the acquisition and increased production of Walt’s blue meth product, which is viewed as a superior substance to other narcotics. Gustavo Fring presents Don Eladio with a bottle of tequila, proposing that the cartel members drink together in celebration of their acquisition. After Eladio warily watches Gus drink the first shot of the tequila, the rest of the cartel participates in the toast. Immediately after, Fring excuses himself from the party to go to the restroom where he promptly forces himself to vomit up the tequila that is poisoned. Meanwhile, the cartel members and Don Eladio succumb to the poisoned liquor all while Jesse sits beside the pool, watching each death in complete shock. What starts out as a typical representation of the drug empire is subverted into a chaotic episode where an outsider topples the most powerful men of an international business. 45  Throughout this entire sequence, viewers are often surprised by the satisfyingly vengeful plot twist, and they are likely to identify with Fring’s motives based on the flashback two episodes beforehand. Lara C. Stache argues that this episode “makes Gus slightly endearing” because the character takes a bold chance “for love of family, whether that comes in the form of a dear friend or a lover.” 46  What makes him even more endearing, perhaps, is that he also aids Pinkman and Mike Ehrmantraut as they make their grand escape from the villa back to the United States.

This episode, titled “Salud,” adds to Fring’s complexity. Fring is the main antagonist of Breaking Bad; he is arguably the biggest threat to Walt and Jesse even though he dies in the penultimate season. Yet, in “Salud,” viewers identify with him because of the greater brutality that Mexican cartel members like Hector Salamanca represent. In addition, Jesse’s placement as a spectator of this revenge poisoning further encourages viewers to side with Gustavo. Though they are enemies in New Mexico, Jesse clearly perceives Don Eladio’s traders as greater threats than Fring because of their status as Mexican nationals. Hence, viewers of the show watch the sequence of events through Jesse’s perspective. The triangulation is set; Fring becomes the archetypal hero, the Mexican dealers are the villainous stereotypes, and the audience is represented on screen by Jesse Pinkman. As Berg suggests, “in any given film, a choice between hero and stereotype is offered the viewer, and the viewer makes a decision each time the archetype is confronted or juxtaposed with any character.” 47  Through Berg’s theory of triangulation, Gustavo Fring becomes the centralized hero who the audience and Jesse Pinkman identify with in opposition to the Mexican cartel. Thus, even in Mexico where an Afro-Latino character plays the major role, the gaze of the series remains white or imperial with hints of Jason Ruiz’s definition of the suburban crime drama. Pinkman “become[s] self-consciously white” in his role as spectator throughout “Salud.” 48  Consequently, the details of Fring’s background simply function as a method to further explore the brutality of the Latinx drug trade and their supposed difference between white suburban characters like Pinkman and Walter White. Directly after Fring’s main moment of heroics, he returns to the margins as the mysterious boss who threatens Walter White’s wellbeing and life.

Interestingly, the episodes “Hermanos” and “Salud” are incredibly popular among fans of Breaking Bad. IMDb ranks “Salud” the tenth best episode in the series with an overall rating of 9.6 out of 10 stars. 49  While Fring is a mysterious figure in Breaking Bad, viewers do receive more information on him in the prequel series Better Call Saul. This is due in large part to the critical acclaim and thrill of this single Breaking Bad plot alone; Don Eladio, Hector Salamanca, and even Fring’s deceased partner Max all play larger roles in Better Call Saul. The Mexican cartel side story completely interrupts Walt’s transformation to “break bad,” and yet many find this story just as compelling. All of this simply proves that Gustavo Fring is a well-crafted character who fans deeply enjoy seeing on screen with or without white characters serving as buffers to his background and motives.

White’s struggle for dominance against Fring from seasons two to four best displays American hegemonic masculinity at work in Breaking Bad. R.W. Connell claims hegemonic masculinity “represents not a certain type of man but, rather, a way that men position themselves through discursive practices.” 50  Pond elaborates on this idea. She writes, hegemonic masculinity “is based on someone’s race, social class, age, sexuality, physique, as well as someone’s ability to abide by society’s gender expectations.” 51  Their violent rivalry is best summarized as White’s determination to assert his American masculinity over Gustavo Fring’s Latinx identity. Pond also suggests that “hegemonic masculinity presupposes a subordinate ‘other,’ sometimes because of various characteristics like age, race, or behavior.” 52  From this perspective, Walt’s attempt to defeat Gustavo is essentially an effort to prove his own American masculinity by pointing to another’s inferiority. In the end, Walt defeats Gus by utilizing stereotyped tropes of Latinidad to turn his allies against him.

Throughout Fring’s run on the show, he appears as a manifestation of American masculinity. Andrew Howe suggests, “Other than the color of his skin, Fring is generally portrayed as a sort of mainstream white character.” 53  At his fast-food restaurant, he establishes a fastidious and controlling work ethic, expecting all his employees to meet a high standard. He is almost always dressed in traditional western clothing—a tie with a button-down shirt tucked into slacks. Also, his service to the Albuquerque community as a business owner allows him to hide in plain sight, unlike other drug traders in the show. He even caters an event for the DEA at one point in the show. 54

Along with his physical appearance, Gustavo seems to uphold an American masculinist ideology. When attempting to convince Walt to work for him, Fring asks, “What does a man do for his family, Walt? A man provides for his family.” 55  This statement, of course, convinces White to enter Fring’s business as his exclusive meth cook—a decision he quickly regrets. Despite these features, Gus does not subscribe to an American masculine identity as Andrew Howe suggests. He is merely playing a part to protect his drug business, and he does quite well for himself by “acting American.” At no point in the narrative, for instance, do law enforcement agents ever come close to connecting him to the massive meth empire in New Mexico. He acts differently with his Latinx colleagues and even Jesse Pinkman, who does not inhabit the same masculinist space as his meth-cooking counterpart. By behaving in this way, Fring is a larger threat because he appears to inhabit the same space as White in the precarious world of methamphetamines. Whereas White defeats previous Latinx traders with relative ease, Fring poses a real challenge whenever the two come into conflict. Thus, Walt seeks to distinguish himself from Fring in a manner best articulated by Homi K. Bhabha’s conception of mimicry. Bhabha writes,

Colonial mimicry is the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite. Which is to say, that the discourse of mimicry is constructed around an ambivalence; in order to be effective, mimicry must continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference. 56

Walt is confounded by his apparent sameness to Gustavo Fring. Consequently, he fabricates a difference between himself and Fring to soothe his anxiety and to exert his own dominance over the Afro-Latino kingpin.

White fabricates this difference between himself and Gus by manipulating Jesse, the next most powerful drug dealer in New Mexico, with a moral dilemma involving children in the drug trade—a recurring plot device in Breaking Bad. In three separate occurrences, children are either murdered or severely harmed because of their interference in the business. This recurring theme first appears in Season Three when Combo Ortega (Rodney Rush), a young man who deals meth for Walt and Jesse on the streets of Albuquerque, is shot in the chest by a Latinx boy named Tómas (Angelo Martinez), who is working for low-level dealers under the authority of Fring. 57  The events that follow this murder deeply disturb Pinkman, causing him to act rashly out of a sense of moral duty to protect the innocence of children. Though both Jesse and Walt survive their encounter with the low-level dealers who employ Tómas, neither character forgets that some within Gus’ drug network utilize children to commit violent felonies.

At the end of season four, as the conflict between the two men intensifies, Walt enacts his plan of differentiation by returning to child harm in the drug trade. Learning that Fring intends to replace him with Jesse, Walt attempts to convince his former partner to protect him from the powerful kingpin. He knows Fring has no problem murdering those who become useless or problematic to the success of his business. When Walt arrives at Jesse’s house to plead for his safety, Andrea (Jesse’s girlfriend) and her son Brock are inside spending time with the younger drug dealer. 58  After Jesse rejects Walt’s desperate pleas, the episode ends on a thrilling note that suggests Walt’s chances of survival are slim. Yet, in the very next episode, Jesse finds Andrea at the hospital with her young son struggling to recover from an apparent poisoning. 59  Jesse immediately realizes that Walt is responsible since the two came into brief contact just a day beforehand. Confronting Walt at gunpoint with tears in his eyes, Jesse nearly murders his former partner for such a horrific deed. Walt evades the blame by claiming that Gus is responsible for the poisoning. He says, “Who do you know who’s okay with using children, Jesse? Who do you know who has allowed children to be murdered? Hmm? Gus!” 60  This logic convinces Jesse based on his previous experience in Season Three with Tómas and some of Fring’s low-level traders. From this point, Jesse agrees to help Walt defeat Gus, and they ultimately succeed by the end of the season. A difference between the two men is established; Gustavo harms children to seize absolute power whereas Walt would not even consider such an immoral act. He even asks Jesse, “Why, in God’s name, would I poison a child?” 61  What is so sinister about this confrontation between the two protagonists is that Walt did poison Brock to manipulate Jesse. Indeed, Jesse accurately explains how White accomplishes this action at the beginning of the thrilling scene. The younger dealer knows his former partner better than even he realizes. Yet, this massive revelation for Jesse and the viewer of the show occurs a season later after the meth-cook duo has usurped Fring’s place at the top of the drug empire.

White’s actions in these pivotal moments of the series reveal two aspects of colonial discourse in Breaking Bad. First, by convincing Jesse that Gus would stoop to such a low level, Walt employs Latinx stereotypes to create a sense of anxiety between the two white characters. Walt’s use of immorality as a signifier of Latino masculinity to persuade Jesse exhibits how white American men feel “always under threat from races and cultures beyond the border of the frontier.” 62  Second, by actually being responsible for Brock’s poisoning, Walt demonstrates his commitment to a hegemonic form of masculine identity. As Pond argues, “For a man, like Walter White, violence becomes an essential part of proving his masculinity and his status and authority within this stratified system.” 63  Therefore, his violence is simply an effect of his attempt to attain an idealized American masculinity that champions providing for one’s family and dominating “racial others” at whatever the cost. Homi K. Bhabha contends that “the objective of colonial discourse is to construe the colonized as a population of degenerate types on the basis of racial origin, in order to justify conquest.” 64  Walt succeeds in this endeavor once he finally defeats Gustavo at the end of the fourth season, becoming the dominant kingpin of the American southwest. Though Breaking Bad undoubtedly marginalizes Latinx characters throughout the series, Walt’s descent into corruption is a criticism of a fully formed American masculinity derivative of colonialism.

Throughout the Brock poisoning subplot, Jesse Pinkman functions as a representation of the viewer just as he did in “Salud.” When he is first manipulated by Walt in Season Four, so is the audience. In Season Five, the audience realizes Walt is the culprit behind Brock’s near-death experience when Jesse unravels the mystery. 65  If Jesse is the viewer in Berg’s triangle, then White embodies the archetype, and Fring is relegated to the out-group, other position. According to Berg, “Triangling helps ensure that the maximum number of viewers are fused […] into the narrative the ‘right’ way—pro the Anglo dominant and contra the Other.” 66  In the season four scene where Jesse is convinced of Gustavo’s culpability, it is because Walt’s fabricated story “is the most comfortable choice to take.” 67  He trusts White despite their many conflicts, especially when his only other choice is an ominous Chilean drug kingpin who is brutal in his own way. By essentially forcing the audience to side with the true villain, the triangulated dynamic between White, Fring, and Pinkman becomes an inversion of Berg’s original. Jesse and the audience are led to identify with White because he has been the hero throughout each season of the show. Walt even takes advantage of this fact, playing up his morality to evade Jesse’s accusation. Likewise, Gustavo Fring has been the villain in almost every instance and scenario, barring his brief trip to Mexico. Though both are morally corrupt, White is the greater villain at this point in Breaking Bad, but it is only in the fifth and final season that this becomes clear. In this way, the show critiques colonial narratives by forcing the audience to support White despite his depravity.

The fifth and final season of Breaking Bad requires an analysis of its own. Whereas the first four seasons deal with Walt and Jesse’s conflict with Latinx drug dealers, Season Five almost completely erases any Latinx presence and replaces them with white supremacist gangs. Though the complete removal of Latinx representation in the show has its own problems, by placing white supremacists as the final foe for Walter White, Breaking Bad offers another criticism of the American borderlands. After defeating each Latinx dealer through his adherence to American masculinity, Walt stands face-to-face with men who reflect his extremist ideology. He only briefly realizes the implications of such a world during the tragic yet satisfying conclusion to the series.

Walt’s tragic end leads Mark Bernhardt to claim that Breaking Bad participates in the colonial regeneration through violence myth proposed by Richard Slotkin. According to Slotkin,

The first colonists saw in America an opportunity to regenerate their fortunes, their spirits, and the power of their church and nation; but the means to that regeneration ultimately became the means of violence, and the myth of regeneration through violence became the structuring metaphor of the American experience. 68

This American myth certainly appears in Breaking Bad. Like early fictional representations of American colonists, White repeatedly defeats people of color through his adaptability, intelligence, and ability to adhere to a certain type of masculinity. In each of his victories, he gains wealth, masculine egotism, and even greater respect from his family members. Yet, the show upholds the myth not to valorize it like earlier narratives. On the contrary, Breaking Bad maintains the Slotkin myth to indicate the white supremacist reality of this pervasive American metaphor. As he continues down the path of crime, White loses his wealth, his masculine egotism, and especially the respect of his family. As he slowly loses everything, he only grows more ruthless and violent. Bernhardt claims that the show deconstructs this metaphor by demonstrating “that [White] is no less violently savage than those he condemns, and he dies as a result right along with them.” 69  While this is true, Breaking Bad deconstructs the regeneration through violence theory by rigidly adhering to its principles. As he defeats his Latinx opponents in the drug trade, White finally reaches the height of the industry only for his work to be destroyed by other white men who challenge his authority. His progression in the drug trade and his assertion of white masculinity sets him on a collision course with others like him, which proves that violence only engenders more violence rather than any form of regeneration. In Slotkin’s paradigm, White might assert his dominance over “racial others,” but this merely leads him to conflict with white supremacist gangs behaving in the exact same way. While the complete erasure of Latinx characters is an odd narrative choice in the final season, it ultimately uncovers how Walt’s rise to dominance in the meth world is embedded in an imperialist framework that favors those who can best subscribe to American hegemony.

Breaking Bad remains one of the most popular and critically acclaimed American television shows of all time. Its popularity led Vince Gilligan to produce two spin-offs that add to the violent universe and better explore the complexities of various characters who appear in the original series. Overall, the series is a complicated piece of media that both critiques American colonial ideology while remaining reliant on it. Characters like the Salamanca family resemble Latinx stereotypes that extend back to the old Hollywood of the 20th century. Gustavo Fring has a complicated background that is only explored in the presence or at the request of white protagonists. Latinx characters remain in marginalized positions throughout the show’s five seasons. Yet, by the end of the show, Walt’s rise to power demonstrates how American masculinity and myth is simply a romanticized version of white supremacy.


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Bernhardt, Mark. “‘What Do You Think It Is That Makes Them Who They Are’? The Connections between Latinx Stereotypes, Claims of White Difference, and Characters’ Deaths in Breaking Bad.” Critical Studies in Television 16, no. 3 (2021): 245-63. .

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  • Breaking Bad, season 1, episode 4, “Cancer Man,” directed by Jim McKay, written by Vince Gilligan, aired February 17, 2008 on AMC.
  • Breaking Bad, season 1, episode 1, “Pilot,” directed by Vince Gilligan, written by Vince Gilligan, aired January 20, 2008 on AMC.
  • Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America: A Cultural History, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University, 2006), 17.
  • Brian Faucette, “Taking Control: Male Angst and The Re-Emergence of Hegemonic Masculinity in ‘Breaking Bad,’” in Breaking Bad: Critical Essays on the Contexts, Politics, Style, and Critical Reception of the Television Series, ed. David Pierson (Blue Ridge Summit, PA: Lexington Books, 2014), 72.
  • Ian Dawe, “Western Men: Breaking Bad’s Outlaws and Family Men,” in Masculinity in Breaking Bad: Critical Perspectives, ed. Bidget Russell Cowlishaw (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2015), 46.
  • Mark Bernhardt, “‘What Do You Think It Is That Makes Them Who They Are’? The Connections between Latinx Stereotypes, Claims of White Difference, and Characters’ Deaths in Breaking Bad,” Critical Studies in Television 16, no. 3, (2021): 251.
  • Jason Ruiz, “Dark Matters: Vince Gilligan’s BREAKING BAD, Suburban Crime Dramas, and Latinidad in the Golden Age of Cable Television,” AZTLÁN 40, no. 1, (2015): 42.
  • Ruiz, “Dark Matters,” 43.
  • Ruiz, “Dark Matters,” 41, italics in original.
  • Breaking Bad, season 1, episode 1.
  • Breaking Bad, season 1, episode 3, “…And the Bag’s in the River,” directed by Adam Bernstein, written by Vince Gilligan, aired February 10, 2008 on AMC.
  • Ruiz, “Dark Matters,” 46.
  • Ruiz, “Dark Matters,” 46.
  • Ruiz, “Dark Matters,” 47.
  • Andrew Howe, “Not Your Average Mexican: Breaking Bad and the Destruction of Latino Stereotypes,” in Breaking Bad: Critical Essays on the Contexts, Politics, Style, and Reception of the Television Series, ed. David Pierson (Blue Ridge Summit, PA: Lexington Books, 2014), 85.
  • Breaking Bad, season 1, episode 6, “Crazy Handful of Nothin’,” directed by Bronwen Hughes, written by George Mastras, aired March 2, 2008 on AMC.
  • Breaking Bad, season 1, episode 6.
  • Breaking Bad, season 1, episode 7, “A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal,” directed by Tim Hunter, written by Peter Gould, aired March 9, 2008 on AMC.
  • Bernhardt, “‘What Do You Think It Is That Makes Them Who They Are’?”, 252.
  • Ruiz, “Dark Matters,” 51.
  • Breaking Bad, season 4, episode 8, “Hermanos,” directed by Johan Renck, written by Sam Catlin and George Mastras, aired September 4, 2011 on AMC.
  • Breaking Bad, season 4, episode 13, “Face Off,” directed and written by Vince Gilligan, aired October 9, 2011 on AMC.
  • Breaking Bad, season 3, episode 1, “No Más,” directed by Bryan Cranston, written by Vince Gilligan, aired March 21, 2010 on AMC.
  • Howe, “Not Your Average Mexican,” 88.
  • Howe, “Not Your Average Mexican,” 88.
  • Howe, “Not Your Average Mexican,” 88.
  • Linda Fregoso, The Bronze Screen: Chicana and Chicano Film Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1993), 29.
  • Arnoldo De León, They Called Them Greasers: Anglo Attitudes Towards Mexicans in Texas, 1821 – 1900 (Austin, TX: University of Texas, 1983), 4.
  • De León, They Called Them Greasers, 69.
  • De León, They Called Them Greasers, 69.
  • Bernhardt, “‘What Do You Think It Is That Makes Them Who They Are’?”, 253.
  • Bernhardt, “‘What Do You Think It Is That Makes Them Who They Are’?”, 246.
  • E Ann Kaplan, Looking for the Other: Feminism, Film and the Imperial Gaze (Oxford: Routledge, 1997), xvii.
  • Murray Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (Lanham, MD: Jason Aronson, 1978), 199.
  • Charles Ramirez Berg, Latino Images in Film: Stereotypes, Subversion, Resistance (Austin, TX: University of Texas, 2002), 62.
  • Berg, Latino Images in Film, 62.
  • Berg, Latino Images in Film, 58.
  • Bernhardt, “‘What Do You Think It Is That Makes Them Who They Are’?”, 253.
  • Howe, “Not Your Average Mexican,” 87.
  • Breaking Bad, season 4, episode 8.
  • Jaime Pond, “‘You Can Go Fuck Yourself!’: Precarious Masculinity, Emasculation, Sexuality, and Violencein Breaking Bad,” Sociation Today 18, no. 1 (2019): 6.
  • Pond, “ ‘You Can Go Fuck Yourself!’”, 6.
  • Ruiz, “Dark Matters,” 54, italics in original.
  • Breaking Bad, season 4, episode 10, “Salud,” directed by Michelle MacLaren, written by Peter Gould and Gennifer Hutchinson, aired September 18, 2011 on AMC.
  • Howe, “Not Your Average Mexican,” 88.
  • Lara C. Stache, Breaking Bad: A Cultural History (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), 126.
  • Berg, Latino Images in Film, 63.
  • Ruiz, “Dark Matters,” 43.
  • IMDb, “With Breaking Bad (2008) (Sorted by IMDb Rating Descending,” IMDb, .
  • R.W. Connell and J.W. Messerschmidt, Hegemonic Masculinity – Rethinking the Concept,” Gender & Society 19, no. 6 (2005): 841.
  • Pond, “ ‘You Can Go Fuck Yourself!’”, 3 - 4.
  • Pond, “ ‘You Can Go Fuck Yourself!’”, 5.
  • Howe, “Not Your Average Mexican,” 86.
  • Breaking Bad, season 3, episode 8, “I See You,” directed by Colin Bucksey, written by Gennifer Hutchinson, aired May 9, 2010 on AMC.
  • Breaking Bad, season 3, episode 5, “Más,” directed by Johan Renck, written by Moira Walley-Beckett, aired April 18, 2010 on AMC.
  • Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (Oxford: Routledge, 1994), 86, italics in original.
  • Breaking Bad, season 3, episode 11, “Abiquiu,” directed by Michelle MacLaren, written by John Shiban and Thomas Schnauz, aired May 30, 2010 on AMC.
  • Breaking Bad, season 4, episode 11, “Crawl Space,” directed by Scott Winant, written by George Mastras and Sam Catlin, aired September 25, 2011 on AMC.
  • Breaking Bad, season 4, episode 12, “End Times,” directed by Vince Gilligan, written by Moira Walley-Beckett and Thomas Schnauz, aired October 2, 2011 on AMC.
  • Breaking Bad, season 4, episode 12.
  • Breaking Bad, season 4, episode 12.
  • Bhabha, The Location of Culture, 69.
  • Pond, “ ‘You Can Go Fuck Yourself!’”, 4.
  • Bhabha, The Location of Culture, 70.
  • Breaking Bad, season 5, episode 11, “Confessions,” directed by Michael Slovis, written by Gennifer Hutchinson, aired August 25, 2013 on AMC.
  • Berg, Latino Images in Film, 64, italics in original.
  • Berg, Latino Images in Film, 64.
  • Richard Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600 – 1860 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma, 1973), 5.
  • Bernhardt, “‘What Do You Think It Is That Makes Them Who They Are’?”, 247.