Breaking Down Breaking Bad’s War on Drugs

by Ian Golan

With the last season of Better Call Saul slowly coming to fruition (its finale premiere is set for the 15th of August) we may soon witness the last installment of Vince Gilligan’s franchise. The cinematic universe of New Mexican drug cartels at first seems close to libertarian sensibilities. Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, and El Camino paint a gory picture of the war on drugs in its full glory. Our kind may even be quite pleased with the self-identification of one of the more admirable characters on the show as libertarian. However, it is impossible not to notice that despite all this, Breaking Bad creators diverge into dubious territory in their depiction of the war on drugs.

The portrayal of the police forces in Vince Gilligan’s series is quite convoluted. On one hand, we have quite a few moments revealing abuse from the police experienced by average citizens. Walter White gets stopped by a cop for a cracked windshield, as the window was destroyed by the debris from a plane crash above Albuquerque. The police officer, while virtue signaling his care about the catastrophe with a ribbon on his uniform, pepper sprays Walt for pointing out his hypocrisy. Police entitlement is also well illustrated in the case of Huell, who hits an aggressive cop with a bag containing a sandwich and is threatened with a year in prison, from which he is spared only through Saul’s cunning letter campaign ploy. 

On the other hand, we have the case of Hank Schrader. The evil incarnate, dad-joke-spouting officer of the Drug Enforcement Agency, who is not afraid to break any civil rights in service of the state, his career, and vengeance, should be perceived at best as malevolent. Is that how the show depicts the abusive DEA agent? Well, no. A viewer is unlikely to leave the show with the impression that Hank Schrader is the malicious character in the story. 

Agent Schrader is portrayed in a humane, relatable manner, framed as an overall good character, and given a badass way to die. Yet a deeper analysis of his actions must shatter that image. He is the one willing to destroy Badger’s life to catch Heisenberg. He is the enforcer of drug criminalization, bringing the misery of cartels upon New Mexican society. The jovial cop is, without doubt, the most evil villain of all characters in Gilligan’s universe, and we have a bunch of neo-Nazis in there. He abuses his power and attempts to break into Jessie’s camper without a warrant. When confronted by the owner of the parking lot, he lies about probable cause to achieve his utterly wicked goals. When the youngster escapes, Schrader arrives at Jessie’s house and beats him until he loses consciousness. In his hunt for Heisenberg, Hank has little concern for the well-being of his closest family. He manipulates Skyler with an interrogation in the casual environment of a diner, and when she wants to ask for a lawyer, he tries to dissuade her from seeking legal counsel. As a cop, he knows quite well that the presence of a lawyer is always beneficial to the interrogated party. 

The grand picture does not improve the moral assessment of his character either. The DEA – being the organ responsible for the existence of cartels that could never form in a world without the war on drugs – is literally responsible for the atrocious acts committed by Gus, the Salamanca family, and Walter White. Without the black-market profits, the Salamanca clan could never become the mafia empire terrorizing New Mexico. Without the DEA, drugs would be significantly safer to consume and addicts could find required help, as shown by the stunning example of Portugal’s drug decriminalization. Jovial Hank is as guilty of Jane’s death as Jessie’s chemistry teacher. The show lays before us all the evil of drug abolition and fails to link it to the drug abolitionists.

Despite being an enthusiast of the Breaking Bad universe, I struggle with conceptualizing the moral of the story Gilligan wants to set out through different characters, but especially Walter White. The chemistry teacher’s story is supposed to show how even the slightest stray from a lawful citizen – a small step in the direction of the evil world of the black market – can quickly result in disastrous consequences. However, that is far removed from the reality of our world. The black market is not some immoral realm inhabited by evil spirits, but just an exchange occurring against government wishes. The possibility of transactions outside the control of the state keeps even the more totalitarian governments at bay. As Ayn Rand said: “The question is not who is going to let me; it is who is going to stop me?”

The black market perfectly adheres to such a principle.

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