Walter White and the American Dream

Walter White and the Demise of the American Dream

By: Zack Bartee

I dreamt I owned an antique bicycle repair shop. In Ireland. Weird.” –Walter White[1]

While Walter White dismisses his dream as “weird” in the episode “Down,” the quote provides an interesting look into Walter’s psyche, whether conscious or subconscious. Walter is a man whose life has not lived up to his own expectations—a brilliant chemist who formerly worked at a prestigious Albuquerque laboratory and cofounded what eventually became a three billion dollar company, only to take a meager buyout before the company went public, we meet Walter when he is a disillusioned high school chemistry teacher working a second job as an unskilled laborer at a car wash to make ends meet for his working class family. Upon collapsing at the car wash and finding out he has lung cancer, Walter travels down a path that leads him to cook crystal meth with one of his former disinterested chemistry students, Jesse Pinkman, under the conviction—and possibly self-delusion—that he is doing so to provide a secure future for his family after he succumbs to the cancer. His public life appears unremarkable in virtually every way—notwithstanding his secret life as a meth cook—and I will make the argument that Walter’s dream is his own mind attributing his mediocre lot in life to the destruction of the American middle class, desiring instead to return to a pre-industrial age where he could be recognized for intellect and leave a lasting legacy.

When first examining Walter’s dream, I focus on the fact that he owned the hypothetical antique bicycle repair shop. The tired cliché of the American Dream holds that any man or woman can achieve success in life with hard work and some form of intellect or talent, regardless of the circumstances into which they are born. America held dear “the ground of hope… Knowing that, with a small turn of fortune’s wheel, they way exchange places, the master sees his former self in the servant, and the servant sees his future in the master.”[2] Pre-modern American culture was one “in which the vagaries of hard work are celebrated as indicators of social worth”[3] and for quite some time, this idea of American Dream held true. Many blue-collar workers were able to earn a middle-class living and provide for their families by performing relatively unskilled labor. However, as industrialization swept the United States and work processes became increasingly standardized or even mechanized,[4] the value of the services performed by these laborers substantially fell and a bug infected the American Dream: social mobility had become a myth.

Roland Jarvis, a meatpacker at Iowa Ham in Oelwein, Iowa, earned 18 dollars an hour with full union membership and benefits—compensation that afforded Jarvis, a high school dropout, a rather comfortable middle-class living.[5] However, as the wheels of modernization continued to churn, the company was purchased by Gillette, which promptly dismantled the union, eliminated benefits, and trimmed labor costs from 18 dollars to 6.20 dollars an hour.[6] Jarvis, like many blue-collar workers, quickly fell out of the middle class as modern corporations, favoring speed and thinness, sought to “cut out the fat” (excess costs) for greater efficiency and profits.[7]

This story of modernization is the same bug that affects Walter White. His job as a public high school teacher has been largely standardized by textbooks and government benchmarks, resulting in a genius chemist teaching disinterested teenagers for a meager wage. Furthermore, Walter’s second job at the carwash is a portrait of standardization. Whereas cars were once washed by hand with care, they are now washed largely by machine, with Walter performing menial labor processes that could also likely be performed by machine as well. These jobs might have been enough for Walter to live comfortably in the middle class before modernization, but standardization has relegated Walter to eke out a living in the working class.

In modern America, blue-collar, labor-intensive work has been eschewed for technology, homogenization, and the “scientific management” practices of industry.[8] The American Dream of the unskilled laborer working their way out of the working class to success no longer holds true. Frederick Winslow Taylor, a pioneer of the movement to scientific management, “leaves no doubt about his disdain for workers.” On blue-collar pig-iron handlers, Taylor says, “‘This work is so crude and elementary in its nature that the writer firmly believes that it would be possible to train an intelligent gorilla so as to become a more efficient pig-iron handler than any man can be.”[9]

Taking the place formerly occupied by blue-collar hard work in the myth of the American Dream, managers and particularly entrepreneurs—the owners of the means of productions—are celebrated in modern American culture for their ability to achieve efficiency and success. This is where Walter White “owning” the antique bicycle repair shop in his dream becomes significant. Walter has little control over his legacy as it stands if he were to die. We frequently see Walter’s desire to leave some sort of greater legacy reflective of his intellect and talents, as well as his desire for a greater social standing, exemplified in his ruthless pursuit of dominance in the meth business. Walter eventually refuses to work for any boss other than himself, and memorably tells Jesse Pinkman that he is not truly in the meth or money business, but rather “the empire business.”[10] Thus, Walter’s dream in “Down,” whether he realizes it or not, reflects his desire to break free from the bonds his unexceptional life and truly “own” something that will afford him some form of money, power—even if only over his own life—and legacy.

Another important facet contributing to the significance of Walter owning the shop is that he once owned a third of Gray Matter Technologies with Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz. Walter later tells Jesse that he accepted a buyout of five thousand dollars for his third of the company, a company that is worth over two billion dollars throughout the series.[11] Walter’s working class, socioeconomic standing is never more apparent than when he and Skyler attend Elliott’s birthday at the Schwartzs’ mansion, an event that reminds Walter of what he could have had if he had maintained ownership of Gray Matter.[12] Walter also sees a framed copy of Scientific American with Elliott on the cover while at the party, resulting in a coughing fit brought on by both a pair of bugs: his cancer, as well as his realization that while Elliott’s elite socioeconomic status and scientific legacy has effectively been immortalized, Walter owns virtually nothing. Lacking ownership of his old research—which he believes made Gretchen and Elliott rich—or any other valuable inputs to production, Walter’s prospects of climbing the socioeconomic ladder in modern America appear near possible. Walter may work hard at his two (legal) jobs, but hard work alone no longer determines success in modern America—ownership does.

While ownership is certainly an important part of Walter’s dream, the type of shop that he owns is also highly significant in its resistance to industrialization and the modern American culture that values speed and efficiency. First, a bicycle is a mode of transportation that precedes motorized forms of transportation and is also not suitable for mass transportation, in contrast to later technological developments of industrialization. According to Mark C. Taylor, “with standardization, transportation as well as everything else speeds up.”[13] A bicycle travels significantly slower than an automobile or locomotive, serving as a symbol of Walter’s desire to “break bad” against the speed and efficiency valued in modern America.

Bicycles, while machines, still require a considerable deal of human energy to operate, in contrast to motorized forms of transportation where mechanical engines are substituted for manpower. Again, we can view Walter’s dream as a rejection of the bug of industrialization and modes of transportation that marginalize the need for considerable human effort. Walter clings to the idea of doing something unique—something he can do better than an industrial machine or lowly factory worker could. Thus it is significant that Walter wants to own a shop where he repairs machines that enable faster transportation by augmenting man’s own physical efforts, rather than replacing those efforts entirely with engines.

That Walter White desires to repair antique bicycles is perhaps the most telling aspect of the shop he owns in his dream. Industry does not typically repair goods, and industry certainly cannot produce antiques, a word that suggests a high value due to its status as a collectible object of a considerable age. Instead American industry rapidly mass-produces new items for consumption. Antiques are valuable in a sense because they are exclusive—limited in quantity and no longer produced. In this context, Walter’s dream to repair antique bicycles once again serves as a revolt against the modern American culture that emphasizes speed and efficiency in production. There is no “fast” or “efficient” way to produce an antique. Walter craves recognition of his individual talents and intellect, and repairing antique bicycles affords him the perfect avenue. His dream is his expression of his desire to do something that cannot be boiled down to a simple process and standardized, but requires knowledge and technical expertise. Walter’s job at as a teacher and car wash employee do not fulfill this desire. Even cooking meth arguably does not fulfill this desire to an extent because I believe Walter realizes he is still following a basic chemical formula, one which Jesse and even Gale Boetticher are eventually able to imitate very closely.

However, Walter is a perfectionist in terms of the quality of his meth, first preventing Jesse from adding his “signature” ingredient, chili powder, to their meth in order to ensure its purity.[14] Later, in the infamous “Say My Name” scene, Walter derides Declan for cooking a meth that is only 70 percent pure compared to his own 99.1 percent-pure meth.[15] When Declan replies, “So?” we see a manifestation of modern American culture where “efficiency [is] measured less by ‘quality’ or ‘competency’ than by the speed with which an acceptable job was accomplished.”[16] This rejection of quality in favor of a faster, merely acceptable job bugs Walter, who measures efficiency by purity of his meth as well as the yield.[17] His dream can then be interpreted as a reflection of his commitment to quality and competency, as antique bicycle owners needing repairs would not bring them to Walter for how quickly he could restore a bicycle, but for the care and competency with which he handled the necessary restorations.

Finally, antiques often hold worth not only because of their exclusivity, but because there are certain memories associated with the object. Owning an antique is an incredibly personal experience compared to purchasing a brand new, mass-produced bicycle off a store shelf. Frederick Winslow Taylor advocates “substituting the impersonal for the personal… [giving] priority to the system over individual.”[18] In regards to Walter’s dream, the antique quality of the bicycles he repairs illustrates his subconscious desire to break bad against modern American culture and replace the impersonality of new, mass-produced for consumption bicycles in favor of a more individual, personal experience of working with antique bicycles. By doing so, Walter could fulfill his desire to be recognized for his unique intellect and perhaps climb out of the working class in favor of a comfortable living in the seemingly mythological middle class.

Walter’s dream occurring in Ireland is significant in both historical and social contexts. Mark C. Taylor asserts that movable type and the printing press enabled the spread of literacy and numeracy, which in turn enabled the rapid industrialization of the Western world and the development of modern capitalism.”[19] Yet as the Catholic Church attempted to limit the spread of the Reformation, “Protestantism and literacy were so closely associated that the Catholic Church felt that to contain Protestantism, it had to restrict literacy.”[20] Ireland, a predominantly Catholic nation, can then be viewed symbolically in the context of Walter’s dream as a place that is resistant to the spread of literacy, and consequently industrialism and capitalism. Walter’s desire to flee to Ireland in his dream is again an expression of his desire to leave the modern American culture resultant from industrialization and the resultant principles of scientific management.

But Ireland is also an important setting due to Walter’s social existence in America. As previously stated, Walter’s low socioeconomic standing is never more apparent than his and Skyler’s experience at the Schwartzs’ mansion, where both their dress and choice of present betray their social alienation from the other party guests.[21] This juxtaposition of social standings, while not stated explicitly by other partygoers, is highly reminiscent of the social exclusion faced by Irish immigrants both before and during the American Industrial Revolution. The Irish “left a rural lifestyle in a nation lacking modern industry” due to rampant famine.[22] Upon coming to America, many first-generation Irish immigrants took low-paying industrial jobs and were thus marginalized by other socioeconomic groups. The history of Irish immigrants draws almost uncanny parallels to the life of Walter White in modern America, who must take a second job as a low-wage blue-collar worker to support his family and is largely ostracized or ignored by the Albuquerque elite.

Thus, even though Walter claims his dream is “weird,” it is not entirely surprising that he dreams of owning an antique bicycle repair shop, or that the shop is located in Ireland. Walter’s dream can be viewed as a commentary on the experience of a working class citizen in modern America, where a bug has infected the American Dream, turning hope into a resignation to melancholy and despair. However, that Walter ends his quote with the single word, “weird,” may also be telling. If we suppose Walter is aware of the meaning I have proposed of his dream at a conscious or subconscious level, then terming the dream “weird” could suggest that Walter has either resigned himself to the reality that the American Dream has become merely a myth of social mobility, or, more likely, that he now recognizes the system he must work within to achieve a greater socioeconomic standing.

Walter recounts his dream to Skyler after he manages to escape his desert captivity at the hands of Tuco, a low-level cartel member, and return home. In the next episode, Walter counts the money he has made from cooking after Skyler tells Walt his three-day stay in the hospital will cost them 13 thousand dollars, and comes to the realization that even after all of the cooking he’s done, he has barely made any money.[23] Walter claiming his dream was “weird” may then be considered as an acknowledgment that he will never make enough money to achieve a higher socioeconomic standing and leave a legacy reflecting his genius if he continues to cook in his RV and sell to smaller-scale Albuquerque dealers such as Krazy-8 and Tuco.

Walter White, like Henry Ford, realized that in modern America, “economies of scale made it necessary to extend control beyond the factory floor.”[24] Though he may desire a return to the slower, fatter pre-industrial times, Walter knows that the modern industrialized world necessitates mass production and distribution capabilities in order to live above the working class, foreshadowing Saul Goodman tracking down Walter and arranging his partnership with Gus Fring, a well-respected Albuquerque businessman with deep roots in the criminal underworld.[25] In true Breaking Bad fashion, Walter’s dream is then an assertion of his disdain for his own experience in modern American culture, as well as his reluctant acceptance that he will have to adopt this culture in order to achieve the money, power, and legacy he so desperately desires.

Works Cited:

[1] “Down.” Breaking Bad. AMC. New York, NY: March 28, 2009.

[2] Delbanco, Andrew. “Nation.” In The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope, 61. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

[3] Reding, Nick. “The Most American Drug.” In Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, 54. New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2009.

[4] Taylor, Mark C. “Time Counts.” In Speed Limits: Where Time Went and Why We Have So Little Left, 65. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014.

[5] Reding. Methland, 49.

[6] Ibid., 51.

[7] Taylor. Speed Limits, 86.

[8] Ibid., 83.

[9] Ibid., 74.

[10] “Buyout.” Breaking Bad. AMC. New York, NY: August 19, 2012.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Gray Matter.” Breaking Bad. AMC. New York, NY: February 24, 2008.

[13] Taylor. Speed Limits, 70.

[14] “Pilot.” Breaking Bad. AMC. New York, NY: January 20, 2008.

[15] “Say My Name.” Breaking Bad. AMC. New York, NY: August 26, 2012.

[16] Taylor. Speed Limits, 71.

[17] “Say My Name.”

[18] Taylor. Speed Limits, 74.

[19] Ibid., 58.

[20] Ibid., 61.

[21] “Gray Matter.”

[22] “Irish Immigration.” Library of Congress. Accessed February 11, 2015.

[23] “Breakage.” Breaking Bad. AMC. New York, NY: April 5, 2009.

[24] Taylor. Speed Limits, 78.

[25] “Mandala.” Breaking Bad. AMC. New York, NY: May 17, 2009.