What if Walter White were Black?

21 Aug
Walter White

Walter White

To the horror and astonishment of people I know who have followed the show since it began, I have just now begun to watch Breaking Bad. Everyone says to watch the prior 5 seasons before jumping right in- one friend pleaded, “You wouldn’t start a novel towards the end, would you?”. Well, I figured I have a life to live and didn’t have hours and hours to devote to the series before watching, so I have started. I now think there is some value in beginning a series towards the end. I’m following the show, and enjoying it.

But what I am intrigued by is the thought I keep having, would this show- about a humble man who turns to drug dealing to support his family- be such a success if the protagonist, Walter White, were African-American? I have posed this question in a slightly different form, as in my previous post, Deconstructing Adele. Voices as powerful and moving as Adele’s sing in black churches every Sunday, and yet Adele skyrockets to fame. And in the case of Breaking Bad, we empathize with a man who turns to making and selling drugs to support his family, ruining lives in the process as well as his soul. Would this story have found the audience it did if it were about a black man who had made the same choice? Or would the New Yorker/Slate-reading crowd have turned the other way, loathe to follow the exploits of an African-American druglord?

I’m sure HBO subscribers would point to the critical success of The Wire as a show with complicated African-American protagonists (full disclosure: haven’t seen this one). But whereas The Wire gives us the portrait of what plagues the American inner city- an environment the average HBO subscriber can watch from a safe remove- Breaking Bad shows the story of a meek, suburban, middle-class, white family man driven to incredible lengths to do what every family man claims to do, namely, put his family above all else. There, but for the grace of God, goes I. The horror of Walter White’s transformation is that it shows how easily the average man could become a monster for the sake of his family. Being identifiable as the average American guy is key to this.

And yet I return to my original question- would viewers tune in if Walter White were a chemistry teacher on the South Side of Chicago- or East Los Angeles- instead of Albuquerque, New Mexico? I will leave it up to you, devoted viewer of Breaking Bad, The Wire, or any other show I am missing here in the conversation, to educate this new follower of the show. Is it unusual to be weirded out by the whiteness of a show about a drug kingpin in the American Southwest?

P.S. Reddit seems to get it. Thanks Giancarlo Esposito.


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