Breaking Bad Season 4: Labor Relations in America

Breaking Bad Season 4: Labor Relations in America

Always negotiate from a position of strength.

Breaking Bad, like AMC’s other flagship series Mad Men, has always been about the cost of the American Dream. Bryan Cranston plays Walter White, a man who will do anything to provide for his family. The twist is that he will literally do anything, including but not limited to cooking crystal meth, murdering rival dealers and lying to the family he’s protecting. What motivates him is not love of his family – he’s fond of them but not exactly devoted – but the pride that comes from being paterfamilias. But so long as he can cling to ostensibly noble motives, he can justify anything he does. This is what makes him an anti-hero rather than a hero.

(A hero is someone who does the right thing in the right way for the right reason. For an anti-hero, pick two out of three)

The American Dream is that anyone can make it, provided they work hard, stick up for themselves and do the right thing. Breaking Bad tests that myth by picking apart the cost of Walter White’s hard work and pride. We’ve seen that play out already in Seasons 1 through 3, as Walter goes from shock at what he’s capable of (“Heisenberg”) to a grim, pathetic self-destruction (grabbing his junk and screaming at his wife’s message on the answering machine). But these could be written off as minor quirks in character, or at worst the tragic flaws of our hero. Sure, he’s a little nasty and can come off as cold, but he’s clawing his way to the top. Once he reaches the head of the table, his past can be forgiven, right?

Season 4 has been about proving one thing: Walter White can never reach the head of the table. He will never advance from labor to management.

Every work of art is a product of its time. While contemporary themes can’t be read into every story, an obvious parallel should be pointed out when it appears. In that light, it’s no accident that Season 4 was produced (and aired) during a period that’s been pretty rough for American labor. Growing unemployment, the Wisconsin teacher’s strikes, and the ongoing “Occupy Wall Street” marches are all signs and symptoms of labor unrest in this country.

The labor connection in S4 becomes clear starting with the first episode. It starts minutes after the explosive climax of S3, with Jesse Pinkman being dragged into the meth superlab. Walter’s already there. The two of them wait, helpless, while Victor begins the day’s cooking. Their one marketable skill is no longer unique. They’ve been outsourced. A younger go-getter, someone who embraces the organization’s values wholeheartedly, has replaced them.

When Gus shows up, Walter begins negotiating with him.

All right, let’s talk about Gale Boetticher. He was a good man, and a good chemist, and I cared about him. He didn’t deserve what happened to him. He didn’t deserve it at all. But I’d shoot him again tomorrow, and the next day and the day after that. When you make it Gale vs. me, or Gale vs. Jesse, Gale loses, simple as that. This is on you, Gus. Not me, not Jesse. Gale’s death is on you.


Gus, we’re here. C’mon. Let us work. […] Gus, you do this … all you have left is an eight million dollar hole in the ground. This lab, this equipment is useless without us, without Jesse and myself. You have no new product, you have no income. Your people up there will not be paid. Your distribution chain collapses. Without us, you have nothing. You kill me, you have nothing! You kill Jesse, you don’t have me.

You won’t do this. You’re too smart. You can’t afford to do this. Please … let us just go back to work. We’re here. Let us work. We’re ready to go to work! We’ll just pick up right where we left off.

Walter is, like about 20% of the American working population at the time of this writing, temporarily unemployed. It’s not because he’s lazy or a bad worker. He genuinely wants to work. He’s pleading with Gus to come back to work. In fact, he has engineered circumstances such that Gus is compelled to rehire him.

Gus’s response?

Get back to work.

As a bit of dramatic television, it’s brutal and stunning. But let’s reframe it as a negotiation between labor and management.

When Gus slits Victor’s throat, he’s pursuing a commitment strategy. Commitment is the key to achieving credibility, which in turn makes you a more effective negotiator. Avinash Dixit and Barry Nalebuff, in their classic Thinking Strategically, describe the importance of commitment:

Credibility is a problem with all strategic moves. If your unconditional move, or threat or promise, is purely oral, why should you carry it out if it turns out not to be in your interest to do so? […] An action that can be changed loses strategic effect against a rival who thinks strategically. He knows that your utterances may not match your actions and so is on the lookout for tactical bluffing.


[One method] is to change the game to limit your ability to back out of a commitment. […] The most radical [method] is simply to deny yourself any opportunity to back down, either by cutting yourself off from the situation or by destroying any avenues of retreat.

Thinking Strategically, Chap. 6: “Credible Commitments”

Gus murders Victor to demonstrate his commitment. He and Walter are in a negotiation: will Walter keep working for Gus or will Gus kill Walter? Or at least that’s what Walter thinks the terms of the discussion are, hence his efforts to prove both how valuable and how reasonable he is.

Gus, with one vicious slash, completely changes the terms. Implicit in Walter’s offer to keep working for Gus is the idea of working freely: entering an employment contract, exchanging labor for payment, and leaving once the term is up or if conditions grow unsatisfactory. By killing the only other person who can cook Walter’s recipe, Gus has rejected Walter’s offer. Walter can’t leave. The only person who can cook meth to Gus’s standards, now that both Gale and Victor are dead, is Walter. And Walter knows that Gus won’t let his business go without meth. So leaving is no longer an option. Walter is no longer working as a free agent.

The question isn’t can Walter work? but can Walter quit? Gus has burned his bridges. He is denying himself any other potential employees but Walter. Gus doesn’t want the meth. Gus wants Walter.

This is the relationship between labor and management as depicted in S4 of Breaking Bad. They’re not two parties who negotiate freely and as equals. Labor works for as long as management wants them and is then cast aside. If fired, labor can’t simply find employment elsewhere, because labor has too refined of a skill set to change careers. Management owns the capital, has the contacts and controls the purse strings. Management is in charge.

14 Comments on “Breaking Bad Season 4: Labor Relations in America”

  1. Redem #

    Remind me how small-time drug dealer and other vices are being replace by foreign competition and big drug cartel


  2. Build A Better Fan #

    Breaking Bad […] has always been about the cost of the American Dream. [… Walt] will do anything to provide for his family. […]
    But so long as he can cling to ostensibly noble motives, he can justify anything he does. This is what makes him an anti-hero rather than a hero.
    (A hero is someone who does the right thing in the right way for the right reason. For an anti-hero, pick two out of three)

    Walt crosses the line to villain more and more frequently as the series progresses, and it’s only the use of perspective and the fact that he keeps on drawing the attention of even greater villains that keeps the audience from completely rooting against him.

    * Walt had a chance to cover his costs peacefully, but rejected what he saw as charity. He chose to cook meth and put his life (and later his family’s life) at risk instead.
    * Walt had a real, legal job, but he chased some tail and got himself fired, knowing he could fall back on meth. Wrong thing in the wrong way for the wrong reason.
    * Walt forced his child to drink too much alcohol simply to assert his power over his own family. Wrong thing in the wrong way for the wrong reason.
    * What Walt did to Jane — is that two out of three? Walt poisoning a child to regain an ally against the greater evil of Gus — even he knew there was a chance he might actually kill the kid. Walt sending his next-door neighbor into his house where she could easily have been killed — that’s at least bordering on two strikes.

    And through it all, we’ve seen that Walt often enjoys holding power over others; he exulted in threatening those other meth-makers in the hardware store parking lot, he took pleasure in intoxicating his own kid to the point of making him sick, and he so desperately hates for others to get credit for his genius and badassery that he puts his operation at risk just when Hank is off his scent and reveals his conscious participation in violence to his wife rather than let her believe he’s still the victim. None of that is for even ostensibly noble reasons.

    If this guy is a stand-in for skilled labor, that’s not very flattering for skilled labor. Again, he’s only been sympathetic because he’s had to crawl over greater villains (to keep himself as the sole breadwinner). You can bet on Walt becoming management in the final 16 episodes, he just couldn’t do it with the existing SuperLab, nor could he let it fall into the wrong hands. And Walt is going to be an obnoxious manager to work under.


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      Compelling stuff! I admit I completely forgot the “getting Walt Jr. drunk” vignette.

      Ultimately, you’re right that Walt looks heroic only in comparison to the villains he goes against (Tuco, the twins, Fring, etc). However, I would take your analysis of Walt one degree deeper. Walt still thinks he’s doing all this for his family. However, Breaking Bad‘s genius – and Cranston’s talent – is in making it obvious to the audience that Walt’s behavior is only ostensibly to protect Skylar and his children.

      Limiting ourselves to S4, let’s consider Walter’s “I am the one who knocks” monologue. It’s a clear temper tantrum on Walter’s part: his wife thinks he’s a victim, so he’ll show her!, etc. But he brings it up in the context of whether the White family needs to go to the cops. So there’s always the veneer, however thin, of familial obligation. Walter doesn’t bully his wife just because he’s in a bad mood. He bullies his wife because he thinks it’ll prove to her how strong he is.

      Don’t discount the excuse that Walter’s family provides him. He needs that excuse in order to unleash that peevish anger.


  3. Chris Bowyer #

    I’ll echo that second comment a bit. There are some interesting parallels, and I realize the entire idea is to OVER-think this, but I don’t think Breaking Bad is at all meant to illustrate any kind of struggle between labor and capital, except around the margins. Walt has “made it” more than once, and his own pride–not any management types keeping him down–is what’s prevented him from cashing out. It happened before the show started, when he stormed away from the company because a woman rejected him, it happened shortly after, when that same woman and her husband offered him charity, it happened later on when he’d made a fair amount of money and no longer NEEDED much more, it happened again when his cancer went into remission, and it happened yet again when Gus gave him the one thing he wanted–a way out of his employment–and he threw it back in his face.

    If Walt is meant to represent labor, then it means labor has all sorts of chances to enrich itself and live happily and contentedly, but that its own personal shortcomings or envy prevent that from happening.


    • Chris Bowyer #

      By the by, I should add that despite my nitpickings, it’s a great premise and a good read, so thanks for that. :)


    • Chris Bowyer #

      And I now realize I should have done more than skim that other comment, since BABF covered most of this already. D’oh.


  4. Chris #

    I don’t think your correct in regards to Victor. Part of the point of that portion of that episode is that Victor can’t cook like Walt. He doesn’t know the chemistry, and he’s just going through the motions. If Victor could cook as well as Walt or Jesse, he may have just killed Walt and Jesse. Also, Victor was killed in part because he was seen at Gale’s apartment. That really doesn’t fit into Walt and Gus’ relationship. It’s just about Gus not tolerating any errors.


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      Gus’s killing of Victor can serve more than one purpose. All of the above reasons are valid considerations, but none of them answers why Gus would kill Victor brutally and right in front of Walt and Jesse. That killing was to send a message.


      • Chris #

        Oh, it was definitely to send a message. I just don’t think it is the message you posited. Of course, then it doesn’t fit into your theorem on the season, which has some point that I do agree with, so I see why you went with your interpretation.


      • Jason Maggard #

        I always thought that Victor wasn’t SUPPOSED to be learning Walt’s recipe. Victor took the initiative to learn it while he watched them. Gus didn’t want someone who thought for themselves… That could be dangerous.

        What Gus valued was loyalty and obedience, not the ability to make meth. Victor wasn’t more valuable because he learned to cook, he was less valuable because he was no longer trustworthy.

        The “Point” was just to show Walt and Jesse how cheap human life can be in that situation. Just how much power Gus had over them. He could kill them on a whim whether they could cook or not. It shows just how little value there was in knowing how to cook.

        In both the scene with Victor and the flashback to Don Eladio and the “Chemist”, they start with the premise that knowing how to make meth is a valuable commodity. Walt goes on the entire “You need me” speech and Gus slits Victor’s throat. Don Eladio does the whole “Why do I need you” speech to Gus… And then kills the chemist. When Gale is killed, the reaction is really minimal… Gus could give a crap. He wasn’t even mad.

        Part of Walter’s delusion is that they “need” him, and he couldn’t be more wrong. Season 4 sees Walt running around thinking he’s the center of the action while the audience knows he’s a peripheral entity to the fight between Gus and the Dons. Jesse knows Walt’s methods well enough to get 96% purity. The cartel has a roomful of chemists… And they really don’t care about the quality. As long as they don’t have to compete against better meth, then who cares if it 99% pure or 80% pure.

        The only reason Walt’s “Blue Sky” was important is that it was once competition. The cartel isn’t going to compete with this, they’ll either co-opt it, or destroy it. Either way. Blue meth or not, they wanted Walter DEAD. His “skills” weren’t the thing keeping him alive like he thought. He was a pawn in the game between Gus and Tio Salamanca. That’s what kept Walter alive.

        To take the labor analogy one step further… Those of us who think we are “skilled” labor and irreplaceable might find ourselves just like Walt.

        Bonus Q: Who here thinks that Gale and Gus were in a relationship?


        • Chad #

          Gale and Gus would make a great a couple. Gus is probably an ungenerous lover and Gale probably smothers with affection so they balance out. Their fights over how many millimeters the silverware should be separated would be vicious.


  5. Harold #

    I think season 5 will be Man vs. the Government. Hank is a pitbull and I really see Walt being caught in the end, but the law.


  6. Anthony Abatte #

    I love this post since the entire show is fresh in my mind. After marathoning the show for the past two weeks, I had one thought about today’s television in general. A horrible economy has made for great drama. Breaking Bad, Weeds and Hung are all shows about characters that take illegal, drastic jobs and dual identities in the name of providing for their family.
    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all of these involve a parental figure taking the initiative and risk. Given our current economic situation, it’s no wonder these shows are so successful. Breaking Bad is so well written, I think it would be successful regardless, but the job market in America as a backdrop makes these more plausible.


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      This is a good point. Now I’m trying to think of shows that have been successful during economic boom times. Arrested Development (2003-6) and Seinfeld (1990-98) come to mind. Maybe comedies in flush years and dramas in lean years? Need to look into this further.


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