36 HOOKED ON THE STUFF
The lines between addiction, dependency and need may be thin but in Breaking Bad they are also blurred. The truth is that we all carry baggage that at one time we thought might have provided relief or rescue. If we are lucky, we can define our baggage as nothing more than harmless habits. Drug users know that for them the word harmless is redundant but, for obvious reasons, they like the word habit. The more romantic and self-destructive amongst them insist on describing their use as an addiction. For them their baggage becomes a glorious burden.
This might not be important but the only characters in Breaking Bad that appear free of addiction, dependency or need are those that work in traditional retail and catering. The self-sufficient vacuum salesman Ed Galbraith is the best example. Like Gustavo Fring, the taciturn Ed mixes honest commerce with criminal activity. These two criminals have self-discipline but it has been acquired in above the board retail. The other retailers, waiters and waitresses in Breaking Bad appear fleetingly, often smile and are unblemished.
One scene is an exception and worth remembering. After purchasing petrol Jesse tempts a girl behind the counter at a garage to accept a meth sample instead of cash. The sanctity of retail activity is broken which might be why it disturbs viewers. The girl behind the counter, though, is not typical. She works for her father and would probably rather be somewhere else. Her alienation from her retail responsibilities may not redeem Jesse but it does keep the Breaking Bad rule intact. The contradictions within Skyler and Marie are also revealed by their retail encounters. The two women are sympathetic but not perfect. We know this because both of them defy the contract principle essential to functioning retail exchanges. Skyler lies to shopping personnel, and Marie steals from anyone who might be selling. Skyler needs to escape arrest for something that she did not do. Marie has a kleptomaniac dependency.
The second world war ended 75 years ago but interest in the Nazis continues. The latest revelation or rumour is that Adolf Hitler was a meth head. There are dangerous people out there who reckon that if he was it did him no harm. What you believe will depend on whether you are sympathetic to fascism and if you believe he trimmed his own moustache and parted his hair. Meth heads are not noted for sharp partings and neat moustaches. Crystal meth, which mixes methamphetamine and cocaine and was first synthesised a 100 years ago, provides for its users euphoria, increased energy and a heightened sexual appetite and stamina. This is the good news although six hours uninterrupted sexual intercourse might not have the same appeal for the other consenting adult selected for the evening. The poor condoms also suffer. But as Hank explains to Walt Junior outside the Crossroads Motel, not the one from the British soap, the regular use of methamphetamine ruins the body. Teeth decay, lumps appear on the face and the stomach wonders what ever happened to the food it was supposed to digest. The vain should stick to the moisturising creams.
Despite fears that the popularity of Breaking Bad would increase crystal meth use in Britain the usage has remained constant since 2008. In 2019 the population of Britain was declared to be 67.5m. The estimate is that there are 25,000 crystal meth users in the UK. This compares with the two million that smoke marijuana and the three-quarters of a million that snort cocaine. The number of crystal meth users that each year attend clinics and ask for help is less than 300. As a problem, crystal meth is ranked fourth behind alcohol, heroin and crack. Amongst the 329.45m people that live in the USA there are 1.6m crystal meth users. Crystal meth users are divided into the casual and the addicted. The casual crystal meth user, it has been calculated, spends $27,000 per year on the drug. The addicted user spends $74,000 per year. The average income in the USA is around $56,000 per year. The average age of a first time crystal meth user is 23.3 years although the collated data begins at 12 years of age.
Breaking Bad in its montage sequences can give the impression that crystal meth is a typical component of an American weekend but, if the above figures are correct, a mere 4% of the USA population takes crystal meth. This is no consolation to the 964,000 addicts that are identified as having a meth disorder. 964,000 compared to 1.6m equates to 60%. More people struggle with the drug than manage its use. Epidemic may be too strong a word for a problem that affects 4% of the population but the 964,000 will belong to families. These relatives will feel like victims of the crystal meth phenomenon. We also know from Breaking Bad that supplying crystal meth is a criminal activity. Some of these criminals are violent and cause additional damage.
More serious for the USA than crystal meth abuse is the ‘opioid epidemic’. This affects the poor and working classes. Elvis Presley knew about being poor. He was an opioid addict but there is no evidence that his misuse was influential amongst his fans. More important are the role of a health system that operates for profit and an economic culture where only the rich obtain valediction. The latest estimate is that in the USA around 10.3m people misuse opioids. Of these 9.3m use prescriptions for pain killers to ‘get high’. The other 900,000 take heroin. The latter exists as a cheaper alternative to opioid pain killers bought at the local chemist. Those addicted to prescription pain killers are 40 times more likely to become heroin addicts. Between 2010 and 2017 deaths from overdosing on heroin increased fivefold. As sad and seminal as it may have been, the death of Jane that an impassive Walter White observed was part of a phenomenon. Use of prescription opioids has been linked to constant poverty. Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee have the highest opioid prescription rates. Their voters are likely to support Donald Trump in the next Presidential election. His first act on becoming President was to redistribute income from the poor to the rich.
Crystal meth manufacture qualifies as something called lumperism. This refers to cottage industries that have low production costs but high demand for their products. Jesse Pinkman at the beginning of Breaking Bad operates as a member of a cottage industry. He belongs to the urban equivalent of the agricultural peasants that survived through modest agriculture and the manufacture of simple home-made products. The demand for crystal meth, though, exceeds what the wife of the mediaeval farmer could knit in the evening. Gustavo Fring is different from Tuco because he both manufactures and distributes crystal meth. But although the laboratory built by Gus impresses Walt and Jesse it is not a production plant. It can be run by two people. The Fring operation may make millions of dollars but it remains part of a cottage industry and is consistent with lumperism.
Karl Marx regarded religion as the opiate that served capitalism. He did not have a theory about drug addiction but he understood dependency and need. Marx accepted that capitalism would ensure constant growth but the consequence of that progress would be a materialist appetite that could never be satisfied. Poverty would be constant and endure because people, living in a society that always offered more, would always crave for what exists to be purchased. Or as American economist J K Galbraith said in the 50s, modern economies exist not to satisfy needs but instigate wants. It is Marxist theorists of the present that have described drug addiction as capitalism laid bare but, wherever he is right now, Marx will be saying that he warned us.
We used to eat to live and to build houses for shelter. Now the average American and European struggles against obesity and lives in a house that takes too much time to clean and is filled with so many items that locating one of them often requires a search expedition. And just as important as all the stuff that enriches or reduces our lives is the money that funds our excessive spending. For many people nothing is as important as money. Whatever the amount of money they have most want or need more which is why President Trump had to deliver tax cuts to the rich. Much of this cash is transformed into capital which lies out of sight in bank accounts and is used and manipulated by venture capitalists and hedge fund managers. Like everyone else, the bankers want more. They like money so much that they even create additional cash by referring to debts as assets.
Because Walt and Gus are criminals, they have to be careful. They are on a similar but different merry go round. Unable to stop making money, Walt fills a lockup with currency. Gus knows his self-control is important to his success. He is determined to be discreet and drives an old Volvo. They are two men managing a money habit that they once thought would have offered them consolation. Of course, they do not see it that way. For a while they convinced themselves that they were making progress. We all know what happened to Walt and Gus. Orson Welles once said that there were no happy endings. Breaking Bad ran for 62 episodes and you do not have to be a Marxist to conclude that there are few happy lives in its version of modern America. The only exceptions in Breaking Bad appear to be those people who smile from behind the retail and restaurant counters. Make of that what you will.
Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest travel book No Tall Heels To Tango is now available here.