Strain Things Are Happening To Me: Breaking Bad and Strain Theory

Reflecting back on the final events that end the mid-season break of Breaking Bad’s fifth season it occured to me that the AMC series is essentially the television equivalent of the sociology study known as strain theory. Everybody’s favorite meth cooker Walter White begins the show as little more than your average joe. He’s forty years-old, belongs to a lower-middle income class, teaches chemistry at a high school, and works a second job at car wash. His life is boring, average, and at this point, uneventful. But when Walter learns he has lung cancer he realizes that the way his life is going he’s going to leave nothing behind for his family and die a failure of the American dream he once saw in his grasps. It is then he decides it’s time to stop conforming to society and instead start innovating, even if that means breaking bad in the process. Average American Walter White begins cooking meth and starts his transformation into drug lord known as Heisenberg.

Walt rise to power in the drug industry even mirrors McCarthy and Hagan’s 2001 study of successful drug dealers. While his partner Jesse originally views meth cooking as a way to survive from one high to another, Walter sees it as a business. He acts like an entrepreneur making deals with drug lords like Tuco and the chicken man Gus Fring, networks with others to expand his market all the way to the Czech Republic. Their two philoses come to a head in the season five episode Buyout when Jesse yells at Walt, “Are we in the meth business or the money business?”. Walt simply responds, “I’m in the empire business,”.

This change from wanting money to provide for his family to a desire to be king over an empire parallels the evolution from classical strain theory to contemporary. Robert Agnew considered strain theory too limited so he expanded upon it to include numerous other goals that contributed to strain. Several of which are the desire for respect, autonomy, and excitement; the three yearnings that propel Walt through seasons four and five. Walt takes down Gus because he craves independence, he shoots Mike when he feels disrespected, and he continues selling meth once he’s reached the top because he’s still seeking the thrill that’s come with every obstacle he’s had to overcome.

In the future when sociologists recall an example that can easily explain strain theory they need look no further than Breaking Bad’s tragic tale of how one man goes from Mr. Chips to Scarface in roughly a year.

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