Disability in Breaking Bad

 

*Be advised. This article contains plot spoilers.*

Breaking Bad, a show which focuses on the life of meth-cooking chemistry teacher, Walter White, features a surprising number of characters with disability for a show which deals ostensibly with the construction of a drug empire. Although most of the characters who have disabilities are relegated to more minor roles within the narrative, there are still some well-developed and interesting characters with disability. That is not to say that the characters are not impacted by their disability. Every character experiences disability differently in the show, and their feelings evolve as the series progresses. Many pop culture examples of people who have disabilities include a portrayal of their disability as somehow key to their identity. However, the show’s inclusion of people who have disabilities in mostly non-reductive roles adds a certain amount of complexity to the show, making it stand-out among the many other examples of disability in modern American media.

The character of Walter White, Jr. a seventeen-year-old high school student with cerebral palsy, is played by actor RJ Mitte who actually has cerebral palsy. His character is portrayed realistically, and his being preoccupied with life as a high schooler, desire to learn to drive, and his interest in computers and web design are all ways in which, through his character, the show begins to normalize disability. Skyler and Walter Sr. both tend to patronize or shelter Walter Jr. for different reasons throughout the series, and it remains difficult to parse the ways in which his parents patronize him because he has a disability and because he is still a minor. This, however, reflects more on his parents’ characters rather than his own. Walter Jr’s character remains fairly stable throughout the narrative-arc of the series. This is a potentially problematic portrayal of someone with a disability, because it seems to suggest a certain stability to the personality of a person with a developmental disability.

Hector “Tio” Salamanca, played by non-disabled actor Mark Margolis, is a character who appears to have a neurological condition for which makes it necessary for him to use a wheelchair to be mobile. His condition has also rendered him unable to speak. Instead, Tio uses a bell to communicate to others around him. This initially appears to be a rather limiting affectation applied to the character of Tio. However, as the show progresses, we see the ways in which the character of Tio, skillfully channeled through Margolis, has an interesting back story without simply relegating the most interesting and subtle aspects of his character and his choices to his more able-bodied past. In fact, the show demonstrates that Tio’s character has a crucial role to play throughout most of the series. Walter manages to team up with Tio to blow up their mutual enemy, Gus Fring. This, however, poses a unique problem, since Tio must kill himself in the process of killing Gus. It seems as if Tio is reduced to a simple plot point – a method through which Walter can achieve his goal of murdering Gus without implicating himself. This point conflicts with previous tendencies in the show which helped to normalize disability. In this case, Tio’s suicide bombing suggests that the show falls back on the common disability trope embedded within the tragedy model of disability. According to disability scholars, Sally French and John Swain, “the ultimate version of the tragedy model is that physical death is better than the social death of disability” (572). Tio’s decision to blow himself up in an effort to kill his enemy reflects this potent model of disability. The tragedy model suggests that disability is inherently negative, and those who have a disability must, ultimately be unhappy. The episode portrays Tio as a tragic means to an end, thus eliminating much of his previous humanity.

The character of Hank Schrader begins the series as a macho, able-bodied, DEA agent. His character is forced to change in a number of ways as the narrative unfolds. When Hank is severely injured in a shootout, he is temporarily immobilized, eventually needing the aid of multiple assistive devices in order to walk again. His character transformation is just as profound as Walter Whites’ is, but it reflects his circumstances as a disabled man. The performance of masculinity is an integral part of Hank’s character and his disability – no matter how temporary it may be – is viewed as compromising his ability to adequately perform masculinity. Hank internalizes this sense of masculinity loss and begins to exhibit signs of the disability trope known as the obsessive avenger – or a person with a disability (often male) who often fixates on particular people, objects, or schemes, and becomes obsessed with exacting revenge on perceived wrongs done to them. In this instance, Hank begins to fixate on the Heisenberg case which continues to frustrate him, and, apparently in response to his frustration at his disability, combined with his inability to crack the case, he starts to obsessively collect gemstones. The reliance on such stereotypes indicates Breaking Bad’s failure to overcome some of the most basic tropes associated with disability.

 

Swain, John, and Sally French. “Towards an Affirmation Model of Disability.” Disability & Society 15.4 (2000): 569-82. ProQuest. Web. 10 Apr. 2017.

 

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