SPOILER WARNING: If you haven’t watched all of Breaking Bad put aside this article and do so immediately.
“I’m in the empire business,” Walter White told Jesse Pinkman as he argued why the iconic duo should stay in business. “I am the danger,” he told his wife when she threatened to go the police. “Say my name” he demanded of rival drug dealers to make sure they knew exactly whom – and what – they were dealing with. Walter White has drifted far from his days of being a middle-aged chemistry teacher. He has devolved into his alter ego or, perhaps more accurately, his second personality, Heisenberg.
The conclusion to one of television’s greatest shows aired last Sunday night to the thrill and dismay of fans everywhere. To honor the occasion and gain more insight into the financial feasibility addressed in show, I spoke with Professor David Chavanne of the economics department who specializes in behavioral economics, economics and psychology and public choice.
The large sums of money leisurely thrown around as the plot unwinds seemed hyperbolic at best. Over the course of the entire series, Walter accumulates $80 million in profit. In the second to last episode, “Granite State,” as he hides from police in an isolated cabin in New Hampshire, Walter’s loneliness becomes so insufferable that he offers an associate $20,000 for a mere hour of company.
To get my head around the sheer scale of real meth operations I asked Chavanne if the amount of money that White earns throughout the entire show seemed at all plausible. Chavanne concluded that meth costs “$60 a pound [on the show] and that’s within the realistic range and the money they make given the barrel of methylamine was in a realistic range…the $80 million that he made…was realistic.” However, as fans of the show may have picked up on, Walt never really cared about the money or, at least, not about its purchasing power. He originally calculated that he needed less than 1 million dollars to fund his healthcare costs and his children’s college costs. Professor Chavanne keenly noted, “that for Walt, money is a signal of power.”
Similarly, the operation spearheaded by the show’s most notorious villain, Gus Fring, appeared, to me, as larger than life. I asked Chavanne to comment on money laundering operations and how a business might exist as a front for a cartel. Professor Chavanne recalled his time living in Washington D.C. and speculated, “there were all kinds of companies and restaurants that no one was ever inside, paying tons of rent in a really high rent area the only possible thing that would make sense was that they were fronts for something.”
By extension, Chavanne agreed that the fast food chain fronting for a meth distribution center, Pollos Hermanos fried chicken, might not differ all that much from how drug businesses actually operate. The idea being that “if you’re good at this certain thing for your business [it] lead[s] to being good at a drug trade. It’s a natural evolution.”
Professor Chavanne’s comments about the potential fronts in D.C and the ease of entry to an underground economy address the collision of two worlds seen throughout the Breaking Bad series. Both Gus Fring and Walter White constantly tread the line between two very separate and contrasting worlds. On surface, Gus is a well-mannered franchise owner and philanthropist, while Walt appears as a kind teacher and father who is slowly dying from cancer. Both of these fragile illusions shatter easily in a single scene as Gus, without saying a word, cuts the throat of one of his own henchmen in order to intimidate Walt and Jesse.
Similarly, Walt’s worlds collide as Hank finds an inscribed copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in the White family’s bathroom. Using this evidence, Hank connects Walt directly to Gus Fring’s operations. The final season plays in out in a blurred state between the two universes Walt created for himself. In arguably the best episode of Breaking Bad, “Ozymandias,” Walt loses his family, his one justification for all of the horrific wrongs he committed throughout the series. He stands facing wife, protected by his son, and screams “ What the hell’s wrong with you, we’re a family!” Walt spends the next two episodes alone and dying before coming back to Albuquerque to avenge the murder of Hank.
The final season of Breaking Bad gathered a tremendous amount of hype and anticipation. Vince Gilligan, the shows’ creator and executive producer, said countless times that everything wrapped up without loose ends. After the finales of shows like The Sopranos and Lost disappointed fans and critics alike, Gilligan wanted to make sure that people could expect a more conclusive and appropriate ending for Breaking Bad. Gilligan certainly did not come up short.
“It was a brilliant way to wrap it up…it was a gutsy move,” agreed Chavanne. Perhaps the most staggering quote from the finale came as Walt admitted to Skyler, “I did it for me, I liked it, I was good at it.” Those words put the final nail in the coffin for fans that, up to that point, argued that Walt’s actions were justified based on his selflessness for his family.
Personally, I desperately wanted Jesse to not only survive, but also find a way to heal from the damage inflicted by Mr. White. As he drives away from the neo-Nazi compound with tears of joy streaming down his face, Jesse seems in control of his own destiny for the first time. At the same time, Walt makes his way to the meth lab that Jesse had been kept hostage in. With a bullet hole in his side, White looks longingly around at the equipment he became so familiar with before collapsing to the tune of Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” with opening lyrics, “I guess I got what I deserved.” the song continues as the shot pans out from Walt’s body. The cold machinery of the lab may seem like a strange place to die, but Walt was surrounded by his ultimate achievement – his crystal meth – the catalyst that engineered his transformation.