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  • Breaking Down Breaking Bad: Critical Perspectives ed. by Matt Wanat and Leonard Engel
  • Maya Silver
Matt Wanat and Leonard Engel, eds., Breaking Down Breaking Bad: Critical Perspectives. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 2016. 209 pp. Cloth, $55.

If you don't consider binge-watching TV one of your favorite pastimes, the fact that four critical Breaking Bad anthologies now exist may seem overkill. But before you begin eulogizing the cultural preferences of the moment, consider the well-earned popularity of the AMC show: a 2013 Guinness World Record as the highest rated TV series; a plethora of awards; and recurring designation as "the best show ever" by fans, critics, and scholars alike.

The editors of the newest book covering Breaking Bad assure readers that this compendium both builds upon its predecessors and offers fresh perspectives. Breaking Down Breaking Bad is also the first work to emanate from the West—specifically, New Mexico, where the series was set and filmed. Beyond publication location, the book centers itself in the West by including articles from five scholars at western universities, several of whom critically examine setting. Editors Matt Wanat and Leonard Engel explain how New Mexico's characteristics—desert landscape, proximity to the Mexican border, and notoriety for drug trafficking—"become dynamic forces in both the interaction of the characters and in the thematic development of the show" (xi).

Several essays dig deeper into the relationship between setting and narrative. In "Negro y Azul" Cordelia E. Barrera investigates how the New Mexican desert's open "New World" quality represents a vacant stage upon which protagonist Walter White can reinvent himself. Another essay probes the inverse of this line of inquiry: how does the show affect the setting? Alex Hunt laments that the city of Albuquerque has begun marketing itself as a tourist attraction for Breaking Bad fans. The city capitalizes upon its small screen stardom rather than taking the opportunity to address its drug problems.

Some of the most fascinating work here probes Walter White's complexities. The book's first article casts him in the role of modern-day everyman starring in a morality play that subverts our ideas of good and evil. Many contributors draw parallels between [End Page 455] White's character arc and the chemistry that serves as a prominent motif throughout the series—from White's role as a chemistry teacher to his recipe for high-quality meth and chemotherapy treatments. "Chemistry is a cycle of 'growth, decay, then transformation,'" White lectures his students, foreshadowing his own trajectory (178).

Beyond analyses of setting and White's character, Breaking Down Breaking Bad keeps readers engaged by considering other questions, such as the role of music in the series. The discussion of soundtrack will have readers hunting down episode seven of season two to catch the opening narcocorrido—a Mexican ballad about drug traffickers that celebrates White's deepening metamorphosis into regional drug lord.

Perhaps the most ambitious contribution tackles the question of what the series is really about. Ian K. Jensen concludes that, like Seinfeld, it isn't really about anything. Instead of serving as a vessel for meaning, Breaking Bad is a device for psychological effect. Similar to death metal, it engages the audience in emotions of intensity and brutality, ultimately offering a cathartic experience.

Even if you haven't watched every episode of Breaking Bad twice, this book offers captivating inquiries into the modern Western genre, the decline of the good-evil dichotomy, and fulfillment in the twenty-first century. Breaking Down Breaking Bad is a must for the bookshelves of dedicated fans and a compelling read for scholars of film, literature, psychology, and culture.

Maya Silver
University of Utah


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pp. 455-456
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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