From the Archive: AMC’s Breaking Bad, Empowerment, and Terminal Illness

In the “From the Archive” series, we highlight articles published throughout the journal’s history. We look forward to sharing with our readers these samples of the innovative research that CMP has published on the cultural life of medicine across the globe.


In “From the Archive,” we generally highlight older publications from the journal and discuss their importance for medical anthropology and cultural studies of medicine today. This week, we are taking a turn to revisit a newer piece from 2013 that has been one of CMP’s most popular articles: Mark A. Lewis’ “From Victim to Victor: ‘Breaking Bad’ and the Dark Potential of the Terminally Empowered.”

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Lewis, an oncologist, opens by describing a recent shift in the treatment of cancer. With new and experimental treatments growing in number, patients are encouraged to feel hopeful about therapy for their cancer, rather than defeated in the face of a potentially terminal condition. These new scientific innovations in treatment, therefore, are altering the rhetorics surrounding cancer diagnoses. Cancer is something to be overcome, or even battled. In the age of the “Live Strong” campaign, and the casting of cancer patients into fighters, new notions of what it means to endure this illness are developing.

The key to AMC’s Breaking Bad, Lewis argues, is that the creators seize upon this new model of the cancer patient and then betray the audience’s expectations that his battle against illness is a “noble” one. Rather than having a diagnosis opening a realm to hope, it lends Walter White the potential to take risks he would not have taken in good health. Imminent death “emboldens” Walter, yet this newfound audacity is channeled towards selfish, perhaps prideful, and certainly criminal ends.

Lewis notes that these behavioral, psychological shifts in cancer patients come under the purview of a new field deemed psycho-oncology. This budding discipline addresses the mental wellness and conditions of cancer patients, whose diagnosis carries somatic as well as psychological effects. As the article suggests, stress for cancer patients extends beyond the worries they have about the severity of their illness: it includes anxiety about the financial and personal costs of the treatment needed to ‘battle off’ the disease. For White, this entails not only having the means to treat his illness and support his family, but also to be self-sustaining, hence why he turns down assistance from wealthy benefactors and instead makes and sells crystal meth.

Walter White therefore follows in the steps of a cancer patient whose diagnosis opens a realm of possibilities and encourages him to take risks in fighting off his condition. However, this transformation alters what victory means for Walter. As he descends deeper into the meth business, the terms of victory are no longer noble. Walter murders his competitors, and after the publication of Lewis’ article, declares at the end of the series that his drug-dealing empire is what gives him life. His pride is in his business, not in overcoming his cancer. Walter’s potential is unlocked by the cancer, yet he subverts the narrative of a “noble” patient who survives his dire diagnosis. His cancer has merely positioned him to accomplish what he would have not otherwise set out to do.

Lewis’ article demonstrates the centrality of illness narratives and new models of illness experience to popular media. His article draws on medical science, popular health campaigns, and on modern-day encounters with terminal illness to inform viewers’ expectations of what path patients might, and should, follow.

To access the article and read an abstract, click here:

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11013-013-9341-z

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