Walter White as White Messiah

Few genres are as durable as the White Messiah story: a white man shows up in a foreign culture and turns out to be better than the natives at whatever their specialty is, or the only person who can save them, or (preferably) both. Think of Karate Kid or, more recently, Avatar or the Christopher Nolan Batman films. Even Alice in Wonderland has been recast as a messianic narrative of this kind.

After reading some tweets from Malcolm Harris pointing out that in the current episodes, basically all non-white characters have been killed, it occurs to me that Breaking Bad is a weird kind of variation on the White Messiah theme — based on the hugely racist premise that the characteristic talent of Mexicans is drug dealing. He and Jesse make better meth in their RV than the cartel has been able to produce in their ample super-labs. And despite their general incompetence and their tragically sacrificed moral sense (totally lacking in the Mexican characters), they somehow manage to outlive all the ruthless killers they come in contact with. We have to wait until next summer to figure out the precise shape the “redemption” will take, however.

A FOOTNOTE: I’ve also been noticing more explicitly spaghetti Western themes in my second viewing, which I’m not sure how to connect with the White Messiah theme. For instance, one could see Hank, Walt, and Tuco as parallel to the trio in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (where the “ugly” Mexican protagonist is also literally named Tuco). The nom de meth “Heisenberg” also indirectly evokes the namelessness of Clint Eastwood’s character (called “blondy” by Tuco). I’m sure that if I rewatched the Sergio Leone trilogy, I’d see a lot more parallels.

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9 Responses to “Walter White as White Messiah”

  1. Christopher Rodkey Says:

    I call this the myth of the white male becoming a tribe’s Most Awesome Member. Dances with Wolves.

  2. mathmos Says:

    I’m sure the “race realists” would point out that whites go so far as to outstrip Other primitive cultures even in their most competitive industry, that is the endless supply of self-serving mythological thinking. They would then proudly point to something called “race realism” as the definitive proof.

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    No idea what you’re talking about.

  4. mathmos Says:

    Sorry then. I shouldn’t try my hand at philosophical humor before liquor hour.

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Okay, I’ve looked back over your comment and I get the joke about how white people view Others as being bound by mythology, etc. That was actually good, and I apologize for being slow on the uptake. I was distracted by “race realists.”

  6. Makovsky Says:

    I’m not mexican, but I’m argentinian, which may be perhaps the same thing. Of course the “White Messiah” theme’s got a lot to do with the series, but I’d rather see the whole tale as a kind of metaphore of capital. I mean: Breaking Bad is not about the mexicans, but the white americans that couldn’t break into the American Dream, Breaking Bad is –and I take the quote from Mark Fisher– about how we can easily figure out the end of the world, but not the end of capitalism. Hope I can make myself clear in English. I wrote a lot about the series, but in Spanish, unfortunately: http://pifiada.blogspot.com/2011/08/de-breaking-bad-como-relato-de-horror.html

  7. Richard Says:

    I read a critique of the pilot which framed it as explicitly a series of “men’s rights” type complaints. (I think it was by Duncan Law.) Argument was a bit reductive, but useful in pointing that stuff out… ’cause it does seem to be there, though most of those themes are undermined by later episodes. This seems to align align pretty easily with a “White Messiah” reading.

  8. Neil Says:

    Forgive my ignorance, but is this “White Messiah” the same as Richard Slotkin’s “man who knows Indians?”

    “As ‘the man who knows Indians,’ the frontier hero stands between the opposed worlds of savagery and civilization, acting sometimes as mediator or interpreter between races and cultures but more often as civilization’s most effective instrument against savagery – a man who knows how to think and fight like an Indian, to turn their own methods against them.”

    The “model,” of course, is James Fenimore Cooper’s Hawkeye. (And he always has the “evil twin” – the “Indian-hater.”)

    Thanks.

  9. Adam Kotsko Says:

    “White Messiah” is my own coinage, or at least it’s not a widely-known term. The genre you mention sounds like it’s very closely related.


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