The Heisenberg Masculinity Principle: A Unified Follicular Theory of “Breaking Bad”
(TL;DR - The critically acclaimed AMC series “Breaking Bad” is known for its masculinity issues; both criticizing and celebrating traditional models. Shockingly, the hair length, or total lack of hair, of its male characters can reveal a lot about the people on screen and what the creators are ultimately trying to say on the topic. It’s entirely possible, even likely, that none of this is intentional.)
The conceit that “Breaking Bad” is essentially about the corrupting, corruptible, and ultimately tragic nature of traditional western ideas of manliness and male-ness is, at this point, self-evident. Sure, Walter White (played by actor-of-his-generation Bryan Cranston) has shed many of the weaknesses he felt had ruined him at the beginning of the series - a man who literally didn’t wear the pants in his first confession, who wasn’t respected by his family or his co-workers, a chemistry teacher that was merely tolerated by his students and had to make ends meet by working at a car wash whose owner cowed him at every opportunity. The cancer diagnosis in the first episode simply untethered him from that personally demeaning existence, because he refused to be remembered as a hapless good guy who couldn’t really provide for his family in life or death. By the end of this second-half of the final season, “Walter White” will undoubtedly be forgotten within the confines of his ABQ reality. Only “Heisenberg,” the identity that Walt created to make and sell the purest meth ever (supposedly to support his family) and whose name painted on his living room wall in the not-too-distant future, will be remembered. This is true whether or not Walt reaches any kind of penance before the end.
This Heisenberg, of course, is constructed to be the complete opposite of Walt, a form of wish fulfillment - a man who is respected, if not feared, equally by his worst enemies and his closest friends, a meth cook whose product is so good it breaks the economic rules of the illicit drug trade, and who runs (or lets his wife run) that same car wash far better than the abusive original owner ever imagined. He is, also, a man who is fully clothed and in control of his situation when he delivers his second video confession. Remember that the first confession, in all its embarrassing details, was never seen by anyone. The second, however, was shot by Skyler and shown to both Hank and Marie, illustrating a supreme confidence Walter White never had before he started cooking, and which only started metastasizing after he blew up Tuco’s office in season one. Before the meth, Walt’s first small step toward this more traditional man-kind was when he successfully attacked a stereotypical jock that made fun of his teenage son’s cerebral palsy. Then, in the long tradition of cancer patients undergoing chemo therapy, he shaved his head. The moment Walt looked at his new, bald visage in the mirror was the moment when Heisenberg was born. For a show that trades in masculine norms, this was also its first real moment of breaking those same norms down to their molecular level.
Bald men have long suffered slights against their manhood, simply because of a genetic predisposition that they cannot control. The conventional wisdom, unrealistic as it is, holds that bald men are less virile and, therefore, less attractive to the female members of our Homo sapiens species and, therefore, allowed to be ridiculed by their fellow male members of the species. Despite the efforts of Tony Soprano, Patrick Stewart, and an incalculable number of black men all over the world, baldness still contains negative connotations for maleness. The Hair Club for Men, George Costanza, and improv comic Colin Mochrie’s style of humor couldn’t exist without this cultural acceptance that Hair = Manly; No Hair = Not Manly. So it is striking that a large chunk of the men who populate “Breaking Bad,” which is established as a commentary on accepted masculinity, are almost all bald, or sporting very few hairs atop their shapely craniums. That we are trafficking in the criminal underworld is likely one cause for this striking visual motif, but the “good guys” aren’t any really hairier. This is the exact opposite of the leading men who populate almost every other entertainment medium, especially every other television show on the air, and most especially that other beloved AMC original series about men and their madness. Heisenberg may wear a black hat, but there’s no hiding his chrome dome, and he is anything but outwardly weak within that guise. Walter White may have had a full head of hair, but that mop top wouldn’t have much power over anybody outside of the younger, more impressionable Jesse Pinkman.
Jesse, Walt’s increasingly unwilling partner in crime (as played by the Emmy-winning and still underrated Aaron Paul), is another, subtler example of this alteration to masculine identity. He starts the series with a machismo chip on his shoulder and a full head of spiky blonde hair, going by the methonym Captain Cook. As the show has progressed, and as Jesse confronted the bloody realities of his macho swagger façade, his hair became less spiky and less full and his cockiness devolved into limp acceptance. (Until the most recent episodes, anyway.) What happened to Jesse between the start of “Breaking Bad” and the story’s culmination in these last eight episodes? He was disowned by his parents. His girlfriend dies next to him in her sleep. He is beaten nearly to death by a DEA agent. He is coerced into killing a man who did him no wrong. One of his best friends is killed by a kid. That kid turns out to be the brother of his next girlfriend, and is then also killed. The son of that girlfriend is then poisoned. He is an unwilling party to another innocent child’s murder. His non-Walt mentor is “sent to Belize” and presumed dead. He realizes his other mentor has been responsible for most of the previous tragedies.
Any one of those things would make a sane person question every true thing they ever accepted about themselves and inspire some sort of life change. But the show takes place in the span of approximately 18 months (give or take the flash forward), so it’s no wonder that Jesse’s former braggadocio was replaced by a more sincere, if not particularly manly, vulnerability during the middle portion of season five. Pinkman wanted to be a scab, a crusted over wound, but he’s been scratched too much, too hard, and too often, leaving him far more open than any of the other male figures with whom he associates. It’s no wonder, then, that Jesse essentially began to imitate the apparently strong men working all around him - Walt, Mike, Victor and Tyrus, even Hank - and all of whom were bald or balding. The easiest thing to change, always, is superficial appearances. Jesse is not quite a skin head, but his hair is as close to non-existence as it could get now, or as close-cropped as Gus Fring’s, anyway. The implication is the same as Walt, he wants to be taken seriously: “I am (or want to project that I am) the danger.” Despite his outward appearance at thug life, so far Jesse simply hasn’t really had it in him to acquiesce to this calcified idea of manhood. Despite his guilt and sorrow, his tears, it’s not for lack of trying. Jesse’s humanity, which is the one thing always keeping him in opposition to Walt, may end up being the thing that kills him in the end. But a true critique of normative masculinity would likely involve Jesse shedding the remains of his innate decency purely for violent retribution against Walt and that being the thing that finally does him in. The message would be clear: The only way to break bad and win the short-term game is to become the villain… but you still probably won’t make it out alive, so don’t break bad.
Of course, no discussion of “Breaking Bad” can happen without discussing Walter’s brother-in-law and the DEA agent who provided Jesse’s almost-mortal beat down, Hank Schraeder (played by erstwhile character actor Dean Norris). Hank began the series as a man full of bluster and confidence, fully in command of his masculine identity, like Vic Mackey from “The Shield” if he wasn’t as corrupt and even less politically correct. Hank was so alpha male, he was a cartoon. And, obviously, he was bald. But Hank is also a cop, and there’s a long tradition of bald or balding law enforcement officers with whom one does not fuck -Sean Connery in The Untouchables, Die Hard’s John McClane, “The Commish” - probably because it’s an unconscious leveling of the playing field for those characters. They might be badasses, but the shine on their skulls proves that they aren’t perfect. So rather than subverting a trope, Hank was actually conforming to it. The man with a chip on his shoulder always having to prove his mettle. Perhaps, deep in his subconscious, Hank was Walter’s model of manhood: tough, no nonsense, respected. Hank got things done.
Or, at least, Hank was a version of manhood Walter was forced to identify as his superficial opposite; something aspirational that was worth surpassing. Again, modeling surface appearances is the first and easiest step toward personal change, so it isn’t hard to imagine that seeing his own face suddenly mirror his successful brother-in-law’s initially turned Heisenberg on. But what Walter, and pretty much everybody else in Hank’s sphere besides, perhaps, Marie, doesn’t know is that Hank’s apparent cockiness was as much a façade as Jesse’s, and as much a façade as Heisenberg is, too, despite the attempt to totally sublimate the old Mr. White. We see this after Hank suffers panic attacks after killing Tuco; after the Tortuga explosion in El Paso; and most especially after his almost murder at the hands of the twin cartel assassins. It’s no surprise that before Hank rose to the ASAC position at the DEA, when he was undergoing physical rehabilitation, he was also growing a beard, patchy as it was. The five o’clock shadow reappeared almost immediately after discovering Walt’s secret identity. The man can’t grow hair on his head anymore, but the sudden appearance of follicles on his face is symbolically the reverse of Heisenberg’s shaved pate. But rather than seek help from his natural allies at the DEA, Hank is determined to be the one who knocks Walt, even if Jesse or Gomie get caught in the legally vague crossfire. He’s doing this not out of a sense of justice, but to save his reputation and to get a modicum of revenge on his professional life’s biggest bad. He is resorting back to hubristic tough guyism here, the kind of nonchalance we saw at the beginning of this tale. We know where that route leads on this show: Destruction. For Hank, unless he undergoes a complete 180, it will be of the mutually assured kind.
Here are all the other characters on “Breaking Bad” who would fit into a traditional masculine archetype. Let’s see if any patterns emerge:
The Cartel Twins
The Cartel Boss
What do they have in common? For one, they’re all deceased. If “Breaking Bad” is an examination of masculine archetypes, that’s not a good sign for the remaining characters. Second, save for two of the least developed characters, they’re all bald. Each one of them also had far too much confidence in their own abilities, some more justified (Mike, the Cartels) than others (Combo, Krazy 8), and that confidence in their own superiority - derived from both physical strength and emotional coldness, perceived or real - did them in. As it stands, Walt, Jesse, and Hank are engaging in a fight they each think they can individually win, much less survive, and this is purely because they refuse to ask for help or divulge their full plans, and they’re too stubborn to quit while they’re ahead, and alive. Just bucks ramming antlers.
The women, Skyler and Marie (and even Lydia, to an extent), have also been give exit strategies that they’ve also refused to take. This doesn’t really say anything about masculinity, though, just that the desire to survive — or, even more so, to win — is human. It’s worth noting that the women in “Breaking Bad” also rarely pursue threats, but rather take action: Marie trying to liberate Holly from her twisted parents and insisting that Hank get in front of Walt by going to the DEA himself; Skyler’s purposeful outburst in the restaurant to escape Hank’s machinations and her own insistence that Jesse be dealt with like the rest of the White family problems. These actions are borne out of necessity, not pride, and are couched in moral superiorities or legal technicalities. So is taking direct action (like Jesse’s aborted attempt to torch Casa de Blanco?), rather than threatening and playing manipulative mind games the better, righter course of action? That depends on whether Jesse’s sudden affection for deviousness trumps Walt’s abrupt need to mercy kill him. In a way, “Breaking Bad” is stretching its Western motifs to answer once and for all, who was the better cowboy: the straight talking John Wayne or the tricky Clint Eastwood? If neither ultimately wins, then the show really is more than the male power fantasy it is sometimes easily be accused of being.
Let’s briefly take a look at the other male characters that have featured memorably in the show, just to see whether or not any other patterns emerge:
Steven “Gomey” Gomez
ASAC George Merkert
The Rehab Counselor
To be clear, characters such as Merket, Declan, and Todd’s Nazi relatives could also be interpreted as being representatives of the traditional masculine ideal; especially the Nazis. They present willful personas who are easily perceived as threatening, but Merkert and Declan don’t get lumped in with the first list because each had very minor roles that were purely plot-centric and were never really fleshed out. They weren’t symbols, just cogs. The Nazis are following a developmental path that resembles the twin assassins, but we haven’t yet seen their inception point, so it’s hard to nail down if they’re really driven by wounded male pride or if they’re just greedy or adore violence. Or, if they’re an embodiment of something far more wicked than anything even Heisenberg represents, just pure, unfettered malice. Regardless, they seem meant to be the last, or one of the last, sources of conflict for Walter, Jesse, or Hank (or all three) to overcome. In a stroke of possibly accidental genius, they are not skinheads but have full heads of greasy, barely kempt hair. Considering that flash forward Walt also sports a ratty new ‘do, this could mean his ultimate fate isn’t at all heroic and he’s being driven by something far more corrupting than providing for and protecting his family.
It’s no coincidence, then, that all the other be-hair do’d characters listed above are decidedly not generically “manly” roles. Saul has his moments of bravado, but he is essentially a coward. Gomey is not a coward, but he is decidedly less competent than Hank prior to his Ahabic quest for the Walter White whale. Gale was the typical nerdy, nebbishy scientist. Huell and Kuby are comic relief; just like Badger and Skinny Pete (who is never seen without a ski cap, but whose real life hair is out of this world). Ted cuckolded Walt, yes, but he hid from the cancer patient and crippled himself trying to flee the comic relief. Spooge was disgusting and only brave with the element of surprise (not unlike early Heisenberg, actually). Jane’s dad let his grief destroy hundreds of otherwise innocent lives and families. And Walt Jr., a.k.a. Flynn, tears up the moment any crisis strikes; though, like Ron Swanson, he does love breakfast.
Finally, that brings us to Gus and Todd. They are each designed as distinct and obvious clashes between outward effeteness or politeness, almost classically feminine displays of civility, and being disturbingly easy with violence when it seems either appropriate or necessary. There was even the slightest of hints that Gustavo Fring might have been gay, which definitely falls under a different rubric than traditional masculinity but is often used to underline the depravity of villainous characters. Except Gus wasn’t a real villain, he was merely at life-and-death loggerheads with Walt, who is the show’s lead character but easily the actual villain of the piece. The box-cutter scene is, of course, legendary, but it doesn’t reveal anything about Gus that we didn’t already know - except to say that his deadly pragmatism could be eerily personal when he wanted it to be. That need to personalize things (see also poisoning the cartel bosses and visiting Hector in the retirement home) was his ultimate undoing, which again places stubbornness and vengeance on the lower end of this show’s spectrum for beneficial human characteristics. Todd is portrayed as equally murderously pragmatic, which comes as a surprise because he presents himself as such an aw-shucks followers. Todd is such a nice boy. Like Gus, Todd isn’t over burdened with guilt, but he also doesn’t need to prove his worth through shows of strength, but would rather prove he is daring and smart enough to hang with criminal masterminds. That is its own form of pride, and will likely cause a whole lot of hurt for a whole lot of people (including, probably, Todd himself), but it is a sufficiently different kind of angst from Walt or Jesse or Hank. If Todd hadn’t killed Drew Sharp to keep the train job a secret, and, sure, wasn’t a break-in specialist or a burgeoning meth cook, he’d be as virtually innocent as Walt Jr.
So it can’t be a coincidence that Gus’s and Todd’s individual massacres bear more than a passing resemblance…
What do their hair styles say about Gus and Todd? Well, Gus and Heisenberg share a passing similarity; at least in silhouette. The same could be said for Todd and early seasons’ Jesse, with their spikey blonde hair. We’ve already seen what happens when the elder two doppelgangers meet, proving that not making the violence personal is a better survival skill than deeply wanting the recognition of the person you’re slaying. So it stands to reason that one of Jesse and Todd won’t survive, if not both. Does Todd working as Walt’s tool to take Jesse out mean he wins that skirmish? Does Jesse making things deeply personal here at the end mean he loses? Perhaps “winning” and “losing” shouldn’t be the point, and nobody will figure that out before it’s too late.
Can Walt really keep getting away with this? All signs point to no, but he is the only one we know is alive at some point in the future. Just like everything else I’ve written above, it depends on what Vince Gilligan and the “Breaking Bad” writers want to say and what their legacy hopes to be. It’s the only question that really matters at the end, and the one they’ve been posing to audiences for six years: Is something that costs you everything really worth so damn much?