As far as White’s concerned, cooking meth is completely justified because of his belief about what a man’s role in a family is. He didn’t get into making meth to hurt people and profit off of junkies; he just wants to make tons of money for Skyler and his kids before he dies. Breaking Bad fiendishly set its drama in motion by playing on universal laments: White resides in a world where the economic downturn rages on and teachers barely make a living wage. In such a world, he views himself as a failure as a breadwinner—compounded by the fact that he’s still bitter about walking away from a technology company he helped found that’s now worth billions.
But as White’s lies and double life drive a deeper wedge between himself and his family, it’s the calmly ferocious and brilliant local meth kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) who appeals to White’s masculinity to continue cooking. “What does a man do, Walter? A man provides for his family,” Fring reminds him. “When you have children, you always have family—they will always be your priority, your responsibility. And a man—a man provides. And he does it, even when he’s not appreciated or respected or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it. Because he’s a man.” The speech works because Fring knows White is the sort of man susceptible to appeals to his paternal pride. Being a criminal doesn’t scare White—being thought of as a worthless father and husband does.
In fact, no one on Breaking Bad is immune to machismo. If Fring represents to White a levelheaded, reasonable approach to living outside the law, even he is felled by manly impulses. In public, Fring hides behind the gentle, friendly persona of the owner of a chain of fast-food stores—a timid Clark Kent to his real, superpowered self. But in private, he clings to a long-held grudge against the Mexican cartel with which he’s been linked for years. In a flashback, we witness a younger, less confident Fring watch helplessly as his former partner is killed by the cartel right in front of him. Fring’s humiliation is a sting he’s never forgotten.
And that’s why, despite all his success and power, he is still waiting for the day he can complete his revenge on the cartel—particularly upon Hector (Mark Margolis), now an elderly man living in an Albuquerque nursing home who can’t speak and is confined to a wheelchair. As smart and unemotional as he is, Fring savors tormenting Hector, informing the man each time he’s eliminated one of his family members. Fring should let this battle for supremacy go—Hector long ago lost his power—but still he wants to continue disgracing him. Of course, that’s exactly what gets Gus killed, as White correctly guesses that Fring will confront Hector personally when he thinks the man has gone to the DEA, leaving him vulnerable to the makeshift bomb strapped to Hector’s wheelchair.
Being a man—or, more specifically, becoming a man—is an issue for White’s young meth partner as well. Pinkman possesses a vision of manhood that’s inspired largely by the overinflated virility of the gangster rap he bumps in his car: taunting, juvenile, abrasive. Even his catchphrase “Bitches!”—which he uses to punctuate put-downs and exclamations alike—is telling because it degrades other people’s masculinity to pump up his own. What’s been fascinating, however, is watching Pinkman gradually confront his sensitive side. Whether it’s an innocent boy he finds in a frightening crack den or a recovering addict he falls in love with, Pinkman has consistently realized that his über-macho persona can’t conceal his concern for other lost souls like himself. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Pinkman is the one who wants out of the meth game: Unlike Walter White, he’s become less enamored with the idea of being the big man, which White views as weakness.
Equating emotions with weakness is an even bigger problem with Schrader, whose oversize, guy’s-guy personality paints him into a corner after he has trouble coping with his killing of a violent meth dealer. Rather than listen to his wife and seek counseling for his PTSD, Schrader holds on to an archaic John Wayne–style of taciturn manliness that forces him to swallow his anxiety, which only intensifies his frayed nerves. When he’s nearly killed by Mexican hit men and has to go through painful physical therapy to walk again, Schrader feels emasculated. Robbed of his swagger, he pouts and watches porn; no matter how much his wife cajoles and supports him, his job—a manly purpose—is the thing that finally helps him get back on his feet.
Assuming that Breaking Bad ends darkly, which Gilligan has been hinting at since last year, no doubt the show will go out as the cautionary tale it’s always been. But don’t think for a second that its warning extends only to those who believe crime pays. In fact, Mike Ehrmantraut (played by Jonathan Banks), Fring’s head of security, tried to warn White of this very problem right before White killed him. Calling out White for needing to be top dog and offing Fring, Ehrmantraut barks, “You could have shut your mouth and cooked and made as much money as you would have ever needed. But no, you just had to blow it up. You and your pride and your ego—you just had to be the man.” In the world of Breaking Bad, being the man is a drug more addictive than meth—but it’s also a disease that’s deadlier than cancer.
Tim Grierson is Playboy for iPhone’s critic-at-large. You can follow him on Twitter.