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Friday, September 27, 2013

I started watching Breaking Bad last month and caught up on all the past seasons in time to watch last week’s penultimate series episode when it first aired. Phew! Now I’m good to go for this Sunday’s finale, even though I’m not fully recovered from the week of nightmares I had after seeing “Ozymandias.”

I see lessons about business issues everywhere, and Breaking Bad has some great teachable moments. For instance, it deals with the need for wholesale distribution in the first season, as I explained here. And the series as a whole makes me think about management skills and industrial-organizational psychology.  As a result, I’m bemused by viewers who still have a soft spot for the megalomaniac, murderous, meth-selling Walter “Heisenberg” White. My problem isn’t just that he’s a sociopath and criminal, but that he’s a lousy criminal! Walt cooks up some A1 meth, but he fails as a drug kingpin. If you’re a viewer who wants to root for an anti-hero, at least pick a baddie with decades of successful evil behavior under his belt — Gus Fring or even, way down the food chain, Mike Ehrmantraut — not the guy who bursts onto the scene only to flame out in a year.

Breanking Bad (Season 4)

Gus Fring is always composed, even when he has to get his hands dirty.

I’ll concede that Walt does have a few impressively bad-ass moments. Saving his partner Jesse from death at the hands of two drug dealers in Season 3’s “Half Measures” is one. (Of course, Jesse wouldn’t have been in a confrontation with the dealers in the first place if Walt hadn’t foolishly pushed him into selling the blue meth in rival territory.) Walt’s recruitment of vengeful Tio Salamanca to be the suicide bomber who destroys Gus is brilliant. But I took exception to the way the carefully timed assassinations of 10 incarcerated men from Fring’s operation recall Michael Corleone’s triumphant massacre of his enemies in The Godfather. Chemistry teacher, you’re no Michael Corleone! “Right now, you’re Fredo,” says highlarious and astute lawyer Saul Goodman early in his dealings with Walt, referring to the least competent Corleone brother in the Godfather movies.  Fredo was the one who failed to return fire when the Corleone patriarch Vito was shot by rival mobsters in the first Godfather. In The Godfather Part II, Fredo betrayed Michael — whom he resented for inheriting the family business because he was smarter than Fredo, despite being younger — leading to Michael ordering his brother’s murder. “Fredo has a good heart, but he’s weak and he’s stupid,” said Michael in that movie.


Fredo gets the “kiss of death” from his brother Michael: “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart!”

When it comes to Walter White, I’m not as generous as Michael Corleone was in his assessment of Fredo: I don’t believe Walter has a good heart. He professes his love for his family, but he repeatedly takes actions that harm them for the sake of his own ego. But, for argument’s sake, let’s say his alleged love represents a good heart. He’s also Fredo-like in the way he resents his former partners in the company Gray Matter Technologies for “inheriting” the wealth he feels should be his. He resents them so much that he won’t accept from them the very money that he thinks he’s owed — the money that would save his beloved family from the consequences of a life of crime. He doesn’t want to give the Gray Matter couple the upper hand. Really, the words “weak and stupid” describe Walt perfectly, though I’d throw in “arrogant” for good measure. Walt may have a high IQ, but his EQ is negligible: He has little self-awareness and is laughably easy to manipulate.  In the third season episode “Más,” Walt and chicken-restaurant-owner/meth-distributor/police-“Fun Run”-supporter Gus Fring are discussing whether or not Walt is out of the meth-cooking business. I literally LOL’d when Walt said, “… you believe I have some proprietary kind of selfishness about my own formula? Some sort of overweening pride that you think simply overwhelms me, clouds my judgment?” Well, yeah. Not only does Gus think so, he already said so! After first meeting Walt, Gus said, “You have poor judgment.” So Gus knows exactly how to deal with this, driving Walt to an expensive, high-tech new meth lab that’s highly appealing to a guy who thinks he deserves the very best. He then brings up family, which Walt has said is his raison dêtre: “What does a man do, Walter?,” says Gus. “A man provides for his family.” A fancy office and the image of himself as a man — The Man — is all the inducement Walt needs to re-commit to a life of crime. He then proceeds to be a terrible employee, resentful as ever of anyone with power over him, acting out to the point where he is going to lose first his lab and his life.

Walt can’t manage down at work any better than he manages up.  His surrogate son and meth-making partner, Jesse Pinkman, is clearly ready to do anything for a bit of quasi-paternal approval. Instead, Walt constantly berates him. In the third season’s “Green Light” episode, Jesse makes his own meth and proudly shows it to Walt. Rather than patting the kid on the back, Walt flies into a rage, furious that anyone has dared to attempt to imitate his own excellence. “This is very shoddy work, Pinkman. I am actually embarrassed for you,” he says. He can only manage a compliment in an emergency, such as when Jesse is hospitalized after Walt’s brother-in-law Hank has beaten him to a pulp. Only then, when he’s trying to head off any trouble with Hank that could come back to haunt him, Walt says, “Your meth is good, Jesse. As good as mine.” So obvious! Meanwhile, the much slicker Gus sees a chance to separate the troublesome Walt from the much more amenable Jesse by giving the latter the praise he craves. He even sets up an elaborate ruse that allows Jesse to “save” Gus’s henchman, Mike, from robbers. Walt mocks Jesse for thinking that there’s anything he can do to help Mike, declaring, in his normal selfish way, “This whole thing is about me.” In contrast, Gus tells Jesse that he picked him for the job because he’s got potential: “I like to think I see things in people.”

Breaking Bad 406

Jesse gets to show off to Mike when they need to retrieve some stolen meth.

I’ve also never understood some viewers’ hatred for Skyler White — the way they view her as a nagging wife, preventing Walt from having his fun. She’s actually a way better criminal than he is. Strictly non-violent, but still better. She’s practical! You have to hide your ill-gotten gains from the authorities. I am shocked that people would boo her for nixing suspicious splurges on expensive Champagne and fancy cars. Hasn’t anyone seen Goodfellas? That’s my favorite Mafia movie. Part of the plot involves the true-life 1978 robbery of Lufthansa at JFK airport. The take of $5 million in cash and $875,000 in jewels made it the largest cash robbery in the history of the U.S. at the time. In the movie, Jimmy Conway (based on Jimmy “the Gent” Burke) organized the heist. After the successful getaway, he tells his underlings not to make any splashy purchases. They don’t listen. Among their new acquisitions are a white mink coat and a pink Cadillac. Jimmy is furious: “Are you stupid or what? Did you hear what I said? Don’t buy anything.”

Jimmy winds up killing every single guy who played a part in the robbery. The pink Caddy guy and his new wife are whacked in their car.


Jimmy had them whacked.

Who is the top criminal in this story? Who is the wise wiseguy? It’s Jimmy, not the guys who buy the flashy shit. So, in Breaking Bad, who is the smart one when it comes to car purchases? It’s Skyler, not Walt. Hell, Walt wouldn’t last a minute with Jimmy the Gent. Honestly, Gus was too lenient with Walt. It makes no sense that a guy as careful as Gus would wind up working with someone he was dubious about from Day 1, but the main character of a television show is usually lucky that way. Not only do people work with him even though they know he’s a dumbass, but they let him live way longer than they should, and he winds up blowing them up rather than vice versa.

In summary, Walt is bad at dealing with his managers, bad at dealing with people he manages, and bad at coping with the fruit of his labor. His main talent is cooking great meth. That makes him a factory, not a strategic genius. If we were talking about the fashion industry instead of the illegal-drugs industry, Walt would be a fabric mill that supplies Chanel. Gus would be Karl Lagerfeld. Walt’s factory might produce the most exquisite fabric on earth. It might be hard to find another factory as great as his factory. But, unless you’re see-though yoga-pants producer Lululemon, there’s usually another factory to produce almost-as-good material. It’s the singular vision of the Lagerfeld that’s rare, and even that’s not irreplaceable. After all, Gucci was able to replace Tom Ford as head designer. Saint Laurent continues without Yves. Still, there’s a reason the Lagerfelds, Fords and Yves Saint Laurents make the big bucks — way bigger bucks than the many factories that supply them with wool, silk, lace and embroidery. All of Walt’s grandiose ideas about how important he is are absurd. He’s a cog in a big wheel.

In addition to producing great meth, Walter White has one other special quality: awesome taste in hats.


Hawt hat.

True, it’s rather literal to wear a black hat when you’re a bad guy. A smart bad guy like Gus wears a clip-on tie and buddies up to the cops instead of swaggering around in a black hat. But there’s no denying the black porkpie hat is hawt. Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal ran a story on Goorin Bros. Hat Shop, which produced a limited run of 1,895 “Heisenbergs,” priced at $212 per hat.


Photo courtesy the Wall Street Journal. Click for story and more photos by Agaton Strom.

That is a good look and I do have a longstanding passion for black hats. After reading the Journal story, I felt like I wanted a hat for myself or MrB. But then I thought, nah, I don’t need to buy a Heisenberg hat! I’ll make my own. So, here is my latest single earring design.


Heisenberg hat single stud earring in sterling silver. $35. Click to purchase.

My hats are more rare yet less expensive than the Goorin Bros. hats. I made 10 hat earrings and they’re $35 per earring. If you agree with me that Breaking Bad is brilliant television — even if Walter White isn’t as brilliant as he imagines — get my hat earring as a souvenir. Or get it if you really like hats but hate getting hat hair.

See you on Twitter during the Breaking Bad finale on Sunday! To paraphrase the hateful parting words that a bitchy colleague said to me when I left one of my corporate jobs: I hope Walt gets everything he deserves.

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9 Responses to “Breaking Bad, Worthy Anti-Heroes and the Heisenberg Hat”

  1. Tina says:

    I don’t quite understand the Skyler hate and neither does Anna Gunn: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08......html?_r=0

    Great piece, Wendy!

    • WendyB says:

      Click Skyler’s name in my post 🙂

      • Tina says:

        Oops! Sorry! I usually click on the links and I missed that one. I got a Breaking Bad outfit–a Heisenberg t-shirt, TOMS periodic table of the elements shoes and now a Wendy Brandes Heisenberg earring! I just need the hat mentioned in your piece!!

  2. Too funny! I love the way you tied together what bad ass criminal strategists and brilliant fashion designers have in common :). Goodfellas is one of my all-time favorite movies. Before I saw it, I didn’t think anything would ever be as good as the Godfather trilogy. We’ve only just started watching Breaking Bad season 1, but I agree that Walt already reads like a Fredo, or one of the dumb criminal characters in a typical Coen brothers film. It’s fun analyzing TV and movies from a business and economics perspective! Remember when Downton Abbey Lord Grantham lost all of that money speculating on Canadian railroads? Predictable.

  3. Lynnski says:

    Oooh, I can’t wait to see what baubles may be inspired by the crazy antics at Downton Abbey!

  4. winnie says:

    Oh I keep meaning to watch this – I watched the first episode and lost interest (oops!) but everyone raves on about it so and the lead up to the finale has been all over my twitter/facebook feed. You’ve convinced me!

    • WendyB says:

      I think all series take a little while for me to get into. I often am not crazy about the first episode. It happened to me with the Sopranos. But, yeah, do this one!