Home / TV / ‘Breaking Bad’ and the War for American Healthcare

‘Breaking Bad’ and the War for American Healthcare

breaking-bad-walt
© AMC

Like any good addict, the wait between hits is becoming too much. I know the next one is coming, just not soon enough. Never soon enough. Unfortunately, the supply is running out. Every hit means one less. Only eight remain. Eight more rushes of intense joy and dread; the rare balance of loving every second where something unspeakably horrible may happen.

Yeah, like so many others, I’m addicted to Breaking Bad. And after eight more episodes, one-third a normal network season, it’ll be all over.

Every viewer is curious of where family man turned kingpin Walter White and recidivist screw-up turned reformed hero Jesse Pinkman will wind up. These character arcs and others is where most current attention is focused. Less focus, however, is on where the series began, the cause of the initial “breaking.”  Walter White’s struggle to pay his medical bills and support his family through and, perhaps, after cancer makes Breaking Bad more than a character drama or a crime series, but an extraordinary satire of modern American life.

From the expansive southwestern locale, the basis of America’s cowboy aesthetic, to the combination of extremely lax gun laws, disproportional legal policies, exploitative capitalism and middle class ennui that allow the drug trade to grow and thrive throughout the country, Breaking Bad effectively stretches America’s “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” mentality to its snapping point. More than any of these other elements, Breaking Bad satirizes America’s private insurance health care system. It is, after all, the hospital bills which force Walt to break bad.

Facts:  In 2010, over 17 percent of America’s GDP went towards healthcare. Average Americans spend more than $8,000 a year on health insurance – insurance, not medical treatment – $3000 more than the second highest OECD nation. We also live a year shorter life than the OECD average. In 2008, when Breaking Bad began, the average cost of treating lung cancer was almost $40,000, $6,000 more than 2002. While reforms have been made since 2008 which slowed cost increases, not all reforms are yet in effect and wouldn’t affect the show’s time frame (which we can estimate as some time in 2010). In that sense, Breaking Bad could be a cautionary tale against the way things used to be. Still, it’s not these numbers that push Walt to become the bad guy, it’s what these numbers cause.

breaking-bad-cancer
© AMC

In the first episode, Walt is the only one of his family who doesn’t have some sort of debilitating medical condition, be it permanent like Walt Jr.’s palsy, or temporary like Skyler’s pregnancy (and then the permanent condition of having two children, one with palsy), leaving him sole breadwinner, an arrangement he’s fine with until learning that he may not be around to see that bread rise.

In most other countries Walt’s cancer would be his only concern, but Breaking Bad captures that uniquely American sensation of the price for treatment being more stressful than the condition being treated. The show casts Walt as the classic productive member of society. He’s not some unemployed deadbeat without insurance; he has an employee health plan covered by a private insurer, which promptly refuses to cover the cost of treatment. His out-of-pocket expenses total $90,000 (Season 1, Episode 4, “Cancer Man”).  Again, in most other countries, almost if not all of these expenses would be covered as a condition of national citizenship.

Breaking Bad’s satire of the American healthcare system doesn’t come through cost but through the mentality that the system has fostered. Americans are raised to understand that medical care is expensive and an unscheduled trip to the doctor is a last resort. And you can forget about an emergency room or ambulance, unless you have an extra $300 or $1,000 respectively. Americans are taught that unless you are too sick to sit-up straight for more than 5 seconds at a time, or hemorrhaging violently from the head, avoid going to the doctor. Walk it off. Splash some water on your face. Tough it out. We are, after all, people who take care of ourselves.

breaking-bad-walt-2
© AMC

It’s this very state of mind that Breaking Bad effectively skewers by Walt refusing the aid of his friends in paying for his treatment. He can’t afford his hospital bills, let alone finance his family’s future without him, unless he does some revolting things, yet he’d rather manufacture an illegal and destructive product than take help from everyone, a product which raises the crime rate of the city around him. But as long as his family is taken care of, his job is done.

Any American who has spent time in countries with a national health service knows that those countries’ citizens visit the hospital as soon as they feel sick. Rather than get his cough checked Walter does the American thing and waits until he collapses before visiting the hospital, reluctantly, saying it’s “embarrassing,” “just a chest cold” and “can’t you just drop me off at the corner?” Perhaps if Walt had lived in any other industrialized nation the cancer wouldn’t have progressed to the year-to-live stage. It still may have, but the preventative care of other countries considerably raises the likelihood of catching his cancer early and lowers the likelihood of him cooking meth.

The most direct criticism of American healthcare comes in Season 2, Episode 5 (“Breakage”). Walt is shown receiving treatment followed by talking with the billing nurse about cost even with his cash discount. Next comes a scene of Skyler negotiating with the insurance company over Walt’s hospital stay following his fugue state. Finally, as they cook, Jesse complains that he’s got bills which prompts Walt’s response:

You want to know how much I’ve got left? After completing my first round of treatment and financing the world’s most expensive alibi? Zero! Zip! Nothing! I’ve got nothing to show for all of this! Nothing for my family which, as you might remember, was the whole damn point.

And that is the point – Walt, like so many actual Americans, is ruined because he wants to be healthy. In a rather subtle way, Breaking Bad is demonstrating the price Americans must pay simply to continue living.

breaking-bad-money
© AMC

It’s this very subtlety that is both boon and hindrance to Breaking Bad’s satire. At once, making an overt statement about America’s health care system could alienate viewers who disagree or label the show as liberal propaganda. However, as far as contributing to the on-going debate of American health care, the show doesn’t fully succeed. The meaning is there and clear, but not emphasized. As an artist, I believe it’s inelegant to push an obvious agenda. Yet, on the other hand, as someone whose entire family has worked in the medical field and has studied international health care systems, the more attention given to the impact of a broken health care system, the better. Health care is my issue, and perhaps that’s why I see it.

Like all great art, Breaking Bad offers a myriad of messages one may interpret to their preference. The fact that Walt can’t afford to support his family on a teacher’s salary alone highlights the plight of public school teachers. Arguments could also be made that Breaking Bad is a statement against the teaching of science as part of the standardized curriculum as it’s basic chemistry that allows Walt to make 99% pure meth and blow up the top floor of a building with one homemade crystal. Further, with Walt’s uber-wealthy friends volunteering to pay for his treatments, Walt paying for Hank’s rehabilitation and Gus Fring’s charitable contributions, there could be a discussion that Breaking Bad is also a statement against higher taxes on the rich, as they are often willing to give on their own.

It’s fitting that Breaking Bad began the year The Wire (in my opinion, the greatest television show of all time… right next to The Simpsons) ended. While the two have massive differences, The Wire’s claustrophobic, urban decay are as American as Breaking Bad’s endless sands and sky. Their depth of character, refusal to make anyone the “good guy,” and fearlessness in pulling the trigger on big events parallel each other. Every season of The Wire examined a different institution of American life – police policies, labor unions, drug laws, education, media – and how these power structures fail the individual. Breaking Bad is The Wire’s heir, focusing on health care the way its predecessor never could.

Over five seasons, and the upcoming sixth (well, second half of five) we’ve seen Walter White’s transformation from “Mr. Chips to Scarface” (in creator Vince Gilligan’s words), but what we’ve really seen is the extent to which America’s health care system may push a well-intentioned man when faced with a devastating condition. Breaking Bad is American satire in the classic sense: not as comedy but as a creative work in which folly and shortcomings are held up for ridicule. The unfortunate punchline is that, like any good addict, we keep coming back for more.

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About Jess Kroll

Jess Kroll
Beginning with Uncanny X-Men #248, novelist Jess Kroll started an obsession with the creative arts which has lead to an MFA in writing, publication in literary anthologies and newspapers, stage performances, hundreds of online articles, and the novel 'Land of Smiles' from Monsoon Books.