(Warning for those who have not yet seen Breaking Bad’s conclusion: this contains SPOILERS!)
Now that Breaking Bad has reached its tragic end, we can focus with more perspective on some of the aspects of the show that have been unexplored relative to some of its other, more sensational, themes. Good and evil; redemption and damnation; family and isolation; honor and betrayal; forgiveness and indictment — all of these, and more, have been a part of the Breaking Bad phenomenon. All, except for that one particular topic – the one that actually started Walter White down the road to Heisenberg: the cost of health care in America.
There is a popular internet meme out there that goes something like this:
Without getting into the otherwise complicated details of the Canadian health care system, it is oddly compelling. Think about it: Would there even be a Heisenberg, his meth lab, his rapidly rising body count, or Jesse Pinkman chained up in a neo-Nazi meth-producing compound if all Walter White had to do was show up the next week for the beginning of his cancer treatment? Would his first thoughts, upon receiving his diagnosis, be about survival, the future of his family — or about the abject fear of their coming financial ruin, given the costs of the course of treatments his physician prescribed? Would his long-suffering wife, Skyler, wince with fear and dread upon receiving Walt’s medical bills? And would she be automatically suspicious that something is very wrong when they were nearly paid off, given the hundreds of thousands the payoff represented?
And what about Hank Schrader? Walter’s brother-in-law DEA agent, facing horrible injuries that led to a permanent limp, had to simultaneously face his medical insurance company, which refused to pay for the many thousands of dollars’ worth of necessary physical therapy and some hospital bills. While most of the media commentary focused on Skyler’s guilt-ridden, manipulative lies that finally convinced Marie, Hank’s wife, to accept financial assistance for Hank’s therapy, perhaps we might want to consider the other moral disaster on full display — the one where a seriously-injured DEA agent would be left without the ability to walk without great pain, save for the millions earned by a cancer-stricken relative’s medical bill-motivated meth trade.
Some observers have suggested that Breaking Bad is revolutionary both in its style and its subject matter. However, David Sirota found something a bit deeper, and much darker, and wondered out loud why here in America, its subversive and somber notes were received with the fervor of recognition. Sirota argues:
The most obvious way to see that is to look at how Walter White’s move into the drug trade was first prompted, in part, by his family’s fear that he would die prematurely for lack of adequate health care. It is the kind of fear most people in the industrialized world have no personal connection to — but that many American television watchers no doubt do. That’s because unlike other countries, Walter White’s country is exceptional for being a place where 45,000 deaths a year are related to a lack of comprehensive health insurance coverage. That’s about ten 9/11′s worth of death each year because of our exceptional position as the only industrialized nation without a universal public health care system…
Walter’s fear of bankrupting his family is also familiar. The kind of medical bills Walter faced are hardly rare in America — they are, in fact, the country’s single largest cause of bankruptcy. And again, this makes America exceptional because, alas, medical bankruptcies basically do not exist in the rest of the industrialized world.
As far as we know, before Heisenberg built his empire, Walter White did the right thing: He earned an advanced degree, he worked as a schoolteacher, he supported his family — in other words, he dutifully played by the rules. So did his brother-in-law Hank. And yet when both were at their lowest points, when both needed a collective response to their personal tragedies, the only help came in the form of bundles of cash, courtesy of desirable blue meth. So when we debate the nature of the tragic flaws that led a mild-mannered chemistry teacher to become the best cook in the Southwest, the answer might at first include all kinds of meditations on masculinities, ego, a desire to feel, and to be, a man of action — to matter. But, it also should include an acknowledgement of a much more basic desire to simply be – to live, and not have the price of one’s life be the future and well-being of one’s family. But, as Americans, on the eve of “Obamacare,” this is exactly where we find ourselves today: wandering in the desert, wondering where we buried that something that would rescue us from Heisenberg’s fate.