Malcolm Harris is convinced that Breaking Bad‘s Walter White is yet another example of the White Savior, i.e.
The white guy who enters a world supposedly beneath him where he doesn’t belong yet nonetheless triumphs over the inhabitants is older than talkies. TV Tropes calls it “Mighty Whitey,” and examples range from Tom Cruise as Samurai and Daniel Day Lewis as Mohican[.]
I’m not one to cut Dances-with-Braveheart-Smurf slack, as I abhor little more than the notion that a white mind triumphs over brown bodies, but in this case I think Harris’ criticism is misguided. Lindsay more than adequately addresses Harris’ concern with the “purity” of Walter’s product, so I’ll focus on the simple fact that Harris doesn’t understand the trope he thinks is operative here. He seems to believe that any time a white person succeeds in a predominantly non-white discipline, said person automatically qualifies for the title of White Savior. But the examples he provides—The Last Samurai and Last of the Mohicans—indicate that on some level he’s aware that this trope traditionally involves more than a white man out-doing his non-white competitors in whatever it is they’re doing. It involves a white man teaching non-white people how to be the best non-white people they can be by leading them into battle as only a white man can. There’s typically a cultural synergy—the white man embodies the “best” traits of whites and non-whites—that enables the White Savior to lead his primitative horde to victory.
The problem with claiming this trope to be operative in Breaking Bad isn’t just that there’s no cultural synergy, nor is it just that Walter cares little for the fate of the non-white people his work displaces. Walter cuts a culturally unique figure: he’s a typical white imperialist, a brash colonialist who believes his superior technical skills make him better than the “indigeneous” cooks, and the people he wants to enslave aren’t the “natives” but white people. Eighty-one percent of known meth addicts are white people, and Walter wants each and every one of them to be addicted to his product. He’s no more a Hawkeye out to preserve Mohican culture from white incursion than he is a Lt. Dunbar determined to stall American encroachment into Sioux territory. In short: the trope Harris wants to use to condemn Breaking Bad just doesn’t apply to a show that’s more concerned with the ruthlessness of capitalist competition than the color of the working class.
I’m not saying there isn’t a racial component to the show, because there obviously is. This just isn’t it.
Now that I’ve got that out of my system, I can finish analyzing “Gliding Over All,” so more shortly.