Walter White: Post-Pax Americana’s Willy Loman

What happens when the Land of Hope and Opportunity is no longer? What’s a man to do?

Arthur Miller had an answer.  Few characters in America’s cultural oeuvre are more associated with the American Dream gone horribly wrong than Willy Loman (“low-man”), the down-on-his-luck protagonist of Miller’s Death of a Salesman.  In the sunset of an unexceptional 34-year career, and having just had his salary cut, Loman’s financially broke and broken in spirit.  Professional oblivion looms for the 64-year-old laborer whose labors are no longer needed.  He’s “redundant” in today’s business lingo.

As his world crumbles around him, Loman, a welter of delusion and denial, struggles to maintain the resilience required of his profession.  That same dogged and distinctly American optimism is encapsulated by the “Always Be Closing” mantra from another wonderful play about salesmen on the brink, David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross.  But Loman can’t cinch this deal; the economic tectonic plates have shifted too much.  He’s finished—literally.  Loman kills himself.

Miller’s production made its Broadway debut in 1949 just as US power was at its zenith.  The post-war boom was well underway.  In these halcyon days, no less than one-half the world’s industrial output came from our country.  It was an age of limitlessness, a stark contrast to our current age, one of diminishing hopes and decidedly finite possibilities.

Yet the newfound prosperity had not erased memories of the Depression, including Miller’s, who described the period as “the ground upon which I learned to stand.”  The son a first-generation immigrant who made a success manufacturing women’s coats, Miller grew up in a well-to-do Jewish neighborhood in Harlem.  But his father had invested his wealth in the stock market, and after it crashed on “Black Tuesday,” the family, like many others, struggled mightily.

Loman’s own struggles touched a chord for “Greatest Generation” audiences of Death of a Salesman who saw him as an avatar.  But the play, like its main character, fell on hard times because of good times.  It no longer resonated with subsequent generations that only knew golden horizons. Until now.

The Great Recession has produced its own Willy Loman, a salesman for our own age of insecurity: Walter White, the likable rogue of the critically acclaimed AMC series Breaking Bad.  White, like Loman, is the (mostly) blameless victim of circumstance, beginning with his health.  He’s got terminal cancer.  Walter’s diagnosis casts into relief his family’s fragile financial well-being, which is belied by their sprawling Albuquerque split-level with a backyard pool.  But appearances can be misleading.  Like most Americans, the Whites live on a financial precipice.

Walter is a brilliant but frustrated chemist who teaches high school science to apathetic students.  A misbegotten choice, abandoning a promising biochemical start-up that eventually went gangbusters, has contributed to his professional downfall.  Though his wife works and he moonlights at a car wash, his growing healthcare costs and his son’s looming college matriculation conspire to financially doom Walter’s family.  A shitty Pontiac Aztek in the driveway symbolizes the Whites real state of affairs.  

With death hanging over Walter and the prospect that his family, soon to include a newborn, will tumble into poverty when he’s gone, this modern day Willy Loman finds salvation as a salesman—of methamphetamine.  He also “cooks” the stuff, putting his chemistry know-how to make the best-quality “ice” in the region.

If desperation drives Walter into the narcotics trade, it’s a desperation that Breaking Bad audiences can understand.  Median incomes in America have been stagnant for decades.  Standards of living have fallen.  Then there’s the healthcare system that promises to destroy Walter and his family.  This, too, rings true: medical expense bankrupts two million Americans annually, largely because 55 million of us lack meaningful health insurance or coverage, according to Commonwealth Fund, a New York-based research organization.  

These and other realities of contemporary America make the famous George Carlin’s quip about it being called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it uncomfortably sobering.  No wonder, then, a dying man with crummy health insurance and other looming expenses decides to secure his family’s financial future dishonestly when doing so honestly is impossible.  

Of course, in this case “dishonestly” means exploiting a black market created by the misbegotten “War on Drugs,” which is far more destructive than the drugs themselves.  A society that de-criminalized hard drugs as it has the two most lethal narcotics, alcohol and tobacco, would be far healthier and less violent.  It would also spell doom for modern-day bootleggers like Walter.  What, then, qualifies as an “honest” vocation in such a fundamentally dishonest circumstance?

That’s a complex question likely far greater than any Breaking Bad’s creator Vince Gilligan seeks to raise.  Gilligan instead wants us to focus on Walter’s refusal to succumb to his circumstances, unlike the suicidal Willy Loman.  The two salesmen differ on this key point, but both are alike in one critical respect: they exist in a Land of Hope and Opportunity that exists only as illusion.  

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