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Oct 01

Breaking Nerd

Breaking Bad is often interpreted as a morality play concerned with the existential bleakness that accompanies the quest to become a Nietzchean ubermensch while still esconced within the confines of a prototypical Christian/familial slave morality, but actually it is not about that at all. That's fucking crazy; get that fucking postmodern "death-of-the-author", "the aporia of language lets you create whatever meaning you want from texts" bullshit out of here. No, you see, Breaking Bad is actually about nerd culture; it is a parable for the history of nerd culture, its lowly beginnings, its ascendancy to commercial success, and its discovery of its true self along the way. When we first meet Walt he is, for lack of a better word, a nerd. He is tolerated by his friends but not popular. He cares deeply about highly boring things but no one else cares with him. He is extremely naive about money and possesses little. He harbors a dark side we don't really ever see. And he is dying. This is how nerd culture used to be, way back in the day, back during the first Star Trek or whatever shit nerds watched was popular back then. This stuff was tolerated but not popular. It was boring but obsessive nerdy types could care deeply about it. It wasn't the sort of thing that would make a lot of money. It had its dark side but it was well hidden by its relative unpopularity. One could picture it dying if things did not change. Walt decides to save himself via machismo. He's a fucking nerd so he can't do it by flexing his muscles; he does it by using his brain to top other men in aggressive power struggles. Meth is Walt's back-of-the-comic-book secret chemical tonic that allows the bullied weenie getting sand kicked in his face to return and intimidate prior musucular sand-kickers. He kills and terrorizes men by producing toxic gas, throwing explosive compounds, deducing that weapons have been constructed from plates. This is some nerdy-ass MacGyver level shit. When the show first came out I was honestly worried it would devolve into this formulaicism of "Bad guy terrorizes nerd man out of his element, but nerd man succeeds with science". This theme does play out often, but often enough it is subverted, and thankfully Breaking Bad avoids this charge for the most part. Walt is, for all intents and purposes, still a major nerd but he is adapting, learning how to make money, learning how to manipulate and pull strings. He embodies nerd culture's ascendancy of the cultural ladder. Not too long ago you'd be hard pressed to find a person who has ever been to comic-con or an anime convention or a "skeptic" convention. Now your 45-year-old neighbor dresses like Wonderwoman every year to listen to nerdy celebrities speak and sign random shit. Walt, of course, is a nerdy, lowly man, but he has created an alter-ego of sorts. His alter-ego, Heisenberg, is even named after some nerdy science shit, except this guy takes the predominantly male aspects of nerdiness and sends them off into a machismo hypermasculinized stratosphere of violence. He'll still occasionally use his science skills, like when he wants to poison a child or do some truly heinous act, but now he mostly relies on good old fashioned physical weaponry. He runs over drug dealers with his shitty Aztek. He shoots people in the face. When he comes in contact with truly nerdy people, people like Gale, people who remind him of the Walt from the past, he has them shot in the face. This guy knows how to make money and he'll kill whoever he has to in order to do so. His influence has even caused his more conventionally popular and "cool" partner, Jesse, to adopt this new brand of nerd machismo. In later episodes, when all Walt can think to do is shoot people, Jesse becomes the one suggesting magnets to wipe hard drives, suggesting elaborate train heists involving pumps and water displacement, etc. The former nerd has become some insidious violent shadow of himself, the cool kid has adopted those aspect of nerdiness that suit him, and the "classic" or "real" nerd has been shot in the face. The parallels to modern nerd culture are obvious. Nerd culture is no longer about nerd shit. It's about ruthless commodification, branding, exploitation of the obsessiveness of actual nerds. It's about appealing and branching out to mainstream culture, to wannabe rappers like Jesse, to jocks. Jock culture has now become immersed in nerd culture. Jocks pore over fucking spreadsheets and statistics for their D&D-esque "fantasy teams". Wannabe rappers have found common ground in the shared interest of misogny - rap because it exploits women as objects and nerd culture because it is so unfamiliar with women that it can't help seeing them as nonhuman and "other". You could rap about video games and inadequacy along with whatever rapper is popular now and identify with that on a supremely nerdy level and then also feel that connection over his awkward rage against women and use of "bitch". Nerd "fashion" has become mainstream - from thick black-rimmed glasses (not unlike those worn by Heisenberg wears at the end) to fedoras, trillbies - fucking Heisenberg's porkpie hat for christ's sake - that have become almost synonymous with men's rights activist types. The Internet is a veritable hotbed of nerd-revenue funneled through t-shirts with nerdy pop-culture references. Even a TV show ostensibly about nerds, *the* most popular tv show on the air at the moment, is merely a vehicle for masking a typical sitcom behind a veil of nerdiness that ultimately reveals the worst qualities bubbling under the surface of the mostly white, mostly middle class, mostly male nerd demographic; on The Big Bang Theory racism and cultural stereotypes are alive and well, sexism is a given, autism is a real laugh riot, and the jokes are often at the expense of "classic" nerds - the kind of nerds you'd think about from the 50s, with their big awkward glasses and inability to relate to women or mainstream culture. These "real" nerds are alive and well today but they have been shot in the face by what nerd culture has become, poisoned by Lily of the valley, run over by countless Azteks. But Heisenberg is not a transformation of the nerdy Walt - he is an amplification of his worst qualities; and in the same way popular modern nerd culture is not a transformation of old, unpopular nerd culture, but an amplification of the shitty, hypermasculine elements that were hidden within it the whole time. The people who fall by the wayside reveal a lot about the parallels with nerd culture. Hank, the prototypical "pure" jock, finds himself bested at his own game, his game of physicality, of crime, by his big dweeb brother in law. The real Hanks of the world are those middle-aged, beer-gutted men failing in their fantasy leagues because they just can't grok the stats, they just don't have the time to study the game theoretic elements, and why can't it all just be about the love of the game anymore and why must it become some obsessive thing that draws you into its commodifying vortex? And women? Forget about them. They're not welcome. Previously they were welcome but not present, unaware of the haunts of awkward men pretending to be Mages in dank basements. And now that these men have ascended to cultural prominence with machismo welded to the idea of nerdiness, now women are seen as "impure" elements, "contaminations", incapable of truly understanding or delving to a man's depth of knowledge of Season 1 of X-Files - like the fly in Walt's meth lab. They are merely "eye-candy" to draw in other men, and cannot possibly be obsessive or anal about a nerdy thing. In Breaking Bad, Jane, the comicbook-style artist, is an intruder in this area of nerdiness. She is the "hot comic girl" who must be a fake, a frickin' phony. She doesn't know Wolverine's backstory or which issue of whatever comic series presented the origins of The Avengers. She cannot be a part of this nerd-machismo culture and must die. And Andrea. Poor, sweet Andrea. She is not even an interloper into the nerd culture or meth empire. She is but the passive outsider, no creator. She dies because she is simply invisible and unnecessary. Mexican drug dealers and hit men? Sorry, people of color aren't allowed in nerd culture, unless it is to be stereotyped and mocked while serving as tokens. Gustavo? He is the pre-eminent businessman. A man who knows how to do business in the old way. But he doesn't get this branding stuff, the nerdy stuff, the science stuff. So he's killed by an improvised bomb to make way for the masculinized nerd culture coming through. In the end, Walt, once a "classic" nerd, realizes what he has created, this hypermasculinized monstrosity. This isn't the sort of thing he can pass on to his children. The naive Walt Jr. wanted a sports car he can never handle, and Walt has created a meth empire he can no longer handle. It has grown beyond him, become about the money, become about exploiting and killing what he once loved. Even the Aryan Brotherhood can see the plus side to this supremely white, nerdy culture and the profits they can make from it, as well as the implicit racism/sexism within it. Walt, who sees that his macho, popularized version of nerdiness had been contaminated by greed, realizes at the end that it had been contaminated all along, that this was the "real" him coming through, finally being "free", finally "living". And what we think we see with popular nerd culture - how it is contaminated by greed, by commodification, by corporations and "fake" nerd girls - had also been contaminated all along, by the sexism, elitism, racism, classism inherent in those lowly nerds who led this culture to ascendancy. Walt tries to make up for this, by returning to his sciencey-MacGyver skills to destroy the racists who have taken over his empire, but the damage is already done, and had been lurking underneath all the while. -

About the author

Dustin Martinez

I'm a laid back guy. I love pizza! I never know what to write in these things! I constantly think of suicide and stand perilously before the ominous void of nonexistence. I have two dogs and I love tennis!

1 comment

  1. The Nerd

    Hey! I’ll have you know the reason I wear these thick rim glasses is to cover up the coke-bottle thickness of my lenses, since I only had $60 to spare for a new pair of glasses and couldn’t get the fancy thin kind! I do want to thank the nerd hipsters of the world for popularizing said frames, though, so that when a poor sap like me is stuck with a huge hunk of plastic on my face, people think I’m one of the cool kids.

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