Yes, all right, I admit it. I’ve been slow to get on the Breaking Bad bandwagon. To be honest I can’t watch the show for hours at a time the way some people can, it’s just too gruesome for me. But I do believe that the story of Walter’s downfall is quite possibly the best TV series ever written (even if I’m too squeamish to sit through it). And I believe that it is a rare example of media using disability right. In this case, the requirements of having a special needs child adds to the pressure of the plot line.
So, basic breakdown of the Breaking Bad storyline is this: whimpy middle age guy finds out he has lung cancer even though he hasn’t smoked a day in his life. He has a son with cerebral palsy, a pregnant wife, and he’s a bio-chem teacher. Knowing his family needs money, he turns to making and selling meth, cuz you know, that’ll make everything better… This was never gonna end well.
His son, Walt Jr, has what I would call a mild case of Cerebral Palsy, more than enough to make parents think ‘gosh that would be hard,’ but not so bad that everything about parenting is different. Walt still is in main stream classes, he whines about doing homework and chores, and finds ways to help his father pay for his cancer treatment without realising that he’s a front for the family’s money laundering.
From a storytelling perspective, the boy’s character exists for two reasons. First, it adds to the pressure on Walt to provide for his family. Having a kid with CP is expensive and in the face of death, anyone would want to see their children provided for. It gives us another hold to have in relating to the character of Walt as he goes down his very dark path. And we need every handle we can get.
Secondly, Walt Jr provides a foil to his father. The literary device of the angelic person with a disability is in full swing, and it works here really well. Walt Sr is a terrible man, and his son doesn’t see it. They boy does everything possible to help his father, having no idea that his actions an yet another cog in the meth making machine. We love the father because we can understand wanting to provide for a family who needs him. We love the son because there’s only so much we can love about the father.
Walt Jr’s disability is not a main feature in Breaking Bad. There’s so much else going on that we forget this over bearing drug lord has a disabled son, and that’s exactly as it should be. The writer’s have used disability and illness in a way that drives characters forward. We need storytellers who can use disability as a tool, not at a defining characteristic to check off of some diversity list. Because it’s a brave new world out there. Every Day.
The Period Route
March 24, 2017
Subtitles? Transcriptions? The debate with disability and media