China watches Breaking Bad

Heisenberg

“After I finished watching this show, I was unsettled for a while, until I opened my nearby copy of Only Socialism can Save America and thought for a long, long time.“

Breaking Bad has become part of the zeitgeist in the United States, and the show is raking in record viewers and Emmys by the handful as the story high school chemistry teacher Walter White’s transformation into a methamphetamine kingpin nears its conclusion. Breaking Bad also is a modest hit in China, where on streaming sites like Sohu.com an average season gets over 10 million views – more than double that of other recent acclaimed dramas like Mad Men (though still a fraction of the 200 million pulled in by runaway mainstream smash The Big Bang Theory.)  Breaking Bad’s Chinese fans fill the comment threads to each episode with hundreds or more responses, in which they gush over the show’s superiority to formulaic Chinese dramas, debate plot points, and occasionally reveal moments of massive cultural dissonance.

A case in point is frequent comments to early episodes exhibiting skepticism toward the series’ premise – As commenter 释懷 notes:

“A teacher has a house with a pool and a car – why does he still have no money and have to go work extra hours in a car wash, and in the end cook drugs?”

It’s not surprising that Walter’s motives would raise eyebrows among viewers in urban China, where stratospheric house prices make home-owning a distant dream, car ownership is a badge of success limited to those rich or connected enough to procure a quota-restricted license plate, and young men face a lifetime of bachelorhood if they can’t offer potential mates a mortgage-free house and car.  In Chinese eyes, Walter White should have already made it and then some, living not in some high-rise shoebox but in a roomy detached house (“villa” is the slightly awestruck Chinese term) with a pool and two cars in the driveway.  That the Whites are still viewed as poor makes some viewers discomfited that the reward for a country bootstrapping itself into prosperity is a society in which the indignities of lower-middle-class life and stigma of frustrated potential can cling to people even after they acquire the accepted accoutrements of success. As 御雪阳刚 writes:

“Let me tell you, having a car and house and still being considered poor – now that’s  scary.”

Once they get past the premise, Chinese Breaking Bad fans generally react to the show in the same way as their American counterparts. They dissect each episode’s plot and joke that Walter White’s success shows they should have paid more attention in chemistry class.  They debate the show’s depictions of meth-making while pondering if a Walter White could emerge in China’s underground meth industry. They admire Breaking Bad’s black humor and cheer Walt (aka “Old White”) and his former student Jesse Pinkman (aka “Little Pink”) in their latest escape from drug-lord-cum-fast-food-magnate Gus (aka “Brother Fried Chicken”, aka “Obama’s twin”).

Oh yes, and Chinese vans also heap opprobrium on Walt’s wife Skyler.

Hatred of Skyler White is a well-documented phenomenon whose origins have been traced to misogynistic “Bad Fans” that see the cautious mother of two as frustrating the show’s male power fantasy.   Bad Fans are not a solely American phenomenon. One does not even need to read Chinese to discern this viewer’s opinion:  第三集开始看的虐心啊,SKYLER真是个BITCH.

In fact, the anti-Skyler vitriol flows so freely on Chinese video sites, western democrats may finally be able to disprove Chinese Communists’ contention that there is no such thing as universal values.  Dozens of comments on one site call Walter White’s wife some Chinese variant of “bitch.”  As in American forums, much of the Chinese attacks are directed at Skyler’s appearance and perceived weight gain during the show.   Multiple comments compare her face to a horse or an old shoe.  One viewer likens her lips to a pair of fatty sausages, while another is disgusted at her “chicken’s ass” mouth.   Yet another declares that in China she would have been put in a pig pen long ago.

The more substantive criticisms also are remarkably similar to those of English-speaking viewers.  As Skyler transitions from a pregnant wife suspicious of her husband’s odd behavior to a knowing, half-willing accomplice in his crimes, American viewers decry her as a “shrieking, hypocritical harpy” “and “annoying bitch wife”. Across the Pacific, Chinese comments paint her as “insufferably arrogant and bossy,” and a typical “psycho bitch” that “needs a beating”.  A common refrain claims that Skyler is ungrateful for Walt’s efforts to provide for the family by whatever means necessary.  In this Chinese viewers echo many American fans, so invested in Walt’s journey to kingpin status that they buy into his rationalizations that “it’s all for my family” well beyond the point it becomes clear that Walt is in the drug business to burnish his own ego at least as much as to build up a nest egg.  On one streaming site, only deep into the fifth season when Walt’s villainy reaches its peak do voices of support for Skyler compete with her critics.

The notion that all of Walt’s actions are ultimately for the good of his wife and children carries weight in China, and viewers pay particular attention as tensions percolate and some members of the White family begin to pull away. For example, anti-Skyler rage sharpens to a razor edge after Skyler discovers Walt’s meth-making and briefly commits adultery while trying to divorce him.  In later seasons, the consequences of Walt’s actions ricochet amongst his other relatives, including endangering the life Walt’s brother-in-law and federal drug cop Hank, who is married to Skyler’s sister Marie.  Walt and Skyler use their ill-gotten gains to pay an unwitting Hank’s medical bills, but as the stakes rise and truths emerge, the ties that bind the extended White clan dissolve with a ferocity that leaves some Chinese viewers scratching their heads.  As viewer 生初 writes:

“It’s hard to understand foreigners’ thinking.  Old White helped out Hank when he was in trouble, but after Hank discovers that Old White is cooking drugs, he still goes after him.  And Hank’s wife Marie is Skyler’s sister by blood, but it’s like she has no feeling at all, she still opposes her.”

If there is an undercurrent here of friction between culturally divergent attitudes toward family ties, commenter 搜狐网友26656787 makes it explicit in this response:

“That’s’ why America is so great and strong.  People focus on whether your actions are right or wrong, and aren’t so nepotistic.  Fairness and freedom – this is what makes America so attractive!”

This remark sparks flurry of replies debating the merits of the author’s opinion, of American culture, and American behavior on the world stage.

Discussions of politics are relatively rare in Chinese discussions of Breaking Bad.   A notable exception is the top-commented review of the show’s first season on the popular forum Douban.com.  Titled, “A Show that Profoundly Exposes the Ugly Face of Capitalism,” author 王坏 ‘s five-star review illuminates Breaking Bad’s successes and America’s failings in exaggerated prose like:

“I could not help but shed tears. It really makes me sorrowful that in a capitalist country a teacher can receive such lowly treatment.”

and

“Suffering from disease and the burden of his family, Mr. White turns to a path of crime.  Here he is not just rejecting his fate, but also rejecting the evils of the capitalist system.”

The author concludes with the sentence that begins this article, and then presumably returns to reading his copy of Only Socialism Can Save America.

The review’s hundred-plus responses are divided. A few commenters shake their heads at the author’s dogmatic parroting of old-school Communist Party rhetoric, soberly pointing out that China has its own corruption and social inequities, or deriding the author as a “river crab” – a reference to China’s online censorship regime.  Later responses berate these early commenters as failing to grasp that the author is being sarcastic, and they cheer the review’s ironic mimicry of self-congratulatory Party media. The writing apparently is subtle enough that two of this writer’s Chinese friends argued with equal conviction that the reviewer was genuine or ironic.  Notably absent are any voices of support for the views expressed in the review: everyone either thinks he is amusingly out of touch with China’s modern society, or has used Breaking Bad to skewer it in hilarious fashion.

As for Only Socialism can Save America, yes, it is is a real book. But the real question is: can it save Skyler White?

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