With its epically interwoven morality tales and cast of shady operators, AMC’s “Breaking Bad” is a natural mirror for the power-struggle politics of this election year. So with the show’s long-awaited fifth season finally underway, we’ve matched up some of the campaign’s best known political players with their “Bad” alter egos.
(Note: This is satire. We’re not saying the president would ever cook meth or that Republicans are really coming at him like a scorned drug cartel. What we’re examining is the character arc in a fascinating drama. And we’re arguing that a real-world drama, equally fascinating, is going on right now in politics. OK?)
Two ambitious men (remember those flashbacks to Walt’s aborted chemical engineering career?) who dabble in academia before vaulting themselves to the rocky top of their respective fields, President Obama and Walter White both know power comes at a price. Walt’s initial justification for cooking methamphetamine – to stockpile money for his wife and son before he dies of cancer – no longer applies, but he’s still in the game. His affection for chemistry and teaching has been perverted for the sake of a more lucrative new gig.
President Obama is a constitutional scholar, yet critics say he’s “broken bad” too, that his use of executive power defies certain loftier values in favor of political expedience. Now, at the dawn of two pivotal seasons, both the president and Walter White must ask themselves just how far they’ll go to keep those hard-won crowns.
Don Eladio and the Salamanca family began building their empire out of the public eye. With a bit of poise and a lot of ruthlessness, that business expanded to the point where privacy becomes incompatible with growth. They chose growth.
Mitt Romney knows something about that. He could have sat on his Bain money and enjoyed a life of quiet luxury. But that wasn’t enough for the candidate, and now it’s his quietly efficient campaign that’s casting an existential shadow on President Obama’s political career. The question going forward: Can Mitt shed the blue blazer, let loose his inner Salamanca, and take his place as America’s political don?
Pinkman and Walt were never rivals in the drug trade the way Obama and Biden had been in the 2007 primaries, but their marriage is just as improbable. Jesse goes off the tracks every now and then (his very own “Oh, Joe!” moments), putting his and Walt’s lives and livelihood in danger, but he makes up for it in spades, with a fierce loyalty and a habit of coming through when his partner needs him most. In their respective odd couples, Jesse and Joe are “the Oscar.”
Mike is the cartel’s Super PAC. He has no official position with any known drug organization, yet always seems to be doing something to preserve their power. Likewise, Rove might appear to be operating on the periphery of the 2012 fight, but his Crossroads GPS “charity organization” and larger American Crossroads Super PAC are among the most potent forces in American politics. And because Crossroads GPS is not officially a PAC, Rove is not required by law to disclose who’s underwriting the operation. We might say the same for Mike.
There’s an intern in the building today who will sit down on a morning much like this one, many administrations hence, to compose an OTUS listicle counting down “The Most Harmonious Relationships Between Presidents and Their Secretaries of State.” Two names sure to breeze into the Top Ten: Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, 2009-2012.
On the grand scale of unlikely plot turns, Skyler White’s sits comfortably beside the one authored by the president and Secretary Clinton. The unaffected housewife of seasons past is now – her initial pique having faded – fronting Walter’s money-laundering car wash and arranging for gangsters to shake down crooked businessman (See: Ted Beneke).
Do you think Axelrod ever looked at a nervous Obama during the 2008 campaign, smiled and said, “It’s all good, man!” You know he did. He might just be standing in front of the president right now, shaky poll numbers in hand, saying it again. Axelrod and Goodman know how to operate. Both men were confronted with a kind of smoldering genius, and both were clever and cunning enough to stoke it when they had the chance. Without Saul, Jesse and Walt are dead or in prison. Obama without Axelrod is the junior senator from Illinois, enjoying a schvitz with his pal Tom Coburn in the Senate’s $40-per-month “wellness center.”
Donald Trump – The most recognizably loathsome character in the show, Beneke enters the ring a platinum-belted champ, then after a few ugly rounds, exits like a blundering chump. Similar to “The Donald,” he’s full of bluster and banter, cars and hair, almost all of it as empty as Trump’s hotel in Atlantic City. And yet, so many of the players have leaned on him, knowingly or not, during the course of the series. He was there for Skyler with money, a job, and some kind of creepy caring when Walt checked out to build his empire. And when the IRS got turned on to the car wash, he gave her the head’s up, saving Walt and all his business associates from premature perp walks. Sure, Ted loses the plot here and there (see: Trump’s Birther rant on CNN), but he’s always in the game, making money (and trouble) for his friends.
They’re coming at it from different angles, but both Rep. Issa, the California Republican who heads the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Walt’s DEA agent brother-in-law Hank are men on a mission. Issa is trying to turn up material evidence that President Obama’s Justice Department covered up a “gun walking” operation gone bad — a plan so ill-advised you’d be forgiven for thinking Hank and the boys at the Santa Fe office had cooked it up themselves. Issa sees the daylight at the end of his tunnel, but he’s unlikely to reach it. Hank’s position might be even more complicated. His prize pig sits across the table from him during family dinners. Whether Agent Schrader will be clever and brave enough to take down Walt’s “Heisenberg” is an open question.