The popular show Breaking Bad features a high school teacher named Walter White who makes the decision to begin cooking and selling crystal meth amidst various personal struggles. While there are some aspects of the life surrounding crystal meth that the show gets right, ultimately Breaking Bad portrays crystal meth users in an inaccurate and unthorough way that has the power to have dangerous effects on the people who watch it.
The question to consider is: How accurate is the portrayal of crystal meth addiction on Breaking Bad? According to Hanson, Venturelli and Fleckenstein (2015), amphetamine drugs such as crystal meth, “can be readily and inexpensively synthesized in makeshift laboratories for illicit sale,” very similar to the way that Walter White is shown to do in Breaking Bad (Hanson, Venturelli & Fleckenstein, 2015, p. 311). According to research by Barnard (2005), drug use has a significant impact on people’s lives as families and friends are put in the back of one’s mind when the need to use drugs becomes the number one priority in a person’s life (Banad, 2015). One accurate portrayal in the show is of the desperation that people addicted to crystal meth experience. Many of the users are often depicted as doing whatever it takes in order to get high. Another very important feature surrounding crystal meth use that the show focuses on is the damage that people who are addicted to crystal meth go through involving their relationships with the people in their lives. The abuse of a dangerous drug like crystal meth inevitably leads to personal pain and destroyed lives which Breaking Bad does a good job of showing. The advantage of this portrayal is that it could convince anybody considering trying crystal meth to reconsider due to the potential effects it could have on their social life.
While many of the depictions of crystal meth use are accurate in Breaking Bad, the portrayal of crystal meth users is not completely thorough. The seriousness of the addiction seems to be downplayed when it comes to one of the main characters, Jesse Pinkman. He will use crystal meth in one episode and then go very long periods before using it again or experiencing any symptoms of withdrawal. This is unrealistic because according to Hanson, Venturelli and Fleckenstein (2015), real-life addicts find it very difficult to go for extended periods of time without using crystal meth and go through a variety of withdrawal symptoms including convulsions, chest pain and increased heartbeat (Hanson et al., 2015, p. 314-315). This is a very dangerous disadvantage to the way that crystal meth is portrayed because it could give people the wrong impression that it is easy to be a “casual user” of meth and might be a factor in why they decide to try it. To be more accurate, Breaking Bad should have used Jesse to show the real and true effects of using crystal meth. He should have experienced more of the side effects that come with using it and the withdrawal symptoms that come with not. Breaking Bad also tends to stereotype the type of people shown to be using crystal meth. It mostly depicts people in the lower income bracket with using the drug. In reality, crystal meth can find its way into the life of anyone, regardless of their economic status. As a matter of fact, in recent years there has been a growing number of meth users in the middle and upper-class sectors of society. According to Hanson, Venturelli and Fleckenstein (2015), “Despite this image of being a particular problem of the working class, there are many examples of rich and famous people who also abuse this potent stimulant” (Hanson et al., 2015, p. 311). Breaking Bad should have used these statistics as an opportunity to show how drug use has the power to affect people from all walks of life. It would have also been beneficial for the show to show more people dealing with the long-term effects of crystal meth use when it comes to those who are no longer using it. According to research by Hunt (2006), “Chronic use of methamphetamine causes long-term alterations to users’ brain chemistry and structure that result in impaired memory, mood alterations, impaired motor coordination and psychiatric problems, even long after terminating use” (Hunt, 2006). This would have confronted viewers with the reality that the use of crystal meth has serious consequences that last forever.
In the discussion about drug portrayal in the media, it is important to think about the potential effects of the shown drug use on society. Is the show glamorizing the use and sale of crystal meth or does it use its storylines as a warning to deter anybody considering to use or currently using the dangerous drug? Introducing an unsettling drug like crystal meth into a drama created for a mainstream audience has the potential to serve a good purpose to educate people about its dangers but one disadvantage is that is has the potential to numb viewers to the serious nature of addiction. In the case of Breaking Bad, the show is not necessarily glorifying the lifestyle, but it does have the disadvantage of normalizing the idea of the drug which has the potential to get people curious about it who might have normally never been introduced to its world.
Breaking Bad is just a television show. It was created to be enjoyed as a drama and while it does exhibit many accurate depictions of life involving crystal meth, it is not thorough enough in its portrayal of crystal meth users. As a viewer, the best approach is to take the opportunity to watch the show and gain knowledge of the risks that revolve around this extremely harmful substance, but then realize that the stakes around the use and abuse of the drug are even higher in reality.