Drugs and moving pictures share a storied history. Similarities are bound to arise, especially when some TV and movies just pull from real life gangsters and those who hunted them. But two recent series show a scary resemblance: Weeds and Breaking Bad.
Perhaps it’s because of a general theme of rising to power. Or a hero’s journey, if Joseph Campbell’s assertion could extend to dealing drugs. We’ll discuss the possibilities in the text ahead, but at times these similarities manifest in scarily mirrored minutiae.
One thing to note is that while there are many more differences — these two are very unique shows — than similarities, those differences at their roots owe themselves to the differences in genre: drama (Breaking Bad) and comedy (Weeds).
The final eight episodes of Breaking Bad air sometime this summer, so the show isn’t over yet, but the ditch has already been dug. Analyzing the series beside Weeds, a show that is off the air, might shed light on possible final acts. But, more than anything, it shows how either great minds think alike or how one basic premise can be accomplished two very different ways.
If you don’t believe me, just remember that even Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan might disagree.
(SPOILER WARNING: There will be massive spoilers ahead for both Breaking Bad and Weeds. If you haven’t seen one or both and want to be surprised don’t read ahead.)
1. A Catastrophic Catalyst (A New Low)
Nancy, in Weeds, goes from housewife to widow to pot dealer. It is an economic decision, at first, and its root lies in emergency. To make matters worse, her husband’s upper middle-class job — engineer — allowed him to take out a mortgage on a picturesque home in a preppy community of similar “little boxes” before his death.
Notice the technique of establishing a background for a character that is already bleak. If you made a line graph of “problems” over time for the main character of both shows, it would be a 45-degree angle down. It starts with a catastrophe of some sort, and the reaction intended as a solution to this hardship only makes things worse. And so on and so on. But it starts with some pre-existing hardship.In Nancy’s case the pre-existing hardship was being surrounding by yuppies and being, essentially, a bored housewife. It being a comedy makes this a proper hardship, even if it does seem mild in comparison to other premises, such as Breaking Bad.
I’ll explain, but first let me further establish a sketch of an example to help establish some kind of shorthand for the remainder of this article. In comedy, such as Weeds, there is generally a pervading impression of a benevolent universe. Bad things happen to good people, but in a comedy those good people always land on their feet afterward. Exceptions like dark- or tragic-comedy are niche genres, with unique merits, and as such must include a modifier to “comedy.” In this sense, Weeds is just a comedy. Accordingly, the baseline before the catastrophe is a “first-world problem.” No one ever died from suburbia.But they have died of cancer. Walter White tests positive for lung cancer, and he’s not even a smoker, which sends him down the road to making meth. That is a great deal more severe than being made out of ticky-tacky. Also, Walt’s pre-existing hardship dwarfs Nancy’s. He has a teenage kid with cerebral palsy and tons of debt. Walt, a 50-year-old man, works a second job at a carwash to pay for these bills. Weekdays 9-to-5, Walt is the best high school science teacher ever who nevertheless still gets shit on by life.
As if this restless existence is not bad enough, Walt is figuratively castrated. We learn, though always in vague terms, that he should be a multi-millionaire from a company he co-founded, and he used to be a top-tier, experimental chemist. What changed his life THAT time, we don’t know for sure (though it might be a personal-differences-gone-wrong situation). He feels cheated though, it’s clear, and there is a piece of him that looks at the world and sees it adversarially. Like the world has not given him enough credit. His wife henpecks him, his brother-in-law shows him up in front of Walt Jr., and the boss at his minimum wage side job treats him like a highschool dropout.
When Walt learns he has cancer the psychological reaction is akin to a suspended steel I-beam snapping in two due to the last hippo out of a dozen being piled on. He begins cooking meth ostensibly to provide a nest egg that will not leave his soon-to-be-widow wife with a crushing debt. Honestly, in the framework of the show, it makes perfect sense. No, it doesn’t seem like a sane idea, though the money sure looks delicious. But his sanity, in this precarious nature, is understandably suspect.
The chemistry background is the inspiration for making meth. And the very nature of meth makes Breaking Bad a pretty dark drama. Marijuana, like in Weeds, is just not as offensive. You do not ever truly believe, despite a few PSA-inspired secondary comments by secondary characters, Nancy is destroying the lives of those who use her product. In Breaking Bad, you do. Again, this is the key difference between Weeds and Breaking Bad, no matter the multitudes of similarities — one is a comedy, the other a drama.
Walt’s starting point of dismay is Marianas Trench low, and it drops even lower. But there is still the same theme of being in a bad spot, one that slowly sucks the main character’s soul, and then along comes someone to kick them while they’re down. Many series, movies, and books use this catalyst technique. Something shakes things up in the first episode, first act, or first part.
But these two series take an alternate path and make their characters’ lives horrible from the outset, then make it worse. Both series use financial hardship as the primary motivation. Both series use the drug trade as the pursued remedy for that hardship.
2. The Purist and The Industrialist: The Sidekick Evolution
In both Weeds and Breaking Bad there exist two personality types invested in the main storyline of an entrepreneurial drug business. They sometimes swap back and forth between two characters, but there is always one and the other. And in both series these personalities are manifest in the main character and a younger sidekick.
Silas begins life on Weeds by generally serving as a nuisance. He’s a home-life problem for Nancy, and it’s really about as “B” as B-plots go. But then he starts demanding involvement in the “family business” and horns his way in when he meets resistance. Afterward, he’s officially in sidekick territory, even if he considers it partners.Soon, Silas shows an aptitude for not just selling Marijuana but growing it. As the series goes on, his character morphs from the troubled teen to the Purist. He wants to grow. Makes his own strain. And he doesn’t have any reservation or guilt about selling weed. Nancy eventually comes to his side of thinking by series’ end, and her life is more peaceful for it.
Now, in Breaking Bad, the roles are somewhat reversed at first. Walt is definitely the purist and his partner, former student Jesse, is the industrialist. Jesse had been making and selling meth long before Walt joined in, and it was his only source of income. Walt is ostensibly only in it for the money, but that’s kind of a given. Sure, he wants to make money. But he wants his product to be the best. His pride as a chemist relies upon it. And, even with his lust for money, he intends to be the best in the meth game — and in late seasons it becomes clear he doesn’t care about money anymore. It’s a personal need to perfect what he creates, a trait you see repeated even in menial tasks he performs throughout the series, like making sandwiches.
Jesse, however, cleans up his act a bit and begins really latching onto that business mentality. He also begins to come over to Walt’s perfectionist ways, again paralleling Weeds, even if it’s the sidekick who is now changing. Now, Breaking Bad is not finished yet. Ostensibly, it’s in its last season. I suspect that in Breaking Bad’s case the purist path is a tragic choice. And Jesse will be brought down by changing from one to the other, whereas Nancy was rewarded for her change. Again, this is the difference between Drama and Comedy.
Often, in Drama, especially more classic Drama, the main character is brought down by what is sometimes called a fatal flaw. Shakespeare plays like Othello are the best examples, but you can even see it in plays like “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Characters are stuck with some flaw and it will be their downfall. They may try to change, but there is always something inside they can’t fix. And anyone who gets swept up in his or her wake is consumed by that intractability.
Walt’s fatal flaw would probably be vanity. Even his stated purpose of leaving his family with money can be seen in a flawful light. He wanted to leave, in essence, a legacy. He wanted to leave something behind to be remembered by. And every thing he does gets sullied by his vanity. His need to be not only the best but to be admired as the best.
Nancy doesn’t really have a fatal flaw. Sure, she has flaws. She’s kind of a daredevil. She likes getting into trouble without knowing first how to get out. But she does settle down and legitimizes eventually, which proves the flaw was not fatal. Again, this is a major defining distinction between classic drama and comedy. It’s the ability to change, to save one’s self, that is key. Not all drama presents characters with free will, but comedies regularly do.
And the change or stagnation is usually best illustrated by a character other than lead. Weeds and Breaking Bad do a great job of showing arcs or lack of arcs. Walt doesn’t change, he only grows more bold. Jesse does change, frequently in fact, but he only digs a deeper hole than the one he climbs out of. Nancy doesn’t change for 99% of Weeds but Silas does. However, Silas greatly improves his life and it’s a steady climb ending on a spiritual high note of rectifying a past wrong and marrying his first love.
3.The Mentor Turned Rival/Enemy
Mentors pop up everywhere in fiction. Sometimes they’re wizards, like Gandalf or Yoda. Sometimes they’re just experts in a field or area, like Dr. King Schultz (Django Unchained) or any elderly person in a martial arts film. Sometimes they’re drug dealers, like U-Turn and Gus.
In crime genre films, sometimes you get a dog-eat-Alpha-Dog situation. The boss is usually also the mentor, and some lackey who is usually a mentee decides to make a move. But that is act three. You never get to see that story play out. Sure, sometimes you get a typed rundown serving as epilogue. But you never see that person deal with what happens after the honeymoon’s afterglow wears off.
Weeds and Breaking Bad both put the death of the major mentor early enough to show reflection and growth. They both show real people dealing with a kind of bittersweet feeling about ousting someone who taught you about ousting.U-Turn takes up a fairly small part of Weeds, but it’s impactful. To sum the plot up quickly as it relates to Nancy, U-Turn steals, extorts, and virtually enslaves her. He dies by someone else’s hand, or forearm, but she contributes to it in a small enough way to feel guilty. But as much as she wished him dead, he taught her something about toughness and taking charge. She hated him on one level but misses him now on another. She even gets a tattoo of a U-Turn sign to remind her. Her mentality through the remainder of the series, which is roughly two-thirds to go, is changed.
Gus comes a bit later in Walt’s journey. You could call it act two. Again, if I was to oversimplify, I’d say he introduced Walt to a highly organized system of drug producing and selling, then he enslaved and tried to kill him.Unlike Nancy, Walt is really the first person to blame for the death, although there is a somewhat tangential but eerily similar use of a proxy murderer. However, Walt does not have any guilt whatsoever. That’s kind of central to his character. But, like Nancy, he does treat the memory of the man who taught him the real business side of the drug business with a certain reverence.
For both series, there is this kind of dual relationship. It would be like if Luke killed Obi-Wan but still got advice from him as a blue ghost. Well, if Luke and Obi-Wan were peddling weed and meth instead of peace and love or whatever Jedi do.
4. A Nom De Plume
Call it a secret identity. Or maybe it’s a nod to a gangster-heyday favorite: the wildly uninformative pseudonym masquerading as a nickname. But unlike “Whitey” or “Baby Face,” the covers Nancy and Walt use share not only a tributary origin but a pedestrian appearance.
Fairly early on, Nancy has the need to use a fake name and a fake ID. The alias she chooses is Lacy LaPlante from Quebec. Get it? Weed dealer named LaPlante. Yeah, it is on the nose, even from a comedic standpoint, but it fits the show’s internal logic. In this universe, that isn’t an incredibly horrible cover. Anyway, she uses it to snake through the system at one point, but she also uses it as an on-hand alias just as a drug dealer would. Meet a new contact? That’s the only name they get. Later on she uses Nancy somewhat flippantly, but LaPlante pops up here and there.Speaking of popping up, you’ve probably seen Heisenberg T-Shirts on the backs of many a scruffy looking hipster. No, this is not an astute nod to the early 20th century founder of Quantam physics. The little drawing and name on the shirt is a nod to Walt’s alias, which itself is indeed a nod to the real Werner Heisenberg. Unlike Nancy, Walt uses the pseudonym almost exclusively. The inner circle knows his name, his first name if nothing else, but the world knows him as Heisenberg.
This difference from Weeds further illustrates the difference in genre. As a comedy, it’s completely fine for the cops to be onto you from the get go. They can know your name, address, and social security number but you may yet land on your feet. But if the cops know you only as Heisenberg, and you’re treated like a ghost without a face, then the tension can ratchet up. Somewhere in the back of your mind, you know that when the illusive turns into the attainable at the end of the hunt, the dogs will latch on all the more greedily. The stakes become higher.
The use of aliases is not new, per se, in fiction. And it’s a logical thing to make one’s alias a honorarium, like many a nom de plume. But, think, when was the last time you ever heard of a gangster nicknamed “Rambo?” Or, even, “Capone?” There’s something domestic about giving your criminal alias a highbrow name. Sure, LaPlante is pretty dicey, but it’s supposed to be French Canadian, and it gives Weed a sophisticated light like “Heisenberg” does for meth.
5. A Nordic Jaunt
In Weeds, Andy dreams of immigrating to Copehagen, Denmark. He starts early with this yearning, and eventually in one of the later seasons he does indeed make the move. It’s practically a paradise, but somehow the world pulls him back in.
In Breaking Bad, Walt’s mentor/enemy Gus uses a German company, Madrigal Electromotive, as part of his money laundering. It’s not exactly paradise, but it sure seems like the right way to Walt. It’s a further introduction to a world of legitimacy, something Walt strives for just like Nancy and Andy did. The difference is that this legitimacy just means being able to produce Meth with impunity. Andy’s Copenhagen trip has a different, straight-arrow spirit.
The flavors and specificities may differ, but it’s undeniable that both series have a somewhat out of place pre-occupation with Western Europe for their third acts. Now, Germany is not Nordic, but it shares a border with Denmark and serves as the continent’s cork, so to speak, to the northern countries’ Nordic wine. During World War II, Germany not only invaded Denmark but at first tried to pass it off as protection from the Allied Forces. The two are intertwined, however different they are, much like Weeds and Breaking Bad.
Also, both shows are set in warm weather climates, though Weeds does divert momentarily to the northeast U.S. So this obsession with a cold weather climate is also eerily similar.
Other Weeds and Breaking Bad Similarities
There are a few similarities that don’t warrant mention apart.
Both series have a lengthy section where Mexican and South American cartels factor heavily. This is somewhat to be expected because both shows dealt with the drug trade set in border states, though that in itself is somewhat unique.
Both series have their characters having to deal with problems at “work” and at home, with the two mixing at times, with the heroes showing the best/worst of themselves only when alone in that “work” world. Again, this is due to the similar premises, and the same interplay, it could be argued, is featured in many intellectual properties with workaholic leading men.
No, Weeds and Breaking Bad are not identical twins. But the argument could be made that they are in the same family. One is the family’s brooding, goth boy while the other is the flower-gathering little sister. But both show arc similarities and story-dependant resemblances. Even the premise, and the described initiating incident, fall within a very large middle portion of a Venn diagram of these two shows. Above all other points, these two shows are essentially about denizens of suburbia entering the drug trade.
But inside the show, the more nuanced resemblances are hard to spot, and one could argue (and feel free to in the comments) that they are not that alike at all. But I think we all can agree that there is a basic formula to everything in fiction. And these two shows seem to dip into the same well, perhaps by the very nature of their premises, albeit with very different buckets.
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