BUFFALO, N.Y. – Bruce Jackson has the “Breaking
Bad” bug, and he’s got it bad.
But Jackson, University at Buffalo SUNY Distinguished Professor
in the Department of English, is mourning the end of the AMC
television series and its protagonist, Walter White, in his own
way: He developed “Breaking Down ‘Breaking
Bad,’” a graduate seminar for the spring 2014 semester
that will analyze the critically acclaimed series’ realistic
storyline, development and execution.
Although the show ended on Sept. 29, Jackson says there is more
to learn from the hit drama. Specifically, he marvels at the
approximate 60 hours of a single narrative arc, which he believes
is “one of the most spectacular narrative achievements in
“What’s happening now is something new,”
Jackson says. “This is not just an interesting TV program.
‘Breaking Bad’ goes into narrative and human and social
complexity as no TV program has before. It is not like ‘The
Sopranos,’ which was episodic; it is not like ‘The
Wire,’ which was segmented. And it is not like
‘Homeland,’ which has had to direct itself into a new
narrative. It is one epic narrative 60 hours long. We’ve
never had that before, in any medium.”
Throughout the show’s five seasons, White, a former high
school chemistry teacher, adopts the name Heisenberg as an alias
under which he murders, cheats, and cooks and sells crystal meth.
The narrative starts with White’s desire to fund his cancer
therapy and provide for his struggling family, but soon twists with
White’s growing hunger for the thrill. Though there are other
recurring characters, the show does not delve into any subplots and
all the characters have a relationship to White; his accomplice,
Jesse Pinkman; and their lawyer, Saul Goodman.
Goodman plays a pivotal role, according to Jackson. The
unorthodox lawyer aids White and Pinkman in not only keeping their
livelihood a secret and laundering money, but also by repeatedly
offering a way out of the perilous business through new
Throughout the semester, Jackson plans to have class
presentations by guest speakers like representatives from the
federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Jim Milles, a
professor and legal ethics expert at the UB Law School.
“The kind of drug trade depicted in the film could not
function without lawyers who help the dealers do it; that is, they
don’t only defend them when they’re arrested, but they
give them advice on how to be better criminals,” Jackson
says. “So the series gives an accurate representation of how
the illicit drug trade functions, how the DEA works and how some
lawyers bend the rules.”
And Jackson truly knows how the industry works.
In the summer of 1966, he held a 100-day position as senior
consultant for field research on the President’s Commission
on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice. Specifically, he
worked on the Narcotics and Other Dangerous Drugs report, with
responsibility for analyzing illicit criminal activity patterns and
developing plans for reorganization in police departments, and
suggesting changes in drug laws, along with a wide range of other
reforms. Most of the report’s suggested reforms, he notes,
like decriminalization of drug use and legalizing marijuana, were
not only ignored, but cut out of the final report.
Jackson and a partner visited drug users and dealers, rehab
organizations, and city and federal police in New York; Houston,
San Antonio and Austin, Texas; St. Louis; Los Angeles; and San
Francisco. Many of the drug agents he met in New York were
subsequently sent to prison themselves for stealing money and drugs
from dealers and for taking bribes. He went on a high-speed car
chase in Los Angeles and an all-night stakeout in Austin.
“That was the worst night of the job,” Jackson
recalls. “Eight or nine of us were in a van with all the
windows closed and the air conditioning off in Texas in the middle
of August. By the time they gave up about 5 a.m., it was incredibly
ratty in there.”
“Breaking Down ‘Breaking Bad’” has been
listed by the Department of Visual Studies (VS 500) and
cross-listed by Media Study (DMS 606), Theater and Dance (THD 513)
and the UB Law School (LAW 692). The only requirement for the
16-student UB seminar is that students have seen the entire series
Jackson says students must be prepared to analyze the show and
its recent adaptations and cultural significance; for example, One
World Symphony, a New York City-based opera company, is adapting
the “Ozymandias” episode from the final season of
“Breaking Bad” as a new opera.
James Agee Professor of American Culture in the Department of
English, Jackson is an acclaimed folklorist, ethnographer,
documentary filmmaker and photographer. He has published
extensively on capital punishment and on American prison
conditions— much of this work in collaboration with his wife
and colleague Diane Christian, SUNY Distinguished Teaching
Professor in the Department of English.
The pair founded and co-teach “The Buffalo Film
Seminars,” an undergraduate class (“Film
Directors” ENG 438) in which films are screened and discussed
weekly in the Market Arcade Film and Arts Center in downtown
buffalo. The series also is open to members of the public who pay
theater admission. This spring will be the series’ 15th
For more information on the “Breaking Bad” graduate
seminar, contact Bruce Jackson at firstname.lastname@example.org.