Walter White: A Real American Cowboy

The Cow BoyThe Cow Boy. J.C.H. Grabill, 1888 (Photo: Library of Congress)

(Warning: Contains Spoilers)

It has been over one year since Breaking Bad ended, and three months since its impressive (and well-deserved) showing at the Emmy Awards. Breaking Bad was not just about manufacturing meth. It had a lot to say about western history.

There are a number of connections between Breaking Bad and the classic Hollywood westerns of the past. First of all, the western landscape certainly contributed to the show’s success. The most dramatic shots (Hank’s death, Gus’s threat to kill Walt’s family, Walt’s “say my name” speech) all took place in the New Mexico countryside, a stunning landscape of desert, mountains and tumbleweed. Such use of the visual landscape could easily be compared to films like The Searchers or 3:10 to Yuma, in which the landscape is central to the tone of each scene.

But the western themes run deeper than the land. Walter fits the image of a modern cowboy. A fierce individualist, he refuses charity of any kind to pay his medical bills for his cancer treatment and instead uses his intelligence and grit to dominate a drug underworld. He wields a pistol and even robs a train, later explaining to his partner that their plunder far exceeded the best robberies of Jesse James and Butch Cassidy. The final episode, in which Walt returns to New Mexico to duke it out with a gang of neo-Nazis, is named “Felina.” The name comes from the song “El Paso,” in which a cowboy returns to Texas to face a posse that wants to kill him. The connections are obvious and intentional.

Critics have claimed that Walter is a modern cowboy by focusing on this image of the cowboy as an uncompromising maverick who uses violence in response to a dangerous world. But this popular image does not reflect the reality of western history. A cowboy, in the heyday of his industry, was a product of unprecedented government intervention and a wage laborer for big business.

Long before Americans took to the cattle industry in the Southwest, Mexicans dominated the trade in what was then their country. Only after the campaigns of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) was the Mexican land that supported cattle incorporated into American territory. Although Hispanic peoples continued to make up the majority of the population in the region, and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed former Mexican citizens equality under American law, American settlers used the legal system and the army to push Hispanic landowners off their property.

The American push west continued to depend on the federal government. After the Civil War, the military protected the railroad crews and the hunters that nearly exterminated the bison herds, and it forced Native American peoples onto reservations in an unprecedented and prolonged series of wars. Army engagements enabled the government to open an entire country for business. The Great Plains, which had supported an ecosystem of thirty million bison, was ideal grazing land for cattle. The cattle industry boomed, giving rise to the traditional American cowboy as men drove cattle to railheads for shipment to Chicago, home of the world’s largest slaughter houses, and then transported the meat across the country with the latest technologies: trains and refrigerated box cars.

The cowboys ultimately moved twenty million cattle from their home grounds in Texas across the plains to railheads. But far from being self-reliant loners, cowboys were the employees of highly capitalized cattle companies, many of which were funded by Europeans. Cowboys were not rugged individualists; they were part of a much larger web of corporate interests and industrialization. “Cattle Kings” monopolized the industry, deliberately undercutting any lone cowboy with an entrepreneurial spirit.

The world of the cowboy collapsed in the 1880s. So many cattle companies had rushed into the industry they created an unsustainable bubble. Too many cattle overgrazed the plains, stressing the environment just before terrible droughts hit in the early 1880s. Weakened herds were finished off in the brutal winter of 1886-1887. Cattle companies lost between 15 and 85 percent of their cattle and investors withdrew their capital. There was no recovering the era of the cattle drives, since farmers and homesteaders were well on their way to closing off the land with barbed wire. Cattle industrialists switched from ranging to ranching cattle, consolidating the animals onto bonanza ranches, while smaller operations leased land and water from the government to remain competitive. The great cattle drives – the drives that gave us the cowboy image – ended as quickly as they began.

GIF made with the NYPL Labs Stereogranimator
GIF made with the NYPL Labs Stereogranimator

There is a disconnect between the image of the cowboy and its historical counterpart. The former is glorified as a brave frontiersman working for himself while in truth, the cowboy was only historically possible with the backing of the government, and he was paid by major corporations that eventually wrought their own destruction.

Walter White might fit the image of the cowboy, but he also fits perfectly into the more realistic view. None of Walter’s exploits are possible without federal protection and the Indian reservation system. When Walter triumphs over a Hispanic rival (Tuco), his victory is thanks to a DEA agent (Hank). Much of the show is filmed on Tohajiilee, a Navajo Reservation, where Walter and Jesse first cook, and where Hank gets shot in a suspenseful standoff. As Walter explains to Jesse in season five, he’s in the “empire business.” So was America in the nineteenth century.

Walter also spends much of his meth-producing tenure as a corporate entity. His best success as a meth cook is when he is able to tap distribution networks that reach into Europe. He spends a great deal of time working for Gus, essentially the world’s most evil CEO. Like the cattle industry of the 1880s, Walter’s business is unsustainable in the long-term, and he practices a lifestyle that leads to his demise, killed by his own bullet.

Walter White represents not just the popular image of the cowboy, but also the complex history of the American West. And that’s worth a few Emmys.

About the Author

Michael McLean

Michael McLean is a Ph.D. student at Boston College. He grapples with the violence in American history through the lens of Native American and enslaved communities. In his free time, he studies the Lakota language and leads outdoor backpacking and rock climbing trips.

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3 Comments

  1. I was taken with how often he cooks on Indian reservations, and how frequently Native Americans were silent in the series. Indians helped him and Jesse multiple times, but we never heard these rescuers speak. I think we only heard Indians speak when WW went to Los Pollos Hermanos…when he encountered Native American employees. I am sure there must have been a few more. WW’s white male entitlement was the center of gravity of this series, and helps explain why the woman who played Tyler got so much hate male. I came to this later, but loved it for all the reasons a feminist anti-racist scholar might.

    1. Fantastic points! I was tempted to write exclusively on the show’s portrayal of Native Americans, because there’s so much to talk about, as you’ve pointed out. Gender is another interesting question, and I think you’re right to mention the theme of white male entitlement. Either way, you have to love a show that raises so many questions.

    2. This is REALLY outside my ken… but doesn’t speaking on screen change the scale at which you’re paid, so producers want to keep people silent if at all possible? I have no clue at all where I heard that, or even if it’s true, but it might explain the silence. ???

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