One chief delight, for me anyway, of the high-end cable drama is the opportunity to become enveloped in a lushly conjured world with its own history, geography, and social codes—a world which, over years of watching, can begin to seem not just plausible, but real. Mark Bowden once remarked that when he walks around his native city of Baltimore, he half expects to run into characters from “The Wire.”
But how realistic these worlds seem may depend, in part, on where you sit. Many journalists were evangelical fans of “The Wire” during its first four seasons, praising the exquisitely accurate depiction of hustlers and junkies on the streets of Baltimore. But in Season 5, when David Simon turned his clinical eye on a milieu the journalists actually knew something about—a contemporary newsroom—they reviled the show as unrealistic.
“Breaking Bad,” which returns for its fifth and final season this Sunday, premièred in the same year as the last season of “The Wire,” and also concerns itself with the drug trade. But the two shows couldn’t be more different: whereas Simon favored an almost vérité austerity in his filmmaking, Vince Gilligan opts for Technicolor landscapes, hallucinogenic visuals, and a whole bag of narrative tricks (flashbacks, flash-forwards, montages, music videos, etc.) that Simon almost entirely disdained. Whereas “The Wire” had a sprawling cast of dozens of major characters, “Breaking Bad” is a chamber piece, relying on the shifting alliances and betrayals of the same handful of players. The show presents a challenge, for Gilligan and his writers, to configure and reconfigure, like playing an endless game of Scrabble using only the same eight letters.
So it’s somewhat surprising that in depicting the mechanics of the meth business, “Breaking Bad” is so notably realistic. I spent the past six months interviewing drug traffickers and D.E.A. agents for an article about the business side of a Mexican drug cartel, and, having been an ardent fan of “Breaking Bad,” I was startled by how much the show gets right. On one level, the show is a parable about the impossibility of running a mom-and-pop business in a world of rapacious multinational conglomerates. In this sense, it shares a basic template with Oliver Stone’s lurid “Savages”—or, for that matter, with “You’ve Got Mail.” The difference in the case of Walter White, the show’s protagonist, is that Pop ends up waging bloody war on the conglomerate. And winning.
…The one feature in the show that is most glaringly off is the gleaming subterranean mega-lab that Gus constructs for Walter. To be sure, labs like these exist—just not in the United States. One major challenge for any meth producer, which gets scant attention on the show, is how to source adequate precursor chemicals, which are heavily regulated in the States. In real life, it would be impractical to undertake the sort of industrial-scale production that Walter does (two hundred pounds a week) inside this country, because of the difficulty of acquiring the necessary chemicals. It is much easier to shift production to Mexico or Guatemala, as the major drug cartels have done, where mega-labs (that dwarf Walter’s) churn out meth for export to the U.S. Meth is still cooked in this country, but generally in smaller “shake and bake” batches more typical of what you see in “Winter’s Bone.”
Otherwise, the show’s portrayal of Mexican cartels is devastatingly accurate. It has been suggested that Vince Gilligan has a sick mind, but nothing he could dream up, even the unfortunate fate of Tortuga, can rival the creative barbarism of the cartels. Many viewers were repulsed when Walt and Pinkman used acid to melt a body in an early episode, but this is such a common disposal technique in Mexico today that it has acquired a nickname—the guiso, or “stew.” One plot device that drives much of the third and fourth seasons is the notion that Walt is irreplaceable (and therefore, likely to survive) only until someone else, whether his lab assistant Gale, or Jesse Pinkman, can learn to reproduce his recipe. A federal prosecutor in California told me recently about a case in which a group of American ecstasy producers entered negotiations with a Mexican cartel to manufacture large volumes of the drug, but ended up abandoning the deal when they realized that the cartel intended to keep them around just long enough to learn their recipe, then kill them.
This may be the scariest aspect of “Breaking Bad,” and of the drug trade itself: the more ghoulish and extreme the show becomes, the more it seems to traffic not in realism but in horror, and the more accurately it captures the reality of the cartels and their business.