What Breaking Bad Gets Wrong

Aug 19 2013 @ 8:35am
by Brendan James

Dylan Matthews fact-checks the show’s portrayal of the meth game:

One of the most convincing critiques of the show I’ve read came from The New Inquiry’s Malcolm Harris, who argued that the show’s obsession with highly pure method — supposedly Walt’s calling card, and the thing that got Gus interested in buying his wares — doesn’t square with the real world, in which meth is almost always “stepped on,” or diluted. There isn’t a market for pure meth, not because it’s not better, but because of who’s buying meth. “It’s a textbook case of what freshman economics students call inelastic demand,” Harris writes. “As Stringer Bell told D’Angelo Barksdale in another show about drugs, in direct contrast to what Walter claims, ‘When it’s good, they buy. When it’s bad, they buy twice as much. The worse we do, the more money we make.’”

Even if that logic holds, there may still be reasons for Walt to make his meth as pure as possible. “When Walt measures the purity in the lab, he’s figuring out how much of the expensive and tightly controlled precursor chemicals became saleable product and how much went to waste,” Lindsay Beyerstein at In These Times has argued. “The purer Walt’s product, the more [distributors] can dilute it.” But that doesn’t explain why Walt’s meth on the street, when found by his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank and analyzed by the agency’s experts, is so much purer than other meth out there. Walt’s product would only make it to the street like that if there really was demand for purer meth.

Update from a reader:

Wasn’t this addressed in last night’s episode, albeit indirectly?

Local scrub dealer Declan is fine with substandard product, as he’s much closer to the end-user, both geographically and in terms of where he falls on the supply chain.  International meth empire mastermind Lydia, on the other hand, needs a purer product.  If you’re moving tons of meth halfway across the globe, you’re going to want the purest product you can have, as it allows for easier transport and lower risk.  I figured that Lydia’s issues with Declan’s substandard product stemmed directly from the fact that the product was meant to be cut upon arrival in Europe, not because Czech junkies are any more discerning than those of Albuquerque.

Previous fact-checking of the show here.