By Mark Fox
In David Foster Wallace’s essay E Unibus Pluram, Wallace describes how irony is involved in television. Wallace believes that television uses irony to engage its viewers and manipulate consumers. Although, Wallace’s essay was written in 1990, its arguments are still valid in modern television shows. Breaking Bad is a great example of the use of irony on current TV shows.
Wallace believes that irony is heavily involved in television in several ways. One example he gives is the guilt of “Joe Briefcase.” Joe Briefcase is a character that represents the average American TV viewer, who watches TV for an average six hours a day. Wallace says that Joe B. is conflicted. On one hand, when he watches TV he is happy and enjoying himself. On the other hand, Joe B. feels guilty that he is wasting his time watching TV when he could be doing something productive (pg. 177).
Another part of TV’s irony is its ability to broadcast to millions, yet reach an individual at personal level. Wallace cites Mark C. Miller’s essay “Deride and Conquer” about how network advertising reaches each viewer. The essay cites a Pepsi commercial from the eighties to demonstrate this idea. The commercial takes place on a hot beach packed with people, when a concession truck drives up. The van driver turns on the PA system, opens a Pepsi next to a microphone and pours it into a glass. Immediately after the drink is poured, the van is surrounded by the people on the beach. Then Pepsi’s slogan “Pepsi: the choice of a new generation” appears on screen. This is ironic because the people on the beach had no choice in beverage. Additionally, the ad does not say that Pepsi is a better choice then other sodas or that it is the most popular choice in soda, but it says that it still states that it is the choice of a generation. This ad also makes the viewer feel included in a large group. This ad was broadcasted all around the country, but it still made many people feel that it was part of something bigger. Joe Briefcase was no longer watching on his own, but with his entire generation. This ad was so successful that it increased Pepsi’s market share for three sales quarters (pg. 179).
Irony is a very important tool in Breaking Bad, but it is not used one of the ways the Wallace described. Instead, irony used to justify Walter’s actions. The show does this by looking down on drug use but glorifying drug production. In an early episode in the first season Hank takes Walt Jr. to a meth user hang out called The Crystal Palace to show him what drugs can do to you. Hank shows him a hooker with her rotted teeth missing a stained yellow. This early episode shows the dark side of drug use.
However, the show also shows the benefits of cooking meth. By the end first season, Walter was making thirty five thousand dollars a week. By the fifth season, it is revealed that he has over eighty million dollars, after paying for his cancer treatment. The show has many montages making and selling drugs, but none of people using them. This disconnect between the manufacturing and use of meth allows the viewers to look at Walter as a hero instead of a villain.
The show is very clear to make the manufacturing of meth seem like doing chemistry and business. Throughout the show, Walter always referred to his actions in business terms to distance himself from the fact that he was creating a deadly substance. In the very first episode, when Walter tries to get Jesse to cook meth with him he says “you know the business and I know the chemistry. I think maybe you and I can partner up?” He does not refer to what he is doing as making drugs, but as “chemistry” and he does not refer to what Jesse does as selling drugs but as “business.” By not saying what he is really doing, Walter is able to rationalize his immoral act.