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China Watches “Breaking Bad”

Why do millions of Chinese care about a fictitious New Mexico meth cook? The soon-to-be-concluded television drama series Breaking Bad, which depicts embattled high school chemistry teacher Walter White’s transformation into a crystal methamphetamine kingpin, has already become part of the zeitgeist in the United States. It recently won an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series, and viewership reached 6.6 million for the series’ penultimate episode.

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“Breaking Bad” actors Aaron Paul, left, and Bryan Cranston arrive at a celebration for the filming of the final episode of the hit NBC series at Sony Pictures Studios, July 24, 2013 in Culver City, California.

But Breaking Bad’s appeal is surprisingly universal. Translated into Chinese as Jueming Dushi (绝命毒师)—which means something like “The doomed drug master”—the series is a modest hit in China, where on streaming sites like Sohu.com, an average season has gotten over 10 million views. That is more than double that of other recent acclaimed dramas like Mad Men, though still a fraction of the 159 million views that The Big Bang Theory’s most recent full season received there.

Chinese video streaming interfaces include comments sections, redolent of that found on evident progenitors like Youtube. For Breaking Bad, Chinese fans fill the comment threads to each episode with hundreds of responses, in which they gush over the show’s superiority to formulaic Chinese dramas and debate plot points. While the comments can’t be taken to represent Chinese views generally, they are sufficiently voluminous to act together as a valuable window into the psyche of Chinese fans, occasionally revealing moments of massive cultural dissonance.

A case in point: Comments to early episodes show skepticism toward the series’ premise that protagonist Walter White, who receives a cancer diagnosis while holding down two jobs and caring for a son with cerebral palsy, is compelled by circumstance to begin cooking crystal methamphetamine, a highly addictive narcotic. One read: “A teacher has a house with a pool and a car—why does he still have no money and have to go work extra hours in a car wash, and in the end cook drugs?”

It’s not surprising that Walter White’s motives would raise eyebrows among viewers in China. For many there, rapidly rising home prices make ownership a distant dream, while a car is another expensive badge of success, made even more unattainable thanks to license plate quotas in some cities. In Chinese eyes, with both of those crucial material hurdles crossed, even the early, more sympathetic incarnation of Walter White had already “made it.” What’s more, White lives not in some high-rise shoebox, but in a detached house—“villa” is the slightly awestruck Chinese term—with a pool and two cars in the driveway.

That the Whites are still viewed as poor discomfits some Chinese viewers. They live in a country bootstrapping itself into prosperity, but see a U.S. society in which the indignities of lower-middle-class life and the stigma of frustrated potential can cling to people even after they acquire the accoutrements of success. As one user wrote, “Let me tell you, having a car and house and still being considered poor—now that’s scary.”

In other ways, Chinese Breaking Bad fans react to the show in the same way as their American counterparts. They dissect each episode’s plot and joke that they should have paid more attention in chemistry class. They debate the show’s depictions of meth-making while pondering if a Walter White could emerge in China’s underground meth industry. They admire Breaking Bad’s black humor and cheer Walt (aka “Old White”) and his partner-in-crime Jesse Pinkman (aka “Little Pink”) in their latest escape from drug-lord Gus (aka “Brother Fried Chicken,” also unfortunately referred to there as “Obama’s twin”).

Like some American fans, Chinese viewers also heap opprobrium on Walt’s wife, Skyler, who transitions from a pregnant wife suspicious of her husband’s odd behavior to a knowing but often reluctant accomplice. Hatred of Skyler White in the United States decrying her as a “shrieking, hypocritical harpy” is a well-documented phenomenon, one attributed to misogynistic “Bad Fans” that see the cautious mother of two as frustrating the show’s male power fantasy. In China, criticisms of the female lead from a loud minority of viewers bear striking similarity to those found in the United States. Chinese comments paint her as “insufferably arrogant and bossy,” and a “psycho bitch” that “needs a beating.” One does not even need to read Chinese to discern some of the opinions, like this one: “第三集开始看的虐心啊,SKYLER真是个BITCH.”

A common refrain scorns Skyler as ungrateful for Walt’s efforts to provide for his family by whatever means necessary. The notion that all of Walt’s actions are ultimately for the good of his wife and children carries weight in China, and its viewers lamented that some members of the White family begin to pull away as Walter’s drug business burgeons. One comment makes explicit the friction between culturally divergent attitudes toward family ties: “That’s why America is so great and strong. People focus on whether your actions are right or wrong, and aren’t so nepotistic. Fairness and freedom—this is what makes America so attractive!”

Although this remark sparked a flurry of replies, politics are relatively rare in Chinese discussions of Breaking Bad. A notable exception arises in a widely-discussed review of the show’s first season on the popular web forum Douban.com, where young Chinese intellectuals discuss literature and film. In “A Show that Profoundly Exposes the Ugly Face of Capitalism,” author Wang Huan (王坏) depicts Breaking Bad’s successesand the United States’ failings in exaggerated prose, which may well be satirical:

I could not help but shed tears. It really makes me sorrowful that in a capitalist country a teacher can receive such lowly treatment… Suffering from disease and the burden of his family, Mr. White turns to a path of crime. Here he is not just rejecting his fate, but also rejecting the evils of the capitalist system… after I finished watching this show, I was unsettled for a while, until I opened my nearby copy of Only Socialism can Save America and thought for a long, long time.