This is a guest post from Warner Brown, a frequent contributor to FP's Tea Leaf Nation who works in urban development in Shanghai.
Why do millions of Chinese care about a fictitious meth cook from New Mexico? The television drama series Breaking Bad, which depicts embattled high school chemistry teacher Walter White's transformation into a crystal methamphetamine kingpin and airs its final episode on Sunday, has unquestionably become a cultural phenomenon in the United States (viewership reached 6.6 million for the series' penultimate episode last week). But it has also attracted a relatively large audience in China, where it's known as jueming dushi -- "The doomed drug master." An average season of Breaking Bad receives over 10 million views on streaming sites like Sohu.com, more than double that of other recent acclaimed American dramas like Mad Men. (It's still a fraction of the 159 million views that The Big Bang Theory's most recent full season received in China.)
Like YouTube, Chinese video streaming sites include comments sections. And Chinese fans fill the comment threads for each Breaking Bad episode with hundreds of responses, which help explain what the show means to Chinese viewers. Commenters on early episodes, for example, tend to be skeptical about the series' premise: Walter, who receives a cancer diagnosis while holding down two jobs and caring for a son stricken with cerebral palsy, is compelled by poverty and circumstance to begin cooking crystal meth. As one Chinese commenter put it, "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?"
For many Chinese, rapidly rising home prices -- up more than 10 percent from last year in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai -- make home ownership a distant dream. A car is another expensive badge of success, made even more unattainable thanks to license plate quotas in some cities. 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. Owning a "villa" with a pool is a near-impossible dream for any but the wealthiest Chinese. To Chinese eyes, with all of these material hurdles crossed, Walter had made it even before he began cooking meth.
That the Whites are still viewed as poor discomfits some Chinese viewers, who live in a country bootstrapping itself into prosperity -- where the average income per capita hovers around $6,000. They 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 that their U.S. counterparts do. 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 Walter, whom they call "Old White," and his partner-in-crime Jesse Pinkman -- "Little Pink" -- as they escape from drug lord Gus Fring, who manages a fast-food chain as a cover for his meth dealing. Chinese viewers often call him "Brother Fried Chicken" and, somewhat more problematically, "Obama's twin."
Like some U.S. fans, Chinese viewers have criticized Skyler White, who transitions from a wife suspicious of her husband's odd behavior to a knowing but often reluctant accomplice. Hatred of Skyler in the United States is often attributed to misogynistic fans who see the cautious mother of two as interfering with the show's male power fantasy, and Chinese criticisms of the controversial character are strikingly similar. Some Chinese comments paint her as "insufferably arrogant and bossy," and a "psycho bitch" who "needs a beating."
A common refrain criticizes 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, with some viewers lamenting that members of the White family begin to pull away as Walter's drug business grows. One comment makes explicit the friction between culturally divergent attitudes toward family ties: "That's why the United States 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 the United States so attractive!"
Although this remark sparked a flurry of replies, politics are relatively rare in Chinese discussions of Breaking Bad. A notable exception is 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 depicts Breaking Bad's successes and the United States' failings in exaggerated -- and probably satirical -- prose:
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. He is not just rejecting his fate, but also 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 [a 2010 book about the failures of Wall Street and U.S. capitalism] and thought for a long, long time.
Correction: This post originally referred to Gus Fring as African-American. In fact, the show suggests Fring is Chilean.