Breaking Bad, Nurse Jackie, and the Complete Inversion of '60s Drug Culture

TV's self-centered, drug-obsessed antiheroes make the flower-power promise of Owsley Stanley and the clean-and-sober promise of the War on Drugs seem like cruel jokes.
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In 1971, President Richard Nixon announced the federal government's "War on Drugs," calling controlled substances' widespread use "public enemy No. 1..." One Dr. Jerome Jaffe had seen positive results weaning junkies off heroin using methadone, and Nixon appointed him head of the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention. As a 2012 Frontline pointed out, Nixon's program would be one of the few where federal funds prioritized treatment rather than law enforcement. Every administration since has boosted the war's funding while militarizing its enforcement. In President Obama's first year in office, officials announced a sunset of the "counter-productive" term "war on drugs," a gesture that amounted to an after-the-fact admission of defeat.

This federal campaign has driven several of TV's better serial dramas, including HBO's The Wire, Showtime's Weeds, and Netflix's new Orange Is the New Black, which follows a naïve middle-class drug mule into women's prison. But two such properties, Breaking Bad and Nurse Jackie, reveal just how radically the counterculture that the "war on drugs" sought to prosecute has shifted over the decades: from one of classic-rock flower power to one of death-metal corruption.

Viewers under 30 might be forgiven for missing the historical implications of these shows. But they can read up with a parade of self-serving, dawn-of-drug-culture autobiographies, which recently includes a first-person account of Owsley and Me. Its subject, Augustus Owsley Stanley III, remains a central character in the rock mythos: the chemistry whiz who cooked the best dope (Breaking Bad fans, there's your entrée) and engineered the best concert sound. Born in Kentucky in 1935, killed in a car accident at age 76 in 2011, his myth survives through his "steal your face" Grateful Dead skull logo and his fictional alter ego in Steely Dan's "Kid Charlemagne." According to widely held legend, Owsley singlehandedly produced more than 1.25 million doses of LSD between 1965 and 1967, becoming a major supplier for the Dead themselves. Few boomer luminaries deserve a serious biography more.

He certainly deserves better than longtime girlfriend Rhoney Gissen Stanley's rickety, meandering account, co-written with Senator Al Franken's former SNL partner Tom Davis. She speaks as a wild-eyed, free-love acid enthusiast who still believes in unquestioned positive vibes as a counterbalance to the evils of the military-industrial complex and capitalism. Reading her no-apologies saga reminds you how much the era's idealism subsisted on naivety.

It's the kind of book where you're supposed to be charmed by how Owsley keeps pronouncing "You need to take more LSD!" even as he two-times on Gissen with a steadier girlfriend and roams concert crowds dosing eager listeners with pure liquid LSD extract. Here's how Gissen regales about her early trips: "The sun set over the Pacific Ocean, and it was like seeing colors for the first time. I witnessed the merging of water and sky, the infinity of the universe, the changing of perspective. We made love under the stars. I swayed with the to and fro of the ocean waves as the sun rose behind us, and I could feel the roundness of the Earth."

Typical we-are-all-one-let's-zonk-out-at-the-beach stuff. Until Owsley gets thrown in jail for dealing in 1968, she persuades herself that acid's redemptive qualities far outweigh any harm. Even the manufacture of LSD became ritualized. "Yes," Alpert tells her, "the entire process of making LSD is a sacred trip." Drugs' social benefits, of course, are taken for granted. "LSD is just a tool for transformation," Owsley pronounced. "We need more people on the bandwagon. Critical mass. That is my vision. The Grateful Dead are part of the equation--the audience, you too."

Gissen goes on to study dentistry and bear Owsley a son, Starfinder, but says little about the movement's punctured altruism. One of many unintentionally comic scenes comes when Owsley and his tribe sojourn to upstate New York to meet with Timothy Leary and Alpert, on a grandiose quest for Great Minds to trip together. It winds up with an ambivalent Leary snarfing down martinis and Owsley spending the night in the clink for failing to use his car signal properly; the yokel cops can't even fathom the ingeniously hidden stash in his trunk.

* * *

Breaking Bad and Nurse Jackie make characters like Owsley, Gissen, the Dead, and that band's audience seem all the more distant. A historical understanding of the 1960s acid myth, in turn, lends these shows alternating currents of absurdity and tragedy.

Today's entertainments and their viewers rarely talk about "communal vibes" or ecstatic sounds. (At least we know enough to call daily users addicts.) When Cory Monteith or Amy Winehouse drop dead after yo-yo-ing in and out of rehabs, the meanings surrounding their altered states have become completely detached from political and philosophical rebellion. Any buzz barely competes with the obsession to score, propping up a phony front, and rationalizing your behavior. In cable terms, "drug culture" has graduated from free love to grandiose narcissism. Nurse Jackie turns hedonism into a daily grind; Breaking Bad's Walter White descends into villainy.

Edie Falco came to her latest show as a three-time Emmy winner for playing Tony Soprano's wife Carmela. She leapt into the world of Jackie Peyton, a steely underling at a Catholic emergency room with a vicious pill habit, which earned Falco a fourth Emmy in 2010. Peyton's addiction critiques medicine as a front; evil rears up inside the charitable institution's most competent nurse. "I don't have a thing for doctors, I have a thing for drugs," she quips.

Presented by

Tim Riley is a music critic for National Public Radio, an assistant professor of journalism at Emerson College in Boston, and the author of Lennon: the Man, the Myth, and the Music.

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