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.

breaking bad banner july 25.jpg

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.

When we meet Jackie, she's "happily" married to an oblivious mensch, a bar owner raising two adorable girls. She prepares elaborate, hand-ground Percocet powder every morning alongside her daughters' lunches. She also sleeps with the hospital's pharmacist (Metaphors Gone Wild!). As trauma gurneys arrive, her trusting gaze wins patients over as she corrects arrogant doctors. "Welcome to the shit show," she tells them. She's zonked to the gills, and yet you just might mistake her for a gifted healer--Mother Theresa on a spree.

Jackie's dilemma festers over its first five seasons. Pushed into treatment, she befriends a teenage boy who bounces in and out of meetings before his overdose hits her emergency room. Peyton's new corporate boss, his father, weeps over his body. Season Six turned Jackie's calls to the dead kid's cell phone into existential confessionals and her first year's sobriety party into an unlikely and thrilling cliffhanger. "You're good at your job, you suck at life," a friend tells her. And it's about to get worse.

Nurse Jackie's daily situations get played for laughs, and the series surfs on dark comedy. But the storyline turns up increasingly fraught portraits of junkies hitting bottom, straining their last threads of trust and hope for one more fix. "You know what babe?" her husband tells her, "even when you're telling the truth it sounds like a lie."

Our affection for the decent soul buried beneath layers of gruff denial has nothing to do with her politics, worldview or philosophy. The humor stems from how her professional identity as an empathic nurse buckles against her seething, self-righteous entitlement. Laughable, too, is the notion that drug use can be policed away. Jackie's first year of sobriety leads to a romance with a teddy-bear cop, a character inconceivable in Owsley's time. His trusting nature helps trigger Jackie's relapse.

Addicts can often be the smartest and most insightful people on the job, even as their self-destructive reflexes kick in. Watching Nurse Jackie not only makes you wary about the thrill-seekers emergency medicine attracts, but about how many other professions exist where access enables stealth abuse. After all, Owsley's girlfriend Rhoney Gissen put herself through dental school and wound up using her science smarts as a medical professional too.

* * *

By contrast, Breaking Bad presents the most fearsome picture of the war on drugs through an unlikely partnership, pairing a weary high-school chemistry teacher with a low-life meth-head. Bryan Cranston plays Walter White, whose years of flaky students has worn down his romance with science and who reinvents himself as a drug lord, "Heisenberg," after his DEA brother-in-law, played by Dean Harris, takes him out on a bust. There White spies Jesse Pinkman, a former student, who becomes his partner. Aaron Paul's Pinkman brings White minimal street smarts; White still has an itch to teach. They have become cable's most compelling odd couple, and twice as likely to kill each other with each passing season.

To make him halfway sympathetic, show creator Vince Gilligan gives White late-stage lung cancer, a palsy-affected son, and a baby on the way. As James Parker points out in "Till Meth Do Us Part" from The Atlantic's July/August issue, the plot's larger irony turns on how White's cancer goes into remission once he perfects his meth, and his newborn baby becomes his legacy excuse for eliminating all competitors. For White, the ends more than justify the murderous means. After his wife, Skyler, figures out his illegal adventures, she kicks him out, but he steals himself back by quietly insisting she really has no alternative. Like Nurse Jackie and a lot of addicts, White holds his intimates hostage.

Sensing the potential upside, Skyler soon acquiesces, helping him set up a money-laundering front at a car wash. Albuquerque's wide, pastel skies provide the eloquent backdrop to heinous acts committed in the name of "taking care of his own," transparently allegorical for America's war on drugs, terror, immigration, and pedantic high school science. Like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad emanates the odor of rot from within.

White and Pinkman play out the elaborate and bizarre intimacy between the cook and his customer, White's need for domination and the addict's bottomless cry for Daddy. Irrevocably bonded, these two characters redouble their own worst instincts through negative reinforcement. In an episode from Season Two called "Four Days Out," they stare at death together. Jesse inadvertently leaves the RV's ignition key in, which drains the battery as they bake their biggest batch. Stranded in the middle of the desert and out of water, they have to find a way to jump the engine. After a series of elegiac soliloquies, inspiration seizes Walt. He combines chemicals, coins, and galvanized metal to jump the battery. "Chemistry, Bitch!" Pinkman shouts.

White's reliance on Pinkman quickly dives into co-dependency. Shooting up one night after a vicious argument with Walt over payment at the end of Season Two, Jesse and his girlfriend (played by the devastating Krysten Ritter) drift off into intoxicated slumber, and Walt breaks into the bedroom just in time to watch her choke on her own vomit, a typical junkie's death. With terrifying instinctiveness, White simply watches her die, knowing this will allow him to reforge his bond with Jesse, who has threatened to rat him out and destroy his family.

Gilligan casts John de Lancie as Donald, the girlfriend's father, who picks her up for rehab only to find her dead. He stumbles back into his job as an air traffic controller, and in grief's daze, steers two planes into each other. Pieces of the wreckage rain down into White's backyard pool, but he barely notices, never mind contemplates his role in mass death. Private greed has long since smothered any sense of civic obligation. Gilligan gets away with this over-baked plot line largely because the trope lingers: For several episodes, the eye of a stuffed animal follows White around, staring up in his pool drain and bureau drawer, even though the word "karma" goes unspoken. His mind quickly becomes preoccupied with rationalizations and business complications, and his shaved bullet-head symbolizes not just his emergent evil self, but an increasing detachment and indifference to others.

Many other strands of Breaking Bad's story extend this corrupted intimacy. In the first couple of seasons, Dean Norris's Hank Schrader, White's brother-in-law, plays an unsympathetic, clueless DEA agent overwhelmed by competing Cartels and literally paralyzed by their misdirected assassins. Skyler insists the couple pay for Schrader's rehabilitation using Walt's drug monies, an irony that only the closing episodes promise to untangle.

Hank's injury nearly ruins his marriage to his kleptomaniac wife, who shows uncharacteristic courage and loyalty as Schrader descends into depression. The tension between White and Schrader works as an uneasy mirror to the White-Pinkerton relationship, both necessary to White's survival while layered with deception. Hank has grown into an intriguing symbol for the DEA: a necessary yet relentlessly out-maneuvered counterforce to rampaging demand.

Jay Leno's 1984 standup opener put it best: "I know it's wrong, but when Nancy Reagan says 'Just Say No,' it makes me want to shoot up in the gutter and die." Both Breaking Bad and Nurse Jackie riff on the war on drugs as a kind of mass psychosis we all participate in, incentivizing purer and more violent potions, dealers, and tactics. Across boundaries of race, class, demographics, and gender, these shows portray the resultant drug culture as mass expressions of self-centeredness that, paradoxically, still define our immigration policy and eat at our public health solvency. Professional displays of decency from doctors and nurses (often inebriated), enforced by familial connection (DEA Schrader), now mask a gnawing hypocrisy. Communal purpose has collapsed. It's Woodstock in reverse.

One of the few times either series refers to '60s vibes comes late in Breaking Bad's Season Five, when 1969's "Crystal Blue Persuasion," by Tommy James and the Shondells, rises up to frame a cooking montage. It hovers over Walt like the punch line from some alternate reality, and its spaced-out aura pits past against present as delicately as whiplash. Perhaps the '60s is best left to all those flaky, ill-conceived memoirs. In the world of cable drama, that nostalgic past has become the only place where such ideals exist anymore.