How Breaking Bad Explains Washington

Sep 24, 2013 | Updated Nov 24, 2013

Forget House of Cards. Ignore Scandal. Bleep Veep.

If you really want to know how Washington works, watch Breaking Bad.

The AMC series, which airs its final episode on Sunday, just won an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series. It portrays the moral compromises made to keep an illegal meth empire running.

Now, this is not to suggest that Congress is a corrupt kleptocracy greased by shady lawyers and dead-eyed enforcers in service of incompetent greed monkeys. But if the HazMat suit fits....

The characters in Breaking Bad will be instantly recognizable to that other kind of addict: political junkies. If you can spell Mika Brzezinski's name or know all of Rush Limbaugh's bumper tunes by heart, keep reading. Warning: spoilers ahead. If you read this during lunch you might spoil your appetite.

  • Kingpin: Walter White (Bryan Cranston)

Walter White is the meek and socially awkward high school chemistry teacher who got into the meth business for the best of reasons: to pay for his cancer treatments. But then he got a taste of power and dug deeper and deeper, burrowing in until his good intentions were buried under bags of "Blue Sky."

The parallel is Barack Obama. A simple but savvy community organizer, he ran for the U.S. Senate to unite not divide, then ran for president on hope and change. Five years in, he sounds more like Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption ("Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane").

Like White, Obama is the head of a massive enterprise that launders (taxpayer) money through a legitimate institution (the federal government; in Breaking Bad, it's a car wash). Even though a few ordinary people get serviced, the vast majority of the cash disappears down a black hole. Or perhaps a storage unit owned by the GSA.

Like White, Obama has consolidated his power. Meanwhile, his political enemies lurk, waiting for 2014 to take out his wingmen if they can't reach the Big Man. President Obama isn't running an empire so much as the empire is running him.

  • Partner: Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul)

White/Obama is a lone wolf by nature. But he recognizes the need for a partner, if only as insurance. That would be Jesse Pinkman/Joe Biden. Neither man is the sharpest X-ACTO knife in the lab. But they get by on street wiles and charm. After an initial honeymoon, they find themselves locked in an uneasy marriage of convenience, doing the dirty work delegated to them. Both will go to great lengths to protect the boss -- thus, the team -- from outside forces. Pinkman is lured to turn on his older partner, who is feared and loathed by higher-ups. No one has yet tried to turn Vice President Biden against Obama because, well, what's the point?

  • Wife: Skyler White (Anna Gunn)

No, not Michelle Obama, but Hillary Clinton. She knows all about her partner and even runs the "car wash," but keeps her mouth shut to protect her family (and her presidential ambitions). Sure, she has suffered indignities large (Benghazi) and small (Huma Abedin Weiner). But whatever her personal feelings, she puts on a brave face for the public. After all, "What difference, at this point, does it make?"

  • DEA agent: Hank Schrader (Dean Norris)

Agent Schrader represents the Republican Party establishment. He is Walter's brother-in-law and yet, four-and-a-half seasons and two presidential elections later, he is no closer to getting his man. Hank has, however, been able to neutralize some low-level dealers and enforcers (the 2010 elections). As a result, he has gained some measure of professional power, but is not really comfortable using it.

For Democrats uncomfortable with comparing Obama to a drug kingpin and the GOP to the DEA, ask yourselves which Republican has the star power to anchor this show. Breaking Boehner?

  • Lawyer: Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk)

Who else but Bill Clinton? An accomplished lawyer and fixer, he frequently gets his friends out of nasty scrapes with his silver tongue and common touch. Need a plan to launder hundreds of millions of dollars? Better call Saul! Need an hour-long speech on your economic policy at the Democratic National Convention? Better call Bill! No one is better at explaining the facts (or covering them up). Of course, only Bill had his law license revoked for lying under oath. Better call Hillary!

  • Kingpin: Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito)

"Hiding in plain sight," Gustavo Fring is the mastermind behind the meth trade in the American Southwest. His chain restaurant, Los Pollos Hermanos (The Chicken Brothers), is a front for the entire operation. The obvious parallel here is George Soros, the liberal moneyman that Republicans love to hate. (Democrats may replace Soros with the Koch Brothers -- "Los Koch Hermanos").

Soros poured more than $23 million into defeating President George W. Bush in 2004. His Eastern European background and billionaire status mirror Madrigal Electromotive, the German conglomerate behind Fring. Bonus points: Soros wants to legalize drugs.

I won't be cruel and mention the name of any senator.