Every era has a drug of choice, a substance that dominates the plotlines of our entertainment and personifies the collective neuroses. It was the stiff cocktail in the 1960s, marijuana in the 1970s, crack and cocaine in the 1980s, and heroin in the 1990s.
Today, it’s methamphetamine, the most destructive, least romantic of them all. Though it’s been trickling into TV and film plots for years, meth in storylines has seemed to accelerate in recent years, mirroring the substance’s corrosive effect on American culture. But even the TV writers and filmmakers who have famously taken on meth as a plot device say it can doom a story just as it dooms the lives of its users. For them, interpreting the cultural blowback of this particular demon drug means facing meth’s black hole with only strands of humanity to sustain their audience.
“If you want to have a character we’re invested in, it’s tough if you really play the reality of how that drug operates,” says Kurt Sutter, creator of FX’s Sons of Anarchy and a former writer on the edgy FX cop drama The Shield. “Quite frankly, it’s easier to be shooting heroin and go to work than it is to be shooting or snorting meth.”
But it’s the irredeemable quality of methamphetamine, a drug that can turn regular folks into raving psychotics in a matter of months, that makes it a deliciously volatile—and sometimes compelling—device in storytelling. Drama turns on the axis of conflict. Methamphetamine generates conflict in herculean doses. And so, in recent years it has turned up regularly on TV on crime procedurals and hospital dramas, such as CSI: Miami, House, and Grey’s Anatomy.
Yet as the drug’s march through our collective experience continues, its role in plotlines evolves. For instance, methamphetamine’s aftermath haunts this year’s Oscar buzz: indie drama Winter’s Bone, based on the 2006 novel, set in a community of impoverished meth-cookers in the Ozarks. There’s only one scene featuring the drug itself, but meth’s tragic implications are deeply felt throughout the film.
Meth memorably jump-started the 2001 series premiere of HBO’s long-running hit Six Feet Under, when a teenaged and tweaking Claire Fisher (Lauren Ambrose) learned of her father’s sudden death. It chewed up the sex-crazed losers in the 2002 film Spun, turning the charming indie darling Jason Schwartzman into a pathological maniac. And in 2002’s The Salton Sea, crystal meth turned Law & Order: Criminal Intent’s idiosyncratic detective (Vincent D’Onofrio) into a maniacal drug dealer who wore a prosthetic nose because meth had corroded his real one.
“There’s no glamour to it,” says Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter. “It’s just a life-sucking, awful narcotic. There was no upside to including it or to making that part of their lives.”
In 2008, writer Vince Gilligan took the groundbreaking step of making a meth-cooker his protagonist in AMC’s Breaking Bad. For Gilligan, meth was the poison that activated the Jekyll-Hyde transformation of an upstanding chemistry teacher with terminal cancer (Bryan Cranston) into a raging meth dealer.
Watch the Winter's Bone trailer.
“What continues to surprise me is that four seasons in,” says Gilligan, “is that [ Breaking Bad] remains a show about transformation, about taking a good guy and turning him bad. Meth is a good engine for that. …I chose meth as the central plot device of Breaking Bad simply because it was so horrible.”
Gilligan started with a relatively high-minded concept. He was originally moved by Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru, in which a dying Tokyo bureaucrat creates a park in his last days. (In an odd coincidence, a Japanese chemist first synthesized methamphetamine in the 1890s.) But unlike Kurosawa’s protagonist, Gilligan’s Walter White would be poisoned–not elevated–by his terminal diagnosis.
Sutter, on the other hand, has deliberately kept meth out of the central plotline of his biker gang drama, Sons of Anarchy, in part because it is so destructive. Even on The Shield, Sutter said writers seeded methamphetamine into plotlines “lightly,” because whereever it appears in a story, the narrative arc takes a nose-dive.
“There’s no glamour to it,” says Sutter. “It’s just a life-sucking, awful narcotic. There was no upside to including it or to making that part of their lives. … I already had a lot of hurdles in terms of how to make these characters likeable. I felt like adding that level to it—I was dooming the show.”
Still, writers and filmmakers acknowledge that fine line between reflecting a culture’s dysfunction and exploiting or exacerbating it. Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik worries that too much preoccupation with it from the media and entertainment communities does more to numb Americans to meth’s devastation than motivate them to stop it.
“We’re headed for that complete inurement which the United States is so prone to,” she says. “[The U.S. is] faster, cheaper, and more out of control than any other place on this earth. Over-talking something and over-publicizing and spinning things is truly a hallmark of our particular brand of Western culture. …You never know is [meth in media] literally promulgating it? Or in a weird way celebrating it?”
Meth’s ubiquity in our plotlines is also a good indicator of our culture’s priorities, Gilligan points out. It’s cheap, a “democratic” drug that’s cooked up stateside from ingredients available at every Walmart, not imported from some Central American jungle or Afghan war zone. It costs pretty much the same in Manhattan as it does in Des Moines. And it suits our mood these days.
“It does definitely seem like our culture is moving faster all the time and we are the first generation of true multitaskers,” says Gilligan.
Sutter says there is no question that some shows—and he points at Breaking Bad—glorify meth and provoke viewers to empathize with the people perpetuating meth addiction. “I think Breaking Bad has at least let people wrap their brain around it and enabled them to look at,” he says. “At the end of the day, there’s a glorification of the drug. You’re creating characters that you have some empathy for, that are ultimately in the business of distributing it.”
For his part, Gilligan doesn’t even see meth as central to his story. The drug, he says, could be interchangeable with counterfeiting money or weapons manufacturing.
“Drugs are kind of a cyclical thing,” says Gilligan. “For our show, it’s just a plot device. I hope the legacy of Breaking Bad would not be that we made meth fashionable.”
Gina Piccalo spent a decade at the Los Angeles Times covering Hollywood. She's now a contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine and her work has appeared in Elle, More and Emmy. She can be found at ginapiccalo.com.