whitening the lobby

BREAKING BAD HAS SOMETHING to do with race, though exactly what is hard to say sometimes. TV critics weren’t slow making the connection, not least of all because Walter was after all born a White. And yet if that fact seems to explain too much or too easily, it does remind us Walter, the underworld kingpin, is still a member of privileged caste, slumming with untouchables.

But getting to the finer points on race in Breaking Bad means taking roundabout paths. It would be interesting to see race through Walter’s own eyes, but for all his intelligence, he doesn’t show much interest in race (or for that matter, in most other people around him). Instead, it is more revealing to look at Walter through the eyes of immigrants, criminals, and all the others he steps on, bullies, betrays, and destroys. As many episodes demonstrate, they understand him better than he understands himself.

This one-way mirror is at work from the beginning of the series. In the pliot episode, Walter is moonlighting behind the cash register of a car wash in a futile attempt to pay for his anticipated cancer treatments.  When someone quits, his boss Bogdan, a Romanian immigrant, orders Walter to go help the other “carwash professionals”—mostly Hispanics and Native Americans—do the shining and buffing. (Actually, Bogdan doesn’t order Walt; he pleads: “Walter, what am I to do?”) Walter finally relents but not before protesting, “Bogdan, no—we talked about this.”

S1E1 carwash pan 2

The agreement: Bogdan sends Walter to wash the cars (S1E1, Pilot)

What Walter and Bogdan talked about—keeping Walter from doing the work done by Hispanics and Native Americans—was apparently a part of their deal when Walter was hired. Why did Bogdan sign on to this agreement in the first place? Maybe Bogdan never intended to honor it. On the other hand, why didn’t he just hire someone who was willing to run the register and wash cars?

Bogdan’s rationale might be found in another branch of the service industry where immigrant owners use white employees as the face of their business. In Life Behind the Lobby, a study of American motels owned by Indian immigrants, Pawan Dhingra explains that Indian-born owners often hire white women during the day and evening shifts, when most check-ins occur. This strategy, called “whitening the lobby,” is meant to reassure a typically white American-born clientele, who are relieved to find a face like their own when they arrive. The agreement between Walter and Bogdan mirrors this arrangement, and Walter, who probably understands the service he provides, uses his position as leverage.

Whitening Bogdan’s lobby is prologue to the higher-stakes washing that happens later. Later, after Skyler and Walt acquire the car wash, they use it to launder both Walt’s profits and their image. The car wash makes them successful small-business owners, a model of what ordinary Americans can still do with pluck and hard work. Which is another form of whitening–polishing maybe.


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