A case of art imitating bureaucracy


Author: Brian T. Hodges

Full disclosure: I am a huge fan of the TV series Breaking Bad.  For the uninitiated, this show chronicles the downward spiral of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a struggling high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with cancer.  Walt turns to a life of crime, manufacturing methamphetamine with the aim of securing his family’s financial future before he dies.  This nutshell doesn’t even come close to capturing the show’s fantastic acting and storytelling, but will have to do for this blog.

In episode 4.03, Walt and his estranged wife Skyler plan to purchase a local car wash to launder Walt’s dirty money.  But there is bad blood between Walt and Bogdan, the Romanian immigrant and owner of the car wash.  Back when Walt was teaching, he supplemented his income by working at the car wash.  But after he learned of his cancer, Walt walked off the job in a dramatic fit (the kind I wish I could have thrown when I left my pizza delivery job back in my college days).  So Bogdan rather rudely rejects the Whites’ offer.

Walt, Skyler, and their prototypical uber-sleazy lawyer brainstorm ways to force Bogdan to sell his business.  The lawyer suggests sending thugs to rough him up.  No.  Report him to the IRS?  No.  Report him to immigration?  No.  Their ultimate plan sent a chill down this PLF lawyer’s spine.

A fake government inspector shows up at Bogdan’s car wash, taking water samples from the field behind the shop.  After looking intently at a vial of brown water, the fake inspector informs Bogdan that his runoff is polluting area waters in violation of the Clean Water Act, as well as state environmental laws.  Bogdan’s shop will be closed down until he updates his shop (at a cost of around $200,000) and pays fines of up to $5,000 per day for the pollution he caused.  The scheme works.  Bogdan offers to sell the Whites his car wash – at a discount.

A fun and unexpected twist?  Yes.  But at the same time, this twist shows the real and unforgiving nature of environmental laws.  All it takes is one bureaucrat looking at a vial of muddy water to ruin lives and steal property.  Maybe sending thugs to rough Bogdan up a bit would have been a less brutal option.