In March, we compared the warring families of “Game of Thrones” to the major tech companies, with the Starks standing in for Google, the Lannisters for Facebook, the Targaryens for Amazon, and the Baratheons for Apple. But while it may be fun to imagine the tech landscape as a winner-take-all melee where companies vie for a single prize, the reality is far more nuanced. Companies strike reluctant alliances, standing on each other’s shoulders to gain power over individual fiefdoms like social, hardware, and search. (Or in the case of “Breaking Bad,” wealth, family, salvation, etc.) To make matters even more complicated, the boundaries between each territory are becoming increasingly blurred. Partnerships are forged to fight common enemies, yet two parties may be best friends one day and bitter foes the next. These battles don’t take place in a vacuum, either, proceeding under the eyes of a watchful yet not incorruptible government.
For that reason, the messy world of “Breaking Bad,” with its constantly shifting stakes and tense yet symbiotic relationships, perhaps offers a more apt comparison to the great tech war of the 21st century. So on the eve of the show’s season 5-and-a-half premiere, we’ll examine what Walter White’s ambition, Saul Goodman’s connections, and Walt. Jr’s love of breakfast tells us about the world’s biggest tech companies.
(SPOILER ALERT: Contains spoilers from all five seasons)
Amazon / Walter White
“Behind (his) public image as a smiling geek there is a ruthless business strategist.”
The New Yorker’s John Cassidy wrote that about Jeff Bezos earlier this week, but he might as well have been talking about Walter White. Behind those dad-rim glasses, Walter possesses a terrifyingly brilliant mind for mayhem, as he coldly calculates the most efficient way to decimate his competitors and protect his own. Walter’s plans often seem crazy to those not privy to the inner-workings of his brain. And his schemes almost always involve putting his life, his family’s lives, and his entire drug empire on the brink of collapse. And yet miraculously, they always work. Barely.
Meanwhile, Bezos is known for making similarly aggressive bets, taking on incumbents in brick-and-mortar retail by offering extreme discounts, and refusing to back away from streaming video content despite the fact that it may be costing Amazon $1 billion a year, according to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. Then there are the e-readers, the tablets, Amazon Web Services, and a new 800,000 square foot warehouse (the perfect cover for a meth lab, by the way. Just saying).
As a result of these huge gambles, Amazon’s profit margins are razor-thin, just like Walter’s margin-for-error whenever he escapes death by the skin of his teeth, which he seems to do at least twice a season.
But there’s one more trait Amazon and Walter share: Neither of them are fully independent. The both rely heavily on…
Google / Jesse Pinkman
The most obvious reason to compare Google and the young enterprising meth dealer/meth head Jesse Pinkman is that they’re both the most likable figures of their respective universes. Google’s motto is “Don’t be evil,” and despite their questionable track level on that front, the perception of Google as a “your friendly neighborhood corporation” persists, supported in part by its depiction in films like “The Internship.”
Meanwhile, between his enthusiasm for magnets, his ability to lend immense gravitas to the word “bitch,” and the fact that he kind of maybe has a moral compass, Jesse has endeared himself to “Breaking Bad” fans as one of the few characters we truly root for.
But Walter and Jesse have always had an uneasy relationship. They became partners out of mutual necessity, and before long, their reluctant friendship turned rotten. This decay set in after Walt’s repeatedly manipulated Jesse, and Jesse realized that his own meth-cooking capabilities could finally match Walt’s.
Now we’re seeing a similar arc play out between Amazon and Google. Amazon relied on Google’s Android operating system for its Kindle Fire line of tablets, just as Walter needed Jesse’s network of buyers and distributors to break into the meth game. But now Google is looking to compete against Amazon in the very markets Amazon has historically dominated: ecommerce, cloud computing, and even delivery.
Season 4 found Walter hitting rock-bottom when Gus Fring realized Jesse was just as good a cook as Walter, but about 100,000 times easier to work with. If Google takes a bite out of Amazon’s biggest markets, will its already-slim profit margins survive?
Apple / The Cartel
From Tuco in Season 2 to the cousins in Season 3 to Don Eladio in Season 4, the most persistent foes to Walter’s Albuquerque drug operation have come from the Mexican drug cartels and other rival gangs. At numerous points in the series, it seemed like Walter had finally tied up every possible loose end. But there was always another cartel guy lying in wait to make things complicated for our anti-hero.
For Amazon, the persistent nagging competitor is Apple. When Amazon released the Kindle Fire HD, some predicted that because it was smaller and cheaper, it had a legitimate shot to take on Apple’s iPad. Then Apple released its own smaller, cheaper iPad, the iPad Mini, and despite taking a hit to its market share, Apple is still No. 1 for tablets. Amazon’s next line of Kindle Fires will reportedly boast an even better resolution than the iPad’s retina display. But expect Apple to have an answer for that too.
Meanwhile, there’s an even bigger fight is going on between Apple and Amazon over antitrust violations. Last month, a judge ruled that Apple conspired with publishers to raise the price of e-books in an attempt to destroy Amazon’s competitive pricing advantage. But in this battle, there’s a third party involved that Apple thinks has been manipulated by Amazon…
The Department of Justice / Hank Schrader
The comparison of tech companies to criminal organizations isn’t 100% metaphorical. Apple’s antitrust suit proves that tech companies can find themselves in the crosshairs of federal law enforcement just as easily as the meth dealers in “Breaking Bad.”
To say that Hank Schrader, Walt’s DEA agent brother-in-law, is a lot like the Department of Justice may sound overly obvious. But the similarities between Hank and the DOJ go much deeper than that.
As noted above, Apple has accused Amazon of convincing the Department of Justice to attack Apple as a ploy to improve its own competitive advantage. In a memo filed to the Southern District of New York, Apple writes, ”The Government has unwittingly placed a thumb on the scales in favor of Amazon, the industry monopolist. Amazon was the driving force behind the Government’s investigation, and it told a story to the Government that has yet to be scrutinized.”
Hank has a similar blind spot when it comes to Walt. For the bulk of the series, Hank never suspected that Walt was Albuquerque’s foremost drug kingpin. In fact it was Hank that killed Tuco, Walt’s cartel adversary from the second season. The two men’s closeness also allowed Walt to bug Hank’s office to get information about the DEA’s meth investigation.
In the cliffhanger that ends part one of Season 5, Hank finally figures out that Walt is the legendary meth cook Heisenberg. And indeed, the New Yorker’s John Cassidy suggests that Amazon could become the target of a DOJ investigation itself (is that why Bezos bought the Washington Post? To sway public opinion if he runs afoul of antitrust laws?) But so far the feds have been easy on Amazon.
It makes sense that Hank would place an unwise amount of trust in Walt. He is his brother-in-law, after all. What’s the DOJ’s excuse for turning a blind eye on Amazon?
Facebook / Saul Goodman
Saul Goodman, attorney-at-law, is the ultimate connector and has dirt on everybody in town.
Facebook is the biggest social network in the world and definitely has pictures of you drunk.
And while both Saul and Facebook say they care about privacy (attorney-client privilege, yo!) there are plenty of reasons to question their ethics. Saul is a slimeball lacking in almost all morals (he draws the line at murder and poisoning children) and will likely sell you out to the highest bidder. And while Zuckerberg isn’t that bad, he’s been known to change the rules for how he protects his clients (us) without warning, based on his own ever-changing definition of privacy.
Napster / Gus Fring
Napster is dead and so is Gus Fring. But both of their presences loom large over everything that transpires in their respective universes. After Napster, audiences couldn’t be bothered with dropping $17 on a piece of brittle plastic that only had one or two songs they liked. The illegal file-sharing service helped pave the way for iTunes, BitTorrent, and pretty much every other major disruptive force in the music industry.
Meanwhile, Gus Fring revolutionized the meth trade by corporatizing it, making friends at multinational companies that could help him distribute product on a scale previously thought unimaginable to his peers. And although he’s dead now, having fallen victim to one of Walt’s wicked, ingenious schemes, his business model lives on, making his murderer millions.
Microsoft / Skyler White
People hate Skyler White. Just despise her. The “Fuck Skyler White” Facebook page has over 28,000 likes. There are even statistical analyses of how much Skyler White sucks: Uproxxx found an inverse relationship between an episode’s popularity and the number of times Skyler appears in it.
And she is a TOTAL BUZZKILL ha ha. Wondering where her husband is, trying to teach her son to not be a dick like his father… What a jerk, right?
Look, I won’t say Skyler is the best character on the show (I’ll leave that to the contrarians at Slate), but she’s certainly not as bad as everyone makes her out to be. That’s why she’s Microsoft. Microsoft suffers through heaps of criticism and perennially poor stock market performances, but hey, have you ever played around with a Windows Phone? It’s pretty cool. The tablet with the keyboard thing? Who wouldn’t want that! (Lots of people, apparently). But let’s be kind of Microsoft. She just wants to be loved like everybody else.
Twitter / Marie Schrader
From telling Hank that Walt Jr. is a pothead (not true) to spilling the beans to Skyler about Walt’s second cell phone (true, but come on) Marie Schrader is a habitual gossip hound who simply cannot keep a secret.
Which is why she’s Twitter. Thanks to social media, if you have a secret these days, it’s going to get out. And when it does, you’ll probably see it on Twitter first. And while Twitter the company may not be a huge threat to the major tech players, it’s still an incredibly powerful and disruptive force, simply because the people who use it can’t seem to keep their mouths shut.
Yahoo / Ted Beneke
Sometimes it feels like the only thing Ted Beneke knows how to do is buy things. Sound familiar?
Instagram / Walt Jr.
Walt Jr. puts a lot of stock in the simple things in life: a new car… breakfast… pushing his baby sister around the pool… more breakfast… His life is pretty much an Instagram feed, finding beauty in bacon (as long as it’s not veggie bacon). Walt Jr. may struggle to understand the moral theater taking place all around him, just as Instagram has taken a backseat to Twitter when it comes to capturing truly significant moments. But sometimes a snapshot of a glorious brunch spread is worth cherishing too.
Snapchat / Mike
Because like Snapchat, Mike can make anything (or anybody) disappear…