Breaking Bad follows the descent into hell of one Walter White, an everyman, blend-into-the-crowd kind of Walter Mitty-esque (gee what a coincidence) guy who over five seasons becomes a raving psychotic murderer and criminal rock star presiding over his very own methamphetamine empire. As Walter says in the opening of every episode, “chemistry is the study of transformation.” Yes indeed.
This show resonates with its huge audience because its creator, Vince Gilligan, and his fellow writers are strumming an ancient universal theme that we all recognize in our bones. It’s the story of Lucifer, the beautiful angel who challenges God for dominance. It runs throughout Greek tragedy and most of Shakespeare’s plays, echoes of a story first set in motion in the Garden of Eden as the fount of man’s endless struggles with his Creator. In Eden’s paradise the serpent hissed, “You can be like God!” tempting Adam and Eve to defy the deity’s supremacy. In Breaking Bad it’s decent-guy-turned-monster Walter White hissing at his long- suffering wife, “All of this is about me!” Everyman trying to be Superman.
Like Walter, most of us act like little gods, arbiters of our own highly fluid, guilt-and-judgment-free morality that’s ruled by the code of feel-good and hubris. Breaking bad is all about the destructive power of this most original sin: human pride.
Walter starts out as a sympathetic character, even more so after he learns he’s got advanced lung cancer and only two years to live. A high school chemistry teacher who moonlights working in a car wash to support his family, he’s desperate knowing he has no funds for expensive cancer treatment and nothing to leave his family after his death. But his pride won’t let him accept a lucrative job at the firm he helped found because he thinks he was dissed by his former partners. Walter decides that a better course of action is to cook meth, first in an old trailer, and later in a sophisticated lab supplied by a maniacal drug overlord.
That initial decision triggers the downward spiral of the entire epic. Walter’s first murder victim is Krazy-8, a drug dealer who Walt and his young assistant, Jesse, keep in the basement chained to a post. Walt just can’t stomach killing him, and delays the inevitable. He brings Krazy-8 sandwiches and as they chat, finds out Krazy-8’s family owns a furniture store where Walt and his wife Skyler bought the crib for their new baby. Walt’s ethical aversion to homicide plus this growing personal connection stay his hand, until he discovers that Krazy 8 plans to stab him to death the moment he’s unchained. Angry and betrayed, Walt brutally strangles the man in the basement. There’s a kill-or-be-killed aspect here that justifies Walt’s savagery, and then too, the guy was a p.o.s. drug dealer. So the audience is still rooting for Walt even as he crosses over to killer.
As he realizes he can make mind-boggling millions with his chemical expertise, Walt gets high on the drugs of power and greed. The bodies and the unintended consequences pile up. When instead of saving Jesse’s heroin-addled girlfriend Jane, he watches her die choking on her own vomit, he’s protecting his money stash and thus protecting his family from ruin. But now he’s killing for reasons disconnected from his own survival. His cruelty leads to Jane’s grieving air traffic controller father making a mistake that results in two planes colliding, killing 167 people. Walt stands looking up as flaming parts of planes and bodies plummet into his back yard, much as the Lord rained fire and brimstone down on the sinful inhabitants of the wicked city of Sodom.
Decades ago the enlightened high-foreheads of Western culture rejected stuffy Biblical morality for the “it’s all good” philosophy prevalent to this day. If bad behavior such as alcoholism, drug addiction, even gambling, or homicidal tendencies couldn’t be rationalized away by an errant gene, it was the fault of a toxic environment or uncuddly parents. Guilt and shame weren’t just downers, but unfair punishment because our lives are determined by fatalistic forces beyond our control.
Jesse, the druggy punk who’s so much smarter than Walt in all the important ways, is the only character showing remorse over his dastardly deeds. At his addiction group therapy meeting, feeling guilty after murdering on Walt’s orders, Jesse invents a story about killing a dog. When the group’s I’m-okay-you’re-okay leader trots out the need for self-acceptance and non-judgmentalness, Jesse angrily calls bullshit, reminding the leader that he accidentally killed his own daughter when high on cocaine and vodka. How can we really accept anything and everything we do?
Walt’s evil acts place him squarely in the grim crosshairs of – not fate, not destiny -- but the results of his own vicious behavior. This also is biblical – you reap what you sow. At the end, Walt gets the illusion of control by forcing the Schwarzes to funnel his ill-gotten $80 million to his family. But he doesn’t win. In the end, his family despises him and he dies alone, caressing a cold steel meth-making tank. In the ultimate irony, the bullet that finally finds him is shot by a machine gun of his own clever devise. At the end, Breaking Bad rejects conventional moral squishiness to say: your life is what you do to yourself.
This piece was first published at Breakpoint.org: http://www.breakpoint.org/features-columns/articles/entry/12/23567