Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Is Breaking Bad a moral show?

At first glance, and every other glance after that, Walter White is an immoral man. A former high school science teacher, Mr. White has graduated into the lucrative business of the production of methamphetamine, to be sold and distributed on the streets of Albuquerque, NM. He respects the chemistry of it, the purity of the combination of elements in such a way that the end result is a crystalline blue substance that, when ingested, leads to the best possible artificial expansion of the mind.

Walt is bankrolled by the leader of a South American cartel, who also doubles as the owner of the local fast-fast chicken joint.

His partner is a high school educated slacker who has not only been kicked out of his parents house, but lowballed his unsuspecting parents on a bid for that same house, claiming it used to be a meth house. The bit he didn’t tell you about is that he was the one cooking that meth.

He has lawyer protection from a man who changed his name to sound more Jewish, figuring that the public would trust one of God’s chosen people more.

So how is it possible to watch this show knowing the premise, knowing the characters, and knowing that Walter’s actions lead to the increasing addictions of children and families?

Because we always have hope.

Walter didn’t become the meth king of New Mexico because he was bored, or because he had nothing better to do. He was diagnosed with lung cancer, given just months to live. Working part time at car wash as well as teaching at a high school did not give him the economic stability to support his family should he die. Refusing to just let his family suffer, he sacrificed his ownself so that they might live and survive.

“"When you have children, you will always have family. They will always be your priority, your responsibility. And a man…a man provides. And he does it even when he is not appreciated – or respected…or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it…because he’s a man.”

Does Walter’s end of supporting his family justify the means by which he goes about it? Absolutely not. But what it does is allow us, the audience, to see that Walter has not gone completely mad; he has not entered the realm of the sociopath. He is misguided and he is confused. But he is not evil. We did not hope that Luke Skywalker would simply kill Darth Vader. We wanted Luke to bring out the good that was still in him, to save Vader, and to have Vader turn away from the Dark Side.

This is not to oversimplify the magnificent Breaking Bad, because the whole show is not about cheering for Walt to make the right choice. If Walt continues to make every wrong decision out there, if he continues to cook meth and make millions of dollars at the expense of drug addicts everywhere, the show will still be great. It is currently one of the most creative shows on television, with stellar writing and stellar acting, garnering awards at every Emmy’s ceremony.

The brilliance of television has always been that you can show evolution of a character and maturation of story. The Sopranos really ushered in this new era of television, bringing with it the idea of an anti-hero, the character we watch in whom we take such delight in their evil deeds. This person usually surrounds himself with characters of similar ilk, because let’s face it, we all like people with similar interests. Cooking meth, collecting gambling debts, serial killing, watching According to Jim. Even bad guys like to have friends.

What this new era has shown to a new, mature audience is that we as people are capable of some pretty sick things. CBS has made a living depicting these crimes, all solved by a crack team of investigators with billion dollar labs. We know the good guys will do good things, we know they will make the right decision, and we know the bad guy will be caught. And we want the bad guy to be caught. Why? Because he’s the bad guy!

But to us, the television viewing audience, a far better outcome than the bad guy being caught is if, right before he is caught, he runs into a burning orphanage (that he probably lit on fire) and saves all the kids. Or he jumps into the Potomac to save a box full of puppies (having fallen out of his truck after he robbed the pet store). We want to see a glimpse of humanity, to see this person who has spent the last 12 hours tormenting the public, release his hate and throw the Emperor into the depths of the Death Star.

Is Walter White a moral man? No.

Is Breaking Bad a moral show? That question does not have such a succinct answer.

It is easy to look at the show, see the fall of Walter White into the shadows of greed and corruption, and write both his character and the show off. It is easy to say that this is filth, that this is trash, that this is a further example of the degradation of society, a contributor to the culture of death.

The show is not written to be a rulebook by which we can live our lives or a guide to our morality. As far as I know, only one institution is solely responsible for our salvation.

The show is designed to tell a story, and that is the story of Walter White. He has a wife, two children, and he cooks meth. Walter White is not a moral man, he does not do moral things. But as with any choice, every decision he makes affects those people around him. We the viewers see how these people react to Walt, how they behave, how their decisions reflect themselves, their beliefs and their own lives.

In the end, we want Walt to give up his life of crime, stop cooking meth and start cooking spaghetti for his family. We want Walt to stop cheating his family out of a supportive father; we want Walt to show his love by playing hide and seek with this kids, not hiding rolled up twenties in his daughter’s diaper bag.

We want all this to happen, but there’s no guarantee that it will. Just like there is no guarantee that all the drug dealers in the country will become a part of the DEA and clean up the streets.

But we can hope.


  1. Really interesting - you know, I tend to think he's not going to have some great moment of repentance. There are places in the overall story arc where Walter has the perfect opportunity to reflect on what he's really doing - like what happens to Hank (no spoilers) - and we don't even really see him mull over the moral implications. He's too deeply attached to his pride, whether it be as a chemist or as the mythical "Heisenberg."

    I still think it's an amazing show - and it shows us how sin can put us on a seemingly irreversible course towards further evil. Every step of the way, Walter's in deeper and deeper.

    Anyway - great thoughts, and I'm glad to have discovered your blog. I wrote about Breaking Bad in the context of Catholic teaching more today on my own site as well.

  2. I completely agree that a good end is not in store for Walter White. In fact, I can see no way that he gets out of this mess he has created alive; the choices he has made, the relationship he has created with Gus and Mike all are leading to his untimely non-cancer-related demise.

    And I also would find it very hard to argue that he deserves anything less, if for no other reason that what he has put Jesse through. Here is a kid who was a lowlevel meth-head, a deadbeat living in his parents basement. But now he has watched his girlfriend die, has had an indirect hand in the death of a little boy and another lowlevel dealer, and has directly killed another man.

    It is actually very similar to how the first 3 seasons of Lost put themselves into a position where the show could not possibly end well. Until Lindelof and Cuse realized they were on network television, and they had to end it on a happy note, thus the death-filled final season.

    I don't know if Walt will redeem his soul, I don't know if he can at this point. But I find every moment of the show riveting, every conversation engaging. You wince as he slowly morphs into a power hungry character, which really started back in the parking lot of Home Depot, when he told those thugs to "stay out of my territory." And you wince as he brings Skyler down with him, who can't escape him now. And you half root for Hank to catch him, and half root for Walt to turn himself in.