“Breaking Bad” and the problem of evil

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, July 26, 2011 21:38 EDT
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Spoilers of the most recent season.

"Breaking Bad" is back with its fourth season, and it's causing some interesting writing about the moral universe of the show. Alyssa Rosenberg is close to my view of it.  Chuck Klosterman, who has this amazing knack for being thought-provoking and interesting while so regularly drawing just wrong conclusions, also weighed in on the morality of the show.  He singles it out amongst the Four* Big Important Shows That Make TV A For-Real Art Form—the others being "The Sopranos", "Mad Men", and "The Wire"—as the only one that has a steadfast moral point of view.  The rest are more interested in the gray areas between right and wrong, but "Breaking Bad" is clear on what is right and what is wrong, and is more interested in what causes people to do things they know are morally wrong. 

Fair enough.  I was with him on that.  But this is where we have a fundamental disagreement:

The central question on Breaking Bad is this: What makes a man "bad" — his actions, his motives, or his conscious decision to be a bad person? Judging from the trajectory of its first three seasons, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan believes the answer is option No. 3. So what we see in Breaking Bad is a person who started as one type of human and decides to become something different. And because this is television — because we were introduced to this man in a way that made him impossible to dislike, and because we experience TV through whichever character we understand the most — the audience is placed in the curious position of continuing to root for an individual who's no longer good.

I don't think it's that simple.  I agree that the conventions of television are being used to put the audience in a situation where they hope Walt gets away with it yet again.  But it's not necessarily because we sympathize with Walt.  I, personally, look forward to the day Walt gets what's coming to him.  What the show lays bare is the difference between wanting the story to keep going and wanting the main character to keep on keeping on.  Most shows conflate the two (though Don Draper is also a character who fucks with this convention—a close watcher realizes he deserves to lose, but he's still sympathetic enough that you don't feel bad rooting for him), so your desire to get more story is entwined with your desire for the protagonist to survive.  "Breaking Bad" breaks the two apart.  You realize when someone is menacing Walt that you simultaneously believe that Walt should be shot in the head and that you don't want that to happen, because you want the story to continue.  The show makes you complicit in an even more fucked up way than Klosterman is acknowledging.

Part of why I think Klosterman doesn't get this is he doesn't spend any time on the characters who have a more moral worldview than Walt.  It's  only if you start to invest in Skylar, Hank, and Jesse that you start to realize that you really think Walt should die.  All of these people would be immediately better off if he quit destroying their lives.  They may not see it that way, but that's why he has to die. To set them free from the horrible trap he has them in.  

The show acknowledged this conflict in the last episode, by the way, by having Gus's bodyguard beat the ever-living shit out of Walt.  It was gratifying to see Walt get a taste of what he deserves, but it was done so in a way that doesn't bring an end to the story.  I personally was gleeful that Walt was getting beat up, which is another way the show can totally warp you. 

But all of what I said, I think, is debatable.  This is not. 

It's not just that watching White's transformation is interesting; what's interesting is that this transformation involves the fundamental core of who he supposedly is, and that this (wholly constructed) core is an extension of his own free will. The difference between White in the middle of Season 1 and White in the debut of Season 4 is not the product of his era or his upbringing or his social environment. It's a product of his own consciousness. He changed himself. At some point, he decided to become bad, and that's what matters.

Klosterman is just dead wrong about this.  The show isn't about Walt becoming bad when he used to be good.  The show is about how Walt is becoming the evil person he always was, but until now has managed to hide from everyone, including himself. The show isn't about how people can fundamentally change.  It's more about the conflict between what is expected of someone versus what someone really, truly is.  Walt is a fundamentally bad person who has managed to front his whole life because he lived an average, suburban life that made being good easier than being bad.  Jesse, on the other hand, is a fundamentally decent person who is stuck in a criminal underworld and he's simply not emotionally cut out for it.  Walt is becoming more himself.  Jesse is falling apart because the choices he makes are in conflict with who he is.

The show drops frequent hints that Walt has always been an asshole, but he managed to get by without people noticing because people's mental image of an asshole doesn't encompass the nerdy professor type.  But let's look at the evidence:

1) Walt's high school students dislike him strongly.  It's suggested he's a bad teacher because he's imperious, disdainful and easily bored.  Jesse's initial reactions to him confirm this.

2) We don't know how Walt's business dealings fell through, but we've since learned that he's a self-pitying sort, and so the self-pity he feels about how all that went down could very well be evidence that he brought it on himself. 

3) As Alyssa notes, the most distressing thing that Walt does routinely on the show is he abuses Jesse.  He gives Jesse just enough reason for Jesse to love him and want his approval, but he also keeps Jesse dependent and afraid, so he can control him.  There are hints that this is a pattern with Walt.  After all, he's married to a much-younger woman who is a bored housewife, and his first inclination when things go south for him is to withhold information from her and try to control her.  I think we're supposed to imagine that Walt was initially attracted to Sklyar—maybe she was a student of his?—because he thought she was easy to control.  Every time she asserts herself, he gets irrationally angry about it, and her forebearance implies that this is their pattern.

4) Walt is contemptuous of his in-laws, though there is no reason to think that they're any better or worse than he is and in fact, we discover that Hank is a pretty good guy that always has your back. No matter; Walt takes every opportunity he can to sneer at them.

I think Alyssa's got a more interesting take on Walt:

But it’s also a larger part of Walt’s social interactions that, as I’ve thought about them more, seem characteristic of a nerd who never quite recovered. I think it’s a major plausibility issue for the entire show that the reasons for Walt’s split from Gray Matter Technologies aren’t really explained, and that it’s not particularly clear why someone with his skills isn’t, say, working at DARPA. But I suppose if the show isn’t going to sketch in the specific mechanics of his self-destruction, I can accept Walter’s anger at the world as somehow familiar, the rage of a man who will always see himself as victimized whether he’s ensnaring his former friends and lovers in a lie, getting kicked out of his house by his wife, who is understandably upset that he’s cooking meth, or lashing out at his partner for forging ahead in the criminal enterprise he walked away from. If Walt had been demonstrably wronged in any of these circumstances, we could sympathize with him. Instead, Jesse was wrong when he asked Walt in the first season “Some straight like you, giant stick up his ass, age what — 60? He’s just gonna break bad?” Once we know Walt, it’s relatively clear that manufacturing drugs is the thing he was looking for all along: he didn’t break bad, he always was.

My one quarrel: I don't mind the mystery.  If the backstory was completely fleshed out, the themes about good and evil would be anvilicious.  The pleasure of the show is the gradual realization that Walt was always a bad person, and that he just hid it well—even from the audience.  If, earlier in the show, we found out, as I suspect, that Walt broke with Gray Matters because he's an irredeemable asshole, that would have taken the punch out of the gradual revelations.  Now that it's four seasons in and it's inescapable that Walt really is a bad person, I bet we find out more about what happened, confirming that Walt didn't become this, but that Walt was always this. 

*What's interesting about all the coverage these big dramas get is that there's very little comparative coverage in how comedy is also having a resurgence on television, and that it's really just as interesting and good.  "Louie", "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia", "30 Rock",  "Parks and Recreation", and before it went off the rails, "The Office" are all shows that have really pushed the creativity envelope and demonstrated that television comedy can rise above the hackneyed and become sublime. I laugh harder at all these shows than almost any movie I've seen in theaters in the past decade, with the exception, of course, of much of Judd Apatow's output.  But Apatow and crew lay a lot of stinkers, while Tina Fey continues to kick major ass with more airtime to fill.  So there you go. 

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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