Breaking Down "Breaking Bad"
By Heather Croteau
July 16, 2012
Heather is a writer, editor, Nutella connoisseur and Seattle transplant by way of Great Britain and Orlando. Follow her on Twitter @hdcroteau.
(Editor's note: The following article contains a few minor spoilers through the end of Breaking Bad's third season.)
I’ll be honest: After I watched the first episode of Breaking Bad I wasn’t sure I had the stomach to go back for another. The Emmy-award winning AMC show has been dubbed the “darkest on television,” beating out The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and Dexter. Stiff competition for a primetime series. But when you factor in the plot—Walter White (portrayed by Bryan Cranston), a 40-something high school chemistry teacher, is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and teams up with a former student (Jesse Pinkman, played by the brilliant Aaron Paul) to produce and sell crystal meth in order to provide for his family after his eventual death—you have the formula for gripping, bloody television.
So what keeps audiences coming back to this stomach-churning hour of drug turf politics? The cinematography and storyline cannot go without mention (The series has won six Emmy Awards—including three consecutive wins for Lead Actor in a Drama Series for Cranston and one win for Supporting Actor in a Drama Series for Paul). But quality filmmaking aside, Breaking Bad has proven to be one of those polarizing cultural phenomenons (think: Harry Potter, Obamacare) that places Christians on either side of a distinct line. For those of you reading this article, you probably fall on one side or the other; You’re either a Breaking Bad fanatic, or you wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole.
Certainly, it may be the “darkest on television,” but that's all part of what makes Breaking Bad a commentary on the state of mankind. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, series co-star Aaron Paul said of the show’s somber themes: “We’re not trying to be dark for the sake of being dark. We’re trying to tell an honest story.” Clearly, the creators' view is that Breaking Bad is actually a truer depiction of the human struggle than, say, Glee. Are they right?
The reality is that the humanity of Breaking Bad is familiar to us, even if the meth labs aren't. Walter begins his slide into the drug dealing major leagues as innocently as one can. Upon realizing the death sentence of his diagnosis and the massive bills that will amount on the way to it, Walt decides to ensure his family’s financial stability, no matter the cost. The next four seasons are a series of small steps towards depravity that lead to more and more mounting consequences. Stop me if this is sounding familiar.
You’re either a Breaking Bad fanatic, or you wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole.
The end result is a character that, as time goes on, becomes more and more morally ambiguous. By the end of season four, Walt is directly responsible for the deaths of six people and indirectly responsible for countless more. He swings back and forth between being the story’s protagonist and its antagonist not just between episodes, but between the scenes themselves. What began as Walt’s desire to protect his family slowly slides into a struggle to maintain control of the empire he has built. The brilliant chemist has created a recipe for the world's finest meth, and with it, has earned millions. But at what price? Breaking Bad creator and director Vince Gilligan has stated that the overarching theme of the show’s fifth and final season is a question: what does it take to stay on top?
It's a good question, and it's one we face every day. It’s not a novel statement to assert that humans have a desire for control. We have an instinctive fear of the unknown, and in order to curb that fear, we try to control things so that they cannot have power over us. And while we have power, we automatically oppose anything or anyone that threatens it. Because losing power means losing control, and losing control means myriad consequences.
The majority of which are—you guessed it—unknowns.
Looking into Walter’s inner demons is like looking at a mirror of ourselves.
Looking into Walter’s inner demons is like looking at a mirror of ourselves. We see Walter making bad choices to protect his family and know that without Christ, we too will try to do the right thing, and always do it in precisely the wrong way. When, through a series of escalating events, Walt indirectly causes two planes to collide in mid-air over his hometown of Albuquerque, the entire town falls into mourning over the 100 person-plus fatalities. At a school assembly designed to give students the chance to mourn, Walter takes the microphone and, instead of consoling a grieving girl, compares the accident to the Tenerife airport disaster in which 583 people were killed. His attempt to shed light on the “silver lining” is oblivious and insensitive, and yet totally in keeping with the gradual moral decay of his character. How often do we, too, rationalize the mistakes we’ve made by comparing them to others and finding that they come up short?
Gilligan leads viewers through four seasons of hold-your-breath suspense, weaving Walter’s DEA agent brother-in-law into the meth story more intricately. As Walter falls further into moral corruption, we find ourselves hoping for his eventual detection and capture. There is something so profoundly justifying about watching a wrongdoer face consequences for their choices. Gilligan said of the theme: “If there’s a larger lesson to Breaking Bad it’s that actions have consequences. I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice ... I want to believe there’s a Heaven, but I can’t not believe there’s a hell.” We find satisfaction in knowing the fate of the murderers and drug traffickers of the world, and yet when faced with the grim reality of our own mortality, we more often than not forget that the wages of sin is death.
In one of the most deeply personal and agonizingly raw scenes, Walter tried to turn down a multi-million dollar deal from the Southwest’s drug kingpin Gus Fring. By this point Walter’s wife, Skylar, has discovered his side job as a drug lord, asked (demanded) a divorce and forbidden Walter from having contact with his children. Desperate and at rock-bottom, Walter has decided to leave the drug world. And then Gus comes into the picture and hits Walter with a manipulation tactic he can’t walk away from.
Walter: “I have made a series of very bad decisions and I cannot make another one.”
Gus: “Why did you make these decisions?”
Walter: “For the good of my family.”
Gus: “Then they weren’t bad decisions. What does a man do, Walter? A man provides for his family ... They will always be your priority, your responsibility. And a man, a man provides. And he does it even when he’s not appreciated or respected or even loved. He bears up and does it. Because he’s a man.”
And just like that, Walter White, meth maker extraordinaire is back. And for those of us watching, the pain feels real. The pain of a man trying to do the right thing for the good of his family and constantly being caught between keeping them safe and keeping them emotionally fulfilled. The attraction of Breaking Bad is not that Walter White is a character you want to cheer for, but that his story is so compelling and raw you can’t help but keep tuning in. His motivations seem more than vaguely familiar, and in that familiarity we’re able to watch as Breaking Bad draws a moral line in the sand and asks us whether or not we would step over it. And with finality, we’re able to rationalize: “I may not have read my Bible this week. But at least I’m not doing that.” We could easily watch the show to feel better about our little mistakes.
And we'd never realize that there was a time when Walt would have been able to do the same thing.