"Say my Name"
"You're God damned right!"
These last five years, a growing cult-following of viewers have bit their nails to the quick while anxiously speculating as to the ultimate fate awaiting a former mild mannered New Mexico high school Chemistry teacher, in Vince Gilligan's blockbuster series: "Breaking Bad." Its lead character, Walter White, is a brilliant man whose career has stalled on the material ladder of success. White, played by the impeccable Bryan Cranston, has been dished up a heaping plate of woe. After being told that another mouth is on its way for him to feed, he is diagnosed with an aggressively terminal form of lung cancer. As Walt spirals down into existential crisis, his solution provides the jumping off point for the series' wildly suspenseful twists and surprises. Indeed, Mr. White must face the gnawing question: How do I provide for the ones I love after I'm gone? His subsequent answer to this dilemma provides viewers with a postmodern morality tale: an intriguing study of how a respectable man can "break bad" for the sake of what is at face value a singular noble good.
Fortunately for Walt, he is a chemistry wizard and with the help of a druggie ex-student, Jesse Pinkman, the two embark on creating and fulfilling an inexhaustible demand for the precious "Blue:" an incredibly pure formulation of methamphetamine that leads them both into the vicious and at times quirky underworld of manufacturing and distribution. Initially, Walt reasons that he will require approximately three-quarters of a million dollars to sustain his family after he is dead. But as he descends into the maw of a business that is a never-ending fountain of cash and corruption, he changes -- eventually adopting the mysterious nom de guerre of "Heisenberg" and his trademark black pork-pie hat. Through the course of the story, the soft-spoken good-natured husband and father becomes overshadowed by the pride and power that masters him; until finally, his meticulously compartmentalized life as Drug King comes crashing down around him. As onlookers, we are then privy to the spectacle of Walter White incrementally traversing along the path into darkness: where his now hardened will and ruthless intelligence directs him first to commit acts of cool cruelty, and ultimately crimes steeped in breathless savagery.
Without a doubt, the popular lure of the series is the result of superb writing, engaging characters, and brilliant acting. But even more seductive is how we are sucked up into Walter's venture initially. We all can sympathize with a man who wants to provide for his own, but due to a lack of perspective and focus on the big picture, we soon lose sight of the knowledge that while White piles up his terminal nest egg, he is unleashing a super-concentrated poison into the lives of thousands upon thousands of willing and enthusiastic victims. The series never brings this truth fully to bear, but it does raise the problem of ends and means in our human actions. To wit: How many eggs is it permissible to break on our journey to security or utopia? How far can I go before I have gone too far?
All actions, according to Aristotle, are directed towards a Good. Such a Good or end in itself does not have to be seen as a metaphysical virtue, but merely one that a human might believe to be desirable. Such Goods might then be the obtaining of a diploma or a tab of Ecstasy. Similarly, the engine that fulfills these Goods, or the means, may be interpreted as virtuous or vicious, depending on their mutual association.
To illustrate my point, the ultimate Good/end of the Nazi Regime (which in truth was not really good at all) itself required means that were monstrously cruel. And conversely, the robbing of banks to feed the poor is just as defective a means towards a benevolent good in the moral sense. And so it seems that ends and means must themselves be subject to the scrutiny of an exacting moral yardstick in order for us to properly evaluate their ultimate worthiness.
It is the adjudication of the individual values of these ends and means, as well as their relationship to one another in discernment and moderation, which belongs to the province of practical wisdom -- or prudence. A well-developed sense of prudence is predicated on an understanding of both the moral laws and an experiential grasp of what is possible or even preferable in the human condition. Walter White's descent into evil is indicative of an absence of that prudence, for by launching into his criminal enterprise, he raised the stakes of his family's well-being to a level where he would literally stop at nothing to achieve his end. This skewed doggedness, unfortunately, is hardly alien to the human heart; for the paired faculties of great intelligence and emaciated ethics have never been mutually exclusive. Indeed, the immoderate elevation of any seemingly innocuous good can always leave open the gate for evil to steal inside and destroy.
And it is the multivariate faces of evil that serve as a shocking contrast within the plotlines of "Breaking Bad." Aside from Walter White's implacable devolution into the cruel Heisenberg persona, we are introduced to characters as diverse as the effete and calculating Gustavo Fring -- owner of Los Pollos Hermanos, and his immaculately camouflaged drug and money laundering operation bankrolled by the cartel. In contrast, the virtually insane Tuco Salamanca and the "twins" reveal to us their passionate and barely containable qualities of revenge and malevolence. And finally, the reptilian naiveté of the character Todd Alquist: an exterminator turned meth cook with a coy smile and a null conscience who will not give a second thought to murdering a child that he thought might have witnessed something. It is these characters, and a host of others like them, that serve as foils for Walter White to ricochet off in his transformation into a sympathetic villain of extraordinary magnitude.
The great writer and Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis, offers us an insight into the human dance with evil: "The safest road to hell is the gradual one -- the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts." Without the aid of a cogent moral landscape from which to orient ourselves, we lie at the mercy of our perception and desires: and such yearnings that begin in earnest often lead us to perdition. As beings of moral agency, we are forever in flux: making ourselves into personalities that are either moving towards the light or away from it with each discrete ethical choice. Those choices may be as common as a lie or as sordid as a murder; but in our moral freedom we are all ultimately accountable. Baby steps in the wrong direction will ultimately lead us far from our preferred destination -- distorting our lives and the lives of those dear to us in ways that, had we understood their true aspect, we would surely have never have taken them at all.
As we await Sunday's series climax, we are left with an atmosphere of foreboding that fierce scores will be settled and that justice and tragedy will finally resolve the fate of Mr. White. As an aside, an interesting phenomenon has developed around the character of White/Heisenberg and those fans who have invested their empathy with him. When Heisenberg's relentless brother-in-law Hank, a cocky Drug Enforcement Agent and a veritable Inspector Javert of Determination, finally puts the puzzle pieces together and solves the Kingpin's identity, many fans found themselves rooting for Walter at the expense of Hank -- the show's iconic representative of Law and justice. What this ultimately says about our nation's ethical complexion I am not sure; except that we live in a moral age just as vacuous and confused as any other that the world has known. Will Walt in the end redeem himself even partially? Will he survive the showdown he is rocketing towards at terminal velocity? I haven't a clue. But don't bet too rashly, friends. To quote Heisenberg himself: "It's not over until I say it's over."
Glenn Fairman writes from Highland, Ca. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org