In Defense of Breaking Bad
In the aftermath of last Sunday's series finale of the controversial and phenomenally acclaimed series, Breaking Bad, a host of commentators and wags have been offering their own post-mortems dissecting its peculiar moral zeitgeist and speculating on what its wild popularity reveals about our underlying American character. As the divination of a culture's essence through its interests and amusements can be akin to reading tea leaves and any such interpretations are contingent upon how art is refracted through the political or philosophical lens, the ideologically tinted eye is bound to arrive at some rather questionable conclusions.
That being said, a less than perfunctory evaluation of the series has prompted some to attribute its notoriety to an American fascination with nihilism: the absence of moral values, and/or an undaunted "Wild West" strain of Capitalism, whose concentrated material avarice perpetually overshadows that still small voice of social justice. It is my position that both claims are erroneous -- and that justice: in particular Plato's final formulation "that each man receives what he duly deserves," was delivered to all concerned before the final scene had terminally faded to black.
There is something in the healthy human heart that craves justice, and for the American, whose spirit has always been inextricably tethered to the morality play par excellence: the Western -- this goes double. We may indeed be a coarse bunch and a bit ragged around the edges, but as our entertainments go, we have never been fully sold on Art House cinema, Ingmar Bergman, or existentialist angst. It's not that we prefer our heroes or villains to appear in unmistakable shades of black or white, but that we demand a reassurance by the time we reach the credits that the polarity of the moral universe has been corrected. Therefore, despite a 24/7 saturation of highbrow media designed to sway us from our provincial desire for justice, we categorically reject out of hand the idea that the shriek of evil should forever lie unresolved. In spite of these recent claims to the contrary, the minds behind Breaking Bad clearly understood such a psychological necessity when they ultimately settled the show's cinematic accounts.
In all honesty, no nihilistic hack worthy of his time spent staring into the abyss would have ever resolved the series with an appeal to justice, or even the slightest semblance of it. As a case in point, there is no uncertain justice when the sterile characters of Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz are unmasked (albeit only to the viewers) as: opportunistic, shallow, and craven personalities that all along have sought only to feather their nest and salve their materialistic consciences. But Walt/Heisenberg, in effect, turns the tables on the couple. Hereafter, it will be their moral callowness that will set into motion Walt's penultimate "good deed;" and therein, redeem his initial worthy aspiration of providing for his surviving family. Unfortunately, the primal chaos that he has spun in achieving his ends requires a reckoning that even the brilliant Heisenberg cannot escape.
Over the course of the final episodes, it had become painfully clear that for our anti-hero, and in tragic fashion, his "fair exchange" of money for his humanity had resulted in alienating all that he had ever loved. For the viewer and for Walt, the cost proves too much to bear. While living as a hunted fugitive ensconced in his self-imposed frozen fortress of despair, he finally comes to terms with the jagged truth of what his terrible actions have wrought. Even more, he realizes that it was not filial altruism, but an act of malevolent pride and ego, which drove him to embrace the outlaw within. And so, reconciled and embedded in his fate, Walter White, the Sorrowful Master of his Blue Meth Empire, spirals down into his inexorable death with only half the loaf he entered into Hell to obtain. In squandering the respect and affection of his loved ones, he has paid a terrible price for his dark transaction -- more terrible than any of us would ever dare.
As to temporal justice, the balance of Breaking Bad's evil pantheon all receive their well deserved comeuppance: Gus, Lydia, the Nazis, Todd, Tuco, and the twins -- none escape the hand of retribution. Even the decrepit Hector Salamanca, confined to his pathetic wheelchair, receives a pyrrhic vengeance by "ringing his bell." And while it is undeniable that a host of innocents have perished, at least their deaths are vindicated and their murderers are made to pay with their skins. Even the lovely Skyler pays, and will go on paying, for her part in Walt's cover-up. Perhaps she will one day realize that Walt was the true source of the largesse that will be dispensed via her son Flynn -- and that will make her agony all the more unbearable.
And finally, Jesse -- the man-child with the ethical depth of an oil spill -- perhaps pays the greatest price of all through surviving this Sophoclean morality tale. He has lost two women whom he held deep feelings for: one to an overdose and the other as penalty for his escape attempt. For their deaths, and for all the lives that were cut short or maimed by his hand, he will carry a crushing guilt upon his conscience for the sum of his days. In making common cause with Walt, he joined hands with the devil and everything in his life was burnt to ashes.
Nevertheless in the end, Jesse is buoyed by the fact that, as a wayward penitent, he is resurrected from the Hell brought about by the totality of his sins. In the end, he alone lives to tell the full harrowing tale that his physical and mental scars will forever be evidenced by. While initially the most unworthy of the series' main characters, Jesse emerges reborn through fire as his conscience is resurrected by Todd's murder of an innocent child. As we bid farewell to him driving madly through the compound's gates and screaming wildly into the arid New Mexico desert night, his once careless throwaway life -- to the exclusion of all the others who richly merited death -- is gifted with a second chance at redemption. For him alone, somehow: justice has been tempered by mercy.
Post-Modernity has left its stamp on the television/movie genre like no other aesthetic form -- and therein lurks its power of dark cunning in corrupting our moral landscape. Films such as No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood assault our moral sensibilities because they entice us with the deception that we are floundering in a freezing universe without lodestone, purpose, or a final accounting to reign in our imaginations. Breaking Bad, although at times grisly and raw, ultimately reinforces the maxim that: although the wheels of justice often grind slowly, they do, in the fullness of days, grind exceedingly fine. In this lies its art and its power -- and its fearful moral education for those with still an ear left to hear.
Glenn Fairman writes from Highland, Ca. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.