The Frightening—But Biblical—Moral Logic of 'Breaking Bad'
Breaking Bad: The Fifth Season
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment $32.59
You might not expect an Emmy-nominated tastemaker to tell The New York Times, "I want to believe there's a heaven. But I can't not believe there's a hell." Yet that's exactly how Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, summed up his personal philosophy in 2011. The quote should not surprise anyone familiar with the show, which makes its final, infernal push Sunday night.
For four and a half seasons, Gilligan has told the story of Walter White, a docile chemistry teacher who, after receiving a terminal diagnosis, turns to cooking methamphetamine (crystal meth) to provide for his family. As he develops a taste for the trade, Walt discovers a gift for deception—and self-deception—taking him down a path that turns "Mr. Chips into Scarface," as Gilligan's original pitch put it. Filter that premise through the severity of Cormac McCarthy and the dry humor of the Coen Brothers, and you're in for a compelling ride.
AMC debuted Breaking Bad when the cable network was fresh off the success of their first foray into original programming, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad appeared to be cast from the same mold. These were television series as serialized novels, exploring both grand visions and intimate corners of characters' inner and outer lives.
It's no coincidence that the revitalized format features antiheroes like Tony Soprano and Don Draper. The extended run time lends itself to complicated protagonists, whose humanity is never in question but whose behavior keeps viewers guessing. As both perpetrators and victims, they can be reprehensible one moment, vulnerable the next, capable of premeditated malice and violence as well as tenderness and charity.
Breaking Bad may be the apogee of this pattern. When we first meet him, Walt is a fairly decent guy, a bit sullen and overproud, but by no means the villain he is by the end of season four. Breaking Bad embraces the same loosely biblical anthropology as its predecessors: people as neither strictly good nor evil but dual-natured and often in conflict with themselves. And like Mad Men, Breaking Bad works as a commentary on the illusions of the self-made man. In both cases, what looks like an ascent (increased power, wealth, and confidence) is in fact the opposite.
But where Mad Men can play on the charms of postwar Manhattan, Breaking Bad looks to the blighted vistas of present-day Albuquerque and the surrounding desert. As such, it is a far less benign (and popular) affair. If, as critic Daniel Mendelsohn has suggested, Mad Men is partly interested in depicting boomers' parents to elicit sympathy and even forgiveness, Breaking Bad offers no such mercy.
Instead, the show runs on a frightening moral logic: No one gets away with anything. Breaking Bad revolves around the least fashionable concept imaginable: wrath. It offers something quite different from the fatalism of The Wire, where things start off ugly and pretty much stay that way. In Breaking Bad, things get steadily worse.
The further Walt "advances" in his new career, the more obstacles he overcomes, the more he believes himself to be invincible, and the deeper he descends into a hell of his own making. When he tries to manage his crimes, he begets worse crimes. Intoxicated on the fumes of self-righteousness, Walt consistently mistakes atrocities for victories. And each time, we come to detest his rationalizations a little bit more—especially how he relegates right and wrong to the realm of less evolved, less scientific minds.