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Why We Need Breaking Bad
Image: Lewis Jacobs / AMC

"We had money . . . why did we have to have the world's [worst] RV?"
"Inertia?"
Jesse & Walt, "Gliding Over All," Breaking Bad

Vince Gilligan is from the South, say profiles of the Breaking Bad creator. He cares about morality; he believes in karma and hell; he is "TV's first red-state auteur" (from a 2011 New York Times piece).

"I find atheism just as hard to get my head around as fundamental Christianity," says a Gilligan quote from the same article. "Because if there is no such thing as cosmic justice, what's the point of being good?" In the eyes of his magazine-ordained biographers, Gilligan is not your typical tree-hugging pansy who wants everyone to have a happy ending. What these articles hope to prove is something about the nature of the show itself—but what the quotes actually show is that Gilligan isn't going for escape, but replication: mimesis rather than catharsis, that sort of thing.

In short: what we see on Breaking Bad is the way Gilligan thinks life works, or at least how it should work. And because of that, Breaking Bad is perhaps the most important thing on television right now.

For the uninitiated, here's the show's setup: Walter White is a poor and ridiculously overqualified high-school chemistry teacher with a palsied son and a surprise baby on the way. Then, he is diagnosed with lung cancer. Teaming up with his old student Jesse Pinkman, Walt cooks methamphetamine in an RV meth lab, in the hopes of saving up enough money to provide for his family before he dies.

But Walt doesn't die of cancer. His treatments seem to cure it, or at least put it in a remission deep enough to make us viewers forget about it. Walt comes to the point where he could stop making meth—and continues, ostensibly in service of his family. Then he comes to the juncture again, and chooses to cook meth still, with all the violence and secrecy and heartbreak that it entails. Again and again, Walt is offered opportunities to go back to a normal life, to stop being an outlaw, and at every possible point, he declines. His story is the ur-example of someone whose life continues to go downhill.

Yet, there are no hills in New Mexico, at least not in Gilligan's eyes. The action is framed against the harsh empty desert landscapes of New Mexico, flat and expansive and empty and dead. Nothing accelerates here, Gilligan means to tell us. Walt's foot is on the gas, and he put it there. Inertia is for physics, but Walt chooses to be who he becomes.

The temptation, especially with a show as morally pronounced as Breaking Bad, is to set the moral threshold to mirror the actions on-screen—so that as long as you don't murder anyone (like Walt has) and don't cook meth (like Walt has) and don't arrange for the murders of others (like Walt has), and so on, and so forth—so long as you're not that guy, then whatever moral lesson the show is trying to teach is one from which you, the viewer, are exempt. It's tempting to frame it so that bad things happen to bad people (like that, pointing at the TV), not good people like us. To make it a fairy tale.

If Breaking Bad is congratulatory, then it's harmless. Its message is essentially de-clawed. What Walt has done has made him evil, you could think. Don't do those things, and you won't be evil.

But if Breaking Bad is a good show (and I, among many others, allege that it's one of the best), then it can't be harmless, or safe, or congratulatory. It is none of those things, because the show's not just telling us a story about a good man who became bad, but a story about the way the world works. It is teaching us about what it means to choose things, to become who we are, to be a human being.

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Why We Need Breaking Bad