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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.

And so I think it's meaningless to talk about how Breaking Bad "envisions" or "captures" or "discusses" or whatevers morality without also discussing what the show tries to teach us about being alive, or just being.

There's a special strain of immaturity that goes like this: "When something's serious, I'll take it seriously. But if something isn't a big deal, it doesn't matter how I act; and furthermore, why would I tire myself out by being responsible if it isn't a big deal?" For example: a friend who makes a habit out of "borrowing" $20 and not paying you back, who expects you to take him seriously when he asks for $2000.

It's the wishful belief in the inverse of the statement that "one who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much." It's the kid who never does homework and then gets As on all his tests, or whose room is a pig-sty except for when it's immaculate, whose entire life is the act of oscillating from extreme irresponsibility to responsibility, where achieving the latter means you don't have to be it anymore.

After all, being responsible is hard. And it's easier (and much more impressive) to lift a very heavy weight once instead of holding onto something light for a long time.

Television, more than any other medium, wants to reinforce this message. We see hero after television hero stick in the same pattern: they're lazy, and underachieving, until they're pressured to be amazing. And then as soon as they try, they're instantly the best/smartest/most powerful/most adept in the room at whatever the given task is. But as soon as responsibility isn't required of them, they retreat back into their own tormentedness, or angst, or immaturity, or whatever. This is Dr. House choosing to play Gameboy while his patient suffers renal failure, because he already knows the cure. Characters like this don't change—whatever dynamism they have isn't growth, but simply the vacillation from responsible crest to irresponsible trough, back and forth but never breaking out of the mold.

You'll notice that this (1) is the opposite of how narratives are supposed to work (that is, characters are supposed to grow in a story) and (2) perfectly suits television, as a medium.

After all, TV needs to stay the same. The TV you like today needs to be the TV you like tomorrow, especially when so many cable networks are losing wars of attrition to sites like Hulu and Netflix and third-runner-up Redbox and the like.

But at the same time, stagnation kills television shows. Viewers need to think (or alternatively, be tricked into thinking via narrative sleight-of-hand) that characters are changing and growing, because that's what we want—to watch "our friends" (and occasionally our Friends) change and grow and do all the malleable character-shaping that we are ourselves sacrificing so that we can watch the show (in what is, I believe, a pretty transparent vicious circle).

So TV shows enter into a feedback loop of bait-and-release. But over time, what this teaches us as viewers to think is this: that there is a cleanly delineated distinction between choices and CHOICES, that there are things that are important day-to-day (but are totally inconsequential) and then, totally separately, CHOICES that will have an immense impact on the rest of your life.

Choices aren't important because they don't reflect on you. They're decisions that come from inside your character and have a consequence that's exclusively external to the self. CHOICES, however, are presented to you in a Red Pill/Blue Pill dichotomy, reminiscent of Jesus' temptation in the desert. The CHOICE here is not one that is born out of your character, but one that defines it, outside-in, and shapes who you are.

On TV, choices happen every episode, and are frequently the engine that drives a show's plot; in contrast, CHOICES happen mostly during season finales, and during show finales—only happen when the narrative status quo of the show can be changed without worry of alienating the viewer watching at home. And if we go back to the assumption that TV is pedagogical, that (recalling Marshall McLuhan) the medium is the message—then all this reinforces the kind of immature thinking described earlier.

We watch TV enough and actually start to believe that what we do only matters when we choose to make it mean something—or, for a more disenfranchising flavor, that what we do only matters when we're given a choice. We are, as volitional beings, demoted from supreme choice, down to just one or two layers of it. Life is reduced to punching in Y/N on a keyboard and letting things play out around us (just like they do on TV). Viewers are formally objectified as statistics, pieces of ad revenue, portions of profit, and we respond in turn like objects, and we sit, and listen, and wait to be told when we can choose.

I think Breaking Bad is a great show because it rejects this line of thinking, because its running time is a five-season rebuttal to the idea that there are choices that matter and choices that don't. Walt's pride at a dinner table is ultimately as important to the villain he becomes as his murder, his lying as corruptive as his violence. In Gilligan's eyes, there's no differentiating between Walt's pride and his rage and his enviousness and his determination to succeed at all costs, to be the Kingpin, the only one. Telling the story of how Walt chose to become the villain takes every minute of all 67 episodes aired so far.

You do not accidentally end up a drug kingpin, says the show. And the story is a five season long a fortiori argument whose conclusion is that you, viewer, also have a choice, in what to watch, or say, in how to treat people, in who to be. To echo James K.A. Smith, there are very few, if any, "morally neutral" practices. We get shaped by the things we do, or don't do, even unintentionally, even if you're not paying attention.

Breaking Bad echoes that not only in content, but in form. In the critical importance of little decisions (Walt's wined-up boasting in front of Hank; his lying to his wife, Skyler; Marie's shoplifting; Hank's pride and arrogance affecting his job) that all compound in the direction of calamity.

"I just feel like I never had a choice in any of this," Walt argues early on in season one, after he's declined cancer treatment. "I want a say, for once." When you first watch the scene, not knowing the kind of person Walt is going to choose to be, it's a poignant moment. Walt wants to spend his last months with his wife on his own terms, rather than as a powerless and weak and hollowed out shell of who he used to be.

But as flashbacks inform the choices Walt made in the past, and as time and time again Walt refuses to stop cooking meth, to stop feeding his own pride, the scene is recontextualized as an ironic echo—as just another excuse for Walt's behavior. The paradox central to Walt's nature is that if you deny him a choice, he becomes furious. Because of this, most every conflict in the show stems from the interplay of Walt's staggering intelligence and his equally impressive capacity for stupid, pride-motivated decisions.

But if you empower Walt, when he comes into real responsibility, he shirks it, he self-sabotages; he pretends he doesn't have a choice, or never did have a choice. He becomes paranoid, and self-aggrandizing, and manipulative, until he's relaxed from the tension of having responsibility—and as soon as that happens, he's out looking for it again.

When all Walt has are choices, he demands a CHOICE; and as soon as it is presented to him, as soon as the danger of responsibility is there and real and able to hurt him, he denies it, labels it meaningless, and continues to victimize himself.

Walter is us. And that is a dangerous message, and it hurts. It hurts to be awakened to choices you didn't know you were failing to make, or making poorly. It is always, always easier to deny choice than to accept it, to want to brush things off until it's really important, until it's a choice, and then perform well, and go back to the status quo of being a-volitional. We want to be fully ourselves already, and for our actions to be extrinsic, non-reflective. To keep separate who we are, our identities, and what we do in our everyday life.

But that's not what it means to have character. And it's not what it means to be a human being, created to shift and change dynamically. The tragedy of Walter White makes for a great narrative, and for really compelling TV. But the lesson of Breaking Bad is invaluable, especially in a culture like ours, that's so allergic to prescriptive statements, to generalizations that aren't platitudes, to Truth Claims about the nature of humanity. Breaking Bad doesn't just make those claims—it does it with gusto. It confronts you with the ugliness of humanity like a Flannery O'Connor story, begging you to look and to look away, to see the outer extreme of an idea so that you'll kick back and respond and fight with it, because engaging is just as much of a choice as anything else.

When Breaking Bad returns for its final episodes on August 11th, you should watch it. It inoculates you against the idea that you don't matter, or that you're not responsible for your choices. And after you watch it, when broadcast TV tries to sell you on your own powerlessness, you can feel it ring false in your mind. Because once you're conditioned to recognize your own choice, recognize that we as humans have choices, well, it's hard to go back. And you owe yourself a shot.

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