The morality of Breaking Bad

So, it’s now over.  AMC’s Breaking Bad has concluded its run, told its story, run its course.  We know what happened.

I thought the final episode was stunning; sat with my son and his roommate through the whole thing, barely able to breathe.  And this morning, checked out the reviews, which were typically all over the map.  And plenteous. found it necessary to publish, like, five; Huffpo had to struggle along with four.  The main complaint seemed to be that it tied everything up too neatly; that it offered a narrative closure that critics found overly . . . tidy. But the show has been built on beginning/middle/end narrative threads from the beginning. That’s been the pattern: Walter finds himself in trouble, thinks the problem through, comes up with a solution (usually one breathtakingly inventive), and implements a plan.  And gets away with murder.

And there’s the crux.  What about morality? What is the moral code of this television series, the moral vision, what moral conclusions does it draw, or are we to draw?  It’s a show about a decent, ordinary high school teacher who becomes in turn a meth cook, a drug kingpin, a Dillinger-esque folk hero.  In the final episode, Walter White ties up every loose end.  He reconciles with Skyler, gets a small fortune to Walter Jr., rescues Jesse, kills both the neo-Nazis and the sociopathic businesswoman they’re in bed with.  And lies down to die in the joyful sterility of the meth lab he created.  Having killed all the bad people.

To some extent, I suppose, we could plot it all out on a continuum.  The one unambiguously good character, the character who really never deviates from his own essential moral purity, is Flynn, Walt Jr., Walt’s son. Crippled with cerebral palsy (as is RJ Mitte, the actor who plays him), Flynn’s innocence and kindness and compassion never fades.  He does reject Walt, when he thinks his Dad has become a monster, but that’s also part of his innocence–Dad killed Uncle Hank, and that’s not forgiveable.  The one unambiguously evil character on the show isn’t Walt, I think, but Todd (which breaks my heart, because I remember Jesse Plemons from Friday Night Lights, where he was Landry, Matt Saracen’s loyal and generous friend).  Right square in the middle of the continuum, the most ambiguous character on the show–Skyler, Walt’s wife, who can’t bring herself to not help him, but hates herself for it.  (By the end, it’s as though her self-contempt has hollowed her out entirely).  Plot the rest of them in.  Hank’s fairly close to the Flynn end of the continuum, and Lydia right over there on the left with sociopathic Todd.  And meanwhile, Jesse never stops moving.  He’s breaking too.

I would like to suggest, however, that Breaking Bad is neither moral or immoral nor amoral, but rather an extended meditation on morality, on choices and consequences and a whole array of moral possibilities and choices, not choosing between then, but offering them for our contemplation and consideration.  Letting us make up our own minds.

The show is called Breaking Bad, and that brilliant title also captures its essence.  Walter White is faced, in nearly episode, with a quandary.  ‘I have this thing I’m trying to accomplish. I face this barrier.  Absent moral considerations, what’s the best way out?’  Far too often, the best solution, possibly the only solution, is to kill someone.  So Walter does, and his conscience (and he does have one) doesn’t bother him most of the time, because he doesn’t see himself as having viable alternatives.

(And yet, is Walter really that calculating?  Isn’t he really pretty lucky?  Don’t desperately needed car keys just fall in his lap?  Isn’t Breaking Bad also about happenstance, accident, bizarre coincidence?  Isn’t it a series about kids who show up inopportunely on their motorcycles where they have no business being; isn’t it a show about planes randomly falling from the sky?  Is it to Walter’s credit that Todd happens to have a murderous uncle with still-in-prison contacts, or that Saul just happens to know a guy who can make people disappear, a sort of privatized Witness Protection Program?)

And Walt is hardly a human computer, emotion-less and endlessly rational.  One of our earliest indelible images of the man is Walt, in a shirt and tighty-whiteys standing in the middle of a highway, handgun in hand, about to shoot it out with the Highway Patrol.  One meme that even Saturday Night Live utilized is that Obamacare would have solved all of Walt’s problems.  He has cancer; his crappy public-employees-insurance won’t pay for the kind of care that might keep him alive, so he has to find a new and lucrative revenue stream or he’ll die.  So he has no choice except to cook meth.

I support Obamacare, but that argument doesn’t work: Walt has rich friends who offer to pay for his care.  Gretchen and Elliot, his former partners at Gray Matter, the very very successful bio-tech firm he and Elliot co-founded.  The history there is murky–Gretchen was once a lab assistant, and she and Walt were having an affair; when he left her, she married Elliot, and the company that bought Walt out for five grand is now worth billions–but they are all ostensibly friends, and they have the means to pay for any cancer treatments Walt wants.  And offer to do it.

Walt refuses, and then lies to Skyler about it, because deep down, he’s a bitter, angry, resentful man.  Or is that really it?  Maybe instead, he cooks meth because he likes it, he likes feeling in-charge of his own destiny, self-sufficient and strong.  In one of the most wrenching scenes in the show, Walt calls Skyler and verbally abuses her in the most disgusting and horrible way.  Anna Gunn, as Skyler, is amazing in that scene; just sits there, white-knuckled on the phone, and takes it.  But later, in a conversation with Saul, it seems that this moment of gratuitous abuse is calculated–Walt knew the cops would be listening in, and by abusing her on the phone, he takes some of the legal pressure off her.  Calculating, or genuinely abusive?
Or both.

In the final episode, there’s a lovely scene between Walt and Skyler, in which, for the first time in the series, he tells her the truth. He liked being Heisenberg. He liked the power. And for the first time, Skyler can breathe. But in that same scene, he also lies to her. He tells her he’s spent all the money. So the truth is meant to sell the lie, because he wants her and Walt Jr. to accept the money. A lovely scene of reconciliation and communication is also a scene of duplicity and manipulation. Both/and. Walt wants to support his family. He also wants them to do as they’re told.  So it ends up being a show about morality, but about the complexities and ambiguities of it, about morality as gray matter.

As the show went on, I began to notice how sterile the world of meth-dealing seemed to be.  Crystal meth is a highly addictive drug after all, exceedingly dangerous.  So why, when contemplating Walt’s moral choices, don’t see the human tragedy meth causes.  But again, we have seen that earlier in the show.  In the early days, when Walt and Jesse were retailing their meth through, (among others presumably), Badger and Skinny Pete, we saw plenty of ugliness and despair. Remember Wendy?  A meth whore character from Season Three, played wonderfully by Julia Minesci (an actress who in real life runs marathons; the opposite of the skinny, dying woman she plays).  Wendy’s all skin lesions and rotting teeth, ducking in and out of men’s cars.  I know a lot of law enforcement officers who think the show glorifies the meth trade, and to some extent it does–Walt makes a boat-load of money, and doesn’t actually get caught.  And gets to pass some of it on to his kids.  But Wendy the Meth Whore is unforgettable–that’s where meth leads.

And the murders Walt commits are horrific–every time, they’re horrific.  Check this out.  And using the Nat King Cole version of ‘Pick Myself Up’ to accompany the scene heightens the horror of it.  After that scene, our relationship with Walt changes, just as our relationship with Jesse changes after he murders Gale.  But for Jesse, that’s his turning point, the moment at which he becomes so sickened with self-loathing he begins to change, to Break Good.  For Walt, murdering all those guys in prison (Mike’s guys, we’re reminded), that’s who he always was.  The number’s just a little higher.

So Breaking Bad is not a show that asks ‘is dealing meth bad,’ or ‘is murder morally wrong.’  Of course cooking and dealing meth is a moral abomination, and the show depicts it.  Of course murder is horrific and wrong.  Breaking Bad is rather a show that asks ‘if we decide to cook meth, and eventually to murder, how much of our humanity do we retain?  Once we break bad, how possible does redemption become?  Or are we, in the end, reduced to sheer vengeance?

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