Breaking Bad and 3 Lessons in Morality
((Mostly) Spoiler Free)
Let’s get the review out of the way first: Breaking Bad is the best show on television right now. When it wraps, I may conclude that it is one of the best shows of all time, but I’ll resist waxing hyperbolic now for the sake of some credibility. Suffice it to say, this is a show that warrants your attention both for its value as entertainment and as a serious examination of real moral issues. Beyond that, even, the show offers (at least) three distinct moral lessons that are–conservatives would do well to take note of this fact–not spoon-fed to the audience but nonetheless undeniable. So in a mostly spoiler-free fashion, let’s look at these lessons.
The first lesson of the story is that everything has a consequence. In a pendulum swing against the do-over-daily sitcom formula where no deed ever has lasting effect (except for the rare Flander’s wife), Breaking Bad is true to its Chemistry-laden theme and lets no action pass without an equal and opposite reaction. This is not only rare in serialized storytelling but a truly important moral lesson to viewers inundated with the opposite philosophy. Evil deeds do corrupt the world and corrupt the doers. This is apparent in lead character Walter White’s journey.
This lesson expands with each season. Actions, we’re taught, have consequences beyond what one can measure and understand. This is strikingly clear in the third season finale (shh, no big spoilers here) but frequently the cold open teaches us this fact via a basic formula: a character we haven’t met, a place we don’t recognize, a grim and grave event unfolds. We the viewer have learned that these moments, some truly horrifying, are all the trickle-down, domino effect of the actions of one man–a chemistry teacher in Albuquerque. That is a profound lesson with more subtle moral implications as well as radical, societal considerations.
Alternatively, consider Ocean’s 11, where a gang of bank robbers–yes, criminals, for all their suave, sophistication and charm–get away with their crime as heroes, and the world keeps flowing as if nothing ever happened. Yet consider what would realistically be the case: the guards who failed to stop them lose their jobs, their families starve and suffer. Insurance premiums rise after the loss is recouped. Police dedicate man hours to hunting the criminals. Other criminals are emboldened. Etc., etc. These effects are ever-present in Breaking Bad.
Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord. This does not equate to justice, and that much is clear in the show. The worst crimes go unpunished, criminality seems to thrive and even excel, but others pay their price. This is the second lesson: bad guys do not necessarily get what they deserve. Where law enforcement (most notably represented in Breaking Bad by Walter’s brother-in-law DEA agent) cannot bring justice, the savagery of criminality may, but never necessarily. When Walter’s fear of justice is gone, he revels in his acts and rejoices in his empire. Where other crime shows might plaster the “bad guys get what’s coming to them” message plastered into the finale of each 42 minute episode, Breaking Bad‘s every moment is wrought with a tone so ominous we feel in our veins the gravity of Walter’s crimes. I argue that Breaking Bad‘s method is far more effective–the viewer ends each episode unable to shrug off the sense of looming consequence.
What Breaking Bad offers that few other shows have ever is the lasting corruption of a character by his choices and actions. Walter White crumbles on the inside as his ego is fueled by the success of his crimes. It is not the outside world that brings him to justice (so far), but we are convinced that the cost to his family, his life, his soul is more significant, anyway. Regardless of what the DEA or courts might ever have say about it, Walter White has lost his own life.
Sin begets sin. This is the third lesson. Walter’s criminal choices grow easier at an exponential rate, we see in him an ego-fueled engine that must keep driving forward. It isn’t a desire for wealth and power that keeps Walter driving to hell, but his unwillingness to embrace humility. We see this represented painfully in his family life, shockingly in his meth business. He is alacritous toward wrongdoing and then addicted to self-indulgence and ego. Walter frequently has a way out, but his ego has grown step by step with his criminal success and he cannot take the path to redemption.
Show creator Vince Gilligan was raised Catholic, and it’s impossible to deny that his native religion plays into the show’s core principles and themes. Viewers might not think to utter the word “sin” when describing Walt’s actions, but that is, absolutely, what Breaking Bad is about. Walt’s crimes do not necessarily bear him legal or lethal consequences (we’ll see when the final 8 episodes hit later this year), but we do see the subtle, deep, soul-eroding consequence that comes from his breaking from good–or at least decent–to bad, in fact evil.
Gilligan himself has offered in another interview that “I like to build toward something that is inevitable.” That inevitability, however, may or may not turn out to be a temporal inevitability. As it stands, the show does not necessitate a certain end for our lead character because we already can see inside him, and in his family and his home, that the inevitable is present: he’s destroyed and is destroying himself. The wages of Walt’s sin may not be, in other words, physical death, they may be spiritual death. I wager that the audience would accept such an end to the show, and that is a truly remarkable feat in modern fiction.
The effects of this orthodox-laden storytelling are already appearing: even the Huffington Post, in their interview/article about the show, ended up writing about sin, souls and religion.
This, conservatives, is how you do conservative art right. Dissolving corpses, gang shootouts, drug use–everything the bloodthirsty audience wants but all of it wrapped around a clear and distinct set of moral principles that do not oversaturate the show but are nonetheless undeniable.