As the astonishing TV show “Breaking Bad” reaches its conclusion, there have been many fine efforts to dissect the morality and philosophy of the show, with Jonah Goldberg’s lengthy dissertation at National Review a standout. It’s a testament to the brilliant writing and acting on the show to find so much thoughtful commentary. The main character, Walter White – as masterfully portrayed by Bryan Cranston – will be an enduring pop-culture icon of hubris, moral arrogance, and tragedy. Fiction is the perpetual rediscovery of mythology – from ancient Greece, through Shakespeare, into the suburbs of New Mexico, where we find a man who mistakenly believed he could reformulate his life with a careful measure of evil. “Breaking Bad” tells an important and relevant story about the triumph of righteousness over competence.
The protagonist of “Breaking Bad” is not an incompetent man. Walter White is a chemistry teacher who discovers he has terminal lung cancer, despite being a nonsmoker. He fears that the cost of his treatment will bankrupt his family – he’ll die and leave them nothing except a mountain of debt. After he learns one of his former students is a drug dealer, and listens to his DEA agent brother-in-law talk about the mountains of cash to be made in the meth trade, Walter decides to use his enormous chemistry skills to become a meth cook. He creates the purest drug anyone has ever seen, parlaying his skills into a vast and deadly criminal empire. This leads to alternately hilarious and horrifying adventures that must be seen to be believed, and ultimately to soul-shattering tragedy for everyone in Walter’s life.
Every step of the way, Walter justifies his crimes by telling himself it’s all for his family – his wife, a son with cerebral palsy, and later a baby daughter. His family is the north star he sails by… long after the point where he’s made enough money to take care of them many times over, enough money to fill huge barrels he buries in the desert, so much money that there is no practical way to spend it.
There are a number of crucial moments in the series when Walter is clearly motivated by his own ego – many times when he could have taken an off-ramp from the road to doom, but kept his hands steady on the wheel out of pride. Even his concern for his family is driven partly by self-regard, a determination that his wife and children, his extended family, indeed all the world should know that Walter White Took Care of Things before he died. He even turns away from an offer of charity that a lesser ego could also justify as money properly owed to him from a long-ago, honest business venture. Walter is determined that fate shall be written by his hand alone.
But he never really sees that flaw in himself, quickly forgetting any glimpse of it he might catch. He always goes back to his family, all the way through the final episodes when everything has gone sour, bodies have hit the floor, and he stands revealed as a monster. He’s still loudly declaring, to both himself and the world, that he did everything for his family when he’s a broken man, a fugitive tearfully begging his son to accept some little bit of the illegal cash he amassed as a legacy. Time and again he begs his increasingly horrified family, “Don’t let it all be for nothing.”
Of course, all the while, Walter White is destroying his family, tearing them apart down the roots of their very souls. His meth-cooking partner eventually refers to him as the Devil, but he doesn’t know the half of it. The White family is placed in terrifying physical danger, their futures are destroyed as they become key figures in a massive federal investigation, and they break under the weight of the moral burden they are forced to carry as accomplices to his crimes. Hell itself would be hard-pressed to devise worse torment for them. Despite all of his book smarts and criminal cunning, Walter White is a profoundly incompetent husband and father. His brilliant plan for taking care of his loved ones is an unholy nightmare they can’t escape from.
In other words, it’s a plan forced upon the White family for “their own good” by an arrogant executive decision they cannot repeal. Sound familiar?
Righteousness has a way of trumping competence, especially since self-righteous people are prone to arrogance. They identify themselves with the noble causes they claim to serve. Criticism of them becomes vandalism of the Cause, an attack on the poor souls they champion.
There is no room for debate against the righteous, only war. There have been a number of disturbing stories lately about “tolerant” liberals wishing death not just on their opponents, but upon their children. The communications chair of the Sacramento Democrats used Twitter to tell the senior communications adviser to Senator Ted Cruz that he wanted her children to “die from debilitating, painful and incurable diseases” because her boss was working against ObamaCare. A professor at the University of Kansas likewise hoped that the children of National Rifle Association members would be killed in the next mass shooting, in the wake of the Washington Navy Yard horror, which could not possibly have had anything less to do with the NRA – as if such logical details matter to a mind blasted with sheer hatred.
Hatred is always the result when arrogant people are convinced that only villains would refuse to obey their commands. As the moral imperative for centralized power grows, its acolytes are less concerned with competence and results. All that matters is the growth of the State. Victory is declared when power is taken. What the State actually does with that power is a footnote. What matters are the huge barrels of money buried in the desert, not the actual fortunes of the family they were supposedly filled to benefit.
These moralistic crusades can grow into massive disasters after humble beginnings. There has been much astonishment this week over a recently-uncovered story that ObamaCare began as a throwaway line in an Obama speech, a bit of rhetoric as thoughtless as his “red line” warning on Syrian chemical weapons. “We needed something to say,” an adviser admitted. “I can’t tell you how little thought was given to that, other than it sounded good. So they just kind of hatched it on their own. It just happened. It wasn’t a deep strategic conversation.”
Well, of course it wasn’t. It didn’t have to be. All that mattered to Obama was amassing power: spending money, asserting the authority of the State, creating a lasting dependency program that would hook the middle class on subsidies, creating government jobs. Making it difficult to repeal or defund was far more important to the Affordable Care Act’s designers than anything pertaining to affordability or care. It’s a moral crusade, not a logical attempt to address a social issue. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be such violent opposition to trying something different, now that we know the Affordable Care Act doesn’t work.
Conflict and division are the purest sources of political power. There’s no better way to keep people in line, happily ignorant of your failures, than promising to smite their hated enemies. No defender of Big Government can get through a speech these days without fingering some shadowy group of sinister, selfish American citizens who need to suffer financial, cultural, or political punishment. When that’s the objective of a crusade, there is little concern for the competence of the crusaders. All that matters is showing respect to the titans striding across our landscape, showing confiscated money upon the deserving and crushing the unworthy beneath their heel. Don’t you dare hold them accountable for what they do, or challenging the wisdom of giving them the power they demand. It’s not really about you anyway, no matter how often they insist they act in your name, conceiving every debacle for your benefit.