Today, Breaking Bad, the hit AMC drama, returns for its final eight episodes.
It’s been said (rightly in my opinion), that for the sheer quality of the best shows, we’ve been living in the Golden Age of television. (If you pay attention to reality television, you’d be forgiven for thinking we’ve blown past the decline and straight into the fall of the medium.)
Even if you’ve been living under a rock (or at least without television or a Netflix subscription) for the last ten years, you’re probably at least aware of some of the best of these shows: The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad. And you’ve probably heard of at least some of the second tier of very good shows: The Larry Sanders Show, Battlestar Gallactica, Dexter, Six Feet Under, Friday Night Lights, Arrested Development, and on and on.
For all the good television that has been produced, Breaking Bad is worth paying attention to because it has managed to do what no other television show I’m aware of has: provide a compelling and accurate meditation on the nature of evil.
For those of you not yet familiar with the storyline, the show opens by introducing a meek, dorky, broke, fifty-year-old high school science teacher, Walter White. He has a life he loves, a handicapped teenage son, and appears content, if a little bit pathetic. In the first episode, he receives two pieces of news: one, his wife is pregnant; two, he has terminal lung cancer, with perhaps just months to live.
Without giving too much away, his response is to utilize his chemistry skills and begin cooking meth with his former student, Jesse, in a desperate effort to leave a financial legacy that will take care of his family after he dies.
The intriguing question we’re asked is this: can Walter White, this genuinely good, mild, meek teacher “break bad” and overcome his character to do the evil this path requires?
And here is where Breaking Bad departs from every other television show I’m aware of. Ordinarily, the audience is presented with characters that are fully formed. You know early on who are the bad guys and who are the good guys. And within the moral context of the show (the Sopranos is a world of bad people, but we know which ones to root for), the good guys stay good and the bad guys remain bad. These shows take us on a journey, to be sure, but it’s driven by the plot, by what happens to the characters.
Breaking Bad, by contrast, is the reverse. The plot is driven by the choices its characters make. At each juncture, they can choose one path or another. Events aren’t happening to them; they’re driving events.
And while Walter White and his family are introduced to us in a way that can’t help but earn our sympathy—pregnant! cancer! terminal!—every step of the way, the evil Walter White commits is unflinchingly, undeniably, horrific. And we’re left to ask, what has become of the high school teacher we met just a year ago (in the timeline of the show)? And what will become of him?
[Warning. Video below contains some spoilers.]
A Path Diverged …
Breaking Bad’s plot is predicated on philosophical insights into the nature of evil.
At its root, Breaking Bad seems to say, evil is a choice. We’re born neither unambiguously good nor unambiguously bad. We have agency. When presented with two paths, it’s on us to choose: do we take the path of goodness, or do we take a path that descends into evil? Our character isn’t fixed; it doesn’t make those choices for us. Indeed, it’s the reverse: the choices we make shape our character. Anything is possible. The reason the show creates so much suspense is because we’re never certain of either the good or the evil that any character is capable of. And we’re on the edge of our seats waiting to see what choice they will make and what consequences that choice will have.
A Power of Its Own
Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find another claim about the nature of evil woven throughout Breaking Bad. Evil is like a cancer. You can’t control it. It has a logic and a force all its own that can metastasize and contaminate even the healthiest of bodies.
One reason for this is the insatiable nature of appetite. Walter White begins with modest ambitions. A little money to take care of his family. But get a taste of the profits that are possible, and the goal posts begin to shift, and like the addictive product he manufactures, he’ll bear almost any moral or legal risk to get more.
Another reason evil has a force of its own is that everyone is potentially corruptible. We may not be born good or evil, but we all have the capacity for good or evil within us. Walter’s wife, Skyler, begins the show with an even surer moral compass. She resists most of the temptations Walter’s newfound wealth offers. She even kicks him out of the house. And yet, a small compromise motivated by her love of family and good character, takes her too down a path where more and greater evils are required to preserve her good reputation.
Redemption is Possible
Ironically, the person in Breaking Bad with perhaps the most sure moral instincts and heaviest conscience is Jesse, Walter’s former student and his partner in meth. More than any other character, his response at each juncture is not what will pragmatically give us success, but rather what is the good choice, the morally correct one?
Jesse is buffeted by evil; he can’t escape the forces Walter unleashed. And so much of what he experiences happens to him, as the unanticipated outcome of the forces he helped set in motion.
But his desire to choose the good path persists. And while it’s unclear whether he will successfully escape the life he’s lived, the hope not just that he’ll be saved, but that along the way he’ll save others, offers the audience tantalizing hope in a place they least expect to find it.
Breaking Bad is an incredibly rich show, a dramatic tour de force. There’s much more we can discuss. But I’ll leave you with this: if you haven’t seen Breaking Bad, start with Episode 1, Season 1 and don’t stop watching until you’re done (Netflix makes it incredibly easy to do that.) And once you do, or if you’re already a fan of the show, tune in to the last episodes starting tonight and look beneath the plot twists to explore the rich philosophical foundations of this compelling drama.