According to the mighty chatterbox of the media, the celebrated "serial drama" Breaking Bad is about a good man who turns into a villain—"Mr. Chips becomes Scarface," to quote the original pitch of the show's creator, Vince Gilligan. During the six years that Breaking Bad was airing on the cable channel AMC, a few enterprising critics asked whether this fabled pitch had anything to do with the actual show that resulted. But the question got lost in the chatter.
Now, however, the media chatterbox has moved on to other topics, and Breaking Bad has joined the shelf of classic TV shows whose earning power rests more on reputation than buzz. So it's a good time to revisit the question. And the answer is no, Breaking Bad is not about Mr. Chips turning into Scarface.
It is frequently claimed that the serial drama is a worthy successor to the 19th-century novel. But there's a big difference. Most 19th-century novels come to a morally satisfying conclusion, while most serial dramas do not. Instead, the typical serial drama is designed to stay on the air as long as possible, so after the first season or two the writers begin to recycle the same formulas in ever more bizarre ways (to camouflage the recycling) until eventually the show becomes a caricature of itself.
Breaking Bad does not do this. Like other serial dramas, it was not all mapped out from the beginning. Gilligan and his team freely admit that a lot of what they did was improvisation. But in a recently released interview Gilligan also stated that, unlike serial dramas that "continue onward for an open-ended amount of time," Breaking Bad "was designed...to be closed-ended." That is, instead of "keeping its characters in a self-imposed stasis," it was meant to take them "from point A...to point Z" and then stop.
It is here, in this movement from point A to point Z, that Breaking Bad departs most drastically from the typical serial drama. It doesn't recycle itself into self-caricature, and neither does it move from a good place (Mr. Chips) to a bad place (Scarface) and stop. What it does is abandon the clichés of today's "edgy" entertainment and move toward a conclusion that manages to be morally satisfying without feeling old-fashioned or moralistic. When you think about it, that's quite an accomplishment.
Beyond Cable TV Clichés
When we first meet Walter White, the main character (played by Bryan Cranston), he is not a beloved pedagogue but a lackluster high-school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who must also work in a car wash because his salary is not enough to support his pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and teenage son Walter Jr. (R.J. Mitte), born with cerebral palsy. White, middle class, fifty years old, Walter is the guy for whom the American Dream is supposed to be working but no longer seems to be.
Yet Walter is no everyday hero, playing by the rules while struggling to make ends meet. Instead, he's a seething mass of resentment hiding behind a mask of smiling submission to everybody's will but his own. This is evident in the classroom, where his students pointedly ignore him; in the car wash, where the owner takes pleasure in making him clean hubcaps; and in the bosom of his family, where he squirms in silent agony while Skyler and her sister Marie treat him like a child, and Walter Jr. directs his filial gaze toward Marie's husband Hank (Dean Norris), a burly DEA agent who clearly considers Walter to be an overeducated wuss.
When Walter is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, both Hank and Elliott (an old friend from grad school who has made billions with a company he started with Walter) offer to pay for upscale care not available through Walter's meager health insurance. Both men are sincere, but money being the obvious measure of masculine success, their generosity rubs salt into Walter's wounded ego. Then Hank happens to mention how much cash was discovered during a recent methamphetamine bust, and Walter glimpses a way out. Teaming up with Jesse (Aaron Paul), a former student who flunked chemistry but knows how to sell meth, Walter puts his knowledge of crystalline structures to work, becoming the finest meth "cook" in the entire Southwest.
In Albuquerque these days, Breaking Bad fans get their sugar rush from the Blue Sky donuts created by the Rebel Donut franchise. These confections, topped with rock candy made to resemble Walter's "blue crystal" meth, are not good for you. But they are preferable to meth, which begins by opening the floodgates of pleasure in the brain and ends by closing them, sometimes permanently. Along with dissolving your teeth, wasting your flesh, and stripping your skin of its luster and elasticity (so you look decades older), meth plunges you into a black depression that can prove devilishly difficult to shake, even when you quit using. It also does permanent damage to your brain's cognitive capacities—in some addicts it produces the symptoms of Parkinson's disease, even psychosis.
One of the least attractive clichés of contemporary entertainment is its flippant attitude toward suffering and evil. This shows up in Breaking Bad's portrayal of meth. Meth-heads appear in the first few episodes of Breaking Bad, but their wretchedness is treated with camp humor. And while Jesse and his pals are frequent users, they keep all their teeth and don't seem any the worse for the wear.
Even less attractive is the gross-out comedy of the sequence in which Walter and Jesse, having killed two rival drug dealers in self-defense, decide to dissolve one of the bodies in hydrofluoric acid. Ignoring Walter's instructions to use a special plastic container, Jesse uses a bathtub, and the whole ungodly mess crashes through the floor. (You probably don't want to know this, but a couple of Berkeley students on the TV show Mythbusters tried this with a pig carcass and reported that hydrofluoric acid isn't strong enough to eat through a bathtub.)
If you gave up on Breaking Bad at this point, I don't blame you. But it's worth returning, because to their credit, Gilligan and his team pulled back from these off-putting clichés and began doing something far deeper, subtler, and more compelling. There is some sleight of hand involved. Along with the rounded characters mentioned so far, Breaking Bad contains a lot of flat characters. Indeed, all five seasons rely heavily on the presence of cartoon villains—or, as Gilligan called them in an unguarded moment, "the bad guys."
In the first season, the bad guys are street-level drug dealers, mostly Latino, selling adulterated meth to mostly Anglo addicts. (This is a bit distorted, since the highest rate of meth addiction in the American Southwest is found among Native Americans, and that problem is never shown.) In the next couple of seasons the bad guys are hit men working for the Juárez Cartel (a "fictional" drug ring that for some reason has the same name and address as the real one). Then, perhaps to correct for racial bias, the show switches to Anglo bad guys, including a leather-jacketed distributor called Declan; a neurotic, globally connected leaner-in named Lydia; and (to drive home the point) a gang of white supremacists led by a meanie named Jack who, unlike his Latino predecessors, is seriously in need of a bath.
Fathers and Sons
It is here, against this backdrop of cardboard villains, that Walter and the other three-dimensional characters struggle with the implications of breaking bad. For Walter that struggle is about reclaiming his lost manhood, and understanding how it came to be lost. Given the importance of this theme, it is striking that Breaking Bad contains so little sex. There are a couple of early scenes in which criminal activity seems to stimulate Walter's libido. But after almost raping Skyler, he's overcome with shame, and that's the last time we see him touch a woman.
Apart from Skyler, none of the female characters are as interesting or compelling as the male. But the real focus of Walter's struggle is not his relationship with Skyler, important though that is. It is his relationship with other men—peers, rivals, and the two young men who look to him for fatherly guidance: his son, Walter Jr., and his surrogate son and junior partner in crime, Jesse.
The theme of fathers and sons could hardly be more important in America today, as more and more young men are growing up without a male parent. But it is rarely treated in popular culture, because the last thing the entertainment industry wants to tell its key demographics, teenagers and women, is that "father knows best." Indeed, today it is well nigh impossible to find a movie, TV show, or popular song in which any older person knows best, least of all a father.
But this is what makes Breaking Bad so compelling. Walter keeps telling himself that the only reason he's cooking meth is to provide for his family. But the deeper he gets into the meth trade, adopting the pseudonym "Heisenberg" and styling himself a legendary drug lord, the greater his estrangement from his family. About halfway through the series, Skyler discovers the truth and to protect her children becomes Walter's reluctant accomplice. She is also a resourceful accomplice. They need a legitimate business to launder Walter's meth proceeds, so she concocts a lie to explain where they got the money to buy the carwash where he used to work. The story is that Walter won the money gambling and is now trying to recover from a gambling addiction.
This is one of many lies that keep Walter's seemingly normal life afloat, and the more there are, the less bearable that life feels. For example, Walter breaks into violent weeping one night, and confesses to Walter Jr. how guilty he feels. Believing his father's only crime to be gambling, Walter Jr. comforts him. The next morning, Walter tells his son to forget the whole incident, because the only memory he has of his own father is of a helpless invalid, and "I don't want that to be the memory you have of me when I'm gone." Because Walter Jr. still knows nothing of his father's real crimes, there's a painful irony in his reply: "Remembering you that way wouldn't be so bad. The bad way to remember you would be the way you've been this whole last year. At least last night you were real."
Here's where Jesse comes in, because while Walter's worst deeds involve Jesse, the same can be said of Walter's best moments. Indeed, the relationship between this surrogate father and son is the heart of the series, because despite their many conflicts, betrayals, and fights, the bond between them is never blighted by the forced cheerfulness or false sentiment so often experienced by Walter Jr. It is real.
Closely related to the theme of fathers and sons is that of the traditional masculine virtues and their place, or lack thereof, in contemporary Western society. James Bowman has written that Breaking Bad deals with the tension between "civilized society," built on the universal values of the Enlightenment; and the "honor culture" of pre-Enlightenment societies, in which men are judged by the courage and loyalty they display in defense of family and tribe.
This argument is compelling when the idea of honor culture is applied to a film like The Godfather. But it is less so when applied to the sadistic leaders of this fictional meth cartel. Likewise, the city of Albuquerque as portrayed in Breaking Bad is less a vision of civilized society than another dysfunctional community like all the others populating cable television. In most of these, all the things that keep American society civilized have been airbrushed out.
For example, there are hundreds of churches in Albuquerque, but the only religious observance depicted in this series is at a shrine in Mexico taken over by the cartel. Another civilizing influence, the law, becomes a travesty in the hands of Walter's attorney, Saul (Bob Odenkirk), whom Jesse describes as "a criminal lawyer, not a criminal lawyer."
Yet even here, Breaking Bad departs from the clichés. For example, there is a moment of high satire when Walter's high school holds an assembly to deal with the trauma of a recent plane crash. Encouraged to express whatever is on her mind, one earnest student asks, "if there's a God and all, why does he allow all those innocent people to die for no reason?"—only to be swiftly cut off by the principal: "Can we just keep it secular, honey?" Saul's satiric barbs are also well aimed. (My favorite is when he interrupts one of Walter's disquisitions on chemistry by saying, "I'm more of a humanities guy.")
Speaking of the humanities, a more accurate pitch for Breaking Bad would have been that Walter White is a latter-day Walter Mitty. For readers born yesterday, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is a short story by James Thurber, first published in the New Yorker in 1939. In his daydreams, the title character is an intrepid naval commander, a master surgeon, a lover on trial for a crime of passion, a pilot taking off amid enemy anti-aircraft cannon, and a stoic prisoner facing a firing squad—anything but what he really is: a sad sack being nagged by his wife while she drags him on boring errands in the boring city of Waterbury, Connecticut.
Ben Stiller recently made a movie of Thurber's story, which seems a futile effort, because the middle-class male in contemporary popular culture no longer fantasizes about heroic deeds. Instead, he dreams of bloodletting and wanton destruction, seen as the only escape from a stultifying existence dominated by bossy women and mindless consumerism. A major template for this stock character is the nameless protagonist of Chuck Palahniuk's 1996 novel, The Fight Club. And in the first few episodes of Breaking Bad, Walter seems a ripe candidate for the Fight Club's Albuquerque chapter.
A Tragedy With a Happy Ending
For some critics, this image of walter as a repressed male longing to walk on the wild side is reinforced in his final encounter with Skyler, when she reminds him of his most pernicious lie—"that you did this for the family"—and he responds by saying, "I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. I was really...I was alive.." But I read the scene differently, because of all that has led up to it—in particular, the judgments of Walter rendered by his three chief antagonists.
First is Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), the head of a major meth empire hidden inside the bright wrapping of a fast-food franchise called Los Pollos Hermanos. With Zen-like focus, Gus devotes himself to a single goal: avenging the death of a friend, probably a lover, murdered before his eyes by the cartel. After achieving this goal Gus walks into a trap set by Walter, but in his dying moment, with half his head blown away, he adjusts his tie with more cool than Walter will ever have.
Next is Mike (Jonathan Banks), a tough ex-cop turned fixer for Gus. Mike sees Walter as a loose cannon, and when Walter kills Gus and tries to take his place as Mike's boss, Mike delivers the withering line: "Just because you shot Jesse James, that don't make you Jesse James." Even more withering are Mike's final words to Walter after being impulsively shot by him. Having led Walter on a chase to the bank of a beautiful sunlit river, Mike listens to Walter's hand-wringing apology then decides he's had enough: "Shut the f--- up and let me die in peace."
Last is Hank, Walter's brother-in-law. White, overweight, balding, given to ethnic slurs, Hank begins as a stock character from contemporary entertainment but then morphs into a heroic figure from an earlier era, when heroes upheld the law. It takes Hank a long time to figure out that Walter is "Heisenberg," but when he does, his pursuit is relentless—until Walter causes them both to be captured by the unwashed Jack and his gang.
Desperate to redeem himself in Hank's eyes, Walter begs Jack not to kill Hank. But soon Walter's begging becomes too craven even for Hank, who is kneeling in the dust with Jack's gun to his head. Telling Walter to stop, Hank delivers the coup de grace to Walter's Heisenberg fantasy: "You're the smartest guy I ever met, and you're too stupid to see he made up his mind ten minutes ago." A moment later Jack fires a bullet into Hank's head, and Walter slumps to the ground, mouth agape in the classic grimace of Greek tragedy.
The 19th-century man of letters William Dean Howells once said, "What the American audience wants is a tragedy with a happy ending." This is not as benighted as it sounds, since tragedy has long had a redemptive dimension. Thus, Walter begins after the death of Hank to come back from the abyss. There are still more betrayals in store, notably of Jesse, whom Walter hands over to Jack. Jack turns Jesse into a virtual slave, cooking meth not for money or even to save his own life, but to keep Jack's gang from murdering a young boy for whom Jesse has a fatherly affection. But that is not the end of the story for Walter and Jesse. Quite the opposite: the last person Walter sees on earth is Jesse, nodding in gratitude for Walter's having managed, after much plotting and by taking a fatal bullet, to save Jesse and free him from Jack's clutches.
The best word for this sequence is aristeia, the ancient Greek term for a warrior's finest moment, when all his physical and mental powers converge in one glorious battle. Walter's aristeia begins with his confession to Skyler, which is just that—a confession. He bares his soul, and with her look of genuine love and respect, he ceases to be the kind of man who must break bad to feel alive. From that point on, the ending of Breaking Bad resembles that of a well-wrought symphony. The guns roar, the bad guys fall, Jesse drives whooping into the sunrise, and the whole thing verges on overkill. But we don't mind, because we are being treated to the sort of point Z we are not supposed to crave but do: a righteous comeuppance.