[Warning: Spoilers to follow]
Where does one begin when talking about Breaking Bad? The Emmy-award winning AMC series, which ended on Sunday night, evolved over the course of its five-season run into a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. Though initially gathering only a small audience, the story of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a chemistry teacher who teams up with a former student to begin cooking meth when he learns he has inoperable cancer, slowly became a global phenomenon.
It may be the best drama ever to air on television. Seemingly everything about it—acting, writing, directing, music, cinematography—was genius.
But the reason for the show’s enduring popularity with critics, and eventual success with television viewers, can be explained in two ways. One is the show’s perception of morality. This may seem odd to say, given the graphic and sometimes devastating violence: children are murdered, prisoners are knived and set on fire, bodies are dissolved in acid.
And yet it is the most moral show on television. Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator, famously said his intention was to “take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface,” and over the course of six years Walter White transformed from a pathetic, resentful loser into a murderous, egomaniacal drug lord.
C. S. Lewis powerfully articulated the Christian teaching that who we become is determined by the choices we make on a daily basis. “Taking your life as a whole,” he wrote, “with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning . . . into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself.”
Walter White’s evolution is practically a case study in how this can happen. In the third episode we see him agonizing over what to do about Krazy-8, a drug dealer he’s imprisoned in someone’s basement. When Walt finally strangles him, after the young man attacks him with a shard of broken plate, he apologizes even in the act of murder with tears in his eyes. Some of that remorse is evident on his face at the end of Season 2 when he watches a woman choke on her own vomit, refusing to intervene to save her life. Yet by the end of the third season when he runs over two dealers (and shoots one of them) to save his partner’s life, and coerces his partner into shooting a fellow chemist, the disintegration of Walt’s personality is almost complete.
Yet the writers play fair. Even in the beginning Walt is not a great person. This becomes obvious on multiple viewings. Pride, hatred, envy, bitterness, and ambition were all present within him, lurking just underneath the surface and awaiting their chance of escape. In adopting the false persona of “Heisenberg,” Walt gives full reign to the passions that have been held in check by his role as a suburban father. As he confesses to his wife in the finale, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really… I was alive.”
The strength of the show’s writing is the second reason it has attained the status of legend. Put simply, Breaking Bad had the best team of writers on television. Not just in terms of dialogue, but in story construction it is unrivalled.
And this is largely because of their refusal to follow the conventions of television storytelling. The series begins with one decision (Walt cooking meth) and spirals outward, showing the horrible repercussions in a way that is both realistic and dramatically satisfying.
Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the second half of the fifth season, as Walt’s brother-in-law Hank, who works for the DEA, pursues his arrest. As Walt removes his millions from storage and buries them in the desert (at the site of his first cook), his former partner, Jesse, faces the reality of the many ways in which Walt has abused and manipulated him.
Ultimately Hank teams up with Jesse. In any other show this would be cause for rejoicing, but the show stubbornly resists easy distinctions between good and evil. It’s obvious that Hank is obsessed with his own personal quest for vengeance. He views Jesse as nothing but a means to an end.
While the two of them are conspiring, Walt calls up his business associates, the neo-Nazis, who have taken over production of his meth. With great reluctance he orders a hit on Jesse, who has tried to burn down his house.
Jesse lures Walt into the desert where his money is buried. When Walt arrives, realizing he’s been set up (but not knowing that Hank is involved), he calls the neo-Nazis and tells them he’s found Jesse.
But when he realizes that Hank is there, he calls them back and calls off the hit. “Do NOT come,” he says. Hank is family. You don’t kill family.
Then, with three episodes left in the series, he does something that none of us ever expected: he turns himself in.
Dropping his gun in the sand, he raises his hands, gets down on his knees, and allows himself to be handcuffed by Hank.
This is where most shows, even the good ones, would have ended. The villain is in handcuffs. The hero has finally won. The balance of nature can be restored. Life can go on.
But nothing is ever that simple on Breaking Bad. As Walt is being hauled into the back of a van, the neo-Nazis decide to show up anyway. As Walt, ineffectually screaming and powerless to stop them, watches in horror, they murder first Hank’s partner and then Hank himself.
Their bodies are unceremoniously dumped in the pit where Walt had buried the money. The Nazis take the money and ride off, leaving Walt to face the ultimate consequences of events that he set in motion but found he could no longer control. The writers don’t spare us the results of those choices any more than they spare Walt.
Probably the most heroic moment in the show’s run is that moment in Season 4 when Jesse says to Walt, “I’m the bad guy.” And as Walt stares into his rearview mirror at the spot in the sands where Hank has just been buried, he has that same realization. He always rationalized his heinous actions by saying they were for his family. Now with his family dead or on the run, he has to face the awful reality that it was all for himself.
And the brilliance of those final episodes is not that they redeem Walt (he’s almost beyond redemption at that point), but they do grant him some measure of self-awareness. Vince Gilligan is Catholic, and the show is implicitly obsessed with concepts of purgatory, penance, and cosmic retribution. God is almost never alluded to on Breaking Bad, but His presence is everywhere: notice how, after the Nazis murder Hank, both Walt and Jesse find themselves in the same position in which they placed Krazy-8 back in the third episode: Jesse is imprisoned, chained up with a U-shaped padlock, while Walt has to pretend not to want vengeance on a man who just killed one of his family members in cold blood.
In the end, they both get what they gave. That’s good writing and good theology.