Breaking Bad, or How to Get to Hell in Five Award-Winning Seasons

Walter White has problems. He is a middle-aged white male living in the suburbs of Alberquerque, New Mexico, in a house he can't really afford, working as a full-time high school chemistry teacher and a part-time car wash attendant, all so that he can support his wife Skylar and his son Walt Jr., who suffers from cerebral palsy.

As if these challenges weren't enough, Walter learns some devastating news: he is dying of lung cancer. He has months, not years, to live. Chemotherapy will buy him no more than a few more months, but his family (which includes his wife's kleptomaniac sister Marie and her husband, Hank, who works for the DEA) insist that he do whatever he can to extend his life. The bills for treatment will run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, but thankfully, Walter has some wealthy friends who are more than willing to foot the bill.

And there's the rub, as Hamlet would say. Walter doesn't want to take money from this couple, who run a multi-million dollar company called Grey Matter. He has a history with them that involves some kind of love triangle, and a messy break-up that led to Walter selling his share of the company for a mere $5000 during its infancy, before the big profits came rolling in. Whatever the details, Walter is too proud to take help from the people that he feels shunted him from a destiny of wealth and fame and glory, onto his current dead end track.

So the dilemma is, if Walter White can't pay his bills himself, and he won't accept the help of his friends, what will he do? How will he pay for his mounting medical costs? Simple: he will apply his considerable abilities as a chemist to producing the purest, most powerful form of meth-amphetamine known to addicts. Before he dies, with diligence and hard work, embodying those qualities so valued by the Founding Fathers, he will build the biggest drug-dealing empire in America (and perhaps even the world), so that he can not only pay his bills and get by in life, but become the poster boy for the American Dream itself.

This is the premise of Breaking Bad, a critically-acclaimed television show that aired in 2008 and is now in its fifth (and probably final) season. While I would not recommend it for everyone (the violence, profanity and drug use are explicit and extreme), I will say that Breaking Bad is the greatest television drama/thriller I have seen. This greatness had less to do with the show's craft (although it is flawless and brilliant in every dimension, from cinematography to writing and acting); rather, what is most impressive is Breaking Bad's thematic ambition, which is nothing less than to expose one man's self-driven journey into hell.

To begin with, we can understand Walter's decision, even if we do not agree with it. We don't want to see him die, but we can see why he might not want to accept charity. We too know the phrase 'too proud to beg'... We certainly empathize with his desire to provide for his family (including his newborn baby girl) in the event that something should happen to him. Although Vince Gilligan, the creator of the show, is frank about the destructive effects of crystal meth, we can almost accept Walter's reasoning that the ends—health, life for his family—justify the means. We can almost agree with him when he comments early on that if Cuban cigars could be illegal, isn't the line that defines legality an arbitrary one, anyway? If consenting adults will want what they will want, why shouldn't someone meet their demand with a superior quality supply?

This threadbare cloak of rationalization grows more and more frayed as time goes on. As Walter wades deeper into the dark and seamy world of meth cooking and dealing, he instigates a series of events of unimaginable violence. At my last count, Walter has been directly responsible for killing 25 people in ways often too horrifying to watch. He is indirectly responsible for hundreds more dead, including two children. Walter's involvement in these acts is initially unintentional, but he soon finds himself cold-bloodedly willing to do anything to survive.

(Alert: Spoilers Ahead! If you haven't seen the show, skip the next three paragraphs)

If we could perhaps comprehend Walter's violence on the basis that he is trying to protect and provide for his family, Gilligan soon breaks even this slender thread of sympathy. Walter's cancer goes into remission. His wife, disturbed at the secretiveness and aloofness that his activities have bred in him, is soon alienated from him and threatens divorce. His son, desperate for his father's attention, finds himself shut out, confused and hurt.

Meanwhile, Walter the 'meth cook' has succeeded in amassing more wealth than he could ever spend. At a poignant moment in the show, his wife (who is eventually sucked into his drug world as his accountant and money launderer) takes Walter to a locker, where she has stacked his earnings in a large pile. She informs him bluntly that she will never be able launder so much money and asks simply, “When will the pile be big enough?”

In other words, if Walter White ever had material reasons for doing what he does, those reasons soon vanish. His disease is remitted. His family life is a bitter illusion. He has all the money he will ever need. There is no reason for him to continue cooking meth. And yet, that is precisely what he continues to do, in spite of everything. Why?

With all his rationalizations and pretenses torn aside, the driving force at the centre of Walter's life is finally exposed. In a key scene, he tells his partner Jesse, “You asked me if I was in the meth business or the money business. Neither. I’m in the empire business.” Forget about the noble-sounding excuses: Walter's motive all along was to build an empire that he alone can rule, even if he destroys both those around him and himself in the process. “If there is a hell,” he tells Jesse, “you and I are probably going there. But I won't lie down until I get there!”

Actually, Walter's journey to hell began many years before he decided to cook crystal meth, when he took $5000 and walked away from his friends and the fledgling company that later became so profitable. From that point on until his cancer diagnosis, he had trudged his way through the mundane routines of life and a badly-paid teaching career, his wounded pride festering deep beneath his mild-mannered exterior. The cancer diagnosis was really just an excuse to allow his ego to reassert itself and have a free reign once more.

Had Walter humbled himself and accepted his friends' help (which also included an offer to rejoin the company), he might have found reconciliation and healing. Instead, he allowed his egotism to take the lead. He isolated himself from and exalted himself above his loved ones. He embraced a Nietzschean vision of the universe, where those who are strong, bold, and intelligent succeed and rule, and the rest must submit or be crushed. Although the final episode has not been aired, it is safe to say that Walter's current tragectory may well end in a personal hell where he is the single, undisputed ruler, simply because he is the only inhabitant...

Is there a moral lesson to take away from Breaking Bad? To tell you the truth, it's not that kind of show. The story of Walter White is best described as a 'moral anatomy'; it is the slow and inexorable exposure of an inner malaise that had its origins long before we met him. Ironically, as Walter's physical cancer goes into remission, the spiritual cancer that has been in remission all these years resurfaces and consumes him. It is part of the greatness of Breaking Bad that Vince Gilligan simply presents this story of decline to us without preaching. As viewers, we can only watch in horror and take away our own insights.

Speaking as a Christian, I see Breaking Bad as a depiction of hell, not as an external place, but as a condition of the human heart that serves itself in isolation from others. Jean-Paul Sartre was wrong when he said, “Hell is other people.” If Walter White's story shows us anything, it is that hell is not other people, or anything 'out there.' No one actually goes to hell; we just become hell, one day at a time. To quote Milton's Satan, “Me miserable! which way shall I fly / Infinite wrath and infinite despair? / Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell...”

Walter White reminds us that when we deny our interdependency on others, refuse to acknowledge that we are weak and broken members of the same human family, imagine that we are actually in control of destinies, and act as the gods of our own universes, then all of us 'break bad' or 'raise hell' within. Driven to serve our own ends, we swiftly slide into dehumanizing and destroying our fellow human beings, no matter how beloved, until finally, they are used up and we are all alone in the darkness of our own hearts, emperors in an empire of one.

Breaking Bad seems to suggest that this grim fate is not merely reserved for Adolf Hitlers and Jeffrey Dahmers and other 'monsters.' If a mild-mannered, high school chemistry teacher living in middle class suburbia with his wife and kids could find himself alone in a wasteland of destruction and death, then hell is not far from the rest of us either. Follow the egotistical path, we too can find ourselves in what Jesus called, “the outer darkness,” which is ultimately the inner darkness where there is no one to hear us weep and gnash our teeth.


Bev. Cooke said…
I really thought you were going to trash the show, and was looking forward to finding out the reasons the premise makes me feel uneasy - I don't like the premise that I've heard from others. But you didn't - you redeemed the show for me. Now I want to go watch it to see if I agree with you. Thank you, I think. At least thank you for pointing out that, once again, I need to see things for myself and make up my own mind. And for finding good in what seemed to be just more celebration of immorality and selfishness in a culture that seems to value that far too highly.

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