Breaking Bad and Morality in a Post-Religious Age
I've had Badfinger's Baby Blue playing in my head for the last couple of days now. It was one of the best uses of of a classic rock song to close out a TV series or a movie that I've seen in quite a while, as Breaking Bad's main character Walter White looked wistfully for one last time over the object of his “special love” and the pinnacle of his life's work, his meth lab, just before dying. Music was used quite masterfully in the series overall, from what I could tell, such as the scene when Walt was pushing his last barrel of money through the desert as if it contained the weight of his accumulated sins, to the strains of Take My True Love. I've always felt that a dissonant juxposition of music with what is happening on screen can be devastatingly effective, ever since I first saw Martin Scorcese use Donovan's Atlantis as the soundtrack for the Billy Batts incident in Goodfellas.
The first time I heard about Breaking Bad was on a highway in northern Indiana in the Spring of 2011. I was in a rental car, driving my oldest daughter from Chicago to South Bend. She was a senior in high school at the time, and we were on our way to visit St. Mary's College for an accepted students day. Just a few miles out of South Bend, she was telling me about this new TV show that she’d recently become hooked on. Alternately horrified, fascinated, and intrigued by the fact that my daughter was telling me about watching a show that gave a sympathetic treatment to a meth-amphetamine cook, I must have stepped more heavily on the gas than I realized. I was clocked by the Indiana State Police at 85 mph and was given a speeding ticket.
Not that my wild ride was anything like the existential mid-life crisis that Walter White, played brilliantly by Bryan Cranston, had in Breaking Bad. Even after I first heard about it, I had no real interest in watching a show about the meth trade, whether it was sympathetic to the characters or otherwise. It wasn't until this year that I heard enough buzz about the excellent writing and acting associated with the program, to finally give it a look-see. I didn't start watching it, in fact, until after Walt's DEA agent brother-in-law Hank finally discovered that Walt was in fact the mysterious Heisenberg, the meth-making genius that he'd been hunting for. Therefore, I missed the vast amount of high drama in the show. Nevertheless, just watching those last few episodes was enough to get me completely hooked, and to leave an emotional impact on me when it ended.
My wife was as dubious as I was when I first heard about it, and she remained so. Myself, I wouldn’t tolerate for one moment the hell on earth that is meth addiction, or the hideous crime of it’s production and distribution. For me, however, the series was about much more than that, chiefly, how easy it is for human beings to make minor moral compromises that can snowball into major ones, leaving lasting damage in their wake. It brings to mind St Paul saying, ’I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” A show with such an edgy premise and theme was only as successful as it was because it was characterized by expert writing, but more importantly, because of its superb casting. They couldn't have done the casting more perfectly.
From the beginning of the show to its end, there has been a lot of consternation about the moral ambiguities presented within it, and what it says about us as a society, as we become more and more disengaged from traditional Judeo-Christian values. Ross Douthat, for one, fretted about those who identified with, and were rooting for the main protagonist, no matter what kind of atrocities he committed, in a group he refers to as “Team Walt.” While realizing that they are not reading the writer’s intentions for the show quite properly, he’s concerned about the Darwinian ethics they’ve embraced.
The allure for Team Walt is not ultimately the pull of nihilism, or the harmless thrill of rooting for a supervillain. It’s the pull of an alternative moral code, neither liberal nor Judeo-Christian, with an internal logic all its own… embracing Walt doesn’t requiring embracing “individual savagery” and a world without moral rules. It just requires a return to “old rules” — to “the tribal, family-oriented society and the honor culture that actually did precede the Enlightenment’s commitment to universal values.”
To be clear, I don’t think the show itself is actually on Walt’s side. I think Team Walt badly misreads the story’s moral arc and vision.
But the pervasiveness of that misreading tells us something significant...I’ve surely considered the same thing myself, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the whole story.
Granted, I came in late, so I didn’t see all of the terrible things that Walter White did. Maybe I’d feel a lot differently about his character if I did. The question remains, however, as to why so many people had sympathy for Walter White… Why were so many rooting for things to turn out all right for him and his family in the end? Why were so many hoping for his redemption?
I think a lot of it simply came down to the skill of Bryan Cranston, the actor who played him. I haven’t seen an actor in quite some time who has been able to deliver sheer pathos the way that he did. Every pained, angst-ridden expression spoke more than a thousand words, and the raging conflicts within him just exploded out of every glance and gesture. I think there is an instinctive reaction on a large part of the audience; a reaction that just wants to assuage that kind of pain.
While I don’t necessarily know what goes through the mind of younger viewers, I wonder if the prolonged economic situation we are living through strikes a chord with the middle-aged who are living under a cloud, living those “lives of quiet desperation,” feeling their health decline, feeling at mid-life that they’ve lived little more than a beige, mediocre life. Walter White steps out of this and his life spins out of control, but he barely looks back. Maybe there are many who wonder if such a thing could live within themselves.
Many were waiting for redemption in the final episode, but apparently Cranston and the writer, Vince Gilligan, decided that it was not to be. In his final visit with his wife, there was this exchange…
Skyler: "If I have to hear one more time that you did this for the family..."
Walt: "I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really -- I was alive."Speaking of Vince Gilligan, what is his take on what kind of a moral message, if any, are we to take out of the show? David Segal of the NYT reports on it in The Dark Art of ‘Breaking Bad’, and it confirms much of what I observed myself. Most of the characters in the show made some kind of serious moral compromise at some point, and they all paid for it in spades.
Gilligan and his writers have posed some large questions about good and evil, questions with implications for every kind of malefactor you can imagine, from Ponzi schemers to terrorists. Questions like: Do we live in a world where terrible people go unpunished for their misdeeds? Or do the wicked ultimately suffer for their sins?
Gilligan has the nerve to provide his own hopeful answer. “Breaking Bad” takes place in a universe where nobody gets away with anything and karma is the great uncredited player in the cast…
Cranston has found many nuanced ways to enact Walt’s many miseries, the most wrenching of which was the loss of his wife’s love. There is a long history in art of foisting suffering on characters who sin, but it seems to have fallen out of favor. As awful as Tony Soprano was, it’s left purposefully unclear at the end of “The Sopranos” whether he paid the ultimate price. Or consider the “simple chaos” take on the universe as represented in movies by Woody Allen, a director whom Gilligan admires. “And Woody Allen may be right,” Gilligan says. “I’m pretty much agnostic at this point in my life. But I find atheism just as hard to get my head around as I find fundamental Christianity. Because if there is no such thing as cosmic justice, what is the point of being good? That’s the one thing that no one has ever explained to me. Why shouldn’t I go rob a bank, especially if I’m smart enough to get away with it? What’s stopping me?”
“If there’s a larger lesson to ‘Breaking Bad,’ it’s that actions have consequences,” Gilligan said during lunch one day in his trailer. “If religion is a reaction of man, and nothing more, it seems to me that it represents a human desire for wrongdoers to be punished. I hate the idea of Idi Amin living in Saudi Arabia for the last 25 years of his life. That galls me to no end.”
“I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something,” he said between chews. “I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen,” he went on. “My girlfriend says this great thing that’s become my philosophy as well. ‘I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.’