My husband and I have been watching Breaking Bad for the last little while. No doubt about it: the show is well written, well acted, and in many ways extremely compelling.
I first heard about it while I was in law school. I was talking to a couple of classmates, and they were discussing Breaking Bad. I just remember the way my classmate’s expression lit up when he talked about the show. There was a deep enthusiasm and respect, there. This particular classmate came from a writing and journalism background, so when he said the writing in it was amazing, that carried some weight.
We attempted it at the time, but then left off after about two episodes. Now we’re back. This time, we kept with it. We are about five episodes into the final season, and I am deeply ambivalent. Breaking Bad is like Macbeth over five seasons. It depicts the tragic fall of a once-virtuous man.
One of the things that makes it so effective is that during the early episodes in the first season or two, each moral compromise seems justified, even if it isn’t a compromise I myself would make. And indeed, in some cases, his straying down the path seems almost virtuous, as when he outsmarts a particularly unsympathetic antagonist in order to save his partner, back in season one. But for me, since about the end of season two, I’ve experienced a growing antipathy towards Walter. And now, by season five, I feel a certain moral repugnance each time I journey to that strange and loathsome place that each episode takes me to–and spend time in the presence of the kind of character that Walter has become, as a result of choices he made. At the end of each episode, I feel slightly soiled and tainted merely by the act of observing the actions of this strange and utterly compromised figure.
That is a testimony to good writing. I really love that we saw, again and again, that he had agency. He was poised at the crossroads, time after time. He had the luxury of choice, of deciding whether or not to proceed along the path to moral decline and downfall. And he chose.
At this point, he is so far along that path that he has lost everything that he had embarked upon the path to preserve and protect. All the things that had initially motivated him have gone by the wayside, and he doesn’t care. It is fascinating to observe. It is also fascinating to think back on the previous episodes, and to be able to see the points at which he could have gone back, could have just resumed the life he had been living before and returned to a humble, often unpleasant, but morally acceptable path, and to understand how far he has fallen, and the full extent of his loss of perspective.
It is also fascinating to see the moral compromises undertaken by those around him–as well as the ways in which they draw lines that he no longer seems to care about.
No question: it’s a dark, impressive, extremely well-wrought show that takes the narrative of decline and compromise into amorality (in the vein of Macbeth, Scarface and The Godfather trilogy) further than we have yet seen in popular culture. It has pushed a boundary in depicting that path. Walter White is the most anti- of the anti-heroes I’ve seen to date.
I suspect I may be writing further posts on this as well–on the boldness of the undertaking, and the question of how to sustain and grow an audience on the basis of a show in which the main characters are fundamentally unlikeable. On the nature of a character like Walter White, and what intrigues us about him. That sort of thing. He is, after all, a fascinating construct.
Still, my ambivalence ultimately comes from the fact that I’m just not sure whether I want to keep going to that place, and spending time with a character who is so hauntingly unpleasant and unlikeable.
And yet, I’m curious. Will there be redemption in the vein of Crime and Punishment, at the end of it all, or is this to be a story of unmitigated downfall? I suppose I’ll be staying tuned to find out…