Disclaimer: I have a corgi named Heisenberg, and this blog post is not about her. If you have not seen the entire series Breaking Bad, and you wish to without the whole thing being ruined, please leave now before I start to tell you stuff you don’t want to know!
I normally reserve my story telling entries for something that I have recently finished reading, but in this case, I will make an exception for the television show Breaking Bad, which just aired its final episode last week. I have been particularly impressed with Vince Gilligan and his character development and story telling skills which he has managed to sustain for the duration of this excellent show. It truly is a visual novel.
If Joseph Campbell were alive today, he would no doubt have a field day with the mythology painted by Breaking Bad. It brings a whole new meaning to his hero’s journey mono myth (not to mention the mantra “follow your bliss”). That one kind of makes me snicker, which means that underneath it all, I must not be a very good person.
I do feel that Walt’s evolution follows an antithetical hero’s journey, a villain’s journey, if you will. He is clearly the protagonist of the show, but he is clearly also everyone else’s antagonist (at varying points in the drama). His antagonists are those who would seek to impose their ethical choices on Walt, whether it is Hank wanting to catch Heisenberg, Skylar trying to make him quit, or Jesse not wanting to kill everyone. The beauty of this story is that morality and ethics are in a constant state of flux. At every point in the story, some character (not even Walt necessarily) is making choices, and they are either right for the wrong reasons, wrong for the right reasons, or you get the point. No one is a slave to one standard of conduct. It is individual to the character and very tailored to their personal desires.
One great arc that I particularly appreciate has to do with Walt’s motivations, which follow such a traditional (and yet novelly crafted) three act story arc. In Act 1, Walt learns that he has cancer and most likely will be dead in two years max. He has a disabled son and pregnant wife, and he is terrified about providing for them after his death. He does not earn much as a high school chemistry teacher, and he still feels like a fool for leaving Grey Matter, a company that he founded with two partners. He ended up selling his shares for $5,000, and the company is now valued in the billions. Fear is an underlying theme that permeates every aspect of how Walt conducts himself.
After spotting a former student of his fleeing a meth lab, Walt contacts the student, Jesse, about cooking meth. He think that cooking might be an easy way to build a nest egg of cash for his children when he is gone. Since he is dying anyway, the potential illegality of the choice does not way heavily on his mind. The entire initiation to cooking meth is fraught with problems, moral dilemmas and actions that beget consequences for Walt’s personality. The fear remains, and it drives many actions, taking various forms, such as fear of being murdered by drug lords before he can save enough, fear of his family finding out, fear of his brother-in-law discovering, etc.
Something happens to Walt that he doesn’t expect, however. In cooking, he finds something worth living for, worth fighting the cancer for. His need for perfection in the craft of cooking meth paired with the desire to “build an empire” as he puts it launches him from a cooker to a kingpin. Although he won’t admit it to his wife, or even to himself, he loves the meth business. The fear has become his friend. It makes him feel alive. However, he continues to tell himself that he is doing this for the family.
Eventually, the fear that drives Walt is the fear of losing his power, losing his wealth, and losing his reputation. All of these fears come into play at one time or another in the story, driving Walt further down the path of villain. Finally, the series culminates in Act 3 with Walt about to surrender himself to the police. His identity has been discovered, his family has been torn apart, the majority of his money has been stolen, and even his partner and recipe for meth have been taken and exploited. Walt has pretty much thrown in the towel when he sees his old Grey Matter partners on television talking about how he did not contribute anything to their business. And suddenly, he is free. All the things he has feared have come true. He literally has nothing left to lose. Even his life is being taken from him by the cancer. This realization sends him on a journey of “redemption,” and I use that term very loosely to the extent that such word can describe the carnage that Walt inflicts in the final episode.
Although he ties up a lot of loose ends, the really important part of the series ending is (1) Walt admits to Skylar that he cooked meth because he liked it and not for the family, which is a huge admission from him, and Skylar forgives Walt enough to let him say goodbye to his daughter, (2) Walt sees Jesse’s suffering and frees him rather than killing him, and (3) Jesse stands up to Walt the father figure and refuses to do his dirty business anymore. Walt dies caressing the meth tanks in the labs before he can be taken by the police (dying roughly around the same time his doctors predicted her had in the initial diagnosis, which was a nice irony).
The above is a description of the journey of one character, but you can take a similar path with many of the series regulars, including Skylar, Jesse, Hank and maybe even Saul to a certain extent. They all need to find their backbone and stand up to Walt (except for Hank – he has very different demons).
The only character that I don’t think had much growth was Marie. She certainly got stronger as the series progressed, but her character continued to be plagued by petty competitiveness. If that behavior ended after the death of Hank, it is hard to say. Vince Gilligan doesn’t really touch on it. Her relationship with Skylar is clearly broken, but it is hard to tell if there is much remorse or acceptance of any responsibility for at least a portion of that fracture.
I am sure that this show will be the topic of many an academic inquiry and critical analysis in forthcoming years. This is just my initial thoughts on an excellent series that prioritizes storytelling over milking its television audience for every moment it can and playing the story out until all creativity is gone and all commercial value with it. I applaud Vince Gilligan (and the countless others who contributed) for the excellent series and more importantly (for me), the excellent story!
About this Photograph: This photograph of an ocean sunset was taken on a Caribbean cruise in March, 2007.