Breaking Bad: Death closes in on Walter White

The Breaking Bad commentary has reached a fever pitch, with everyone weighing in with their predictions and last-chance-for-relevance think-pieces before Sunday night's series finale. The Twitter account Pour Me Coffee imagined the president offering his own take (instead of the expected remarks on Iran):

And Emily Nussbaum -- whose Twitter feed is a great source for worthwhile Breaking Bad commentary -- wrote this week,

Television this good is actually pretty exhausting. And so it's with some relief, as well as the familiar sense of dread, that I approach the final session of this not-for-credit course.

But I'm here to offer one more bit of recommended reading before we start our post-mortem on Monday. "The Dark Art of Breaking Bad," by David Segal, from the New York Times Magazine, is actually a few years old, but I missed it at the time (I may not even have been watching the show yet, which would put me in good company; plenty of johnny-come-latelys on this bandwagon). Reading it now sheds a lot of light on what the show has been doing (according to its creator, Vince Gilligan) with the themes of evil and its rewards and punishment, and where it is all likely to end up tomorrow night.  

It also offers a good answer to anyone who has been wondering why this show is worth all the fuss:

What sets the show apart from its small-screen peers is a subtle metaphysical layer all its own. As Walter inches toward damnation, 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.

Lots more talk of religion and "cosmic justice" in that piece -- all of which makes me very doubtful that Walt is going to find an eleventh-hour redemption. Every time he crossed another line -- breaking the law, committing murder, committing more murder -- Walt would tell himself, and Jesse, and Skyler, and anyone else who had qualms, that the past can't be changed and the only thing they could do was go on with their lives and try to learn from their mistake. He was right, of course, that what was done could not be undone, and his logical approach was seductive enough to bring everyone, including the audience, along with him for a while. But he was lying to himself about what wrongdoing requires of a moral human being. Redemption, certainly in the Catholic view, requires owning up to the wrong that you have done, even if its practical effects cannot be undone. Walt's refusing to look squarely at the evil he had done and take responsibility for it meant refusing to turn away from sin and committing, instead, to continue on his wayward path. I'm not sure a single episode, even a 75-minute one, is long enough for Walter to make a good confession now. And we haven't had any signs that he's likely to try. It's clear to me from this article that Gilligan has been preparing Walt, all along, to reap the whirlwind:

“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."

Things look grim for Jesse, too, because he is also on the hook for a lengthy list of bad deeds. Unlike Walt, Jesse has been tormented with guilt over his many sins, but he has stopped short of actually atoning for them. He wants to give money to Drew Sharp's family to make up for their loss, but he doesn't want to come clean and tell them what happened to their son. He wants to relieve himself of guilt without taking responsibility.

According to Gilligan's mother, who's quoted in this article, the Breaking Bad creator was "an acolyte in the Catholic Church." He now identifies as an agnostic, though he rejects the Woody Allen school of atheistic auteurism. "I find atheism just as hard to get my head around as I find fundamental Christianity," Gilligan says. "Because if there is no such thing as cosmic justice, what is the point of being good?" Segal notes, astutely, that Breaking Bad seems to have brought back an old-fashioned approach to morality in art: "There is a long history in art of foisting suffering on characters who sin, but it seems to have fallen out of favor." See, for example, The Sopranos. Will bringing back that sin-leads-to-suffering vision be Breaking Bad's legacy?

Religion as such has played no role in Breaking Bad that I can think of, save for Tuco's murderous cousins and their devotion to Santa Muerte. We never saw the main characters in church or heard any sermonizing, ineffective, ironic or otherwise. (Contrast with the intriguing but usually off-key splashes of Catholicism in antihero dramas like The Sopranos and Mad Men.) The moral vision that grounds the show never announced itself that way. But Season 3 opened with an arresting, baffling image of "the Cousins" joining a host of other supplicants crawling on their bellies toward a Santa Muerte shrine in Mexico. At the time it was a flourish that introduced a new set of "bad guys" who, because they were targeting Heisenberg, seemed to confirm Walt's "good guy" status. But over the course of the series it has become clear that Walt, while less colorful than the most sinister members of the drug cartel, is no less a villain. The image of Heisenberg that the cousins brought to that shrine was itself a crude death's head. Walt has been making his own trail in the dirt all along. It turns out we've been watching our hero, and everyone else he dragged along with him, crawling serpent-like toward death.


Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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