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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.

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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I was commenting to someone else just the other day about the absence of any overt religion in Breaking Bad. I actually find it a relief, compared to the usually slightly off-key presentation of religion in most media (they always get something just a little bit wrong, like having priests wear purple vestments at a wedding). Somehow, I find it makes the show that much more interesting, theologically. It offers a vision of the world in which there is no forgiveness or redemption, but only relentless retribution. It's not pretty, but it makes the Christian vision of things stand out all the more clearly by way of contrast.

As much as I loved The Wire (hometown loyalty and all that), Breaking Bad goes a step beyond.

Fritz - That's just how I feel about it. It's so distracting when they get it wrong that I'd rather they didn't try. The wrong notes in The Sopranos' use of religion were always so frustrating (I just finished watching that recently, so it's fresh in my mind).

I just remembered Jesse's stint in rehab and recovery as another part of the plot that had an element of religion to it, although I can't remember whether they ever discussed the "higher power" aspect of the twelve steps directly. The whole process of accountability gave Jesse trouble; he couldn't stick with the program without the willingness to take a moral inventory of his life and make amends for what he'd done. You can't lie your way through recovery. (That lesson was dramatized on The Sopranos too, come to think of it.)

The other theological note was sounded in the episode (in the first season, I think) when Walt and Gretchen are analyzing the chemical makeup of the human body and when they add it all up they still don't have 100%. Gretchen suggests that maybe the soul is the missing ingredient, and Walter scoffs.

It seems obvious that the Greymatter subplot is going to be important in the finale. I just rewatched a clip of the "I am the danger" scene and was struck by how Walter compares himself, not to some mafia crime boss or master criminal, but to the head of a major corporation. His getting cut out of Greymatter seems to be a defining moment in his life.

I think the popularity of the show was touched on by Segal. It is middle American. The heroes are regular people who live regular lives. We can identify with Walter White because he is not, in fact, a criminal. He uses his talents to support criminal enterprises but he is not really criminally minded in say the way that Todd's uncle and his gang are. He stumbles into this world and at bottom, by temperment and training he is a scientist and a good one. There is an interesting scene where Gale (one of my faves) makes the libertarian arguement in favour of cooking meth and reconciling what they do with crime.

But Walt has a tragic flaw; greed and revenge. It is pointed out again and again by Mike. Even Mike tell Walt that just because he shot Jesse James (aka Gus) don't make him Jesse James. And in a scene he is so frustrated and says that he never had to convince someone so hard to take 5 million dollars. Jesse tells him the same thing.

I wonder about the whole Grey Matter thing. It could work one way or the other. Walt/Heisenberg is going after someone to get his empire back. Below is the famous scene where Walt talks about Grey Matter and explains why he is in neither the meth business or money business; he is in the EMPIRE business.

George D. ==

Walt's a murderer many times over but he's not a criminal???????  He might not be a psychopath, but he is most certainly a criminal, and a ruthless, calculating one at that. 

I don't watch Breaking Bad, but I stay aware of what the show is about, which is a festering rectal cavity named Walt who got rich making and distributing one of the most addictive, and thus humanly destructive, drugs ever to emerge from the very pits of Hell.  The only good thing that could ever happen to this demon woud be that someone puts a round into his skull and buries him in salted unhallowed earth.

Just for fun, a final prediction. Walt settles scores with the Nazis, frees Jesse. He moves on to Gretchen & Elliott, exposes them to the (nigh untraceable) ricin before being taken into custody. The Schwartzes die. Later, as Walt lays dying in a prison ward, word reaches him that the childless Schwartzes never changed their wills after his crimes were exposed, have left billions of dollars to Walt. Junior and Holly will be okay, we suppose. But a Treasure of the Sierra Madre blows like dust from Walt's unworthy grasp. Cough, cough. The End.

Haven't watched. Know nothing. Nonetheless, I found Ross Douthat's column illuminating. The Walt World is a world without either a Judaeo-Christian or Enlightenment ethic. Sounds like the basic business ethic at play in the U.S. Is the apt comparison here Walt and Jaime Diamond? Different crimes perhaps, same mentality perhaps.  Douthat in Sunday's Times, 9/29/13.

I enjoy the way and the words of much of Douthat's writing.  I believe he is largely dead on in describing much of Breaking Bad.  With one significant exception.  My understanding of the way he uses Darwinism as an explanation if not excuse for viewing much of the horror as predicatably human.  There is as much useful truth in that all too common suggestion as there is in stating Catholicism can be defined primarily by the crusades or the visions of the sheperd children at Fatima.

Hmm.  And what sort of ethic is it if it's neither Christian nor Enlightenment?  Nietzschean?  Will-to-power, ubermensch is beyond good and evil,  with a Romanticized view of hero?

Good column by Douthat but I thought that the first commenter, Gary Smashedmycarup (don't you just love these internet handles!), on the story had it bang on!

The reason people pull for Walt is simple: underdog syndrome. DUH. He was the underdog in life (a marginalized nerd with cancer who missed out on an illustrious career with Gray Matter), and was an underdog in the underworld (an average Joe who through trial and error and good old fashioned hard work left his blue collar behind and joined the white collar ranks). He was also an underdog against the massive DEA and it's John Wayne macho agents. This is a classic underdog story and the writers have drawn sympathy for the devil through countless subtleties and nuances that build up in the audiences minds and make them root for the team the writers want them to root for. Your use of the word TEAM is very apropos. Think about it. How did the concept of a TEAM ever arise in this series? Gilligan created them. Team Walt represents the people. Team everything else represents the establishment. This is a story of the common man versus the bad guys, the backstabbers, the liars, the colossal government, the annoying extended family, terminal disease, unreliable cars, slick vulture lawyers, unethical business partners (Gray Matter), etc etc etc etc etc. Think about it. It's been Walt against the WORLD. Of course people would root for Walt ! Gilligan gave us no other alternative ! Even the writer of this column has been tricked . Gilligan has masterfully manipulated the majority , except for a tiny few of us who are smarter than him. The 1%.


In the midst of all this high minded analysis, let's remember it is entertainment and just a show! So reading toooo much commentary into people's sympathy might be unwise.

Anne O: Here is Douthat's analysis of Walt's ethics, or maybe the fans who love him.

"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. As James Bowman wrote in The New Atlantis, 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.”

I've been teaching a survey of Marxism this semester, and Johnathan Sperber's new biography of Marx has made an interesting foil that I hadn't planned on originally when I prepped the course.  One of Sperber's claims--indeed, perhaps his essential claim--is that our tendency has been to treat Marx as a contemporary for more than a century.  Marx, as we usually read him, is seen as responding to the problems of our contemporary world.  But Sperber challenges us to suppose that might not be true any longer.  More directly, I think his message may be--'The Enlightenment has been ending for a while, and now it is over.'

I bring this up because events in Syria were unfolding as the semester began, as events in Egypt have unfolded throughout the summer.  The typical response of many Americans when we are confronted with some far-off revolution has been to ask who are the good guys we should be supporting.  There must be someone who wants a sort of Enlightenment kind of mixture of democratic procedures with tolerance and personal liberty, says this hopeful persective.  Certainly, that's the John McCain-Lindsey Graham refrain.  But a lot of Wilsonians on the Left tend to feel that way, too.  It all made me think that Sperber may be on to something, as Douthat is on to something.  A friend of mine recently quoted Einstein: "Nationalism is an infantile disease... It is the measles of mankind."  My immediate reaction was, 'That's a 20th century sentiment.  In this century, it's tribalism.'  The Enlightenment paradigm doesn't apply any longer.

All to say, I think BB is more than worth our analysis here.  Simply because there are trashy paperbacks doesn't mean books can't be literary and, similarly, the fact that television is a vast wasteland doesn't mean that we ought to reduce it all to mere entertainment.  Walt does resonate with something primitive in us, and the grip the show has on us today may testify to how we are struggling with that primitive instinct across multiple layers of the global arena.  The NYTimes profile Mollie originally linked tells us that Vince Gilligan wants to set this tale in a context of morality, something recognizably Judeo-Christian or liberal.  But also, I think more applicably, Greek.  What Gilligan really describes himself as wanting is dike'--retributive justice, balance.  Of course, the Greeks faced this struggle with a primitive instinct, too.  We give the Athenians a lot of credit for the philosophers and the dramatists.  But Thucydides recorded a perhaps more accurate picture of the Athenian character in the Melian dialogue.  Then as now, it seems that the primitive instinct for tribe that privileges loyalty and might over right struggled against a more universal (or, ideal) conception of justice.  The tragedians of the ancient world played out that struggle, as the tv shows play it out today.  Our response to the entertainment tells us much about who we are and who we will be.

Steven --

But isn't nationalism a kind of tribalism, or at least it's an ism that can work effectively witih it?  See Nazi Germany.  Sort of tribalism in white gloves.


(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)

I never had any notion of watching the show until Mollie started blogging about it.  And my take was, Sheesh, it's almost over.  I'm basically taking the position that I've missed this particular bus.

Sorry, no wish to rain on the parade here.  I'll dissolve back into the woodwork.  Just wanted to comment on the phenomenon of not latching onto some cultural thing until it's nearly gone.


@Jim.  Netflix!!

@Ann--My full reply is too much for a space like this, but of course you're right.  Nationalism is a kind of tribalism.  But, in the sense that came out of Westphalia and gave rise to the nation-state of the modern world, nationalism carries a significant connotation: the rule of law.  Nations enjoy sovereignty within their territorial boundaries, and that sovereignty is the authority to make and enforce law which, usually, we conceive in the sense of a constitutional state.  There are exceptions, of course.  You mention the Nazis--though while their laws weren't just, they were a constitutional state.  The point is--yes, there are many complicating factors but, generally, we think of the nation-state in the sense of modern states like the U.S. and as we find them in Western Europe, etc.  Being a nation-state generally corresponds to some recognition of universal or ideal justice.  No one is judge in her or his own case, etc., as the modern theorists described it.  Nations do succumb to tribalism, and that is nationalism.  The primitive instinct still lurks within the modern nation-state, but at least our world of Enlightenment and Judeo-Christian morality also recognizes a higher authority to which the best nations correspond in their constitutional arrangements.

My chief worry of the last few decades, since the end of the Soviet Union, has been the erosion of the Westphalian state.  It's not only re-emerging tribal and religious loyalties after the end of the bi-lateral Cold War.  Though it is that.  Those re-emerging cultural conflicts meant that many fictional states (Afghanistan, Iraq) have failed, states whose boundaries and institutions didn't correspond to the people who lived there.  But it's also the way that multinational corporations can shop for jurisdiction and effectively opt out of the rule of law because of their wealth.  It's also the emergence of powerful non-state actors.  Indeed, to some extent it even is the Tea Party phenomenon and its anarchic rejection of constitutional order (a law can be validly passed, adjudicated by the Supreme Court, and win a national referendum...and, still, it is so illegitimate that we shut down the nation-state).  

So the point is not to say that nationalism and tribalism are wholly distinct.  But I do distinguish them.  And, it seems to me that nationalism is the lesser of these two evils.

Steven - right, Netflix has been very useful in catching up on Warehouse 13, another one that apparently is nearly gone.  I'll add Breaking Bad to my list of Things That Have Come and Gone Already That I'll Get Around To Eventually.

" Being a nation-state generally corresponds to some recognition of universal or ideal justice."

Steven --

I think we're in basic agreement, except when it comes to the *universality* of justice in nation states.  The universality stops at the borders of certain theocratic states, and, in some cases, even within those states there are sometimes different standards of justice *by law*..  For instance, in some Muslim states Christians had to pay added taxes, and now in some Muslim states Christians are being killed for being Christian.  We need a new name for such states.   

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