Breaking Bad is a show that will live on for ages. With an entirely new concept, it ignored the usual clichés for crime shows, created a new path for itself, and acquired cult status. It ticks off the usual boxes for any good TV series: acting, background music, writing, pacing, and entertainment, but perhaps more than that, Breaking Bad is a show that has emotional depth. It raises many questions for its audience and paints a brutally honest picture of our society. It is a metaphor for the life we live, full of morally grey choices that have real consequences.
Breaking Bad’s protagonist is Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who has lung cancer, a son with cerebral palsy, and an unplanned pregnancy. He doesn’t earn much, doesn’t like his jobs, and is regretful over his decision to leave Gray Matter. The audience empathizes with his midlife crisis.
‘Breaking Bad’ is slang for ‘rebelling against society’, ‘to go rogue’ or ‘wreak havoc and destruction.’ Walt’s slow descent into chaos is best described by this term. He went from being the guy who almost quit the meth trade after being traumatized by Krazy-8’s death to the guy who unhesitatingly poisons Brock to manipulate Jesse. That is the most stunning character development an anti-hero can have.
Tricking the Viewers
The beauty of Breaking Bad lies in the fact that it questions the moral allegiance of its audience. One cannot help but sympathize with Walt when he has lethal cancer, but why do we cheer on for Heisenberg even after the cancer is in remission and secretly want him to succeed no matter what it takes? Does the audience really believe that Walt is doing all this for his family and not because he likes the feeling of power that comes with it? Why does the audience excuse his morally bad actions?
Supporting Walter White does not mean that one is a psychopath. Most of us won’t kill people, blow up nursing homes, or poison children. If we would not do these things ourselves in real life, then why are we supporting them when Walt does them? The reason for this is that an anti-hero’s character is an outlet for the feelings that we all secretly harbor. Walt’s character is relatable; he has been screwed by life too many times, but now he finally gets his revenge. We can detach from real life and support a fictitious character who can break the rules and get away with it.
It is fascinating to watch a person go against the norms of society. We know we cannot unleash the Heisenberg inside us, so it feels really good to see someone else do it. We love the thrill we get when we identify with Walt, even if it’s temporary. This gives rise to the dilemma in Vince Gilligan’s moral universe: an audience with a moral compass that would not do the things that Walt does and yet cheers him on.
Limits of Moral Nihilism
A particular focus of Breaking Bad is to emphasize moral ambiguity. No character in the show can be termed 100% good or bad, just like in real life. Although not explicitly mentioned, Walt is a moral nihilist. Moral nihilism is a philosophy that says that morality is meaningless. It says that no action is morally good or bad, and the concept of good or bad exists only in our minds.
Walt internalizes this principle of moral nihilism early on. The threat of impending death diluted the moral principles he had, and all his actions henceforth are proof that he does not believe that there is any such thing as morality. He lets Jane die, bombs a nursing home, poisons Brock, makes a false confession tape, leaves Jesse with the Neo-Nazis, manipulates everyone around him, and gets Gale killed. He does not feel any remorse about the fact that his actions have consequences. He does not fire Todd for killing a child and does not care that letting Jane die caused a midair collision.
Walt’s “It is what it is” approach that prioritizes efficiency and survival over everything else allowed him to be the biggest drug lord in the Southwest, but there is a hidden question here: Was it really all worth it? Was Walt’s moral nihilism beneficial for him? As Walt admitted in El Camino, in a flashback, Jesse didn’t have to wait his whole life to do something special. This is the underlying motivation for Walt’s actions. All his life, playing by the rules and being good hasn’t gotten him anywhere. He does what he does to gain respect from his peers, heal his wounded pride, and exercise control.
But there is an inherent contradiction in Walt’s moral nihilism. He may not believe that morality exists, but everyone around him does. The DEA is after him, and Flynn, Marie, or Skyler won’t ever forgive him for the havoc he caused in their lives. This is the problem with using moral nihilism to justify your psychopathic behaviour because a) it does not end well for you, and b) it does not end well for your loved ones. Even if you believe that killing people is not bad, others around you still have a moral fabric. Was the temporary rush of pleasure that Walt felt when he became Heisenberg worth getting hated by his own son, destroying his family, and leaving Holly without a father? Walt’s moral nihilism leads him to believe that he will not face consequences for his actions, but in the end, it all falls apart.
Gunjit Verma is a student pursuing Chemistry Honours from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Moneera Aiman