‘Breaking Bad’: What It All Means
‘Breaking Bad’: What It All Means
“Breaking Bad” was never really about meth. It’s just comforting to think that it was.
It debuted Jan. 20, 2008, at the very start of the Great Recession. We met Walter White, a classically underemployed, undervalued American, at a time a lot of us felt underemployed and undervalued. Vince Gilligan didn’t plan it that way. He got lucky. Sometimes that’s how great stories work.
“My wife is seven months pregnant with a baby we didn’t intend,” Walt explained in Season 2. “My 15-year-old son has cerebral palsy. I am an extremely overqualified high school chemistry teacher. When I can work, I make 43,700 dollars per year. I have watched all of my colleagues and friends surpass me in every way imaginable. And within 18 months, I will be dead. ”
Grim, right? Walt’s lost his stake in Gray Matter, a technology company he helped create with former lover Gretchen Schwartz and her now-husband, Elliott. Walt thinks they shorted him. When he’s diagnosed with lung cancer — even though he’s never smoked — his wife, Skyler, wonders if he got it working with Gray Matter chemicals.
The Schwartzes seem to have done what a lot of successful people (and even unsuccessful ones) do: Taken a justifiable shortcut, not worrying about how it might hurt someone else. When we saw them in Sunday’s finale they were chatting about their dandy lives. We almost wanted them to die because of their conversation alone.
The early “Breaking Bad” Walt has played by the rules and has little to show for it, at least in terms of money. He teaches science in a country that badly needs young scientists, but no one cares. He needs to work in a car wash to get by. His emasculated treats include veggie bacon and a sad birthday handjob.
His cancer diagnosis – but he doesn’t even smoke! – finally gives him an excuse to break free. Forget it, he tried, look where it got him. Now it’s time to cash in, try out this meth thing. It seems so easy.
He’s a nice man. So he assumes that even when he does something wrong, he’ll do it in a decent way. Which is what we all think: If someone has to do a bad job, better it be a good person, someone like me, who will do it as humanely as possible.
And so Walt rationalizes his first killing, of Krazy 8. He makes a list with two columns, pro and con: “Judeo/Christian Principles” and “Moral thing to do” he writes, as if acknowledging the existence of these things make him moral. In the other column is the deciding factor: “He’ll kill your entire family if you let him go.”
Walt doesn’t actually know that to be true. But he’s stacked the deck, especially once he convinces himself he needs to kill in self-defense. Didn’t he make the less awful of two awful choices? Walter White’s M.O. always calls for positioning the options in two camps, bad and worse, so that he can take the high ground by merely breaking bad. Everyone else is breaking so much worse.
By the end of the show, as we cheer Walt’s final victory, we’ve adopted his mentality without even realizing it. We’re root for Walt again, despite all the evil he’s done, because at least he’s not as bad as the Neo Nazis. Why Nazis? Because World War II is where every philosophy class argument about morality goes: Sure, dropping A-bombs was terrible. But more terrible than an invasion that might have been worse? Or: Would you smother an infant Hitler, to prevent all that genocide?