When life gives you lemons, make meth—at least under Walter White’s (a)moral calculus. Confronted with terminal lung cancer, a teenage son with cystic fibrosis, and an unexpected pregnancy, Walt begins cooking meth to provide for his family. A serial Emmy winner, Breaking Bad chronicles the dark metamorphosis of Mr. White, a brilliant but overqualified high school chemistry teacher, to a ruthless drug kingpin capable of poisoning children and bombing nursing homes.
But more compelling than the creative, cliffhanger-addled plot, or the perceptive cinematography of show creator Vince Gilligan are the substantial moral questions developed through Walter’s hedonism and the loyal audience’s pleasure with his moral implosion. Dr. David Koepsell, a professor at the University of Delft and author of Breaking Bad and Philosophy, sat down with the Harvard Political Review to discuss the themes of the show.
Walter’s fedora-sporting meth lord alter-ego is Heisenberg, a tribute to the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who discovered the uncertainty principle. It’s interesting that Heisenberg’s principle definitely proved that there are limits to what we can know, while Walter navigates a world in which there is a similar metaphysical uncertainty.
Yet Koepsell found that Walter’s odd street name “offers us a clue about how his character is going to evolve” from his original ethical perspective that is “more or les utilitarian” to “total ethical egotism.” Walter goes from writing a pros and cons list on whether or not to kill Crazy Eight to poisoning an eight-year old child to win back the allegiance of his young partner, Jesse Pinkman.
But despite Walter’s nihilistic worldview, where ethical codes are merely conventional, the show remains moralistic. “Vince Gilligan is a moralist,” Koepsell said, “and this is a modern morality play.” In the manner of Everyman or other medieval morality plays, allegories where the protagonist sees the error in an ungodly existence, Walter White will be called to account for his sins, although not through a Christian God, or any deity at all.
Breaking Bad has never given any indication of Walter’s religion, nor is as codified religion necessary to establish that he is a self-styled modern Meursault, the existentialist antihero of Camus’ The Stranger, struggling to navigate the nihilistic realities of the world. Unlike Everyman or Faust, where the title character sells his soul to the devil and experiences divine intervention, the reckoning comes not from God, Nor will Walter’s reckoning come from the DEA, but from the relentless brutality of the world.
One of Breaking Bad’s many ironies is Hank Schrader, Walter’s brother-in-law, is also the section chief of the Albuquerque DEA. Hank maintains a ferocious nobility in spite of shooting criminals, being shot by cartel hit men, and overcoming months of physical therapy. Hank’s dogged pursuit of Heisenberg and perpetual suspicion of the politically powerful Gus Fring earned him his promotion. Last month’s midseason finale saw Hank discover a poetry collection that an inscription implicating Walt as the mysterious meth-making virtuoso Heisenberg.
“I can’t picture Hank ever turning against Walt in any sort of public way,” said Dr. Koepsell. Even if he wanted to arrest Walter, Hank “doesn’t have any evidence that he can pursue.” Hank’s morality will be thrust between a duty to his agency and a love for his family. And at the end of the day, Koepsell suspects that Hank will bury his suspicions to avoid destroying Walt’s family. In this way, Hank displays more compassion for Walter’s family than Walter himself by being an actual father figure to his children, literally adopting them for a few weeks while Walter’s marriage with Skylar disintegrated.
Placing Hank at the center of two difficult investigations, that of Gus Fring and his brother-in-law, allows Breaking Bad to make a mockery of the legal system in general, and of drug enforcement in particular. Walter at one point remarks that he is a businessman meeting a need, one who would indeed be doing nothing criminal in a more libertarian society. Hank’s original pursuit of Gus places him in bureaucratic hot water because of Gus’s high-profile fundraiser status, with the implication that the legalized corruption and institutional reliance on money weakens their efficacy.
Breaking Bad “makes a very good point about the haphazard way the laws are applied,” said Koepsell. “If you’re well-off and a respectable looking criminal, you can prevail… but if you are a minority and you don’t hang around the right crowd, you’re going to get caught.” Gus Fringe integrated meth distribution through his large fried-chicken chain, Los Pollos Hermanos, while Walter builds his network in California and the Czech Republic through the large German multinational corporation, Madrigal Electromotive. The social comment is made that the undue influence of big business on public officials and law enforcement can lead to the persecution of crimes committed by the unconnected, while the elite escape with relative impunity.
The fickle law enforcement agencies are just as disconcerting as the show’s embodiment of the a legal system: Saul Goodman, a stereotypically sleazy lawyer who assists Walt’s operation. That Goodman’s office is overflowing with imitation pieces, from fake columns to fake constitutions, reflects a deep-seated skepticism of the lawyers who sell their moralities to the highest bidder. In one of the many parallels between Breaking Bad and The Godfather, Walter has assumed the title of meth Don while Goodman is now his consigliere Tom Hagen.
The persistent allusions throughout the show to The Godfather foreshadow the coupled destinies of Walter White and Michael Corleone, both outsiders who take over illicit empires. Ted Beneke, a tax cheat who was Skylar’s employer, attempted to flee from Goodman’s men, crashing headfirst into a piece of furniture, launching a cascade of oranges that evoke the assassination attempt of Don Corleone. Walter recently ordered a tightly choreographed execution of eight prison inmates that alludes to Michael Corleone’s assassination of the New York dons. Later on, Michael unsuccessfully attempts to legitimize his business, perhaps hinting at Walt’s inability to execute a clean escape from the meth industry.
Both kingpins, Corleone and White, also share a tortured soul mate who must endure estrangement and reluctant tolerance of the family business. According to Koepsell, Skylar has expanded from the one-dimensional, distraught secondary character to one who “is motivated now, in a very sort of modern sense, to be a liberated woman.” A sort of Nora struggling to exit a bullet-riddled, drug-infested doll’s house, Skylar is seeking to “reclaim some dignity on her part as a person.” Growing from a clueless housewife into the manager actively laundering Walter’s illicit gains has completely destroyed Skylar’s marriage.
Skylar smokes during a pregnancy, brazenly cheats on her husband, and stages a suicide attempt to voice her disgust with Walt’s moral decline. She acts out of a rightful disdain for the sexist boxing into a prescribed set of roles still prevalent today. Why should she attempt to be a caring mother and wife when her estranged husband makes no bona fide effort at either? When Walter is watching and launching at Scarface, a movie where the antihero’s fiery demise might parallel his own, Skylar resignedly remarks, “everyone dies in this movie.” Her fatalism is further cemented when she bluntly tells Walter that she is waiting for his cancer to return.
“Cancer is an allegory for evil,” notes Koepsell when discussing the philosophical dimensions of the disease. Walt’s cancer is like that of the morally decrepit, tumor-ridden antagonists of Magnolia in that it is a moral cancer inside him that eats away at his soul. “We should question whether Walt ever broke bad during the course of the show. I think he actually broke bad long before the show began,” said Koepsell. Indeed, the unannounced results of Walt’s most recent scan along with a noticeable cough in the flash-forward hints at the return of Walt’s lung cancer.
But the circumstances of this new cancer are different. With the original cancer, the audience was firmly behind Walter. His actions at the beginning of the series were almost justifiable, a poor, brilliant man with a death sentence just wanted to leave something for his wife and kids to afford the bills and college. But when the cancer evaporated into remission, Walt’s greed would not do the same. And now that he has squandered his chance at redemption, the cancer could return much stronger, as it often does, and accordingly punish Walter’s transgressions.
“We end up identifying with and sympathizing with somebody who’s a villain. And then we are lectured at by the author as to why this is wrong,” Koepsell says to explain the dilemma of the audience, who are torn between a desire to denounce him and a desire to cheer him on. Perhaps the most important moral question introduced by Breaking Bad is its constant need to make the audience question our ethical allegiances.
Gilligan morally assaults the audience, asking us if sympathizing with Walter White makes us complicit in his crimes. Breaking Bad makes the powerful point in its illustration of a once-moral man’s decline that there is no person of Platonic virtue. Instead, it chillingly emits a haunting reminder: we are all breaking bad.