Breaking Point

5 minute read
James Poniewozik

Breaking bad may have the worst title of any great TV show ever. Hands up: Who has any idea what it means? Who has used the phrase in any conversation not about the show itself? (If you’re curious: Break bad, creator Vince Gilligan has said, is regional slang from his home state of Virginia meaning “raise hell.”)

But when you look at the title in light of the series’ story–Albuquerque, N.M., chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) becomes a murderous drug lord–it’s perfect. Think of breaking in the sense of curving. What breaks? A slider in baseball. A golf ball on a putting green. It begins straight, then changes course, not all at once but in a series of countless tiny shifts in direction.

That’s what Walter has done over five mesmerizing seasons (see chart, below). And it’s what has made Breaking Bad one of the most moral TV series ever. Not moralistic–the show isn’t preachy or prescriptive. Rather, it’s a searing, methodical investigation of morality: how it works, evolves and fails. “Technically,” Walter says in the 2008 pilot, “chemistry is the study of matter. But I prefer to see it as the study of change.”

His change is Breaking Bad’s grand experiment. (Cranston even physically evolves, from a slack-faced nebbish to a polished bust of callous willpower.) Most of TV’s conga line of antiheroes, from Tony Soprano to Dexter, have been men we met at the peak of their dirty work. But we watch Walter come to evil bit by bit, through motivations he sees as good.

Cash-strapped and diagnosed with lung cancer, he starts cooking crystal meth to leave his family provided for. He partners with his ex-student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), a small-time pusher. He lies to his wife and son. He learns to kill. (In a chilling, hilarious scene, he makes a pros-and-cons list about murder, one con being, simply, “Judeo-Christian principles.”) His cancer goes into remission, but he keeps at it until he becomes the meth king of the Southwest.

Does this make him a good man turned bad? Or did he always have the ingredients for evil–pride, arrogance, bitterness–that just happened to be triggered by the right catalysts? As Breaking Bad begins its final run Aug. 11 on AMC (technically, Part 2 of Season 5), those questions set up a final one: What does Walter White deserve?

Walter has a preferred answer, of course, but he’s biased. As we rejoin him, he has made a fortune and quit the drug business. His estranged wife Skyler (Anna Gunn), whom he entangled in his crime scheme, has taken him back. Relaxing poolside, bouncing his baby daughter on his knee, he can smugly believe he’s won: over the law, over the drug gangs, over villainy itself. As he tells Jesse–the more conscience-stricken of the duo, despite his criminal history–“The past is the past … There is nothing left for us to do except to try to live ordinary, decent lives.” Walter’s decency, he thinks, is a simple matter of observation: he is no longer manifesting the properties of evil, therefore he is now good.

We already know his retirement won’t be that easy. At the end of last year’s final episode, Walter’s DEA-agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) finally found evidence that Walter is Heisenberg, the mysterious criminal genius Hank has spent months chasing. And in a flash-forward last season, we saw Walter, a year older and haggard, drifting back into New Mexico after an absence with a machine gun in the trunk of his car.

Will the gun go off, per Chekhov’s law? Will Walter go down? It’s likely that fans will judge Breaking Bad largely on its ending, and his. TV finales imply a worldview (Lost’s spiritual afterglow vs. The Sopranos’ existential cut to black), which is one reason they’re so divisive. Like it or not, Gilligan and company will be making a statement about whether their world is one where evil is punished.

Complicating that job is the question of exactly what would even constitute an appropriate punishment. Death for Walter, either from cancer or his enemies, might be a kind of blessing, returning him to the status quo ante of a dying man telling himself that everything he did, he did for family. (At a low point, in the Season 3 episode “Fly,” he wished for exactly that kind of death.) It might be more devastating for him to be exposed and live with the knowledge that his children will remember him as a monster–but his family would be collateral damage.

It will be a neat trick if Breaking Bad solves this dilemma. But I’d rather see it end in a way that’s true to its characters–that’s as brave, thrilling and moving as the past five seasons–than contrive a flawless punishment. Whatever happens to Walter, after all, murderers will still be acquitted and corporate sleazes given bonuses. We in the real world have to live with that knowledge and keep our moral bearings anyway.

That’s why great crime dramas aren’t the ones that pass the most perfect sentences but those that best help viewers understand an imperfect world. Breaking Bad can do a lot of things to Walter White, but it can’t deliver his verdict. You and I watching, the multimillion-member jury of Walter’s peers–that’s our job.

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