(This article contains major spoilers for Breaking Bad).
When it comes to a show like Breaking Bad, there seems to be little debate about its status as a modern television masterpiece. In only five short seasons, the show about mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher Walter White turned ruthless crystal meth kingpin cemented it’s place among history’s greatest television shows. Now, in honor of the show’s ten year anniversary, I thought I’d take a crack at just why this show and its exploration of the dark and savage corners of the human heart still resonates so strongly with us. I will explore the ways in which this blood soaked crime juggernaut serves as a frightening warning, one perhaps more relevant today in these incendiary and hostile times, of the dangerous potential which can exist inside every human soul and rear its ugly head when we feel as though life has backed us into a corner.
The series centers around Walter White, played with moment by moment perfection by Bryan Cranston, a fifty year old high school chemistry teacher living with his wife, Skylar and son Walter Jr. in Albuquerque, New Mexico. At first glance, Walt seems to be living the standard American Dream; he’s got the beautiful and adoring wife, a loving teenage son and the nice house in a quiet suburban neighborhood. Upon closer examination however, one clearly sees the cracks beneath the pleasant exterior. Walt’s a chemistry genius who, among other past accomplishments, co-founded Gray Matter Technologies back in college, which later went on, without him, to become a billion dollar company. Despite these accolades, Walt teaches basic chemistry to a bunch of apathetic high school kids and works at a car wash to make ends meet for his family, which will soon include an accidental second child. Through the years, Walt’s watched all his former colleagues surpass him professionally, and as he approaches his fiftieth birthday, he’s living a life of quiet desperation, merely going through the mundane motions of everyday existence like a ghost.
Walt’s humdrum existence is suddenly shattered when he receives a dreadful diagnosis on the eve of his fiftieth; terminal lung cancer. Given more or less two years to live, something long dormant in Walt suddenly flares to life and, after learning from his DEA brother-in-law Hank how much money can be made in the meth trade, Walt decides to use his chemistry knowledge to cook crystal in the hopes that he can leave enough money to support his family when he checks out. While accompanying Hank during a meth bust, Walt recognizes one of his former underachieving students, Jesse Pinkman, escaping the scene during the bust and driving away. Walt later confronts Jesse at his house and, much to Jesse’s surprise, suggests that they partner up to cook and sell crystal. With these first steps, Walter White begins his descent into the bloody world of the crystal meth trade.
The brilliance of Breaking Bad lies in Walt’s incrementally subtle and absolutely convincing transformation from quiet milquetoast muppet to ruthless drug kingpin. Creator Vince Gilligan said that his goal was to start out with Mr. Chips and gradually transform him into Scarface, and he does so with alarming plausibility. As Walt and Jesse climb higher up the drug ladder and descend deeper into the maelstrom of violence and death, not only does Walt become more comfortable in the business, but more ruthlessly determined in his pursuit of more and more cash and power. Walt begins the series clumsily navigating his way in the thuggish drug world while keeping his wife and son in the dark and also staying one step ahead of his unrelenting brother-in-law, who’s hot on the trail of Walt and Jesse’s signature blue meth, the purest the world’s ever seen. As they face one life threatening situation after another, Walt employs more cunning and increasingly ruthless tactics to not just stay alive and out of prison, but to make more money and gain more power and prestige in the drug world.
Although his diagnosis was the short term cause of Walt’s decision to “break bad”, the long term causes had been piling up little by little for years, weighing him down with a secret sense of resentment and frustration, frustration at both the world for not giving him the life he felt he was owed and perhaps a deeper frustration at himself for being too scared to pursue the success, both professional and personal, which he could’ve enjoyed if he hadn’t played it safe his entire life. This resentment had been slowly gnawing at him through the years and his diagnosis is the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, a cruelly ironic twist of fate given that he played it safe his whole life out of fear of what could happen and is dying prematurely nonetheless. In this way, his diagnosis is both a death sentence and a jarring liberation, the kind of shot in the arm to make him finally face cold reality and take charge of his life.
The audience roots for Walt as he begins asserting and standing up for himself and applauds him for taking drastic action in the name of securing a future for his family after he checks out. However, as Walt gets deeper into the meth trade and manages to out-think, out-maneuver and outlive all his opponents as well as cunningly stay one step ahead of Hank’s unrelenting investigation, his long pent up resentments and desires begin to surface and wield their control in the form of his drug world alter ego, Heisenberg. As he accumulates more wealth and control in the drug world, just leaving a safety net for his family is not enough; he wants to fulfill all his deepest dreams of having it all and at an increasingly ruthless and terrible cost. Walt becomes obsessed with securing his legacy and establishing a meth empire where he’s the undisputed king of the hill.
Much of Walt’s resentment stems from the falling out he had years earlier with Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz, the former being the co-founder, along with Walt, of Gray Matter Technologies and the latter being Walt’s one time girlfriend, now Elliot’s wife and co-owner of Gray Matter. As we find out, Walt ended up selling his shares in the company for peanuts long before it was worth billions. In Walt’s mind, Gretchen and Elliot stole his research and made their fortune off of it, leaving him nothing besides a slow burning resentment. According to Gretchen however, it was Walt who abandoned her and his business partner Elliot, presumably because of some perceived inferiority Walt felt being among Gretchen and her well to do family. Despite the show’s initial inference that Gretchen and Elliot robbed Walt of a better life, the truth is that Walt suddenly walked away from that life from fear of not being good enough, a decision which haunts Walt and creates his sense of resentment.
Walt’s long stifled resentment, frustration and sense of entitlement eventually drive his egotistical and ruthless quest to accumulate more power and wealth and let nothing stand in his way. As Walt’s tactics become more heartless and brutal, he finds ways to justify his actions to those around him, particularly himself. In his quest to not only stay in the game, but stay on top, Walt bears responsibility, both deliberately and unintentionally, for shattering many lives, most notably the lives of his family and his partner, Jesse. Walt’s ruthlessness finally catches up to him when Hank is killed in the third to final episode of the series. Having discovered that Walt is the man he’s been hunting for almost two years, Hank endeavors to take Walt down, even enlisting Jesse, whose life’s been all but shattered by Walt’s machinations. When Hank is shot by the group of Nazis Walt reluctantly hired to kill Jesse, Walt’s forced to look on helplessly as his brother-in law is shot in the head. After all his clever maneuvering, Walt’s helpless to stop the terror he’s unleashed from killing a member of his family and shattering his remaining family members.
As far as series finales go, Breaking Bad may take the crown on delivering one of the most satisfying endings in television history. After irrevocably shattering what remains of his family and fleeing to Vermont under a new identity, Walt finally returns to New Mexico determined to get his remaining money to his family by any means and kill off the gang of Nazis who murdered Hank and remain a threat to his family. The Walter who returns is a thin shadow of Heisenberg at his prime, a ghostly and shattered man with nothing left to lose. He pays Skylar a quick, final visit and reveals, much to her shock, that everything he did, ultimately, he did for himself, explaining that he enjoyed it and was good at it. After the endless parade of lies and empty reassurances he kept throwing at Skylar, she’s actually relieved to hear him admit that ultimately it was all done for his own satisfaction.
Breaking Bad concludes with Walt seemingly succeeding in getting his hard earned blood money to his family, with some very reluctant help from Gretchen and Elliot before finally wiping out all of the Nazis in one swift stroke courtesy of an M60 rigged to fire automatically from a swiveling tripod in the trunk of a car. Although he fulfills his original goal of leaving enough money for his family and also frees Jesse from a life of cruel servitude with the Nazis, Walt’s unable to undo the massive damage and trauma, both physical and emotional, his egotistically driven actions wrought upon his family and that’s what makes the finale of Breaking Bad so devastatingly perfect. Rather than wasting away from cancer, Walt goes out on his own terms, in a final blaze of destructive glory, surrounded by the lab equipment he loves so much, and in that way, you can say he achieved what he initially set out to do, but along the way he destroyed his family in a much more deeply traumatic way than just leaving them without enough money.
Part of the show’s irresistible appeal is how it satisfies the innate human desire to seize control of our life and pursue what we most deeply hunger for while serving as a fascinating warning about the potential dangers of our repressed desires and deeply held fears and how they can, if we let them, drive us to do terrible and unrepentant things, all under the justification of taking what we feel we’re owed or is rightfully ours. Walt’s journey from mild mannered average Joe to ruthless drug kingpin presents us with a blood stained road map of how a person can lose their very soul, a map which warns us of the dangers along the way and shows us, with chilling precision, just how we ourselves might get there.