Essay: How 'Breaking Bad' cheated its way to a grandly cynical finale

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Image Credit: AMC

Cheaters never prosper, or so they say. And if they do, they’re probably biblical moralists or writers of film noir, the kind where desperate saps with immoral get-rich schemes get punished for their transgressive ambition one way or another, sooner or later. Double Indemnity. No Country for Old Men. And Breaking Bad, the extraordinary, many-things-at-once, neo-noir, desert-western, dark-comedy serial created by Vince Gilligan, which came to an end Sunday night. For five seasons, this bold and cold AMC series chronicled the downfall of a dying, dead-on-the-inside Everyman who sold out his principles (such as they were) to feel alive and strong; who betrayed and then just ripped up all of our culture’s explicit and implicit social contracts to score the significance he believed he deserved. Walter White was a man who could have been a tech king, but who chickened out and cashed out too early; who abused his neglected genius to enter the drug trade and build a grotesque, destructive substitute for the empire that might have been his; who tried to beat the reaper by becoming one himself, The One Who Knocks. In the end, this too-human monster was allowed a happy ending: He went to the grave on his own terms, and with all of his illusions about himself intact. He was, in his mind, a mythic Campbellian hero, a man who went on a journey to bring back an elixir of treasure to save his family (but oh, how they didn’t want it, his horrible blood money!); a Marvelous action hero, who emancipated slaves and destroyed an evil empire (that he had built himself, that had destroyed so many lives!). As an avatar of heroism, Walt was as meaning-challenged as the Lady Justice in Saul Goodman’s office, as the Nazi swastika on Uncle Jack’s arm. And so Walter White, the antithesis of what we really want from heroes — sincerity, selflessness, virtue we can believe in — was a critique of the antihero culture that spawned him. In his folly, we hear echoes of ancient wisdom. For what will profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul? (Jesus) How much land does one man need? (Tolstoy) We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy. (Dumbledore)

Breaking Bad was awesome. It was arty-fun pulp, profound but short of pretentious and never preachy, and proof that careful attention to the internal lives of its characters, the details of the world, and thematic possibilities of any story in any genre can create transcendent effects. It was not just a pleasure to watch, but it was a pleasure to watch the culture embrace it, especially here at the end. Given my regard for the show, I have long had that unreasonable fanboy desire for everyone to lovelovelove this seemingly unlovable drama about a brilliant meth-making skipper and his Bitch!-quippy little buddy trying to survive and thrive in the seedy wilds of underworld ABQ. I have also had that ridiculously demanding desire for Breaking Bad‘s last episodes to be perfect. I have not been as impressed with the last eight episodes as a whole as others have been (the Walt/Hank confrontation in the premiere, the all-time great “Ozymandias,” and the satisfying closure of the finale notwithstanding) — but 92 percent pure ain’t nothing to sneeze at. When I think about what makes Breaking Bad great, I think about the intricate, richly thematic design of individual seasons and the extraordinary mise-en-scène within each episode; I think about Cranston’s unfailing success at grounding every moment of his monster in some emotion or aspect of human experience that we can relate to, even when we didn’t want to; I think of the love-hate warfare between Walt & Jesse and Walt & Skyler; I think of the themes, like the value we put on human life and on our own; I think ofthe humor, the horror, and the endings. “Run!” “Everybody wins.” “Tread lightly.” The kicker to the pilot that resonated all the way unto the end: “Walt? Is that you?!”

And then there was the armchair sport of tracking the business of the title. The show pitched us Mr. Chips-to-Scarface; we wanted to understand the mechanics of that mutation. And for most of the show’s run, Walt’s evolution of evil proceeded logically and felt credible, and by the time we reached the last season, Breaking Bad was read as a “moral” drama.  James Poniewozik of Time put fine words to it in August: “By ‘moral,’ I don’t mean preachy, or aimed at making you a better person, or a wholesome hour’s entertainment for you and your small children to enjoy together. Rather, from the beginning to (it would seem) the end, the show has systematically been about morality: how it works, how it fails, what makes a good and bad person, how the seed of evil finds purchase and grows.”

We all have our theories about why Walter White broke bad. Some will tell you Walt was always as bad as he wanted to be, and that cancer simply broke the chain that kept that beast leashed. Some will tell you that Walt’s story could be read politically, as a critique of white-male privilege gone ballistically mad. (Interesting how both fed/challenged this reading. More on this later.) Some will tell you that the Heisenberg uncertainty principle explains it all: Walt’s impossible-to-measure Determinism; his duality; other stuff Wikipedia tells me. I’ve looked at Breaking Bad through a variety of perspectives over the years. I have thought Breaking Bad was dramatizing a theory of behavioral psychology that says post-Enlightenment secular man, lacking faith in received wisdom, institutions, or symbolic ritual to assuage terror of mortality, chases after “immortality projects” — legal or otherwise — in which the actual self (in this case, Walt) creates an aspirational self (the pork-pie, black-shaded godfather) and adopts a “heroic” project to obtain a sense of mastery over life that yields a useful self-deception, a denial of death.

Overthink much? Maybe. “Who cares? Who cares, who cares, who cares?” opined Linda Holmes, a Breaking Bad admirer, in an essay earlier this season about our interest in parsing Walt’s evil. I do wonder if all our psychoanalyzing/philosophizing was just us trying to rationalize and justify the “morally shady” pleasure of watching a man pursue abhorrent bliss. (“It can’t all be for nothing” = us?) Here at the end, as we reckon with a finale that felt to some like an affirmation of Walt’s immorality than a critique of it, I no longer see a show that was remarkable for its seemingly fair, rigorous observation of human behavior. I see a story led by a cynical view of human nature that was determined to reach a predetermined destination by any means necessary, for better and worse. A feeling of inescapable inevitability emerged throughout season 5. This was not just the byproduct of two flash-forwards that teased a violent climax. Gilligan and his writers mushed Walt, Jesse, Skyler, and Hank to their final destinations by using — sometimes with a knowing wink – tried and true storytelling “cheats.” This invariably happens in any kind of serialized storytelling, especially at the end, as writers try to make rationalize and reconcile an accumulation of making-it-up-as-we-got-along storytelling. The Contrived Coincidence (see: Hank’s Lucky Crap, when he found the incriminating Leaves of Grass in the john; Walt’s chance viewing of Charlie Rose, the catalyst for the finale). The Thunderbolt Epiphany (see: Jesse suddenly realizing Walt has poisoned Brock). The Idiot Stick (see: Hank’s Keystone Kop pursuit of Walt). Hear me: I am not trying to be a nitpicker, and I’m not trying to argue that Vince Gilligan is a bad writer — no, he’s a brilliant writer and I can’t wait to see what he does next — or that Breaking Bad wasn’t a great show. But I am wondering if it was a different show than what we thought it was, and I do question the value of its treatment of moral concerns: The final season felt like scientists meddling with an experiment to achieve a desired result; or the clumsy intrusion of capricious, morally ambiguous Fate, something like Maxwell’s Demon, regulating with bias the actions of particles within a closed system. Either one confuses — or makes more interesting, depending on your point of view — our understanding of Walt’s character and the show’s depiction of human nature.

Nothing summed up the overt Fate-or-cheat? dynamic more than the opening scene of the finale, in which Walt tried to steal a snow-covered car that would take him to his final destination. He saw police headlights and and began begging/bargaining (with God? Satan? Death? Vince Gilligan? The Audience?) for passover. The cruiser cruised by — and an idea struck him. He reached up to the visor… and car keys fell like a gift from heaven. Deus ex machina, indeed. It was as if a morally sensitive universe was giving him more chances to surrender and submit to The Law; or an impish universe seducing him to more evil. Either way, Walt’s world comes off as almost mystically alive and supernaturally — or unnaturally — active. And it begs questions. Here are mine: Did Breaking Bad really give us a plausible portrait of a man breaking bad? What was the show’s philosophy of human nature? Did we get artfully rendered determinism and or artfully rendered fatalism? Let’s drag in George Bernard Shaw, shall we? “The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.” Point taken. But which is Breaking Bad: Accurate observation or cynicism? Both? The truth, perhaps, is in the plastic teddy bear eye of the beholder.

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