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

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So far, so high-minded. On some days, even I didn’t buy it. Fracking Breaking Bad for deep goo was always dubious exercise. The crime genre naturally skews lower-case cynical, populated with people highly motivated to not do the right thing and possess no love of virtue. And hey: Meth-making scuzzballs are probably not the test subjects for researching virtue, especially ones that are, like, totally made-up, and were as compromised with burdens like Walter White. He came to us in a state of Falling Down, boo-hoo-hooey distress. Squashed dreams. Humble, humbling jobs. Pregnant wife. Handicapped teenage son. Modest savings and crap health insurance. And that was all there before they gave him terminal cancer. Of course Walt was going to break bad — he was utterly baroque with brokenness. The characteristics of Walt’s internal world — specifically the festering wound of Gray Matter that oozes jealousy and bitterness throughout his being (more on this later) — were chosen to create a personality that would resist, reject, revolt against any other course of action, righteous or otherwise, so much so that by this last season, he’d be proudly proclaiming to Jesse that he knew he was going to hell, and dammit if he wasn’t going to reign like Lucifer until he got there. (Not that Walt even believes in hell; maybe if he did, things would be different.) Put another way: Walt was going to break bad, and then reallyreally bad, whether he wanted to or not. There’s no show if he doesn’t.

Which was fine with me. Really, it was. It did bother me that Breaking Bad didn’t dwell more on the devastation caused to individuals and communities by Walt’s meth-making. The show leaned too much on an unspoken compact with the audience: Let’s take as a given that drugs are reallyreallyreally bad. Okay? Now, let’s focus on other things. I was also bothered when it seemed like the show was actively denying Walt legit opportunities to do Good or redeem himself, and when the show indulged in cruel joke storytelling and maximized the consequences to grotesque extremes. Sometimes, the temptations placed in front of him felt credible; other times, forced. Walt lets Jane choke to death on her vomit to advance and protect his awful interests; Jane’s distraught father returns to work too early and allows two airplanes to collide in mid-air. Breaking Bad was using gross exaggeration to make a point about the ripple-effect ramifications that any action, selfish or altruistic or neutral, have on the world, but the exaggeration was so gross that it begged an incredulity that undermines our want to engage and embrace the wisdom presented. Put another way: That was just f—ing mean. When I think of Breaking Bad‘s worldview, I think of the season 1 episode “Cancer Man,” and I flash on the drawing in Jesse’s brother’s bedroom of the Hindenburg aflame and falling from the sky and the words “Oh the humanity!” The people of Breaking Bad are buggy Hindenburgs, their doomed voyages made all the more certain by the direction of some really twisted and manipulative air traffic controllers.

Other examples of the show’s storytelling strategies and philosophy were sooooo damn bleak that I just say: No. In Breaking Bad, murder was routinely depicted as, like, The Worst Thing You Can Possibly Do… Except Slavery. Okay, no debate there. But exceptional death often had other special properties in Breaking Bad, too, especially when it involved children and family. Jesse’s slow what-have-I-become? meltdown began in season 5 when Todd kills The Tarantula Kid; he finally applied himself to rebellion when he realized that Mr. White poisoned Brock. Skyler made peace with Walt’s evil and even agreed to frame Hank for her husband’s crimes, but when she realized Walt’s wickedness had cost her brother-in-law his life, she finally took a stand against her husband. Walt’s motivation for quitting the meth business? The return of that indomitable buzzkill, cancer. (The on-off-on of Walt’s cancer was perhaps the clearest proof of Breaking Bad‘s capriciousness.) In the “moral universe” of Breaking Bad, death-horror is pretty much the only reliable prod that can move the soul toward The Good, and even then, only when it involves innocence incarnate or loved ones. If that’s true, then we’re all screwed, and The Hunger Games starts to look like a pretty reasonable idea.

Breaking Bad revealed the depth of its cynicism this season with its most heartbreaking storyline. The conventional wisdom seems to be that Hank went out a hero. But Breaking Bad went out of its way — maybe too far– to deconstruct heroism by showing that Hank’s “heroism” was far from virtuous. After Hank discovered that Walt was Heisenberg, he should have immediately told the DEA — but he didn’t. Why? Pride. He had been scammed by his own brother-in-law. How humiliating, for himself, and for the DEA, and Hank was certain the embarrassment would cost him his job. He reasoned that the only thing that he could do to salvage his ruined rep was to collar Walt himself. And to make sure the DEA didn’t take that away from him, he broke the rules of proper police work and decided to conduct the final phase of his investigation in secret. One of the season’s most audacious moments was also one of its most preposterous: Walt’s blackmail tape, framing Hank for his crimes. Hank was effectively cowed and controlled by it, further insuring his fate. I refuse to believe a cop of Hank’s caliber would have succumbed. And I refuse to believe that the tape couldn’t have been easily debunked.

And yet, the results of these dubious storytelling choices succeeded more often than not at producing interesting, worthwhile effects. As much as I didn’t like what happened to Hank, and didn’t like some aspects of how it was done, I enjoyed thinking about and talking with people about the provocative question that Breaking Bad was trying to dramatize, namely: Did Hank = Walt? What’s the difference between heroism and villainy? Because after all: Hank’s most “heroic” action in the series ended up morphing into a self-serving “immortality project” designed to cheat the inevitable, deny the destruction of his identity, and produce a self-serving legacy. Hank’s final, defiant moment said it all. “My name is ASAC Schrader, and you can go f— yourself,” he spat at his executioner, Uncle Jack. Note it: Not “Hank.” ASAC Schrader. His symbolic self. His “Heisenberg.” This was his declaration of identity — never mind the irony that what brought him to the place of his death was technically his own damn “f— himself”: an off-book police action. It was Hank saying: “This is how I want to be remembered.” It was his “Say my name!” moment. We eulogize the failure of his “heroic” quest with the words of the Cynical/cynical poem that inspired the title of the episode that killed him:

And on the pedestal these words appear:

”My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

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