In Defense of “Breaking Bad”

BreakingBadThumbby Glenn Fairman
Beginning shortly after the series’ finale of the controversial and phenomenally acclaimed series, Breaking Bad, a host of commentators and wags began offering their own post-mortems dissecting its peculiar moral zeitgeist and speculating on what its wild popularity reveals about our underlying American character. As the divination of a culture’s essence through its interests and amusements can be akin to reading tea leaves and any such interpretations are contingent upon how art is refracted through the political or philosophical lens, the ideologically tinted eye is bound to arrive at some rather questionable conclusions.

That being said, a less than perfunctory evaluation of the series has prompted some to attribute its notoriety to an American fascination with nihilism: the absence of moral values, and/or an undaunted “Wild West” strain of Capitalism, whose concentrated material avarice perpetually overshadows that still small voice of social justice. It is my position that both claims are erroneous – and that justice: in particular Plato’s final formulation “that each man receives what he duly deserves,” was delivered to all concerned before the final scene had terminally faded to black.

There is something in the healthy human heart that craves justice, and for the American, whose spirit has always been inextricably tethered to the morality play par excellence: the Western – this goes double. We may indeed be a course bunch and a bit ragged around the edges, but as our entertainments go, we have never been fully sold on Art House cinema, Ingmar Bergman, or existentialist angst. It’s not that we prefer our heroes or villains to appear in unmistakable shades of black or white, but that we demand a reassurance by the time we reach the credits that the polarity of the moral universe has been corrected. Therefore, despite a 24/7 saturation of highbrow media designed to sway us from our provincial desire for justice, we categorically reject out of hand the idea that the shriek of evil should forever lie unresolved. In spite of these recent claims to the contrary, the minds behind Breaking Bad clearly understood such a psychological necessity when they ultimately settled the show’s cinematic accounts.

In truth, no nihilist worthy of his time spent staring into the abyss would have ever resolved the series with an appeal to justice, or even the slightest semblance of it. As a case in point, there is no uncertain justice when the sterile characters of Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz are unmasked (albeit only to the viewers) as: opportunistic, shallow, and craven personalities that all along have sought only to feather their nest and salve their materialistic consciences. But Walt/Heisenberg, in effect, turns the tables on the couple. Hereafter, it will be their moral callowness that will set into motion Walt’s penultimate “good deed;” and therein, redeem his initial worthy aspiration of providing for his surviving family. Unfortunately, the primal chaos that he has spun in achieving his ends requires a reckoning that even the brilliant Heisenberg cannot escape.

Over the course of the final episodes, it had become painfully clear that for our anti-hero, and in tragic fashion, his “fair exchange” of money for his humanity had resulted in alienating all that he had ever loved. For the viewer and for Walt, the cost proves too much to bear. While living as a hunted fugitive ensconced in his self-imposed frozen fortress of despair, he finally comes to terms with the jagged truth of what his terrible actions have wrought. Even more, he realizes that it was not filial altruism, but an act of malevolent pride and ego, which drove him to embrace the outlaw within. And so, reconciled and embedded in his fate, Walter White: the Sorrowful Master of his Blue Meth Empire, spirals down into his inexorable death with only half the loaf he entered into Hell to obtain. In squandering the respect and affection of his loved ones, he has paid a terrible price for his dark transaction – more terrible than any of us would ever dare.

As to temporal justice, the balance of Breaking Bad’s evil pantheon all receive their well deserved comeuppance: Gus, Lydia, the Nazis, Todd, Tuco and the twins—none escape the hand of retribution. Even the decrepit Hector Salamanca, confined to his pathetic wheelchair, receives a pyrrhic vengeance by “ringing his bell.” And while it is undeniable that a host of innocents have perished, at least their deaths are vindicated and their murderers are made to pay with their skins. Even the lovely Skyler pays, and will go on paying, for her part in Walt’s cover-up. Perhaps she will one day realize that Walt was the true source of the largesse that will be dispensed via her son Flynn—-and that will make her agony all the more unbearable.

And finally, Jesse – the man-child with the ethical depth of an oil spill – perhaps pays the greatest price of all through surviving this Sophoclean morality tale. He has lost two women whom he held deep feelings for: one to an overdose and the other as penalty for his escape attempt. For their deaths, and for all the lives that were cut short or maimed by his hand, he will carry a crushing guilt upon his conscience for the sum of his days. In making common cause with Walt, he joined hands with the devil and everything in his life was burnt to ashes. Nevertheless in the end, Jesse is buoyed by the fact that, as a wayward penitent, he is resurrected from the Hell brought about by the totality of his sins. In the end, he alone lives to tell the full harrowing tale that his physical and mental scars will forever be evidenced by. While initially the most unworthy of the series’ main characters, Jesse emerges reborn through fire as his conscience is resuscitated back to life by Todd’s murder of an innocent child. As we bid farewell to him driving madly through the compound’s gates and screaming wildly into the arid New Mexico desert night, his once careless throwaway life – to the exclusion of all the others who richly merited death – is gifted with a second chance at redemption. For him alone, somehow: justice has been tempered by mercy.

Post-Modernity has left its stamp on the television/movie genre like no other aesthetic form—and therein lurks its power of dark cunning in corrupting our moral landscape. Films such as “No Country for Old Men” or “There Will Be Blood” assault our moral sensibilities because they entice us with the deception that we are floundering in a freezing universe without loadstone, purpose, or a final accounting to reign in our imaginations. Breaking Bad, although at times grisly and raw, ultimately reinforces the maxim that: although the wheels of justice often grind slowly, they do, in the fullness of days, grind exceedingly fine. In this lays its art and its power — and its fearful moral education for those with still an ear left to hear.
Glenn Fairman writes from Highland, Ca. He can be reached at • (1950 views)

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10 Responses to In Defense of “Breaking Bad”

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’d rather come to the defense of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But to each his own.

  2. faba calculo says:

    Extremely strong sum up to a great series!

    I think you might be being too hard on Gretchen and Elliot, who worst sin appears to have been to dishonestly downplay the role Walt played in coming up with their original idea for the sake of PR. (Either that, or you picked up on something I didn’t.) Basically, they seemed like successful business people who offered to pay for Walt’s entire treatment out of friendship, thereby offering him a way of getting out of his meth empire early on. That he turned the offer down so angrily was one of the earliest indication that leaving money for his family after he was dead wasn’t what making meth was really all about for him.

    Hmm. A sentence spent on the 99% where I agree and a paragraph spent on the 1% where I didn’t. Story of my life.

  3. Glenn Fairman Glenn Fairman says:

    In the case of Walter White, we find that after 5 seasons, the self-delusion of altruism that has served as an apologetic for his vile enterprise is just so much smoke. While leaving his family a material legacy is important, the act of dying without affirming some mark in the world holds greater precedence. At Grey Matter Technologies, he would have been a billionaire legal drug kingpin. As Heisenberg he attained an equal status of power–although notoriously.

    There is some speculation about his relationship with Gretchen….did she have an affair with Elliot when she and Walt were dating or did Walt feel that Gretchen’s parents treated him with condescension because he did not come from money as she did? Did this inflated sense of self contribute to his walking away from a 2 billion dollar company for a paltry 5 grand buyout? Walt’s formulas and genius were seminal in GM’s success—and this bile in his throat was the goad of grievance that festered in his soul. Was he driven to darkness by the seeming injustice of life? His trek through the underworld is therefore an attempt at righting this injustice–and like many Greek tragedies, fatal hubris is the downfall of men and cities.

    The one thing that a man like Walter White can not abide is pity, especially a pity that is offered by those whom one believes are inferior to him. At least in his convoluted reasoning, he is squaring accounts by writing the ancient wrong done to him by pampered souls who live off the mental capital of others. Rightly or wrongly, Walt desired justice–that his justice became retribution for so many in a relentless march towards self-actualizing his prize, made the show irresistible to me.

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’m not sure in terms of “What would Jesus do?” that he would be watching “Breaking Bad.” It’s a pornographically violent and illicit program. But I have now watched the first four seasons of it — partly because it was entertaining, and partly for doing cultural research.

    But even though it was entertaining, I knew all along that this was a kind of “guilty pleasure.” I think many (including Jonah Goldberg) try to rationalize their guilty pleasures as something else. I find this lack of self-awareness amusing. But humans tend to be very good at rationalizing.

    I think it would just be more honest to admit that “Breaking Bad” is another soul-sucking piece of highly-entertaining cultural trash that requires one to take a shower after watching. But it does tickle our funny-bone in terms of a sort of Schadenfreude-esque pleasure of watching other people suffer, of the excitement of crime, of the sheer intensity of lives lived according to their own rules, even if they are criminal and highly destructive rules.

    I try to be honest about the shows that I watch. I’ll tell the reader if something is entertaining, but that you might need to take a shower after watching it. I think “Breaking Bad” is clearly of this type. I would recommend that nobody watch this. Go out and smell the daisies or read a good book. There are much better things to do with your time. And if there are not then, Houston, there may be a problem. Mea culpa, indeed.

  5. Glenn Fairman Glenn Fairman says:

    what is pornographically violent?

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      How about the guy he had down in his cellar chained to post. I’m not saying I’m above watching violence as a form of entertainment. But I’m honest enough to admit that I do so. I see nothing wrong in that, per se, for adults from time to time. But I think “Breaking Bad” is just an instance of the typical cultural poison being done really well and acted really well. I’ll give them that. But would I want my kid to watch that? Hell no. That’s all I’m saying.

  6. Pokey Possum says:

    “But I have now watched the first four seasons of it — partly because it was entertaining, and partly for doing cultural research”

    Brad, Brad, Brad….four seasons? No wonder your puzzle isn’t finished.
    I’m curious though (having never seen the show), what is the culture you refer to? Hollywood? I think we know more than we need to about that culture. American culture? Remember, it’s scripted! The script says a lot about the demented values of the writer(s) more than anything, I suspect. “Hello, Brad? This is your life calling.” Just saying…(just for fun).

    And Glenn. I just get the feeling he’s seen far worse in real life. He lives in California.

    • Glenn Fairman Glenn Fairman says:

      Yes, California:

      “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      what is the culture you refer to? Hollywood?

      Pokey, is there really much difference these days. 😀 I had the mainstream TV on last night because I wanted to watch the World Series. Interspersed with actual game play was a myriad of commercials and promos for other shows. And I could just feel the intelligence oozing out of my ears even as I watched. It’s been some time since I’ve watched any network TV and it’s bracing to see just how and why we have become so stupid, dead, and immoral as a people.

      But, yes, I really do a bit of cultural research now and then. And “Breaking Bad,” for what it is (and that’s what this debate is about), is a highly entertaining series if you’re into that sort of thing which, truth be told, was most of the draw for me. I’ve also watched some of “Dexter” which is even darker.

      I’m just laying my sins out on the table here and not apologizing for them. But what I am saying that I think my days of intentionally poisoning my mind with this dribble are about over. I’ll stick to old movies, good new-run movies (I’d like to see “Gravity”), classic books, blogging (yeah, no kidding), and such. I’m not a prude. I’m not anti-sex and anti-violence, per se. But I do think it’s a good idea to cut down on those things. We are what we eat, more or less.

  7. Glenn Fairman Glenn Fairman says:

    To be honest, Breaking Bad was one of my guilty pleasures, as they say. But other than that series and Big Bang Theory, I do not watch network TV. I write a lot on cultural phenomena primarily because, although I was trained as a political philosopher, I find politics to be frankly…..nauseating.

    I wrote several articles a while back on the Jodi Arias Trial because I found it to be so damn riveting. And a lot of other people did too, although I was excoriated for it. Good literature can move people….but bad people can be riveting also because we want to know what makes them tick. The Arias trial was interesting because it was a Greek Tragedy in the sense that, with the exception of Arias, most everyone knew that she was guilty—even the audience. In ancient Drama, everyone knew the stories but the drama had to be played out. We knew Walter White would come to a bad end, and like a train wreck, we wanted to see it. I don’t know what this says about us….it sure may not be pretty…… Nietzsche said, “Human, all too Human.”

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