“Breaking Bad’s” hell on earth

On television's most compelling antihero

Topics: Breaking Bad, Criticism, LA Review of Books, literature, Television,

"Breaking Bad's" hell on earth
This article originally appeared on the L.A. Review of Books.

Breaking Bad,” created and produced by Vince Gilligan, returns for its fifth season on AMC on July 15. It has been widely acclaimed – the show has garnered numerous Emmy awards (including three consecutive Emmys for the lead actor, Bryan Cranston, as well as one for Aaron Paul as best supporting actor). Along with “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” and “Mad Men,” many critics have hailed “Breaking Bad” as one of the best television shows in recent decades. Each work has been praised for elevating the medium of television: they are all self-consciously referential of their literary potential and aspirations. (David Simon, the creator of “The Wire,” pitched the show as a 60-hour long “visual novel.”) They all advance a particular moral view of the universe and operate in the Dickensian tradition of morality tales and social critiques dressed in the guise of realism.
Los Angeles Review of Books
At the heart of the social critique is a question of responsibility for “evil” and where to locate it (even though, of course, none of the series refer to “God” or any religious tradition at all). In “The Wire,” the responsibility lies with the “game” — the logic of the streets, the logic of politics, the “social facts” that weave an all-encompassing, interconnected web. “The Sopranos” suggests that the locus of responsibility lies in the unconscious of Tony Soprano; its explanation of “evil” is at heart Freudian. “Mad Men” largely evades this question; its driving philosophy has little to do with “moralistic” questions of human responsibility but rather the individual’s abiding unhappiness, and how modern capitalism intensifies it. (That a group of libertarians recently threw a “Mad Men” themed party, unironically championing Don Draper as a hero of better times when corporations weren’t “ashamed” of themselves, only underscores the slippery-ness of “Mad Men,” the manipulability of its message. That, or these particular libertarians don’t know how to read.)



Within this quartet, “Breaking Bad” is most similar to “The Wire,” and indeed is its twin and mirror image. While “The Wire” explored how the drug trade decimated black urban America, “Breaking Bad” looks at how drugs infiltrate the other half: suburban white America. A unifying, coherent philosophy is possessed by each, and both execute it propulsively and faithfully. David Simon likened “The Wire” to a Greek tragedy, by which he meant that sociology is an omnipotent, merciless god that twirls with the fate of mortals. In “Breaking Bad” the villain is not sociology, but a human being; what destroys the mortals is not a system, but a fellow mortal. This is a human-centered vision of the origin of evil. It is Old Testament at its core.

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That fellow mortal — the one who threatens to destroy us all — is Walter White (played by Cranston). By the end of the pilot, we learn that he has terminal lung cancer. Walt teaches high school and has no way to pay the medical bills. His wife, Skylar (played by Anna Gunn), is jobless and pregnant; his son has cerebral palsy. Walter decides to “break bad” by applying his expertise to something lucrative — cooking meth. He approaches Jesse Pinkman (played by Aaron Paul), a former student and now a petty drug dealer, with a business proposal: Walt will cook, Jesse will sell. Having been abandoned by his parents, and in need of cash, Jesse views Walt as an adult figure with some credible authority. Walt, a brilliant chemist, unsurprisingly becomes somewhat of a Picasso of drugs: his meth is the purest on the market. His product soon dominates the Southwest and, by the middle of season four, Walt and Jesse are making millions.

Yet this success comes with deep, irrevocable costs. Of these, perhaps the most heart-wrenching is the damage done to Jesse’s psyche. Jesse, who commences this journey as a misguided but ultimately sweet young man, ends Season Four traumatized, a man unhinged by what he has lost.

In a harrowing scene in that season, Jesse comes to Narcotics Anonymous, which he has been sporadically attending. He has just killed a man — his first kill, which he performed in obeisance to the desperate command of Walt. Jesse is distraught. Jesse has told nobody of the murder. The Group Leader is a man of preternatural calm. Like a secular pastor leading his flock, he begins the session with a familiar mantra:

So the truth is, we can’t change the past. What’s done is done. We got to own our actions, but putting ourselves on trial, acting as our own judge, jury, and executioner is not the answer.

The Group Leader looks at Jesse, hoping to lure him into a response.

Jesse takes the bait. He tells the group that he looked a dog “straight in the eye” and killed him.

Fellow members in the group try to console him, suggesting that the dog “was suffering,” and the act was “a kindness.”

Jesse refuses to be placated. He tells them that the dog wasn’t sick and didn’t bite anyone — it was just a “problem dog.” Anger escalates in the group, as the members try to comprehend Jesse’s seemingly inexplicable violence. (“What kind of person kills a dog for no reason?” says one member.)

The Group Leader attempts to reassert authority over the cacophony: “We’re not here to sit in judgment.”

Yet this line, meant to be one of absolution, jolts Jesse into anguish:

Why not? Why not? […] The thing is, if you just do stuff and nothing happens, what’s it all mean? What’s the point? All right, this whole thing is about self-acceptance […] So no matter what I do, hooray for me, because I’m a great guy? It’s all good, no matter how many dogs I kill — what, I do an inventory, and accept?

Jesse’s speech is, at heart, a soliloquy: it is overheard by others, but the argument is directed at himself. And it is directed relentlessly, unceasingly, repetitively. If the group leader is a saccharine, secular Jesus — all-knowing, all-forgiving, without judgment — Jesse intends to break him, not merely because he wants to hurt him, but to hurt the one idea that may help him. The thing is, if you just do stuff and nothing happens, what’s it all mean? What’s the point? Jesse desires punishment; only punishment will prove that life has meaning.

Here lies the crux of “Breaking Bad,” the heart of its terror. It is a morality lesson — the sort that, since adolescence, we have studiously avoided. Like much literature, “Breaking Bad” suggests that consciousness is crucial; but this show goes further. Conscience, consciousness do not absolve you. Indeed, nothing will. You must not only recognize your sin — you must also be ready to pay for it. This, again, is Old Testament at its core.

“Breaking Bad” appears, at first, to ask the age-old question posed by the Book of Job: why do good people suffer — why must Walt, mild-mannered family man, be struck with a debilitating illness and forced to illegality because of a broken health-care system? But the show soon inverts Job’s question, asking instead: why do bad people flourish? What moral universe produces, and then propels, a man like Walt?

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“Breaking Bad” is not alone in showcasing complex, three-dimensional characters, whom the reader and audience is unsure of whether to love or hate (why do we root for Medea’s escape even after she has killed her children?). All of the major protagonists in “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” and “Mad Men” are admirable in some way but have some deeply rooted character flaw, are all dealing with some reversal of fortune and struggle with larger forces of destiny, fate, or God.

We live in an era of compelling TV anti-heroes: Tony Soprano, who kills a man while touring colleges with his daughter; Donald Draper, who drinks by noon and has slept with half of Manhattan; McNulty, Omar, Stringer (indeed, “The Wire” is populated with nothing but anti-heroes). And finally, Walter White, who cooks meth for a billion-dollar industry while lying to his wife (to differentiate itself from its competition, the AMC website itself advertises Walter as “TV’s most complex anti-hero”). What does it say that each of these shows have no heroes, really — nobody of whom we can say, surely, this is a man I want my children to grow up to be?

If “The Wire” descends from Aeschylus’s Oresteia and its cycle of never-ending violence and despair that humans cannot transcend without intervention from the gods, then “Breaking Bad” — in its philosophy of the origin of evil, in its human-centered narrative — most directly traces to John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”

Milton’s Satan is the archetypal anti-hero. Injured for not being recognized by God, he leads a rebellion against the forces of Heaven. Rallying a third of the archangels of Heaven to defect, he argues passionately against the “Tyranny of Heaven.” He questions the origin and legitimacy of God’s power. His reason is equal to that of God’s; why, therefore, must he bow a “suppliant knee” to God, merely because God has ruled by “consent or custom”? He says, famously: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”

Milton’s Satan is terrifying because he is recognizably human: he exhibits ambition, pride, desire for freedom, and injury at being undervalued. Like Milton’s Satan, Walt is an anti-hero, burningly intelligent and reeking of lust for power.

Walt’s dilemma is the same as Satan’s: how to assert a modicum of control — of free will — against forces larger than oneself. Satan rages against a tyrannical, unjust, uncaring God; Walt battles against the inexplicability of his cancer and a broken health-care system.

Like Milton’s Satan, Walt seeks to reason and justify his rebellion. He invokes art, science, free market rationality, protection of one’s family. In this sense, libertarians and artists alike ought to embrace Walt. He is a radical individual. His product, while problematic, merely feeds demand; demand increases, and so too must production.

Walt risks all to feed a ceaseless, self-destructive desire to be king. For Milton’s Satan, ruling Hell means liberty; for Walt, selling meth means being no one’s bitch. As Milton’s Satan says of Hell, “Here at least / We shall be free.”

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But even Milton’s Satan cannot escape punishment. For Satan, this punishment begins in the misery that he feels. He is, is after all, leaving Heaven. He cries out: “Farewell happy fields / Where joy forever dwells! Hail horrors, hail / Infernal world!”

Walt’s “infernal world” is, literally, the bottom-most level of an industrial laundry where he cooks meth. It is, like Satan’s, an immense misery. In “The Fly,” set entirely in Walt’s “infernal world” and one of the most remarkable episodes of the series, we witness, for the first time, Walt nearing recognition that the universe has a moral logic.

The episode brilliantly addresses the most implausible of sequences in the previous season. Earlier, in season two, Jesse falls in love with his landlord’s daughter, Jane Margolis. Walt feels spurned by Jane’s increasing control. The battle for Jesse’s heart culminates when a hopped-up Jane blackmails Walt, threatening to tell the police of Walt’s crimes. When Walt pleads to Jesse to listen to him, Jesse chooses Jane.

Walt goes to a bar to clear his head. At the bar, a stranger engages Walt in conversation. The viewer immediately recognizes him as Jane’s father, Donald Margolis. In an extraordinarily tender scene, Donald and Walt speak to each other in cryptic ways about the need to love and stick with family, despite being endlessly disappointed by them. Walt, rejuvenated by the conversation, heads to Jesse’s house, where he finds Jesse and Jane both in a heroin-induced stupor. As Walt tries to wake Jesse, Jane vomits and begins to choke. Walt chooses to let Jane die; he stands and watches her, crying. Jesse, asleep, knows nothing of this, and later blames himself for Jane’s death.

Meanwhile, Donald, who is an air-traffic controller, is so distraught by the death of his only daughter, and so distracted by his grief that he causes a mid-air collision between two planes. Hundreds die. Human bodies rain onto Albuquerque, some directly onto Walt’s backyard. Walt watches the news broadcast, which flashes a photograph of the man who caused the collision. Staggered by surprise, Walt realizes that he knows that man: it is Donald, the stranger he met at the bar; it is the father of Jane, whom he let die.

In “The Fly,” Walt relates the encounter with Donald to Jesse. It is one of the rare instances where Walt is not sneering at or berating Jesse.

Walt says, “I mean, think of the odds. Once I tried to calculate them, but they’re astronomical. I mean, think of the odds of me going in, sitting down, that night in that bar next to that man.”

He continues:

The universe is random. It’s not inevitable. It’s simple chaos. It’s subatomic particles in endless atomic collision. That’s what science teaches us. But what is this saying? What is it telling us when, on the very night that this man’s daughter dies, it’s me who’s having a drink with him? I mean, how can that be random?

What is extraordinary here is the daringness of writers to name the elephant in the room — the improbability of Walt meeting Jane’s dad, the improbability of a plane crash caused by Walt’s decision to let Jane die, the “astronomical” odds of it all — and to turn that elephant into the generative force, the underlying philosophy of the entire show: the non-randomness of events, the interconnected relations of moral choices, the “complete stranger” who turns out to be within the reach of your harm. This disproportionate consequence is like the shouting of angry gods: nothing is arbitrary, nothing is an accident, you will reap what you sow! Punishment is apocalyptic; punishment is proof that there does exist a cosmic force that will wrench your free will into submission.

Here is what distinguishes “Breaking Bad” from the other shows of its genre. The show capitalizes on our repulsion with Walt’s desire to believe that the world is “simple chaos,” that it’s nothing but “subatomic particles in endless collision.” Though we may personally hold modern and scientific beliefs and though likely we dismiss the Old Testament notion of an angry god as a frightful, violent fable, we do not particularly want Walt to believe that the world is random, that the world is chaotic — to do so would secure Walt’s failure to ever understand the damage he has done.

The wonderful trick of “Breaking Bad” is that we experience moral fury at our anti-hero’s particular philosophy, wishing for its abdication — and with this judgment, we viewers become nearly like pre-modern moralists. This is a different kind of moral fury than “The Wire,” which risks bleeding into fatalism: there, individuals have little recourse against the destructiveness of institutions. Here, the destruction is caused by man’s hand.

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Milton’s Satan appeared at a time of intellectual and political upheaval, when medieval forms of authority, God, and social norms were being questioned and obliterated.

We live in the wake of a century of intellectual and political upheaval. The 20th century witnessed a series of ideological failures. Communism, Fascism, Capitalism: all were elevated as gods in the wake of God’s death; millions died and were sacrificed at their altars. The gods we created failed us. What is left for us to worship in the 21st century? It would seem to be the radical individual, the singular genius — Nietzsche’s Übermensch — who can break through the bonds and chains of social evil. What has endured is our belief in the self-made man: Barack Obama, Steve Jobs, Lebron James. This is the quintessentially American God: the unfettered individual.

“Breaking Bad,” “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” and “The Wire” critique the myth of the self-made man. The anti-heroes imagine they are heroes, but the moral universe exposes this illusion. McNulty believes himself a rogue cop, but he is actually a pain in the ass; Don believes men can remake themselves, and this belief causes a suicide; Walt imagines he has amassed his wealth alone, belittling the contributions of Jesse, who has been loyal to the death. The paradox of all these shows is that, because we have nowhere else to place our collective faith, only the anti-hero can contest or uproot the imperfect structures of the universe.

The difficulty, of course, is that the anti-hero is not someone we necessarily like. Shows involving anti-heroes tend to balance good traits with the bad. At least Tony Soprano tries to see a therapist; at least Donald Draper is good-looking.

But of course Walt is none of these things. Walt grows ugly. Walt is not funny. Walt abuses Jesse. Walt lies to others, and to himself. He justifies his tyranny endlessly, refusing to repent.

“The Fly” is one of the few episodes in which we feel sympathetically towards Walt, because it is a rare moment when he nears self-recognition. He wonders aloud when he ought to have died:

I’m saying I’ve lived too long. I mean, you want them to actually miss you, you know? […] I mean, I truly believe there exists some combination of words. There must exist certain words in certain specific order that would explain all of this. I just can’t ever seem to find them.

Walt not only hopes but “truly believe[s]” in the existence of this sequence, this “combination of words.” Once he finds this magic sequence of words, his actions will become justifiable, and his family will understand his suffering.

“Certain words in a certain specific order” — isn’t this what fiction is, a way to tell a story so that the person becomes sympathetic, legible, forgivable? Yet whatever fiction Walt comes up with, the moral universe of “Breaking Bad” will not permit it. In the world of “Breaking Bad, reality cannot be constructed by man. Rather, metaphysical truth exists — good and evil, moral and immoral, action and consequence. Once again, this is the stuff of the Old Testament.

Walt fails to write a narrative that works –—neither with words nor by dying. Walt believes he has failed because he cannot find the set of words, but his failure is his very belief that a set of words exists — that, in other words, narrative will absolve him. Contrast Walt’s view with that of Jesse. Jesse does not believe words can explain what he has done. Words merely reveal what is already there. “I accept who I really am,” Jesse says to Walt. “I’m the bad guy.”

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How will “Breaking Bad” end? Will Walt emerge triumphant and reign supreme in his own constructed universe? Or will the moral universe of the show ultimately reign supreme, and will Walt receive his punishment?

In the stereotypical arc of a story of this type, the anti-hero repents and all is well. (Consider, in modern society, that what we really crave from the criminal is his remorse.) Yet for Walt to say, “I’m sorry,” seems not quite right. We want Walt to repent, yet we do not want repentance. Repentance is made of words, and words for Walt have been abused to the point of disembodiment — they have, for so long, been the currency for his self-justification.

“Breaking Bad” suggests that there is nothing intrinsically good about language, language does not elevate us.

Walt cannot find his magic sequence of words, not because he is a poor writer, but because no such combination exists. Language, however finely ordered, is ill-used. It merely justifies the poor choices we make; in Walt’s case, it aids folly and waste.

Is this why we are moved not so much by Walt’s words, but rather by the images of him? Indeed, what is affecting about Walt is what he cannot bring himself to say. Wishing aloud that he died earlier, he says of his family, “You want their memories of you to be…” Walt trails off, unable to finish his sentence; it lies outside his character to describe, and to imagine, the better self he has not ventured to become. Walt clutches a ladder, rubs his forehead against the hard metal. He remembers his wife and newborn daughter. “Skyler and Holly were in another room. I could hear them on the baby monitor” — here Walt smiles almost imperceptibly — “She was singing a lullaby. If I had just lived right up to that moment, and not one second more.” Walt is nearly weeping.

And in this brief moment we finally feel something — pity, sympathy, warmth? — for Walt, our anti-hero. There is, on his aged face, something almost like repentance yet nothing like it: feeling or loss unuttered, memory without purpose. Not a word has been purveyed in exchange for anything, redemption or otherwise.

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By the end of “Paradise Lost,” Milton’s Satan has, by all accounts, succeeded. He seduced Adam and Eve; they are banished forever from Eden; man has fallen. Satan returns to Hell expecting a hero’s welcome. Instead, he is greeted by hisses: God has punished his legion by turning them into serpents, the disguise that he used to seduce Adam and Eve. “[H]e stood expecting / Their universal shout and high applause / To fill his ear when contrary he hears / On all sides form innumerable tongues / A dismal universal hiss, the sound / Of public scorn.”

Disbelieving, Satan looks upon his body to find that it, too, is being transformed by God: his face contorts, he falls onto his belly, he is doomed forever as a “monstrous Serpent.” (“His Arms clung to his Ribs, his Legs entwining / Each other [...] A greater power / Now ruled him, punished in the shape he sinned [...] He would have spoke / But hiss for hiss returned with forked tongue / To forked tongue.”)

Dispossessed of speech, bereft of a single companion with whom he can share his success, and trapped inside a disguise that he intended only to be temporary — Satan has finally reaped what he has sown. Never has divine retribution been more perfectly crystallized.

Is this retribution, too, what lies in store for Walt, our anti-hero?

In “Paradise Lost” the origin of Satan’s fall is his own free will. At the start of the epic, Satan is seductive, brilliant, and brimming with human desires. By epic’s end, he is irredeemable. If “Breaking Bad” stays loyal to the universe that it has created, Walt will be as well.

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