Why is this show so addicting? What lures the audience? Indeed, it has a lot to do with the incredible acting, cinematography, and episodic cliffhangers, but there is something deeper at work here. Breaking Bad crosses ethical boundaries of morality, pushing the audience to the threshold of their relativistic ideologies while revealing the real dangers of moral relativism, individual pride, and passive aggression.
If you haven’t seen the show, here is a short synopsis. Around his 50th birthday, Walter White discovers he is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Holding two jobs, one as a high school chemistry teacher and another as a car wash attendant, he realizes he cannot provide for his pregnant wife, Skylar, and teenage son, whether going through the treatment process or after he passes away. Hiding the truth from his family, including his brother-in-law, Hank, a DEA agent, Walt recruits a former student, Jessie Pinkman, to start making and selling Methamphetamine(Crystal Meth) on the streets. Breaking Bad begins.
As the show begins, you find yourself rooting for Walt because you can empathize with him. It’s easy for men to put themselves in Walt’s shoes because there is a profound desire in the human heart to secure and provide for one’s family. Walt establishes his WANTS (providing for his family) early in the show but discovers a deeper NEED (to leave a legacy). And somewhere along the line, he begins to fade away from his own identity into his pseudo-identity, “Heisenberg,” a person he creates to establish street credibility as a Meth Cook. Walt’s Meth formula is the purest on the market and tints blue, creating a particular value and prestige. “Cooking Meth is an art,” Jessie tells Walt. Well, Walt becomes the Michelangelo of Crystal Meth.
Walt’s decisions quickly drop him into a world of violence, drug addiction, power struggle, and moral dilemmas. He murders a drug dealer early on, creating a surge of adrenaline in him he had probably not felt in many years. This adrenaline lasts through the entire series. With it, he becomes sexually dominant with his wife, builds bombs, manipulates Jessie into committing murder, robs a train, poisons a child, and becomes obsessed with power.
Walt becomes a moral relativist in the sense where his ethical boundaries are no longer black and white. Evil is necessary based on one’s circumstances. He decides what is right and what is wrong. He assumes God-like power over Jessie, whom he convinces to do evil things, and justifies them as moral. Walt’s fall is like the fall of Satan, with an unquenchable desire for power. He is the snake in the Garden of Eden. The whole series is a representation of Original Sin and the abuse of free will. In Genesis, Adam and Eve’s real sin was not that they ate some fruit, but they sought the knowledge of good and evil, being able to choose what was morally right and what was morally evil. Walt eats the fruit and determines that his wrong actions are ethically acceptable because he is above the law.
What was Satan’s downfall? Pride. He wasn’t satisfied with the love of God, and he had more desire for the love of himself. Walt is the same way. He sees himself as untouchable, irreplaceable, invincible, and even inferior to all the other characters in the show. Walt is not like this from the beginning. He is weak and passive. The testosterone-fueled excitement he receives from cooking Meth and creating the best product on the market ignites the flame of pride in his heart. He refuses to allow anyone to cook his formula and becomes obsessed with the power that comes with being the best at it. He stops cooking for money but for a sense of accomplishment.
He gets involved with the drug trade because he wants to leave his family with financial security, which he calculated to be $700,000. He finds himself still unsatisfied with money when he brings in over 7 million dollars. Jessie asks, “Are you in the money business or the Meth business?” Walt responds, “I am in the empire business.”
Survival becomes his passion, not physical survival, but a legacy, an empire. He is not concerned about physically living but leaving his imprint on the world, even if it is a negative imprint. He wants to be remembered for his talents, whether they be good or bad.
How many people can relate to this? When we feel unsatisfied with our lives and our choices, don’t we yearn for acceptance? We desire to stand out among the rest, to be unique. We seek to verify our un-repeatability in a world that convinces us that we are all replaceable. Walt believes that cooking Meth is his only way of reminding the world who he is.
“Remember my name.”
Pride is Walt’s most prominent enemy because it is what digs him deeper into the drug scene. Where the devil is cunning, God is ever more gracious. Walt is given ways out of the Meth business so many different times in the show, yet he rejects all of them. His former partner, Elliot Schwartz (Schwartz means black), offers to pay for Walt’s treatment. He and Elliot started Gray Matter together, a multi-billion dollar technology company. Walt sold his half of the company before it took off, and he always resented that about himself. So Walt refuses Elliot’s “charity.” His pride steps in, and he feels compelled to make money on his own, even if it means a life surrounded by drugs.
In season 4, Hank believes that another man is truly Heisenberg and credits him for Walt’s Meth, calling him a genius while at dinner with Walt and Skylar. Walt, filled with pride, convinces Hank that Gale was not a genius and that Heisenberg is still out there. This idea energizes Hank to investigate further and eventually discovers that Heisenberg is Walt. Walt will not allow anyone to take credit for his chemistry. He needs someone to recognize him and his genius. Walt is a man longing for real recognition. He is the vengeful Cain, taking matters into his own hands and choosing his moral responsibilities.
Walt begins as a passive character, told what to do, what to feel, and how to live, but swiftly becomes aggressive. Cancer frees him from his passivity but explodes into his aggression. Everything that he held in for fifty years pours out in a plethora of violence. Walt is the epitome of what passive aggression can do to a person’s personality. By holding everything in, Walt becomes a “ticking bomb.” Repression is a dangerous character trait, especially when unleashed in the underground drug culture.
Breaking Bad is at its best when you do not know who to root for, when the line between good and evil is vague, and when you can’t distinguish your heroes from your villains. It’s fun entertainment, but if it convinces the audience that the only way to discover one’s brand identity is to “break bad” like Walter White, we have failed to allow our primordial WANTS to reveal our deeper NEEDS. Rather, your brand identity must “break free” from those WANTS in replace of fulfilling your deeper NEEDS, not selfishly like White, but selflessly to the benefit of all.