Thoughts on Breaking Bad

Warning: spoilers, all through, in all sorts of detail.  I imagine that almost everyone who actually wants to see Breaking Bad has already done so, but if there are any hold-outs out there, consider yourself warned.

I finished watching all of Breaking Bad last month.  While it will never be considered my favourite television show nor will I likely ever re-watch it, I easily understand why it has received such stellar reviews.  For those who can stomach the violence and misery, it is an absolutely amazing work of television.  It deserves its accolades.

I wanted to share a few specific thoughts, realizing I’m a few years late to the conversation.  Maybe this will remind more cultural up-to-date readers of the arguments they may have had about the show some years back.

My first thought, on finishing the show, was this: at what point did Walter Whyte become the villain?  I’m quite convinced that by the end of the show, there is basically nothing even remotely redeeming left about Walt — he’s long past through any pretence of anti-hero and is solidly the evil, villainous antagonist of the show.  I actively hoped for all his schemes to fail for at least the last two seasons (while obviously still hoping for the salvation of those being destroyed by his activities).  But when did this start?

Amazingly, looking at the show in retrospect, I can imagine a very early shift from deeply flawed protagonist to pure antagonist.  I’m rethinking the very first murder, where Walt kills Krazy-8 in Jesse’s basement.  Walter’s capability to carry this out and move on may already be pointing to his fundamentally evil nature.  Certainly Walter’s attitude towards Jessie in the first season (and all subsequent seasons) is depraved: Jessie is a tool for Walter’s ends, to be bullied and manipulated into serving those ends.  I’m unconvinced that Walter show actual selfless care for Jessie more than two or three times throughout the show.

My brother suggested that the point might be the end of season two, where Walter is willing to watch Jane die.  The murder (by omission) of an innocent character and the effect of that loss on Jessie are costs that Walter barely seems to consider at all, which is pretty good evidence of his status as villain.  I was certainly asking myself, after season two, if Jessie will survive Walter’s twisted machinations.

Given what happens to Walter, it is amazing, in contrast, how Jessie remains human throughout the experience.  One of the most amazing parts of the show is this contrast between Walter and Jessie: how Walter very quickly becomes a person who can justify murder without psychological repercussions, but Jessie never reaches that point.  One of the most sympathetic aspects of Jessie’s character (and evidence of his status both as a human being and as the show’s main protagonist) is how he simply can’t emotionally handle killing people, regardless of the justifications giving.  Three examples stick with me: his worry about the actions taken against the child who shot Combo, his desperate need to find any and all distractions after killing Gail, and his insistence that the murder of the child at the train heist could not possibly be justified in any way.  Jessie’s inability to psychologically handle the violence needed to support their drug activities makes him human and made me love the character, even with his many flaws.  The ease with which Walter could justify that violence made me see him as a force of evil and led me to hope for the failure of all his plans for at least half of the show.

The writing of the show has received many accolades, and with good reasons.  Two things about the writing (particularly the dialogue) notably impressed me.  The first was the ability of the writers to write dialogue where one character (usually Walter) was trying to convince another character of something and obviously doing a terrible job.  The show almost perfectly captures the mass of feeble, meager and pathetic excuses that can fill human interaction when we try (and often fail) to positions ourselves in our social settings and relationships.  In the majority of his conversations in the show, Walter is trying to project a false image of himself of his situation (I’m trying to think of scenes where I felt Walter really spoke honestly and I’m coming up with a very short list).  The fact that these efforts are so obviously transparent to the audience, while the words still seem like something a pathetic figure like Walter would attempt, speaks volumes to the quality of the writing.  I would claim, very strongly, that Walter lacks almost all human empathy and is desperately terrible at convincing anyone of anything.  The fact that he succeeds in bending the other characters to his will is, I believe, a function of the psychological brokenness of the other characters.  Even then, he mostly succeeds (particularly with Jessie) by resorting to straight-forward bullying instead of any effective argument.

This brings up another point which confuses me.  I get the sense from reading reviews of the show that many people think Walter is actually a competent master criminal.  I think this is patently nonsense: Walter is terrible at the Heisenberg role he aspires to.  I think this fact is important to the show, because Walter so strongly believes that Heisenberg is an awesome force to be reckoned with.  The audience needs to see through that: to see that the belief in the competence and power of Heisenberg is one of the greatests of Walter’s many flaws and self-delusions.  In his very last discussion with Skyler in the last episode, he breaks through one of these self-delusions in realizing that he cooked meth for himself, not to provide for his family.  However, I don’t think the scene reads as Walter finally coming clean.  Right after admitting his selfish motivation, he claims that he was good at it.  My perspective is that this is demonstrably false, and his statement here is evidence that even if he fixed one of his self-delusions, the others remain perfectly intact.

I mentioned there were two aspects of the writing that particularly impressed me: the second was Walter’s amazingly immense sense of entitlement.  His anger towards the other characters is almost always channeled through a self-narrative of Walter acting intelligently, properly and nobly, while the foolish mistakes and oversights of those around him are getting him into ridiculous situations.  He almost always blames his partners in crime from these situation, particularly Jessie.  The audience, however, can see very clearly that Walter is the ultimate cause of 98% of his problem (excepting cancer, I guess).  This sense of self-righteousness is a common part of the human condition: it is natural to think that we’ve acted intelligently and rationally and our problems are caused by the foolishness or active malice of other agents.  This sense is always at least someone wrong and often entirely ridiculous.  The writers of Breaking Bad almost perfectly capture this righteous indignation in Walter Whyte and Cranston does an almost perfect job of giving it life.  The depth and consistency of Walter’s self-delusion about his own foolishness is most obviously in his self-righteous attitude towards Jessie.  I think the mental image of Walter yelling “Jessie” tersely through clenched teeth will permanently abide in my mind as a symbol of this sense of indignation.

Lastly, I noticed I’ve mostly talked about Walter and Jessie.  Credit needs to be given to the development of the secondary characters.  The character archs for Skyler, Walter Jr., Hank and Marie are all fantastically (and, of course, tragically) constructed.  Gus Fring and Mike are also given much more depth and nuance that would usually be expected for their relatively stock character types.  Everything about the show gives evidence to great care taken in the craft of writing characters and dialogue.  Even a tertiary character like Hector Salamanca, who doesn’t even speak, is given depth (and great casting — I’m always impressed with Mark Margolis.)