Unless you live in a cave, you’ve probably heard some chatter about this little show called Breaking Bad—perhaps you’ve even watched it. The AMC TV series, which just ended after five strong seasons, will surely go down as one of TV’s greatest feats—not necessarily because it drew a massive audience but because its technical qualities and artistry were top-notch, some of the finest we’ve seen on the tube.
Yet more than merely accomplished aesthetics made Breaking Bad significant. Through and through, the show proved to be more than just a TV series with a solid moral core, never muddling the lines of wrong and right and always depicting the consequences of immorality. It proved to be a TV series that understood human depravity on a profound, if not biblical, level.
The story follows Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher whose cancer diagnosis pushes him to make a dramatic career change. White starts producing and eventually selling crystal meth as a means to leave his family a large sum of money before his demise. Though vaguely noble on the surface, this new “job” inevitably creates a futile trajectory for White and his family, and his life progressively spirals downward. Breaking Bad’s creator Vince Gilligan described this transformation as turning “Mr. Chips into Scarface.”
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
Those who’ve watched Breaking Bad know that Gilligan’s words ring true: By the time season one ends, White and his accomplice, Jesse, are responsible for murder, and White becomes less and less likable with every season. In an interview with The New York Times, Gilligan spoke of this eventuality: “There will be a point for everyone when they finally stop sympathizing with Walter White. It’ll occur at different times for different people.”
As White lies, murders and puts his wife and children in harm’s way repeatedly, we cease to see White as an anti-hero but, instead, as a villain. He watches a young woman overdose right before his eyes and doesn’t try to save her. He risks the life of a young boy to manipulate Jesse. He chooses building an empire over building a family time and time again. In season five, White’s wake of carnage even includes the death of his own brother-in-law.
Breaking Bad preaches a consistent message through this storyline: There are consequences to sin. More specifically, White’s actions and his seeming success as a drug lord come at a price. The sermon is not lost on its audience. A piece at NPR notes that “what makes Breaking Bad one of the most moral shows in the history of television is that actions have consequences, whether those actions arise from pain or greed or fear or panic. You pay for your actions.” Another article at the Washington Post goes as far as to pull out five lessons about sin from the show.
Unlike a TV series such as Dexter, where the world is gray, Gilligan’s morality remains black and white. Building upon Gilligan’s own description of the show, Andy Greenwald of Grantland puts words around this idea: “Breaking Bad, to its enormous credit, isn’t about everything. It’s about one thing and always has been: Walter White’s calamitous path not from Mr. Chips to Scarface, but from homeroom to the gates of hell.”
Though Greenwald’s understanding of White definitely underscores the strong sense of morality that Breaking Bad embodies, it still only touches the surface of Gilligan’s profound vision, failing to recognize what makes it more than just a morality tale or a story of crime and punishment. A deeper exploration into the heart of White reveals a character at the gates of hell amid homeroom—Scarface masked by Mr. Chips. This insightful view of human nature and, well, morality itself, is what makes Breaking Bad so powerful and pertinent.
This understanding of the human condition is evident in the series as early as the pilot. When White discovers he has cancer, his former business partners offer to help him out financially; however, because of his bitterness toward them and, ultimately, because of his pride, White refuses to take the money, wanting to do things on his terms. He would rather cook meth than sacrifice his pride.
Here, and repeatedly hereafter, we are forced to realize that White isn’t doing all that he’s doing—the crime, the lies, the betrayal—for his family. He’s doing it for himself. By episode six of season five, this refrain is unmistakable: Revealing that resentment toward his former business partners fuels him, White tells Jesse that he isn’t in the meth or money business—he’s in the “empire business.” His decisions haven’t been for anyone but himself.
Exposing what makes Walter White tick and exploring the depressing depths of human nature, Breaking Bad turns out not to be a show about a good man gone bad, as it first appears. Rather, it is a show about a bad man gone free, left to his own desires and passions. It’s about a monster who “broke bad” long before cancer and meth and murder.
Understanding this, we realize that immorality and sin go far beyond external actions. Even with his negative transformation on the outside, White was always wicked and evil on the inside. We perceive the core of human depravity and morality: that the heart is naturally wicked. We are sinners not because we sin, but because we have sinful hearts.
While it held every right to give us nothing more than this crystalline truth and to end with poetic justice, Breaking Bad thankfully doesn’t conclude on a despairing note. It ends with hope. In White’s confession to his wife that he did everything out of selfishness and pride, we get a glimpse of redemption. It’s not necessarily enough to save White, who dies alone beside the equipment with which he made his empire on earth, but it is enough for Jesse. Ending in freedom from his captors, Walt and his dark past, Jesse’s storyline reminds us that in spite of our brokenness and our mistakes, it’s never too late.
Disclaimer: Though we agree with numerous themes in Breaking Bad and uphold its artistic qualities, we don’t endorse everything in the show.