Walt White and Breaking Bad should’ve ended before now. This season has felt somehow anticlimactic despite its customary excellence. Despite itself, the show has fallen off in last couple of years, getting cutesy, meta, and self-referential, as happens with programs that become institutions.
It could be a lot worse. Breaking Bad could’ve kept going—like Cheers or Frasier, or like Mad Men, descending into solipsism and self-parody. With its last 8 episodes set to start on AMC this month, however, it is worthwhile to take a look at where the show started, where it went, where it is going, and what it all means.
When Vince Gilligan’s show started five years ago, there were many questions. The first of them—posed by seemingly everyone who saw the previews or the first few episodes—was how in the heck the dad from Malcolm in the Middle would work in a dramatic role. There are no longer questions about the dramatic chops of Bryan Cranston—his character’s arc and the masterful way he projected humor, pathos, depth, and self-awareness have obliterated those attempts at armchair typecasting and sealed his reputation as one of the stronger small-screen actors of the current century.
Cranston’s performance made the show work week after week, as it built an audience and garnered critical plaudits. From the first episodes in Season 1, where a nebbishy Walter White labored in obscurity as the most milquetoast high-school chemistry teacher ever, and as a car wash peon when school was out, the show told a complex story: one of its protagonists effectively being destroyed by circumstance—his job, his cancer, his dessicated domestic life, his zeta-male status in comparison to Hank, his DEA superstar brother-in-law, so aptly played by Dean Norris.
Then, as fans of the show know so well, Walter White reinvented himself as “Heisenberg,” producing crystal meth that was both a commercial and an artistic achievement. As we saw so memorably in Al Pacino’s “Scarface,” the show managed to turn a drug producer into a heroic figure. Yet as the show gained popularity, narrative decisions that had seemed jarring and iconoclastic became more predictable—even when they seemed like outliers, as when Walt lived and his cartel boss, the understatedly sociopathic Gus Fring (who, in one of the show’s more effective ironic touches in its early seasons, was a pillar of the community and a friend to law enforcement) was killed. It somehow didn’t surprise that Walt lived as, despite everything, the show’s clear focus has been the eternal conflict between Hank and Walt.
“The past is the past,” he tells Jesse in a new episode. “Nothing can change what we’ve done. But now that’s over… there is nothing left for us to do except to try to live ordinary, decent lives.”
What are “ordinary, decent lives”? Everyone has an opinion on what the show ultimately means—critics conflate being fans of the show with having reasons to draw larger lessons, such as the writer from Time who described Breaking Bad as “the most moral show on television,” or the writer from Bloomberg who posits that “through Walt’s increasingly unhinged management style, Breaking Bad creator and executive producer Vince Gilligan has offered a riveting critique of professional leadership.”
Riveting, perhaps. But as much as the show is loved by a certain swath of the American population at this point, it is entirely sensible to wonder if it will have true staying power, or if the appeal will fade once the show is off the air, “Breaking Bad” itself being a function of its age. One could see it, a decade or two hence, being as unwatchable and dated as things like Twin Peaks or Pulp Fiction—works that were cultural signposts in their day, but have held up about as well as Bush/Quayle ‘92 stickers. At this point, no one cares about the question “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” Likewise, it is easy to imagine, in 2033, no one caring about Walter White.
That said, questions remain about the show—fertile ground for analysis. What did Walter White’s odyssey really signify? And what points did the show make about our nation’s perpetual war on its own citizens, as manifested in the Drug War?
When Breaking Bad first aired in 2008, the United States economy seemed to be in free fall. Those were the days of the bailout package, and Walter White looked every bit the personification of the beleaguered middle class. Cuckolded in the bedroom with a wife who clearly sought more of an alpha male, his bills far exceeding any reasonable expectations of his ability to pay them, White in the pilot episode seemed like the kind of guy who would slap an Obama ‘08 sticker on his car and hold his hands skyward, looking for Hope and Change.
What happened to Walter White? Capitalism, in its purest form. His entrance into the meth trade, and his effective cornering of the market by dint of producing a superior product, was worthy of an Ayn Rand hero. As was his asceticism—his refusal to indulge in the product, or to let Jesse Pinkman, his former-student-turned-meth-mentor-turned-lab-assistant, “get high on his own supply.” That asceticism would not, could not last forever—witness acts of charity like paying his brother-in-law’s medical bills, or buying his son a Dodge muscle car —because ultimately Walt didn’t want to be a kingpin so much as he wanted to live one of those “ordinary, decent lives” that he’d been denied for so long. The trouble is that the “ordinary, decent life” for White is a sham.
Ordinary, decent lives mean never being the alpha male, never holding the reins of power. They mean that things go well enough until they don’t—until the cancer sets in, or the divorce papers are served, or until the stocks sink, or until the layoffs are announced. Walt White wanted an “ordinary, decent life” of quiet desperation, perhaps, but no worries about money. The fact that he had to teach and to work at a car wash while his wife worked a corporate job just so that they could afford a middle-class life in Albuquerque is significant. Fifty years ago, with the currency holding real value, such contortions would not have been necessary. Now? They are. That brings us to why the character of Walt White is so compelling.
American men of a certain age know the game is over, the one whose rules prevailed from the end of World War II until sometime between Altamont and the last days of disco. It may still be possible to live in a small town and to make ends meet on one breadwinner’s income, even while managing to save in the process. But in a city, even a city as unremarkable as the New Mexico setting of this show, it is nigh impossible. Never mind what happens when a seemingly terminal disease is diagnosed.
The next 8 episodes of Breaking Bad will resolve many of the show’s questions, and—if the last five years of the show are any indication—pose new ones. The most important questions a show framed around the drug trade looks likely to leave unanswered, however, are the moral questions of the drug war itself: can drugs actually be prohibited at all? and does government have the moral mandate to enforce such prohibition?
Part of the reason for that shortcoming is that the show’s focus on meth means that there are no side arguments such as those revolving around marijuana and “medical use”—there will be no medical professionals agitating for the safe use of meth anytime soon, nor will there be meth heads positioned to look sympathetic in the media. And “Breaking Bad,” for all of its studied ambiguity, rarely gave the users anything approaching agency or even common sense.
For all of its counter-culture cred, Breaking Bad is an exponent of conventional wisdom. The DEA are the de facto good guys, fighting a war against the forces of anarchy and social dislocation. The producers of the taboo substance are evil at their core, even though what they are doing could be framed as a rational response to market forces. Those who are going into these last eight episodes looking for a more complex message than “crime doesn’t pay, at least not in the long run” likely will be disappointed.
The show’s iconography will linger, especially for people (white males between the ages of 25-44, or thereabouts) who live vicariously through this and similar shows, leading their own lives of quiet desperation. But Breaking Bad is ultimately a tease, employing its rebel iconography to uphold the values of mainstream media culture, presented in a sponsor-friendly format and produced in cooperation with the Obama Drug Enforcement Administration.
A.G. Gancarski writes from Jacksonville, Florida.