Breaking Bad ended the anti-hero genre by introducing good and evil

Breaking Bad ended the anti-hero genre by introducing good and evil

Taking what you want is not glamorous. It is not sexy. Giving in to your own worst impulses does not somehow make you more of a “badass,” more of a figure to be respected. It makes you awful. In some circumstances, it makes you evil. It is not the sort of thing most people do lightly, unless they’re sociopaths. Stepping off the path—breaking bad, if you will—requires extreme circumstances, usually, just the right combination of elements that results in a cataclysmic transformation and flowering into something new. 

Yet you wouldn’t know this to look at most stories about anti-heroes, about gangsters and crime lords and men (it’s almost always men) who do the wrong things. There’s something dark and mysterious and sexy to this idea, particularly on television, where even someone as unlikely as James Gandolfini can become a sex symbol because of the role he plays. There’s nothing more alluring than power, and the modern anti-hero drama has played off this association all the way to the bank.

Except for Breaking Bad. There is very little about Walter White that is alluring. There is very little about him that is, God forbid, sexy. When he threatens his wife or emotionally abuses her, it’s treated as a gross violation of who she is. Even if the series finale seemed to push too far toward redeeming the character in the eyes of the audience—more about that in a bit—that may have been because the preceding 61 episodes had stripped away so much of the myth that surrounds the great American cable-drama anti-hero. Walter wasn’t some icon to look up to; he was a man who made excuses to indulge his own worst impulses, then selfishly insisted everybody else get on board with what he was doing. Creator Vince Gilligan and his writers set up several opportunities for Walter to back off his plan of cooking crystal meth—even as early as season one—and he always said no. Walter is the ne plus ultra of anti-heroes. There is no further to go. He is the logical conclusion of the whole movement, the point beyond which only bleak nihilism exists.

A few weeks ago, in the wake of the tremendous, towering episode “Ozymandias,” NPR’s Linda Holmes argued that Breaking Bad had become a series about watching evil. Although some subset of the show’s audience always viewed it as the tale of Walter White vanquishing all his foes—actual and perceived—for the most part, Breaking Bad depicted with very clear vision just how dark this man had become in his pursuit of power. In Holmes’ estimation, this transcended badness, past even wickedness, and into the full belly of Walter’s own evil. The blackness in his soul seeped out until he was ranting at his wife over the phone, a ploy to get the police off her back that conveniently also let him yell about how everyone around him had failed to recognize his greatness. That darkness manifested itself as a band of neo-Nazis who could break into homes at will, simply because it’s impossible for the police to stop evil. Evil isn’t a thing that can be shot with a gun. It simply is.

There was a good reason for Breaking Bad to be able to do this: It is, fundamentally, a religious show. I don’t mean that Walter White needs to find Jesus or Buddha or Allah (though he probably would have been better off if he turned to anything that wasn’t his own hubris). I mean that this show occupies a world with the concepts of good and evil, where “the right thing” and “the wrong thing” exist. When David Chase put The Sopranos on the air, he famously argued that Tony Soprano should be allowed to kill a former mob snitch in episode five because if he didn’t, the audience would never respect him again. He would have broken his code and would be uninteresting as a protagonist forever after. There were things like “the right thing” and “the wrong thing” on The Sopranos, but they more often broke down as “the hard thing” and “the easy thing.” The series’ argument was always that the vast majority of us choose “the easy thing” every day of our lives, even if that’s as basic as eating a burger instead of a salad for lunch. Tony Soprano’s easy things may have been many degrees of latitude worse than our own, but we were at least somewhat in concert with who he was. In contrast, choosing the hard thing is ultimately rewarding but rarely so in the moment. The only way a human being can truly change is to do so, but few of us want to engage with the work necessary.

For the most part, the anti-hero TV shows that followed in The Sopranos’ wake engaged on this playing field. There were twists here and there; The Shield had some of Breaking Bad’s weird, Biblical morality, but it also suggested that Vic Mackey might be worth having on the streets, protecting the citizenry. But for the most part, these series played out in worlds where “right” and “wrong” were determined via a kind of moral relativity, where a sliding scale suggested that these people were just like you, only with much, much larger problems. Even Breaking Bad’s closest cousin, Matt Weiner’s brilliant Mad Men, in the midst of planning its own ending, mostly plays on The Sopranos’ turf, with cycles of misbehavior and the need for true disruption to ever make a positive change.

Gilligan took this framework and tossed in an element of the Pentecostal preacher. When Breaking Bad began, it sometimes seemed to push too hard to suggest that everybody was a sinner, where the difference between Marie’s kleptomania and Walt’s meth cooking and murder was largely a matter of degree. Yet the show quickly disabused itself of this notion. Everybody’s a sinner, yes, but that matter of degree is important. Walter White isn’t just a sinner. He’s a man who pushes further and further into his dark heart, who unleashes all manner of destruction upon the world, both at large and in his own home. He is a murderer, many times over; he is a man who abuses his wife; and he is a force of fear for everyone who sees his true face. He is, for lack of a better word, Satan.

There have been shows about Satan before, where the devil consorts with humanity and reveals how similar he is to us. (The Sopranos could be one of these, coding its read of Lucifer in a very Catholic notion of what is unseen.) Most of these series separate the devil from those he interacts with, whether through dream imagery or arch sensibility or just putting him in a sphere most of us wouldn’t enter. But Gilligan didn’t do this with Walter. He started out as a weak-willed science teacher, beaten down at home and at his job. He had a banal life-threatening illness, lung cancer. He dressed in earth tones and lived in a sort of nice house that had clearly faded from the one he bought. He was, in other words, every Breaking Bad viewer: a normal person who wanted to live out what life he had left and still be happy.

The genius of the series, then, is that Walter White is at once every viewer and the Prince Of Darkness. When the series begins to reveal that he’s carried deep reservoirs of anger and resentment for years prior to the pilot, it not only suggests that this is true of Walter, it suggests it’s true of anyone watching. Given the chance, aren’t there old slights you would viciously repay, money or power you would grab? Recognize me, Walter cries at every turn, with every brazen action he takes, and it might as well be the cry of a modern American, ground down by a system that seems designed to keep things rigged. Breaking Bad first aired in 2008, on the cusp of the Great Recession, and its story progressed very little beyond that point. It is steeped in a world where some people were getting lots and lots and lots, and other people were continually getting stiffed. And in those circumstances, is it any wonder that somebody might reach out and take what he felt was rightfully his?

The problem that Breaking Bad recognized is that once you start taking, it’s difficult to stop. Even Skyler, who so loathed her husband and what he’d become, started to get used to the trappings of luxury, to the comfort of wealth. This made the final season—both halves of it—at times punishingly difficult to watch. Sure, there were highs—like that train robbery in episode five—but they were always balanced out with ever-deeper lows, with moments that existed seemingly just to gut-punch the audience whenever it might start rooting for Walt again. The final season asked viewers to locate the place in themselves where they once connected to Walt, then realize just how far he had fallen, then realize that every person has this sort of darkness within them. In practice, it resembled the concept of original sin. All fall short, not just of the glory of God, but of a better, more loving world.

If a character in this world seems capable of recognizing the underlying moral calculus of it, it’s Jesse Pinkman, which may be why the series’ handling of the character in the back half of season five was likely its most problematic note. From the moment Jesse killed Gale Boetticher in the season three finale, he suddenly became aware of the world he occupied, a place where good and bad exist and where he had cast his lot with a very evil man, yet seemed unable to break free of him. It was a little repetitive—think of how many times Jesse got really sad about the depths Walt had pushed him to, and how often the writers hit that particular plot-device button in the final 16—but it was also the show punishing the one character who dared to realize the depths of his sin before it was too late, because that’s often how it works. Realize you’ve done something wrong, realize you’ve abetted evil even a little bit, and it can become a guilt that gnaws away at you for years. This was just Breaking Bad externalizing that via pulp.

Because like it or not, something like God exists in the Breaking Bad universe. He’s a vaguely deist sort of god, keeping his hands clean, mostly, but he’s there to rain down fire from the sky upon Walter White for daring to disturb the universe, and he’s there to tell Skyler White to run from New Mexico, only to have her ignore it. When Hank does the right thing and accepts punishment for beating Jesse Pinkman in season three, he’s saved from death via fairly unlikely means, and when Jesse becomes just another pawn to him, he’s marked for doom. And finally, in the finale, when Walter earnestly entreats whatever this moral force is to survive just long enough to complete his life’s work, he’s like Samson, crying out to God for his strength one last time, that he might pull the temple down upon his enemies’ heads (though a machine gun would have worked just as well). And think back to the earlier realization of Walter White as both Satan and ourselves: If we are the devil but we are not God, then we are forever cursed to have death rain down around us, to fall short of perfection or goodness, to inevitably become evil from the slightest slip-up. (There’s original sin again.)

The finale complicates and underlines much of this. To some degree, I agree with Slate’s Willa Paskin, who complains that the finale bought too much into the idea of Walter as some sort of conflicted hero. Yet I think this initial reading of the finale doesn’t leave room for what it really tries to do, which is bridge some sort of gap between the world of the devil and the world of that moral force that rewards those who do good, no matter how small. (Jesse, after all, gets to escape.) The finale blatantly allows Walter to pass on his fortune to his children (most likely), and it gives him a death that comes as close to his own terms as he can possibly manage, while also wiping the slate clean of his enemies. It even lets him rescue Jesse, rather than have his revenge on the man who turned on him. Even with the more obvious darkness surrounding all of this—will anyone whose life Walt touched ever have something like normalcy again?—it feels a little too much like a victory for the protagonist, even if it’s a muted one.

And yet I can’t help but see some suggestion here of another way forward, of that bridge between who we are (sinners) and who we could be (good people). And here, the series dovetails with The Sopranos again, because leaving behind the former for the latter is hard work. It requires vigilance, and it requires dedication. Above all, it requires some sort of honesty, some sort of connection. It requires Walter being able to say that he cooked meth because he liked it, and it requires him being able to pass up the giant payday that will presumably remain buried somewhere on Uncle Jack’s compound. It requires not manipulation and lies, but genuine reaching out to those you love, in the spirit of treating them well. If this is a show about good and evil, it had to take a stab at what good might look like beyond Jesse’s tears, and if that was a little unsatisfying—perhaps because it came via a character the show had trained us to see as, if not Satan, at least a monster—then so be it. It was a tentative stab at something new. At growth.

Or if you don’t want to discuss this show in religious terms or via Christian theology (and I don’t blame you), let’s take this all the way back to the idea of the anti-hero. On his surface, the anti-hero is a selfish creature, looking out only for himself, though perhaps having a pang of guilt about it here or there. Old anti-hero shows coded this at least somewhat in terms of it being vaguely exciting or fun, and Breaking Bad did that for a while. But as time went on, that became more and more empty, more and more hollow. Both in its message and in its late 2000s milieu, Breaking Bad became more brazenly about what it means to care only about yourself, to leave behind ideas of connection and community in favor of material ends. It was the embodiment of the old idea of “I’ve got mine, so fuck you,” taken to its logical extreme, just as much as it was a salting of the earth for the anti-hero genre. 

Look back at those early episodes, and Walt’s life doesn’t seem so bad. (The show even underlined this in the flashback teaser that opened “Ozymandias.”) He has a pretty wife and nice house. He has a loving son and a baby on the way. Above all, he has friends and people who care about him, a community of loved ones, just waiting to help him out if need be. It’s not heaven on Earth, but it’s at least a glimpse of what that might look like. And yet it’s not enough. He gives in to his selfishness and pride, his rage and resentment. He becomes the devil, and he is punished accordingly. He lived in something like heaven, and he chose to create something far more like hell. Breaking Bad argues that that is a choice too many of us make, every day of our lives.