“The whole thing felt kinda shady, like morality wise.” ~Skinny Pete
If you haven’t already seen the ending to the hit AMC show, BREAKING BAD, stop reading now. Because I’m about to ruin the ending for you…
So why am I so down on one of my favorite television shows after it went out with what is already widely regarded as a model of how a series should end? Certainly not because of the writing, which was, as always, phenomenal. From the start, Breaking Bad’s supreme artistry overcame viewers’ reluctance to embrace a show about seedy characters engaged in the drug trade. Its mastery of tension, character development, and plot twists transcended expectations about crime shows. It became a Shakespearean tragedy that explored American society, ideals, and public policy. Happily, the show remained true to that exploration to the end.
I just didn’t like the answer that exploration came up with, which was apparently: crime pays.
Walter White begins his journey as a middle-aged high school teacher who is pushed around by life, a little bit henpecked at home, emasculated by his macho brother-in-law, and–as a final kick in the teeth–gets a cancer diagnosis that virtually ensures he will die before ever becoming the huge figure of a man his ego tells him he was born to be. And so he begins his descent into building a drug empire by telling himself that he’s doing it to pay for his drug treatments so that his family doesn’t go bankrupt, and to ensure their future if he’s no longer around.
It was initially difficult for me to watch the series because I didn’t want to watch the glorification of greed, murder, and drug-dealing. But the sensitivity of the writing ultimately convinced me that I wasn’t watching that kind of show. I was convinced that I was actually watching a show that exposed and condemned all those things. I thought I was watching a show about the slow descent of a man who could have been a good guy, who could have reveled in his accomplishments as a family man, and died beloved…but who turned himself into a lonely monster for the sake of his ego. About a man who, when faced with his own mortality, chooses to break bad.
Actually, that was the show I was watching. I just didn’t realize that the monster was going to be rewarded.
To be clear, I loved to hate Walter White. In fact, I doubt there’s a character in any book or movie that I have hated with such a white hot passion. If George R. R. Martin is the master of turning a villain into a lovable protagonist, then Vince Gilligan is the master of turning a lovable protagonist into a villain. I often told people who were put off by the topics in the series that it was anything but a glorification of criminal culture–pointing to the way Jesse evolved into the heart of the show while Walter became more and more irredeemable.
Like Hank and Marie, I believed that Walt had to pay for all the damage that he caused and since ego was the thing that mattered the most to him, that’s what needed to be crushed. I wanted to see him outsmarted, undone by his own vanity, and humiliated. In short, death was too good for Walter. The cancer was going to kill him anyway, and what Walt wanted was to die in a blaze of glory. Which is, in the end, exactly how it happened, and the lack of justice in that depresses me.
Some argue that Walt lost his family and that’s punishment for his wickedness. But that’s not true. Walt gave up the love of his family long before the end as a fair price in exchange for feeling alive. He chose his ego over his family–they weren’t taken away from him. Remember when Gustavo Fring told Walt that real men provide for their families even if they’re hated, even if they “lose” them? Walt took that to heart. He did the emotional math and, because he’s an amoral lowlife, he chose to be Heisenberg. Good thing, too, by his reckoning, because he was clever enough to figure out an ingenious way to get his money to his family. (And his money only–he was sure to make sure Gretchen and Elliott understood–so that he could pass down a legacy. Which, to be clear, is about Walt. Not his son.)
In the finale, Marie comments that Walt isn’t the criminal mastermind that he thinks he is. Then the show goes on to prove, one last time, that Walt actually is a criminal mastermind. In one of the most wonderful moments of the finale Walt finally admits to his devastated wife that he did all this because he liked it and because he was good at it…that’s true. Jesse was absolutely right when he told the cops that Mr. White would never pay for his crimes–because he was smarter than everyone else.
And I hate that Jesse was right.
Not because it isn’t a perfectly acceptable artistic choice. Not because it wasn’t brilliantly done. Not because it won’t satisfy the majority of the show’s fans. But because I’m a writer who pays very close attention to my subtext. I always try to be aware of the message I am sending. I think Vince Gilligan does too, which is why the final villains in the series were Aryans, because, to the writer’s enormous credit, he was smart enough to course-correct for the racist undertones in earlier seasons. Unfortunately, the ending of this show still telegraphs an ending that, in the words of Skinny Pete, is “kinda shady, morality wise.”
The message I heard was this: To all those downtrodden working class white men who feel as if living by society’s rules has somehow given you the shaft, realize that you can die on your own terms. Sure, you might destroy your family, kill a bunch of innocent people along the way, and profoundly contribute to the ills of society–but you will have a whole legion of people rooting for you because you’re actually not the bespectacled nerd in tighty whiteys who got mocked in high school and didn’t get the girl. Go ahead and embrace your rage-fantasies, because you’re actually an under-appreciated genius who can bestow life or death at your whim and go out on your own terms, the king of your own meth-lab castle. You’re the damned hero of the story.
Obviously, Vince Gilligan understands what drew most people to his television show, even as, or perhaps especially as, he publicly despaired that viewers were actually rooting for Walter White no matter how evil he became. While I loved to hate Heisenberg, most of the viewership just loved him. Breaking Bad gave those viewers exactly the vindication they were looking for while, simultaneously, trying to carve out a little redemption for Walter White. In the end, Walt died in the arms of his beloved meth lab. That’s fantastic entertainment, and a beautifully poetic story arc that I can’t argue with as an artist. Unfortunately, it also seems like a glorification of everything the show ought to have been condemning, which I really dislike as a person.
Maybe I’ll feel a little differently after the whole thing sinks in, but right now, I’m bummed! How about you?