Breaking Bad: The Detox

Warning. This contains MAJOR spoilers. If you haven’t watched the series I suggest you stop reading now.
If you were to sum up the moral philosophy behind Breaking Bad in one statement, it would be “Your sins never touch you alone.” Now that it’s all over, and we can look back at the entire arc of the series, we see this idea has been in play from the very beginning. Everything Walter White did effected him and everyone else in his world. Collateral damage was widespread in both it’s influence and it’s varying degrees of subtlety and horror. Walt lost his family along with his soul. His son lost his father, uncle, and innocence. His newborn daughter has lost the idea of a normal father, instead being left to grow up in the shadow of a near mythological entity of destruction and death. Skyler lost a husband, the respect of her son, and the hope of a normal life. Marie lost a husband because of someone she thought she could trust. Jesse’s search for redemption and a home was lost beneath Walt’s manipulations. An innocent boy was poisoned and his mother was murdered on her front porch. And this isn’t even counting Mike, the kid on the dirtbike, the airline passengers, the list goes on. Countless lives were destroyed by the direct and indirect influence of Walter White, and just like nuclear fallout, the damage did not discriminate.

If you look back to the episode “Ozymandias” and his conversation with Skyler before disappearing, you saw Walter White die. He knew that he could never go back to being Mr. White. He was firmly in black now, and there was no going back. His brother-in-law was dead because of him, his fortune was destroyed, and there was nothing he could do to manipulate out of the grip of fate. He was now forever Heisenberg, and he knew that by embracing it and saying what he did to Skyler (knowing the police were listening in, Walt isn’t that stupid), he pushed them as far away as possible. He embraced the villain because it was the only way to protect his family. His family was no longer an option, and he could do nothing but become the devil in the hope his family could be spared from the flames of damnation that he himself created.

I’ve listened to people talk about Breaking Bad as morally corrupt, and to an extent, they are correct, but the message itself isn’t. The whole series has been about the dangers of sin and self-delusion. From the very beginning Vince Gilligan talked about how the show was about “Mr. Chips turning into Scarface”, and for us to think a person could undergo that sort of transformation while containing a moral center is naive. We’ve known this was coming, and we knew that no one would emerge unscathed. In episode one Walter himself broke down the entire idea of the show:

“Chemistry … is the study of change … that’s all of life, right? It’s the constant, it’s the cycle. It’s solution, dissolution. Just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation. It’s fascinating really. It’s a shame so many of us never take time to consider its implications.”

We’ve spent the past five seasons knowing the person presented to us as the (anti)hero would become the villain, and it was a astounding transformation. He spent his life as a doormat, a pushover, a disappointment to himself. He knew he was smarter and more capable than the cards he was dealt, and it took a cancer diagnosis to unlock what he’d kept so deep inside, his thirst for respect. When he said he was in the empire business, this wasn’t just a pithy remark that made for good t-shirts and memes, it was a declaration of what he had desired all along. He wanted everyone to know he was better than all of them. In a sense this came true. When Jesse was talking to Hank about ways to trap Walt, at first he was hesitant to even form a plan. Jesse spoke of Walt’s intelligence, his influence, his almost Keiser Soze-esque image. Walt had become a ghost, a bad dream that had influenced his waking life, an almost mythological entity that was everywhere and no where at the same time. If you’ve ever seen The Usual Suspects, one of the things Verbal Kent says perfectly sums up Jesse’s initial fears: “How do you shoot the devil in the back? What if you miss?” Eventually Jesse realized the truth: Walter White is just a man, and that is something Walter White would never admit before everything started crumbling apart.

In the penultimate episode “Granite State”, Walter goes from fiery in his determination to kill Jack and his crew and reclaim what’s his to becoming a shell of his Heisenberg persona. Dying alone in a desolate cabin, he tries with one final grasp to buy back his family, with heartbreaking results. His son, who used to idolize him, has completely turned against him, and Walter has nothing left. When he calls the DEA and leaves the phone hanging, you know he’s done. He has nothing left. Everything is lost. He will die a monster, despised by those he tried so desperately to care for through his twisted manipulations and self-delusion. But when he sees Elliot and Gretchen, his old associates from Grey Matter (a company he helped found and left, now worth billions, something he has always resented) dismissing any sort of accomplishments Walter had contributed, you see the wheels of pride begin to turn again. “The sweet, kind, brilliant man we all once knew long ago, he’s gone,” Gretchen says. Rage comes across his face. He sat down with that drink thinking he had nothing left, but in fact he was wrong. He had one final thing going for him: he had nothing to lose. One of the teaser posters for the final season have a picture of Walter standing behind words that now have a much more obvious meaning: Remember my name. Walter walked out of that bar to secure his legacy.

In the final episode, after Walt uses his Heisenberg image brilliantly to manipulate Elliot and Gretchen into giving his money to his children, he goes to see Skyler and baby Holly for the last time. Here we see the humanity Walt had deep within him seep through as he looked upon his daughter, wife, and son (from a distance) before going to his end. Walter spent the first part of the show trying to convince himself and everyone else that he was doing all of this for his family, but he finally admits to Skyler what we’d known all along: he was doing this for himself. “I did it for me,” he says quietly, almost as a confession that takes a weight off his chest. “I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really… I was alive.” During the show, Walter was always the most aware person in every situation, but it took getting to the end for that awareness to come full circle. Jesse in a previous season had talked about accepting who you really are, and Walt finally had. The reason Jesse and Walt went together so well and yet were philosophically different was because they were flip-sides of the same coin. Walt spent the series deluding himself into thinking he was a fundamentally good person before he finally accepted he really was the bad guy all along. Jesse, on the other hand, tried to keep telling himself he was the bad guy, and yet it really wasn’t true. Jesse longed for redemption, and Walt’s manipulations kept him just as chained in the previous four and a half seasons as the chains in Jack’s dessert meth lab.

After the massacre of Jack’s crew and Jesse’s sweet revenge on Todd, Jack tried to give Walt his money back, and Walt’s answer was a bullet to his brain. Walt didn’t care about the money any more, he cared about his name. Walt’s final act in his quest for personal validation was saving Jesse. From day one he had done nothing but manipulate and abuse Jesse, and yet they needed each other. Jesse was his adopted son, and seeing him in chains and cowering like an abused puppy did nothing but physically illustrate to Walt what he’d done to him psychologically. He needed to do it not only because he cared about him deep down, but because he needed to die knowing he did one last good thing and believing he was a good man, even if it was lie. After his final victory, Walter White died alone in the meth lab where he built his name, his bloody hand print resting on the the equipment like a signature to forever mark his legacy, the stamp of an artist upon his masterpiece.

In the end, Walt wasn’t a man who broke bad; he was a man who let the bad run free. Author Steven James once said, “Do you know how to turn a man into a monster? Let him be himself without restraint. The road to the unthinkable is not paved by slight departures from your heart, but by tentative forays into it.” Our hearts as fallen human beings are always prone to evil, and when a cancer diagnosis robbed Walt of time, restraint was no longer an option. Knowing the end was near did nothing but unlock the monster that lay inside him all along. Something we always have a choice in is how we react to life. Others in Walt’s position may have reached out to faith or family to soothe the pain of the coming end. Walter chose to use it as an excuse to exercise his innermost demons, at the cost of everyone around him. As Breaking Bad has so brilliantly shown over these past five years, we all are defined by our choices, and those define the name we are remembered by. Walter White chose to be remembered as Heisenberg, and that name will long be remembered in the halls of storytelling greatness.

No other show in my memory has ever told a story with the same precision, guts, brilliance, and honesty as the rise and fall of Walter Hartwell “Heisenberg” White. It has become, in my mind, the greatest drama in the history of television. This wasn’t just entertainment; it was a parable, a morality play that graphically illustrated how even the most “good” among us can fall into evil. Hats off to you Breaking Bad. This has truly been an amazing, heart pounding, emotional, and thought provoking ride. You will be missed.

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’
– Percy Bysshe Shelley
 

 

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