What will become of me after “Breaking Bad”? By the time this column reaches your coffee table, dear reader, I will, like you, be grappling with that awesome responsibility. And I will know the answer to the question at the heart of the series: Is Walter White, even after all that he has done, redeemable?
“Breaking Bad” has been one of those rare television phenomenons, a program that has meant far more than entertainment to its legions of viewers. It has become a cultural touchstone, the launcher of a million water-cooler discussions and viewing parties. The show has generated fan-stocked Web and Wiki sites, Facebook and Twitter explosions and of course thousands of articles, like this one, that pretend to get at the meaning of it all.
The nation has followed poor Walter White—good father, dutiful husband, cancer victim and once the object of near universal sympathy—as he became transformed before us into a ruthless sociopath. But this monster, we realized in gradual horror, had been hiding in plain sight from the first moment he climbed into the Krystal Ship and began cooking Blue Sky for his daily bread.
It was during a weekend binge viewing of B.B. year three when Walter White’s inner darkness became apparent to me. Walter doesn’t just endure his sin-propelled transformation into the imperious and dangerous Heisenberg, the “one who knocks”; he longs for it. Also revealed were the thematic machinations of the show’s scheming director, Vince Gilligan. “I was brought up Catholic,” Gilligan reluctantly described himself on Stephen Colbert’s show last year. (“You know what else the road to hell is paved with?” Colbert quickly volleyed: “the words, ‘I used to be a Catholic.’”) He mines his Catholic upbringing to good effect. Even a lapsed Catholic can count off his seven deadlies, after all. What is “Breaking Bad” if not a morality play for our digitized times with an audience not gathered around a medieval stage, but consuming the series across the digital firmament?
Like all good morality plays, “Breaking Bad” leads us through the dissection of a degraded morality into a contemplation of our own. As Walt refuses the help of family and “friends,” it is pride that prods him into the meth business in the first place. As Walter surrenders in anger to a murderous impulse, taunts Hank “My name is ASAC” Schrader into continuing a dead-ended investigation and is driven by greed across the desert, a modern McTeague, I watch him become undone by the capital vices. I am startled by the low and tragic places sloth and gluttony have taken Jesse Pinkman; how lust begins the unraveling of Skyler White. Pressed to ponder my own unhappy skirmishes with the seven deadlies; it is I, the observer, who can be changed by this Heisenberg.
After each step deeper into the abyss, Walt seeks a reboot, a do-over, that one last awful thing he’ll have to do that will free him from breaking any badder than he already has—liquifying a body, poisoning a child, running down drug-dealers, setting up poor Jesse again and again. His attempted resets result in more murder and mayhem, of course. They are just steps farther away from his own conscience and from God. Walter is devoid of contrition and a firm purpose of amendment.
As the series draws to a close, we have seen hints of the humanity that remains in Walter White—an attempt to trade his ill-gotten gains for the life of his brother-in-law, phoning in a cover story for Skyler as authorities listen in. Jesse has been reduced to complete meth thralldom, bereft of hope but still alive enough to know he needs absolution, not just regret, for his many mistakes.
In medieval morality plays, the protagonist begins in innocence, succumbs to temptation and falls into sin, but in the end finds a way back to God and redemption. We have come to know Walter White, however, as a man who was never truly innocent, as a man who may have been tempted not away from virtue, but toward his truer self. Can we hold out any hope that some kind of redemption may still await a creature like Walter White?
Of course we can, and Vince Gilligan (curse his “brought up Catholic”!) knows it.
It’s the same hope we hold out for ourselves.