The actions in question often relate to the downward spiral of the show’s anti-hero, Walter White, who after a cancer diagnosis, goes from ordinary high school chemistry teacher to brilliant and violent meth kingpin. While overtly a modern Western about science, drugs, and criminality, Breaking Bad is secretly a moral treatise.
Widely touted as one of the best television series of all time, Breaking Bad concluded in September 2013. The show has also been criticized for its grittiness, cynicism and lack of humanity. There may be certain times when viewers will inevitably feel cynical because the show accurately portrays human failings, consequences and the tendency for self deceit. All moral choices are human, but some are just not pro-humanity. The show's deeper purpose is to realistically explore overarching themes of moral choice, personal conduct, responsibility, self-deception, and karma.
Note: if you have not seen the entire series, there are spoilers below.
Walt is a brilliant chemist and failed entrepreneur, who initially gets the idea to cook meth from his brother-in-law, Hank, an officer in the Drug Enforcement Agency. Walt is proud, and refuses to accept money from wealthy former business associates to pay for his expensive chemotherapy. As Walt becomes more successful in his drug operation, his wife grows suspicious of his constant absences and dishonesty. Walt and Jesse are drawn further into the chaos and violence of the drug game, and Walt is forced to reveal his occupation to his wife, who reluctantly decides to enable and conceal his illegal actions.
Over the course of five seasons, Walt becomes increasingly cocky, violent, and relentless in his pursuit of success in the drug world at all costs. He murders his boss, Gustavo Fring, leading him to become the biggest meth kingpin in the Southwest. Walt's ruthlessness and constant manipulation eventually alienate his increasingly despondent partner, Jesse, who decides to out Walt to Hank and the DEA. The characters' collective choices lead to Hank's murder, Jesse's imprisonment, and Walt's death in the final season. Walt's ultimate acceptance of responsibility for his actions leads to a final act of atonement by freeing Jesse, and redemption before he dies of wounds inflicted during Jesse's release.
Moral Choice in Breaking Bad
Walt originally starts out as a sympathetic character, and some viewers continue to empathize with him, even as his personal conduct becomes increasingly depraved. He is an archetypal everyman struggling to provide for his family, when he is struck down by cancer in mid-life. At first, his choice to cook and sell meth seems to make sense; he needs the money and he has nothing to loose.
However, Walt always had other options that he could have chosen, and the show's ending proves that he does have a lot to loose. He could have accepted financial help for his treatment. The risks that Walt takes outweigh the benefits, and the viewer can sense that negative consequences are forthcoming. Walt ends up destroying his family as a result of the choices he makes.
Walt's poor ethics contribute to his downfall. He values the rights of family and close associates like Jesse, over the rights of others outside of his circle. He has fewer qualms about causing harm to non-family members. His actions are based on erroneous ethical beliefs, biased by his own self interest. Harm is still harm whether it is done to to family or strangers, and whether it is caused through willful ignorance, or overt wrong actions. Walt has cooked crystal meth, killed seven people, and been implicated in the deaths of many more. He poisoned a child and watched a girl die in order to keep Jesse under his control. Walt is a manipulator and a control freak who draws people into his web.
Walt's poor moral choices are corrupting, and in this sense he is not so different from Jesse, which is why the two characters are tragically linked. However, Jesse is not as out of touch with consequences of his actions. Jesse has morals, but he allows bad things to happen because he refuses to take responsibility and assert himself. Jesse aimlessly drifts through life without a purpose, unsatisfied and wallowing in self pity, which is typical of addicts. Only loosing everything, including his freedom, leads him to embrace what life has to offer at then end of the final season.
Some viewers are unduly harsh towards Walt's wife Skyler. Skyler finds herself alone and constantly deceived by by her husband, and she chooses to have an affair to distract herself from the turmoil of her marriage. Her affair is a predictable response, although not an ethical one.
Skyler's behavior is typical of what people do when they feel that someone else is forcing things on them without their consent, but when they also don’t want to leave to relationship. Leaving would probably be the only right thing for Skyler to do in order to enforce her boundaries, since Walt treats her so badly at times and endangers her and her children. Instead, she reluctantly chooses to enable his illegal activity.
The third to last Breaking Bad episode is titled Ozymandius, after the 1818 sonnets by Percy Shelley and Horace Smith, about the impermanence and downfall of all great men and empires. The message here is that Walt built his empire with the wrong kind of material, and therefore it will not last. Personal integrity and good character are the only things that gives a person security in life. Not material success, and certainly not poor moral choices which bring about one's downfall thorough unintended consequences. It is what is inside, real character, that matters.
Self Deception and Internal Conflict
Walt takes on the dealer pseudonym Heisenberg. Heisenberg was a physicist who developed the uncertainly principle in quantum mechanics, which holds that no thing has a definite trajectory, rather the thing is indeterminate or uncertain until it is observed by a conscious entity. Walt's pseudonym is symbolic, and his change into Heisenberg is based on his own internal conflict and uncertainty. Walt’s reflection in broken mirrors is used to illustrate his lack of integrity and the duality of the internal contradictions that he struggles with.
Walt tries to justify his actions with ultimate goal of supporting his family. But logically, the argument that he is cooking and selling meth to support his family just doesn’t hold up, because he was offered outside help and money for his treatment. If Walt was really willing to look at his own beliefs and behaviors, he would see that his actions are actually at odds with the goal of helping his family. Walt finally admits this to himself after destroying his family loosing everything. He is ultimately a tragic character.
Jesse also lacks responsibility since he refuses to stand up to Walt until the end of the series. Walt manipulates, and Jessie does not assert himself enough, allowing himself to be drawn into harmful situations that he never really wanted. Both Jesse and Skyler have poor personal boundaries when it comes to standing up to Walt, and they both suffer negative consequences for their failure to assert themselves.
Gustavo Fring has a twisted sense of responsibility which allows him to rationalize his ruthlessness when he feels it is necessary. Gus believes that, “A man provides. And he does it even when he's not appreciated, or respected, or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it. Because he's a man.”
Contrast Walt's irresponsible behavior with Hank's, and Hank turns out to be more of the hero in the series. Hank is better husband than Walt is. He accepts responsibility for his mistakes, including when he is faced with termination after assaulting Jesse in Season 3. Hank’s death results in Walt’s transformation and redemption.
After Hank dies and Walt looses everything, Walt finally takes responsibility for his actions. Walt admits to Sklyer what the flustered viewer has always known: that it was not really about supporting his family. It was all about Walt's ego, the thrill, and the sense of accomplishment that he derived from the meth game. Walt is an anti-hero, and the viewer should not forgive his transgressions until he ultimately tries to redeem himself and accepts responsibility for his actions.
Karma and Consequences
Some viewers will take away the message that bad guys go unpunished. I would argue the opposite is true. People DO get what they deserve, although it is not always in the form of criminal justice. Each character bears the consequences of their negative and self destructive actions.
Walt’s life becomes a living hell. Hank ends up dead because in his frantic pursuit of Walt, he stubbornly refuses to investigate the case through official DEA channels. Skyler winds up broken and alone for engaging in illegal activities, and lying to protect Walt. Jesse lives in a prison of his own making until he is finally freed.
The show's creator Vince Gilligan believes that “Breaking Bad takes place in a universe where nobody gets away with anything and karma is the great uncredited player in the cast.” What makes Breaking Bad great, is that the show's rules and moral universe are no different from our own.