When we left Walter H. White at the end of last season's Breaking Bad, the furloughed Albuquerque high school chemistry teacher had ordered his former student, Jesse Pinkman, to bump off a colleague from their meth lab where all three were "cooking" their primo crystal-blue rock for a Mexican (or is it Colombian?) cartel.
White had already killed three men, homicidal drug dealers who seemed to have it coming. But he had never ordered a hit on a non-combatant, someone who was, like White himself,
a highly educated chemist and, unlike his other victims, white. In the previous episode the paternal Walter had even spared young Jesse from committing murder by doing the job himself. (He ran over the Latino thugs in his car, then shot them in the head.)
One of many reasons to watch this ultra-dark and gripping series, which returns on AMC for its fourth season on July 17, is that the characters face murky ethical quandaries all the time. How one unlawful action inevitably leads to another, and the various ways smart people try to rationalize their heinous behavior, is at the heart of the show.
Asking a TV audience to side with the lesser evil has lately become a standard strategy
for producers of dramatic series on cable. When greater evil is obviously afoot in the world, manifest in forces more violent, deceitful, and hypocritical than your central characters, thievery, assault, adultery, bootlegging, drug running, and murder can be excused.
The Sopranos, The Wire, The Shield, Deadwood, Weeds, Dexter, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, and Sons of Anarchy have all created sympathy for and, in some cases, glorified liars, killers, and sociopaths by pitting them against worse liars, killers, and sociopaths.
Network television has shied away from this kind of moral ambiguity, preferring in popular franchises such as CSI and Law and Order to maintain the more commercially friendly norms of good and bad guys. Even when network cops have gone rogue, as some did on, say, NYPD Blue, or as Jack Bauer did briefly on 24, they have not become fully ripened, unpunished felons, as happened on The Shield.
Breaking Bad exemplifies this trend on cable. White is a shy intellectual whose research at Los Alamos led others to earn a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He became a meth manufacturer -- in his white-collar mind, a higher calling than drug dealing -- only after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Father of a son with cerebral palsy and husband to a pregnant wife, he had initially wanted only to provide for his family after his imminent death.
The meth business, though, tends to attract a rough crowd. Lying to his wife and stealing chemistry equipment from the high school where he teaches were only the first steps of his descent. Before long he was in league with Mexican drug lords and a money-laundering lawyer. (Oh, and did I mention his brother-in-law is a DEA agent?)
With an outstanding cast, led by Emmy-winners Bryan Cranston as the anguished temporizer White, and Aaron Paul as the sweet but dangerously inept Jesse, the show charts the moral collapse of a previously upright man. His fight to stay alive and protect his family requires that he must find a way to justify his actions, however indenfensible and whatever the consequences.
"I've made some bad choices, some mistakes" a head-in-hands White confessed last year, a hilarious understatement considering where his sleazy new profession had taken him.
Breaking Bad is the sort of black comedy familiar in literary fiction and the movies. Criminals have been lionized in the poems of Villon, the plays of John Gay and Brecht, and the novels of Conrad and Camus. Many an American gangster picture, beginning with Public Enemy in 1931, has explored moral terrain whereby we choose to side with a charming criminal against nastier criminals.
We were asked to accept Don Corleone as a more honorable mafioso for resisting other mob families intent on pushing drugs in The Godfather. Who couldn't see that New York's finest were as dirty as this tight-knit Sicilian family? Only in Godfather II did Frances Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo portray the surviving Corleones as a pack of hyenas willing to devour each other for power and profit.
Prime-time television, on the other hand, could not (until the advent of cable) afford
to allow an audience to cozy up to immoral characters. Riding a signal into our homes,
programs enter a space heavily defended by government censors and advertizers.
Patricia Highsmith's suave serial killer, Tom Ripley, has been a popular cult figure in novels and movies since 1955. Far more daring was Showtime's decision in 2006 to lift Jeffrey Lindsay's serial killing forensics detective, Dexter Morgan, off the pages of a book and give him a TV series. Breaking Bad, broadcast on basic rather than premium cable, is riskier still.
Walter H. White, as conceived by its creator, Vince Gilligan, and his writers, has no
criminal record or talents. His chief sins, in the beginning of the series, were priggish
self-righteousness and excessive pride. His first-rate brain, however, quickly adapts to his milieu. Not for nothing is the series set in New Mexico, home of the atomic bomb. White's scientific prowess allows him to make a meth of higher (and more addictive) quality than anyone has ever seen. It is sold on the streets under his code name "Heisenberg," a nod to another brilliant thinker who made some "bad choices."
White is able to convince himself (and eventually his wife) that the duffle bags of cash
he has stashed in their house are legitimate gain. "I earned it," he shouts. "I didn't steal it." After a brief hiatus from cooking meth, he resumes the task because, he tells his lawyer (played by the engaging comedian Bob Odenkirk), that the inferior product being sold under his name upsets him.
"I simply respect the chemistry," he claims. "The chemistry must be respected."
Nor is White the only self-forgiving delusionist. His colleague in the meth lab reasons
that "there's crime and then there's crime. I'm definitely a libertarian. Consenting adults
want what they want and if I'm not supplying it they will get is from someone else. At least with me they're getting exactly what they paid for, no added toxins or adulterants."
I'm hoping this season that Breaking Bad moves into areas it has only touched on.
Unlike The Wire, it has seldom mapped the neighborhoods that drugs have devastated. There have been a few degenerate meth heads. But the teeth of Jesse, supposedly a former addict, are Hollywood bright.
More troubling is that the intense focus on White and his Caucasian relatives has excluded Latinos from being much more than sinister badasses. The show's audience, of a similar background to Walt's) can safely cheer as brown-skinned lowlifes are blown away. (Should
the fellow chemist from the lab be another victim -- the final episode last season left his
future unclear -- he would be Walt's first social peer to go down.)
The show's savage critique of the U.S. health care system -- White goes into the meth business because he can't afford expensive cancer treatments -- might be extended to the nation's futile war on drugs, another area where The Wire proved more searching.
Despite these blind spots, Breaking Bad is as wrenching and morally complex as any show on television. Notwithstanding his many crimes, most of us are hoping that White can somehow evade capture or death. That makes us, at some level, accomplices. I, for one, am happy to plead guilty.
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