This summer, "Breaking Bad" will air the final episodes of its final season. The coming months are sure to be packed with "think pieces" about the show, its effect on the TV landscape, and its overall legacy. People will likely be talking about how "Breaking Bad" changed what a crime drama could be, and how Walter White is one of the most morally ambiguous characters in TV history.
But one aspect of "Breaking Bad" that may get overlooked in all these think pieces is the show's exploration and judgment of human intelligence. Over the past five seasons, "Breaking Bad" has subtly challenged the public's preconceptions about what it means to be smart. While most people would say that a college-educated man like Walter White is intelligent, "Breaking Bad" has made the same understated argument time and time again: "Smart" men like Walt are dumb.
Walter White is a brilliant chemist, and he becomes a clever strategist, as well. He is, for all intents and purposes, brilliant. And yet, this educated man frequently makes stupid decisions.
In addition to the obviously foolish decision to cook meth in order to build a nest egg for his family, Walt has made many other equally dumb choices. Letting his ego get in the way, he kills Mike to get information he could have easily gotten from Lydia, for example. Walt also foolishly reignites Hank's interest in the Heisenberg case in Season 4. And most telling of all, Walt leaves evidence of his link with Gale Boetticher in his bathroom, where Hank finds it in the midseason finale of Season 5.
In contrast, many of the "grunts" and marginally educated characters on the show are shown to have surprisingly sharp intellects. Even minor uneducated characters are shown being quite clever. For example, the owner of the salvage yard is able to prevent Hank from searching the RV in an early episode. Hank argues that he can search the RV because it's a vehicle and he has probable cause. The salvage yard owner corrects Hank, stating that the RV could also be considered a domicile, and so Hank would need a warrant to search it.
Jesse may have failed high school chemistry, but this "dumb" character is far more wise than Walt. Jesse never puts the lives of children at risk and is often better at seeing the big picture than Walt. Jesse usually has creative insights that the others can't even conceive of on their own, such as the clever plan to use magnets to wipe Gus Fring's hard drive. He was also responsible for the creative sparks behind the train job and restarting the RV after the battery died in the desert.
"Breaking Bad" is a monumental achievement in television, but its greatest contribution to the TV landscape may just be its unique stance on what makes a man truly "wise." In the world of "Breaking Bad," intelligence doesn't come from schools, but rather is fostered in the minds of innately curious people who need wisdom to prevent others from being victimized by "intellectual bullies." In that way, "Breaking Bad" really is quite an inspirational show.
- Walter White