“Breaking Bad” was never really about meth. It’s just comforting to think that it was.
It debuted Jan. 20, 2008, at the very start of the Great Recession. We met Walter White, a classically underemployed, undervalued American, at a time a lot of us felt underemployed and undervalued. Vince Gilligan didn’t plan it that way. He got lucky. Sometimes that’s how great stories work.
“My wife is seven months pregnant with a baby we didn’t intend,” Walt explained in Season 2. “My 15-year-old son has cerebral palsy. I am an extremely overqualified high school chemistry teacher. When I can work, I make 43,700 dollars per year. I have watched all of my colleagues and friends surpass me in every way imaginable. And within 18 months, I will be dead. ”
Grim, right? Walt’s lost his stake in Gray Matter, a technology company he helped create with former lover Gretchen Schwartz and her now-husband, Elliott. Walt thinks they shorted him. When he’s diagnosed with lung cancer — even though he’s never smoked — his wife, Skyler, wonders if he got it working with Gray Matter chemicals.
The Schwartzes seem to have done what a lot of successful people (and even unsuccessful ones) do: Taken a justifiable shortcut, not worrying about how it might hurt someone else. When we saw them in Sunday’s finale they were chatting about their dandy lives. We almost wanted them to die because of their conversation alone.
The early “Breaking Bad” Walt has played by the rules and has little to show for it, at least in terms of money. He teaches science in a country that badly needs young scientists, but no one cares. He needs to work in a car wash to get by. His emasculated treats include veggie bacon and a sad birthday handjob.
His cancer diagnosis – but he doesn’t even smoke! – finally gives him an excuse to break free. Forget it, he tried, look where it got him. Now it’s time to cash in, try out this meth thing. It seems so easy.
He’s a nice man. So he assumes that even when he does something wrong, he’ll do it in a decent way. Which is what we all think: If someone has to do a bad job, better it be a good person, someone like me, who will do it as humanely as possible.
And so Walt rationalizes his first killing, of Krazy 8. He makes a list with two columns, pro and con: “Judeo/Christian Principles” and “Moral thing to do” he writes, as if acknowledging the existence of these things make him moral. In the other column is the deciding factor: “He’ll kill your entire family if you let him go.”
Walt doesn’t actually know that to be true. But he’s stacked the deck, especially once he convinces himself he needs to kill in self-defense. Didn’t he make the less awful of two awful choices? Walter White’s M.O. always calls for positioning the options in two camps, bad and worse, so that he can take the high ground by merely breaking bad. Everyone else is breaking so much worse.
By the end of the show, as we cheer Walt’s final victory, we’ve adopted his mentality without even realizing it. We’re root for Walt again, despite all the evil he’s done, because at least he’s not as bad as the Neo Nazis. Why Nazis? Because World War II is where every philosophy class argument about morality goes: Sure, dropping A-bombs was terrible. But more terrible than an invasion that might have been worse? Or: Would you smother an infant Hitler, to prevent all that genocide?
This is the real genius of the show: Holding up a mirror to our own Walt-like morality. As long as we posit that the world is full of evil, we can justify almost anything we do. (“What was I supposed to do? Let my children starve?”)
It’s easy to find reasons to be cynical. Teachers are underpaid and meth-makers live like kings, so you’d be a sucker to keep teaching, right? The world is rigged against you. It’s a very easy view to adopt, especially when you’re in a surly mood and your coffee place is out of Stevia.
But it’s a view that demands that you ignore signs of hope. If the Schwartzes offer to pay Walt’s medical bills, it’s only to assert their superiority. Everything is broken, so get yours.
And then what always happens happens. Walt creates more evil than he planned, because evil doesn’t come from a desire to hurt anyone. It just comes from valuing yourself over others. All you need is no love.
As Hank dies, Walt realizes he’s built an apparatus of self-protection so self-sustaining he can’t stop the gears. He’s the watchmaker God who can’t control his creation.
Of course he’s racked up planes full of bodies already. But we don’t care about the hell and teddy bears that rained from the sky because the flying dead didn’t have names. Can we see them? Are they really there? They’re no more visible than the people who make our clothes, or operate the assembly lines that build those doomed stuffed animals.
We weren’t worried about the escalating body count, just one man’s story arc. The show is all about Walt, and our shows are all about us. Life is unfair, and who are we hurting? Do we have time to think about people we’ll never meet?
I’m tapping this out in New York City, where a one-bedroom apartment can easily top $3,500 a month. I’m using a laptop made in China, where city workers average $3,500 a year. You read that right. I know who created my machine: Steve Jobs, another bald bespectacled genius. But I don’t know who was caught in its gears. I’ve seen stories, but don’t think about the small hands that polished my screen.
Should I refuse to take part in an economy that hurts some people? That’s crazy. Writing little stories is my job. It’s a good one, and we just got out of that recession. I could be doing so much worse.
We all need to believe that, to do whatever we do.