Hats Off

WARNING: The following contains spoilers for AMC’s Breaking Bad. If you have not seen the show up to its current airing, please do not read, for your own sake. The series is on Netflix. Feel free to return once you are properly initiated.

O, come in, equivocator.

I have been meaning to do a post on Breaking Bad for some time. Those close to me know I have more than a mild enthusiasm for the show, which is extraordinary not only in its formal qualities — commanding performances, masterful storytelling, cinematic direction, to list just a few — but also for its sophistication and seriousness toward such basic human concerns as morality, sin, and the soul, which it addresses with (I would argue) theological insight. This last quality is a wonderful surprise when you consider the landscape of television today. The medium is enjoying what some are calling a new “Golden Age” with quality serial dramas that unfurl larger stories, draw deeper characters and expand TV’s stylistic and thematic frontiers. We have seen an influx of genuine artists into the business, who, freed from some of the more dogged constraints of box-office Hollywood, have migrated to more fertile ground to cultivate their creative visions.

But for all this, or perhaps because of it, a kind of “anti-conventional” conventionality has taken the air. Set loose from the binds of the older models, the new wave of TV creatives have defined themselves in opposition to the ancien regimé a little too starkly. And so in recent years this rebellious haze has ossified into a now familiar story structure: the tortured “anti-hero” who bucks traditional morals but nevertheless wins the viewer’s sympathy and support, usually by weathering a harsh volley of complicated circumstances through even more complicated actions, ultimately designed to “challenge” our simplistic assumptions of the Good and expose the pliancy of our perennial maxims. The formula, a vogue of this early millennium, has spawned so many imitators that what may have been daring a decade ago has sadly devolved into cliché, as fans of Breaking Bad can attest with every eye roll induced by another angsty promo for AMC’s Low Winter Sun.*

*Full disclosure: I’ve never seen it. This might be unfair, but I doubt it.

Breaking Bad, by contrast, is the anti-hero’s reductio ad absurdum. Walter White begins in the pilot episode with every conceivable sympathy — disabled son, pregnant wife, financial burdens, disappointing career, and, to top it off, terminal cancer — and when he first forms the idea to cook crystal meth to leave money behind for his family, we seem primed for another tale of corrective transgressions and pat justifications.

It was this false expectation that kept me from the show for many years. I knew the basic premise. Walt’s convergence of misfortunes seemed so cosmically conspiratorial, so obviously engineered to extract our pity, that I could venture a guess at what the show was playing at. Knowing the flavor of the genre, I foresaw the inevitable appeal to Walt’s admirable concern — the care of his family — and the weight of his many woes to excuse his exhilarating foray into crime. Another concern even greater to my mind was the subject matter itself. I have no particular aversion to dark stories but I was doubtful I could stomach a graphic depiction of the world of serious drug addiction over so many hours, privy to a weekly display of the slow, wasting decay of those pitiable souls who fall into its orbit. A two-hour movie on the subject is one thing; a multi-season series, obliging one to recommit again and again, is quite another.

Anyone who gives the show a fair chance, as I finally did, learns soon enough that it is not really about drugs, and the framing of its characters’ questionable actions is nothing like my hasty caricature. It is playing a different game entirely; or rather, it is playing no game at all. As an expertly crafted crime drama, the series excels at building suspense, and it relieves its tensions with frequent (dark) humor. But its angle is decisively unromantic. Where its siblings might flout the rules for cheap thrills and shallow interrogations of classic ethical strictures (see Dexter), Breaking Bad forgoes all attempts to justify its “hero.” Walt starts with an abundance of sympathy and over the course of five seasons, with every small and seismic decision, prodigally squanders the store. Exits appear that would put his family in the clear and he does not take them; his rationalizations grow more strained and yet more fervent; his blistering pride swallows the force of his supposed “good reasons”; and we come to realize we have been watching all along not the heroic struggle of a Promethean anti-hero but the birth and rise of an outright villain.

The real triumph of Breaking Bad is that despite all this — the rank corruption of its main character, the man with whom we once sympathized yet still follow week to week — and despite the attractive strain of relativistic, transgression-for-transgression’s-sake storytelling in the broader television culture, the show shines with a certain moral and spiritual clarity. That is not to say its treatment of these themes is simplistic. The corrosion of Walt’s soul is believable at every step because it takes place in the many quiet moments just as much as, if not more than, in the special acts of brazen defiance. His tacit manipulations, self-screening rationales and willful delusions are all too familiar to the sinful heart. Walt’s escalating crimes strike viewers with their heinousness, but his experience differs from our own more in degree than in kind. By now most (sane) viewers have turned on Walter White, but his driving inner logic is not as foreign to our understanding as we would wish. The same small compromises, or the seeds of them, are present in our lives. Breaking Bad gives us a man who simply persists in those compromises over and over again until they reach their natural endpoint.

That the endpoint really is natural is one of the show’s keenest insights. True to its chemistry, Breaking Bad‘s is a universe governed by laws: action yields reaction, choice brings consequence. Small things circle back as big problems. At its most intense, the show can give viewers the sense that they are witnessing sheer chaos. But that is never really the case. The torrents of destruction that hound the characters can always be traced back to an original cause. Theirs is an orderly universe, and even when it tends to its most disorderly it is simply as a consequence of what has come before. For all the twists and surprises the story has given us, the precipitous tailspin of Walter White’s world — falling to colossal ruin in this season’s staggering “Ozymandias” — has proceeded along consistent principles from events set in motion long ago.

But this inevitability is never absolute, this universe never deterministic. When we trace the fallout back to its origin we find, almost invariably, not some material accident or stroke of chance but a clearly delineated, conscious choice. Everything starts with Walt’s decision in the pilot episode to “break bad” and begin cooking, but even the many ramifications of those ramifications can be traced to proximate causes of concentrated choice that drive events in one direction rather than other. We are not permitted the illusion that we are seeing merely the semblance of freedom. More than any other I can remember, this show is constant about presenting moments of decision as crossroads, going out of its way to gesture at the paths not taken. Sometimes even literally: In a moment of desperation, Skyler flees to the Four Corners Monument and flips a coin to determine where she will go. And of course, when it lands, she moves the coin.

Chuck Klosterman has argued that the centrality of personal choice in the moral (or immoral) life is what sets Breaking Bad apart, even from other high-quality dramas. I think he is on to something, but I would offer that it is the dynamic of choice and consequence that reveals the show’s profound understanding of human action. There cannot be one without the other. Today’s anti-hero serials tend to gravitate to one of two poles: they either set the guy loose upon the world, free to bend reality to his will with minimal blowback (Dexter); or they extenuate the sins of their characters by shifting the blame (at least in part) to larger structures like the era, society, chance, or fate (Mad Men, one could argue). Neither gets it quite right. A world without repercussions is a false world, but an exaggerated appeal to external forces is just as flawed: all these (admittedly) powerful influences can never bridge the infinite chasm of the free will. Breaking Bad recognizes the importance of both of these elements, and in giving them their due weight illustrates how a person like Walt, or you, or I, can exercise total control over our decisions yet lose all control over their effects. Walt’s crumbling plans are continually surprising and chaotic for him not due to any lack of underlying order in the events themselves, but rather from grand delusions about the reach of his own power and that of his sandcastle kingdom. Vince Gilligan and his writers place freedom and order not in false conflict but in their proper and necessary relation. It is a true picture of the world; you might even say a Christian one.

In the hands of brilliant writers, this vision of the world becomes a powerful vehicle for the show’s artistic genius. There is no heavy authorial hand because none is needed. Simply juxtaposing Walt’s frequent self-justifications — so uncomfortably relatable — to the bare facts — the sheer, unrelenting destruction that falls all around him — is enough to expose the sad poverty of our excuses. We hear them, and have heard them before. The results speak for themselves. In this way, quiet in voice and bold in spectacle, Gilligan gives us a show that is moral without moralizing, that has the courage to affirm that yes, there are choices that are simply, unequivocally bad. The scales of justice may never balance perfectly in this life — innocent people suffer terribly for the sins of evil men, as they do in life — but things do come back around. It is not society or bad luck that makes or breaks souls; Gilligan holds human beings in higher regard than that. But maybe, once freely chosen, sin really does stain everything it touches; and maybe Augustine was right and pride really is the root and crown of all sin.

Tonight the lights will go out for Breaking Bad, probably for Walter White, and for who knows how many others. No reflection on the show’s moral and spiritual awareness, even one as cursory as this, would be adequate without mention of Jesse Pinkman, whose partnership with Walt has led him into many dark dens of suffering and racked his own soul along the way — but who has yet, in his best moments, shown sparks of life and a clinging sensitivity to conscience. Jesse’s evolution from strung-out slacker to the show’s true heart has been every bit as compelling as Walt’s rise and fall. But like the show, my time here is running short; and what is more, any attempt to give the final word on Jesse would be premature. The odds are long for Walt’s redemption (I think we can safely say), but no character’s fate hangs with as much uncertainty as Jesse’s. At his lowest depths he has shown the promise of change, though as Ross Douthat has keenly noted, he has ever only followed through in half-hearted fits and starts. True change would require nothing less than the full measure. Even for a man in chains with no earthly reason to hope, this path, as with every other in this series, is a matter of choice, and one that still lies open. The question is: Will he take it?