Breaking Bad’s appeal is pretty clear. Try explaining the premise of a show like Game of Thrones or Mad Men in one sentence. It’s not as easy as telling somebody who hasn’t seen Breaking Bad that it’s about a chemistry teacher, who starts cooking and selling crystal meth, after he’s diagnosed with terminal cancer. Most people get it right away.
That’s not to say that Breaking Bad is any better or worse than Game of Thrones or Mad Men, but rather that it’s more relatable (unless you worked on Madison Avenue in the 60s or own a pet dragon). While the appeal of this kind of show is simple – giving audiences a funhouse-mirror vision of themselves – the risk is high. Mainly, a TV show that’s steeped in reality and the ability to relate to runs the risk of either becoming too detached from reality to remain entertaining or too realistic and revealing about the human condition to remain digestible. Breaking Bad has straddled this line, and occasionally stepped slightly off into each of those directions, but has remained impressively compelling throughout.
We know crystal meth is bad, and it’s easy to assume that the world around crystal meth will involve side effects that are even worse – you know, murder and whatnot. But when combined with the mortality of a cancer diagnosis and the natural urge to provide for one’s family, particularly a family that consists of a teenager with a disability and a pregnant wife, it’s justifiable. “I would do the exact same thing” is a common response. Thanks to TV, we don’t have to do it. We can just watch some fictitious goofball do it and cheer him on as he commits the atrocities that prevent us from doing it.
So, naturally, the final season of the show was the perfect opportunity to confront us for this. Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator, makes it very obvious that there’s nothing to like about Walter White in season five of the show. This is interesting, because season five picks up exactly where season four left off – the narrative starts as soon as Walter hangs up the phone with Skylar, just minutes after he pulled off a murder that we, the audience, had all just been cheering for.
Obviously, this was intentional. Walter White’s greatest hits in the first four seasons include: using his family’s life savings to invest in a meth lab, idly watching as Jesse’s girlfriend suffocated on her own vomit after an overdose, convincing Jesse to murder an innocent nerd, getting those sweet Hispanic cleaning ladies deported, poisoning a toddler, blowing up a nursing home, and murdering a handful of gang members along the way. These were considered justifiable, which is why, after he senselessly shoots Mike Ehrmantraut in season five, Walt chases him down, apologizes, and admits that he didn’t even need to argue with him in the first place. When it comes time to dispose of Mike’s body, he tells Todd, “I don’t want to talk about this.” Even Walt is confronted with what he’s become.
Although he pauses, Walter doesn’t stop after his first “unjustifiable” murder. From a tactical standpoint for the show’s writers, this was a risk. It marked a turning point for the audience. Walt had been pretty unbearable in the six episodes before this, and now he’s gone and killed off arguably the most likable character on the show. At this point, Gilligan and his writing staff are asking us to keep watching, as someone we don’t like succeeds in an obnoxious manner. Don’t we do enough of that on Facebook?
Even though dozens of people had been murdered at this point in Breaking Bad’s trajectory, the murder of MIke Ehrmantraut was pretty easily recognizable as the first that Walter did not commit out of necessity. It’s the apex of his transformation, the specific moment at which he fully transformed from a relatable guy who does what’s necessary to a murderous drug dealer who does what’s good for business. He’s no different than those he killed in the past.
But while the shift from familial provider to enterprising chemist is made clear in the fifth season, shades of it begin to emerge earlier on in the show, revealing that all along, Breaking Bad has been toying with a different, less obvious parallel through which Walter White and the show’s audience have connected.
I’m 25 years-old. I’m not married and I don’t have kids. I can’t pretend to know what it must feel like as a middle-aged, middle-class father, who long ago gave up on a dream in favor of stability and all that comes with it – the regret, the professional boredom, the wondering “what if.” I imagine that it’s something you can adapt to, something you can live with, eventually. But I can’t imagine it’s something you can ever just get over.
Every once in awhile we hear about another suburban nobody, whose double life ends up exposed. We’ve even seen real-life teachers emulate Walter White when faced with similar circumstances.
At a certain point, you start living for your family and kids. But, I imagine, you never escape the urge to fulfill your own goals, indulge in the selfish dreams that lay dormant for decades. Some people act on this impulse in one way or another, assuming some kind of risk or ignoring consequences just to get another shot at a dream – be it the career they’d hoped for or the family they’d once envisioned – that didn’t pan out the way they had initially dreamt it.
Naturally, we love hearing about these stories. If we didn’t, then they wouldn’t ever make national news.
In season three, Walt repeatedly refuses Gus’ $3 million offer for a three-month meth cooking agreement, explaining that after selling off his inventory and simultaneously beating cancer, he already had more money than he knew how to spend. He doesn’t show any sign of interest until Gus brings him to the lab he’s set up for him. As Gale Boetticher explained in a later episode, the equipment in the lab would have been fit for labs at Pfizer or Merck. For Walt, a highly talented chemist, who’s been relegated to wrangling disinterested teenagers since giving up his dream job 20-some-odd years ago, a sudden offer to take control over that lab can’t be easy to turn down.
Shortly after Walt finally agrees to the $3 million deal, he ends up in an argument with Jesse, with whom he will split the money 50/50. Based on his knowledge of the street value of meth, Jesse does some math and finds that he and Walt are each taking home just $1.5 million of a $96 million yield. He complains to Walt, prompts him to do something about it, and gets quickly rebuffed. “You are now a millionaire, and you’re complaining?” Walt says. “What world do you live in?”
But by the beginning of season four, Walt tires of being subjected to a boss. He loathes the security camera that Gus installs in the lab, for example, even though it was installed just to watch Jesse. And even after Jesse murders Gale, the only chemist talented and morally flexible enough to replace him, Walter is convinced that Gus is still going to murder and replace him with someone else. He tries, desperately, to kill Gus early on in the fourth season, even though he knows Gus can’t afford to kill him. Walter White would rather murder his boss and end up with nothing than work three submissive months for a $1.5 million paycheck.
Later on, this dynamic becomes less subtle. At the onset of season five, Walt justifies his decision to start cooking meth again, against the advice of both Mike and his flamboyant (but capable) attorney, Saul Goodman, by pointing to the debt that his ordeal with Gus and Skylar’s problems with Ted had created for him. Once again, we’re rationalizing the risk. Perhaps because he had nothing better to do, Jesse apprehensively agrees to play along. It’s not until Mike is too broke to pay off his former henchmen, who could put the whole bunch in prison with a plea bargain, that the crew is up and running again.
Three-quarters of the way through season five, though, Walter lays out all his cards. After Jesse and Mike find a competing meth dealer willing to pay the three of them $5 million each for their methylamine supply, Walt refuses to sell his share, holding up the deal entirely. You’re probably familiar with the lines that come next – Jesse asks “are we in the meth business, or the money business?” To which Walter White, former chemistry teacher at a public high school in New Mexico, replies “neither, I’m in the empire business.” Walt literally calls the $5 million offer “pennies on the dollar” compared to what he could generate with the methylamine in his possession. Quite the shift for a guy, who just months ago told Jesse to be happy with his $1.5 million deal with Gus.
It’s telling that Jesse’s next question in this argument – “is a meth empire really something to be that proud of?” – is never answered. Before Walt can respond, Skylar enters and interrupts. Even so, I’m not sure Walter could respond. Jesse is young. He’s in his mid-twenties, he has no family, career, or responsibilities of any kind, and he stands to make millions of dollars. He has the opportunity to start over on a more ethical course – use the money to build his own “empire” out of something he could be proud of. Walter, on the other hand, is past his prime, and prior to the cancer, he’d learned to accept that his talents were just going to waste away. Whether it’s a meth, money or a car-wash empire is irrelevant. At this point, he’ll take what he can get.
This second chance at becoming a self-made man is all Walt has left in season five. If he doesn’t capitalize on it, the entire meth ordeal would have been for naught. The simultaneous issues with Gus and Ted sent Skylar diving headfirst into a spiteful, wine-filled depression, ultimately resulting in the removal of Walter Jr. and Hailey from their home. The family he was once providing for has now disappeared. Meanwhile, as he reveals in this discussion with Jesse, Walt has watched the value of Grey Matter, the company he co-founded in his twenties before accepting a $5,000 buyout to become the sad-sack school teacher he was in season one, surpass $2 billion. “I check it every week,” Walt says, not just of the value of Grey Matter, but also the dream job and the dream life he once traded in “for a couple months’ rent.”
All this time we’ve watched, as Walt killed people and put innocent people at risk to provide for and protect his family. Now, those efforts have effectively cost him his family. Yet, they have afforded him a second chance at the success he squandered before he even had a wife and children. As risky and misguided as it may seem, a second chance at success is forbidden fruit for an American middle-class father in his late 40s. Our impulse is to side with Jesse, who reiterates to Walter that “$5 million is not nothing.” But if you consider what really motivates Walt to pursue the “empire business,” it’s tough to decide whether that decision is really that unwarranted.
We may not still say “I would do the exact same thing.” But, that doesn’t mean we’re not thinking it.