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Dead Tree Alert: It’s Not Breaking Bad’s Job to Punish Walter White

It's Breaking Bad's responsibility to make us think about what Walt deserves. But it's not the show's responsibility to give it to him.

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Frank Ockenfels / AMC

Breaking Bad begins its final run of episodes on Aug. 11. I’ve seen the first episode, and I’ll have more to say about it after it airs, but in the current issue of TIME my column (subscription required) looks back on one thing that makes it distinctive among the dozens of antihero dramas over the last decade or so of cable TV: it is the most moral show on television.

By “moral,” I don’t mean preachy, or aimed at making you a better person, or a wholesome hour’s entertainment for you and your small children to enjoy together. Rather, from beginning to (it would seem) the end, it has been a show systematically about morality: how it works, how it fails, what makes a good and bad person, how the seed of evil finds purchase and grows.

What I will say about the first new episode–besides that it jams the accelerator on the plot as it steers toward the brick wall of its end date–is that it continues that investigation, with a new twist suggested by last year’s midseason finale. When we last left Walter White, he had made his pile of money in the meth business and retired.

In the process, he sets himself up for one more act of hubris: believing, after lying and killing and peddling death, that he can be a good person again. “The past is the past,” he tells Jesse in the new episode. “Nothing can change what we’ve done. But now that’s over… there is nothing left for us to do except to try to live ordinary, decent lives.”

Can Walt really redeem himself without doing penance? Is morality a simple matter of outward behavior: as scientist Walt might look at it, is he no longer evil so long as he does not exhibit the outward properties of evil?

Because Breaking Bad is so probing about morality, the finale also raises the inevitable question–as did The Sopranos, as did The Shield–of what Walter White deserves in the end, what would constitute justice. Is death the only fitting end for him or (a la The Shield’s Vic Mackey) a long time spent living with himself? Given how he used his family to rationalize his crimes, is his only fitting punishment to lose his family–and if so, is there any way that he can face the consequences without more innocents having to suffer too?

It’s important, and necessary, and unavoidable, that we should ask what Walter White deserves. It’s a sign of Breaking Bad’s power and moral seriousness that the show should make us ask, and care about it–and wonder why, in spite of everything we’ve seen, some viewers might want to see Walt get away.

But it would be a mistake to decide that Breaking Bad has a responsibility to give Walter that just punishment–that it owes it to him, and to us, and that if it doesn’t, or if it comes up with the “wrong” sentence for his crimes, then Breaking Bad is a bad show, both dramatically and morally, and its finale has failed.

It’s an understandable mistake, I think, because series finales are often statements not only of how a show sees its characters but also of how it sees the universe: if that universe is morally random, if it tends toward justice, if it’s animated by larger principles or higher powers. That’s one reason finales can be so divisive: some detractors thought the endings of Lost or Battlestar Galactica or The Sopranos were bad storytelling, but others objected to the very worldview implied by a glowing doorway, or angels from space, or a maddening cut to black.

Because Breaking Bad is so much about morality, down to the title, I suspect it will be judged even more intensely by what it serves up for Walter. But there’s a difference between a drama like this one saying that the world is a certain way and saying that the world should be that way.

If you’re telling a story for young children, there’s a strong case to say you have a moral responsibility to show that evil gets punished. Before a certain stage of development, kids understand right and wrong in terms of consequences: you shouldn’t do bad things because you will get caught and suffer for it.

But at some point you get old enough to realize that evil acts don’t necessarily get punished, even if they should. Any system of morality that has a chance of working in the world, among grown-ups, has to make the case for doing the right thing even if you won’t be rewarded–even, in fact, if you will suffer for it and bad people prosper. That’s what keeps us decent even as we hear about killers who lived full lives without being caught, or crooked businessmen who get fat buyouts. (You could argue that some religions offer an answer to this dilemma–do right or you will go to hell / suffer bad karma / &c. But even they have to argue for being moral in this life even when it’s not the expedient choice.)

To me, this is what Breaking Bad has always been about: the kind of tough but necessary morality that says the right thing is the right thing, even if the wrong thing can pay for your kids’ futures, even if the right thing would leave you washing cars and buried in medical bills.

This isn’t to say that Breaking Bad has an obligation not to punish Walter White, either–just that whether or not he gets his just deserts in the world of the show is beside the point. What matters is that the series keeps showing, clear-eyed and movingly, how evil happens and how its consequences are felt.

Rendering judgment, finally, is not Breaking Bad’s job. It’s ours.

35 comments
JanetWilliams1
JanetWilliams1

I don't care that Walt died happy. I'm just glad that psycho Todd got what he deserved.

scott.frix
scott.frix

It may not be their job to punish Walter White, but punishing Jesse Pinkman is certainly one of Vince Gilligan's favorite hobbies.

BrianBurchell
BrianBurchell

Nice work slick! Thanks for ruining the entire season, you say you don't want to give things away and then you write, "But it would be a mistake to decide that Breaking Bad has a responsibility to give Walter that just punishment–that it owes it to him, and to us, and that if it doesn’t, or if it comes up with the “wrong” sentence for his crimes, then Breaking Bad is a bad show, both dramatically and morally, and its finale has failed."

Genius dude, Pure genius.


AmaranthSparrow
AmaranthSparrow

The thing is, there's really no conceivable happy ending for Walt. Even taking karmic retribution out of the equation, Walt has built a house of cards, and it can only collapse (or implode, or explode). He simply has too many enemies and too few friends.

And, even if he could get out of this corner he's painted himself into, it's pretty clear from the flash forward openings that the jig is up -- everyone, surely including his family, knows he's Heisenberg. And then there's the whole terminal cancer thing. No matter how long he fights that off, it will eventually claim him.

Walt no longer has an interest in his criminal empire (and likely only clung to it in the first place because his life was otherwise devoid of meaning). He's alienated his family and turned his few friends into enemies. He's going to die from cancer if he doesn't catch a bullet first.

Frankly, the show doesn't need to punish him. His fate is written on the wall.

JustineVictoriaSobocan
JustineVictoriaSobocan

I'm guessing that James meant to say "just desserts" and not "just deserts"? Spell check and proof reading are important tools that should be utilized by all professional writers, lest the intent be that Walter White's final punishment would entail being left in the middle of a desert.

vfrickey
vfrickey

Before we get TOO enthusiastic about judging Walter White in "Breaking Bad," remember that the character's choice was making meth for a living or accepting an early death from metastatic cancer because his HMO basically told him "we COULD cure your cancer, but it'd cost too much.  Go home and die."  The same answer that President Obama's former bioethics advisor Dr. Emmanuel and his recess appointees to chairmanship of the Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid Boards have suggested we give elderly Americans with expensive and lethal conditions, because they're "socially less valuable" than the folks with more voting years ahead of them.  After the age of 55, we ALL become Walter White - or could.

PacificSage
PacificSage

James, are you really talking about the morality of the actual writer? Is the storyteller a good person?

As much as I like the suspension of disbelief, it's just acting and play. And as much as I like to get caught up with the characters in all my favorite shows, they are fictional. It doesn't matter what they do.....but it does matter what the writer thinks. I wish you'd spend more time focusing on that person.

Example - A group of people are sitting around a camp fire. A storyteller (writer) tell's their fascinating story, which goes on for hours. Early in the morning , it ends. When everyone goes to sleep, do they grapple with the morality of the characters....or does the whole experience rest on the personal understanding of the storyteller?


McDowdy
McDowdy

These banal dichotomies of Good Vs Evil only reflect an inability to comprehend the multi-dimensional morality of an anti-hero like Walter White. Even his persona, Heisenberg, echoes the conundrum of WW's moral bi-polarity. 

Personally, I think the finale should resist denouement with an anti-climatic closure. Maybe at most see Hank blown to bits and Walt moving up in the ranks of organized crime.

scott.frix
scott.frix

Walter White will wake up in bed with his wife from Malcolm in the Middle and tell her he had a horrible dream he was a meth cook in Albuquerque.

WilfTarquin
WilfTarquin

The Lost and, especially, Battlestar Galactica endings WERE bad storytelling. Horrible let-downs at that, since much better and more satisfying endings had been implied (in Lost's case heavily and repeatedly) earlier.

JohnDavidDeatherage
JohnDavidDeatherage

"Breaking Bad" is among the most interesting shows ever produced.  Like the novel Lolita, it chronicles a descent into madness and obsession.   

LuciusDark
LuciusDark

Walter is a true American hero - the little guy that did all the right things like getting educated, working hard, and providing for his family and handicapped son. Then he gets screwed - loses his job and gets cancer. Meanwhile he sees all the idiots, violent people, and nut cases making a good living in a system gone crazy and stacked against the average man. If he can't beat em - he'll join em! But he has something they don't have - morals and intelligence- and if he kills off a few bad people on the way then so be it. I really hope he gets off scot-free, keeps the money, and finds a cure for his cancer. The man is a great role model that shows that one man can triumph over evil and that intelligence trumps guns, money, and power. He's truly a hero.


muzzman
muzzman

Walt is in the biz of destroying lives thru meth.  his initial rationale: to save his family after his death. Walt is a very, very bad person & his family is the primary beneficiary of his actions; the entire family should be taken out by the final episode. Directed by Lydia, probably by the cartel or rogue cops/DEA. Hint comes when Walt & Son r watching Scarface, & Walt says "everyone dies in this movie". Also, Mike decided not to kill Lydia; he previously offered an anecdote where he had the opportunity to kill a bad person and lived to regret not doing so after that person murdered the person Mike was trying to protect.  Significant that he did not live up to his promise to himself to not repeat that mistake. Gilligan, in interviews, has said he believes in a just consequence for our actions. The End.

Sean_C2
Sean_C2

"Breaking Bad" is interesting from a moral perspective because I would argue its morality is actually very black-and-white, compared to a lot of other cable anti-hero shows (or its fellow AMC titan, "Mad Men", which tends to depict everybody as the same shade of grey).  If anything, it's a deconstruction of the idea of an anti-hero.  The entire theme of "Breaking Bad" is that there's no such thing as being a bit evil, or using evil means for good ends.

jeffgrimes9
jeffgrimes9

This is a great article, but jesus, how about a spoiler alert for The Shield, Lost, BSG, and the Sopranos??? Luckily I had already seen 3 of those but I was planning on watching The Shield and you just ruined it! It wouldn't have been that hard to put at the top "Note: this article contains spoilers about shows X, Y, and Z"

MariosMoustache
MariosMoustache

Very well-written article James, love the analysis! I would have placed a warning at the beginning of the fourth paragraph indicating that dialogue from the episode would be present, but that is just for those who wish to remain entirely in the dark before the episode premieres. Having said that, I agree with your contention that the series has eschewed moral prescriptions in the sense that evil is not always punished and good is not always rewarded. However, no action is without consequence on Breaking Bad. Vince Gilligan has stated as much in interviews:

"I think it's a basic human need to want to believe that the world is fair. Of course we live in a world that seems grotesquely unfair… I like that feeling on this show… [that] every action has a consequence. I think I respond to that. I think that feels right to me -- that every bad thing Walt does comes back on him, that it has a consequence."

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/08/breaking-bad-vince-gilligan_n_1752884.html

Whether Walt will receive some form of comeuppance has yet to be seen, but judging from the recently debuted teaser, in which the grizzled voice of Heisenberg recites Shelley's Ozymandias, it seems to me that the audience will indeed experience a catharsis by the end of the series. "Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, The lone and level sands stretch far away"

parveen_b
parveen_b

Excellent article, James. Rewatching the entire series has been so gratifying for this exact reason: you know what's coming, so you start to deconstruct that moral dilemma earlier and perhaps from a different angle.

RGEEZY
RGEEZY

what hasn't been touched on is how walt started cooking for these new guys, are they really going to let him just go away quietly? doubtful

FED_REV
FED_REV

Nice analysis. I would argue, though, that the show can still issue a negative judgment on Walter even if he "gets away." 

scott.frix
scott.frix

Hank and Gomie were left in the middle of a desert.

diedrupo
diedrupo

@vfrickeyhey idiot, absolutely none of that would occur in obamacare, you've bought into the lies of republican filth. What happened to Walter White is what would happen if republicans got their way: if you're poor and don't have good health insurance, you should simply die. that is the republican way. that is the vfrickey way. You cruel, heartless worthless pathetic person.

JudyFey
JudyFey

@vfrickey 
This trollish conflation of an ethic tale with a complete falsehood is beneath contempt.

How much a price for spreading mis-information into the net?
vfrickey knows and has paid *THAT* price.

PacificSage
PacificSage

@vfrickey 

That' quite a stretch to find the cruel inhumanity championed by the anti 'Obamacare' crowd in a former advisor to the President.

Frank1
Frank1

@McDowdy 

What is banal is your postmodern "shades of grey" morality. 

Such morality comes above all from an ability to reconcile oneself to suffering.  If Walt had reconciled stoically to the sufferings that fate put on him none of this meth cooking business would have started in the first place. 

All this shades of grey stuff goes right back to Walt and his fans immature inability to tolerate suffering.

Golgafrinchan_Ark_B
Golgafrinchan_Ark_B

@LuciusDark I'm sorry, but I find it quite disturbing that you find the character of Walter White "a great role model" and "truly a hero". He doesn't "triumph over evil", but instead sinks to it's lowest levels. He literally joins "all the idiots, violent people, and nut cases" because he lacks the moral compass to stand firm against them. You approve when a meth manufacturer "kills off a few bad people on the way", eh? Who are you to decide that those people are beyond redemption and deserve having that chance ripped away from them? Walter White is a fictional character, but meth manufacturers are all too real and are vicious, soulless monsters of prey.

scott.frix
scott.frix

I'm watching the Shield on Netflix now. At least now I know how it ends.

the_minister
the_minister

@jeffgrimes9 Spoiler Alert Alert: if it's 3 years gone, no more spolier alerts (that seems to be the implicit consensus anyway.0

anon76
anon76

@jeffgrimes9 

Spoiler alert:  Dorothy throws water on the WWotW, causing her to melt.  What a world!

Silk59
Silk59

@RGEEZY The "new guys" are dead thanks to Lydia and Todd , are you watching the show?.. I suspect she will also be the one to take care of Walter to further her own personal interests and become the female version of him.