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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.