Breaking Bad and Human Nature

[Note: the following post is intended for those who have seen “Breaking Bad.” It references characters and elements of the plot without necessarily explaining background information. It contains MAJOR SPOILERS. If you have not seen “Breaking Bad” but you plan to watch it, I would advise reading no further. Otherwise, enjoy!]

“Breaking Bad” is easily my favorite TV show and is the most well written show I’ve ever seen. Besides the stunning cinematography, complicated characters, and intriguing plot line, I appreciate “Breaking Bad” because it gives an accurate depiction of human nature. This picture is not always pretty – it actually is quite jarring, disturbing, and sobering. But it is realistic and offers many lessons for viewers to take away:

  1. Even the most normal, seemingly-moral individuals have the propensity for evil, given certain situations. “Breaking Bad” tells the story of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal cancer who begins making drugs in order to provide for his family. The writers go to extensive lengths to show just how law-abiding, and averse to violence Walter really is initially. When Walter’s DEA brother-in-law offers to let Walter hold his gun, Walter can barely handle it and looks obviously out of place. When Walter coerces high school dropout/druggy Jesse Pinkman to make meth with him, Jesse cannot believe that someone like Walter would ever do something like create and sell drugs. This example stands as a lesson for viewers that no individual, no matter how seemingly-moral, is beyond acting in terribly evil ways. All it took was a difficult life situation (being diagnosed with cancer) for Walter to justify this awful behavior. This leads right into the next lesson.
  2. The decline into habits of evil is often gradual and can involve a series of moral justifications. Walter decides to begin cooking meth by telling himself that when he dies, his family will need money to survive. While many people would have qualms with this decision, it could potentially be seen as at least somewhat moral. After all, taking care of one’s family is a good thing, and some might see that as the ultimate good in Walter’s situation. However, as the show progresses, Walter’s actions turn from “justifiable, but wrong” to “glaringly wrong.” Walter enters the drug industry with the idea that he can use his chemistry background to cook meth but not really get involved with the gritty, violent details of the drug industry. However, this fairytale is quickly crushed by the harsh realities of the inherent violence of professions in the drug industry. Once Jesse’s former partners attack Walter and try to get him to cook for them, Walter is forced to stand up for himself. He uses poisonous gas to kill one of the drug dealers but only incapacitates the other one. Walter takes this individual captive and wrestles with how to deal with him. Over a significant period of time, Walter goes back and forth between letting him free and killing him. At this point he has at least some sense of right and wrong and is bothered by having to take human life with his own hands. Ultimately, Walter discovers that this prisoner is planning to kill him and in a moment of self-preservation strangles his captive. This action is really the turning point, where, from then on, Walter freely kills, manipulates, and hurts people without much resignation. From making drugs to help his family to killing another to save himself, Walter demonstrates the ability justify almost any wrong action with his shifting, unsubstantial sense of morality.
  3. Justifications for evil often hide the true selfish motives. Walter begins his drug-creating life by telling himself that he is doing it for his family. And throughout almost the entirety of the show, he continues to tell himself (and others) this same thing, even when his actions clearly do not line up with this message. There are numerous points where Walter has accumulated unfathomable amounts of money and could easily stop cooking meth. But he continues which hints that he must be motivated by something other than provision of his family. The final episode makes it clear that Walter was motivated by pride and at some point began to cook meth because of the sense of purpose and power it gave him. During the final episode, tired of hearing his justifications for cooking meth and creating so much devastation, Walter’s wife says, “If I have to hear one more time that you did this for the family…” Walter interrupts and bluntly states the truth, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And… I was really… I was alive.” Somewhere along the way Walter began to cook meth because of the pride and sense of purpose this craft gave him, rather than merely provision for his family.
  4. Acceptance is not the proper response to realization of the depth of human depravity. Jesse Pinkman, Walter’s sidekick, has an awful life throughout the course of this show. He makes numerous bad decisions, but he is also heavily manipulated by Walter. In one instance Walter convinces Jesse to kill another man (Gale, for those who have seen the show) in order to save Walter and Jesse from being killed. Jesse follows Walter’s orders but becomes terribly bothered and haunted by his actions. After a significant period of isolation and depression, Jesse begins attending a twelve-step group, where the leader of the group preaches a message of self-acceptance, regardless of one’s behavior. After some time, Jesse gets fed up and blurts out, “So I should stop ‘judging’ and accept? So no matter what I do… hooray for me because I’m a great guy? It’s all good? No matter how many dogs I kill, I just, what, do an inventory and accept? I mean you back your truck over your own kid and you like accept? What a load of crap.” Jesse understands that we can’t deal with evil by just accepting it. These wrong decisions have significant consequences that must be dealt with, which leads to the next lesson.
  5. There are consequences for evil, which culminate in punishment. Throughout the show Walter works crazily to accumulate money, however, he can never seem to get enough. At every turn, something comes up to thwart his plans, mess up his operation, and take his money. And as he desperately strives to provide for his family, his relationship with his wife falls apart when she learns of his evil actions. Thus, the very thing he supposedly works for is gradually destroyed because of his actions. And despite Walter’s carefully laid plans, in the end everything falls apart. His wife and son hate him, his brother-in-law gets killed because of him, and ultimately he dies. There is more than just a “crime doesn’t pay” moral to this story. Walt’s decline into a lifestyle of evil culminates in complete and utter ruin.

“Breaking Bad” is a sobering show and is difficult to watch at times. However, it is a good reminder of the extent of the brokenness and depravity of human nature and the terrible consequences of sin. These realities can be easy to forget or gloss over and this show does an exemplary job of acting as a reminder to its viewers. For further reading about the theological/philosophical messages of “Breaking Bad,” I would HIGHLY recommend this article. (Note: for those who will watch this show based on my recommendation, please be warned that there are a handful of inappropriate scenes throughout the series which you would be wise to avoid.)

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Especially if you’ve seen “Breaking Bad,” I’d love to here what you have to say about. Even if you haven’t, feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email. Thanks for reading!

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3 thoughts on “Breaking Bad and Human Nature

  1. Great read J, thanks for writing this up. I have to say throughout the show, I always found myself taking walt’s side, maybe just because he was usually going up against people who were as morally gray as he was, or his insufferable family.

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    • Thanks for the comment, Brian. I think one of the brilliant aspects of the writing in this show is that they are able to get viewers to take Walt’s side, even when he behaves in despicable ways. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that he started out as just a normal guy in a awful situation, so people sympathized with him and chose to support him. As the show went on, I think it was hard for viewers to switch their rooting interests and they were more likely to justify his actions than turn against him. Plus, like you said, many of the people that he interacted with ( such as his wife, his former boss, etc.) were SUPER annoying and made it even easier to sympathize with Walt … I’m pretty sure I was cheering for him as well throughout most of the show. (Though I always got frustrated with how he manipulated Jesse.) I found an interesting article that explains a little bit about why people rooted for Walt, if you’re interested. (http://www.npr.org/sections/monkeysee/2013/09/27/224437071/point-of-view-how-so-many-rooted-for-breaking-bads-walter-white). Again, thanks for the comment. I appreciate your insights.

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      • Thanks for the article definitely an interesting read. The Walt and Jesse relationship is an incredibly interesting one for me. Throughout the show Walt seems to find Jesse incredibly annoying and incompetent and Jesse always seems to be mad at Walt for something. As you point out, Walt always seems to get the best of Jesse, the kid being poisoned, not saving the junkie girlfriend, etc. he sort of redeems himself in a way in the final episode by saving Jesse from the New Mexico nazis or whatever the were called. As if this one, good action at the end of his drug career is enough to make up for all the bad he did to Jesse throughout the show. (It’s probably worth noting that I usually sided with Walt in the Walt/Jesse encounters, there’s something about his will to do whatever necesary to accomplish a goal that I relate to/admire, not that I would blow up a parking garage or ruin my family)

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