After Felina: Breaking Bad is a Balanced Chemical Equation


Last night, AMC’s cult hit turned cultural phenomenon Breaking Bad came to a close, and while the finales of previous great television shows such as Lost and The Sopranos failed to satisfy audiences creator Vince Gilligan was able to craft a measured, subtle, and nuanced final episode which tied up all major loose ends and provided emotional closure, without betraying the central themes that have carried the show through 5 seasons.

As Walter White states in the very first episode, chemistry is the study of change; growth decay, and transformation. And like a balanced chemical equation Breaking Bad took us through Walt’s transformation from middle class chemistry teacher to meth kingpin, honestly and meticulously, accounting for every detail, always getting the formula just right. It was this scientific, almost obsessive approach to quality storytelling that allowed Breaking Bad to become perhaps the most politically relevant show during this Golden Age of Television.

Just like Lost and The Sopranos before it, Breaking Bad has been put under the microscope and analyzed from all angles. Much has been said about Breaking Bad being a show that was designed with its ending in mind from the start, which is true, but that’s not the only reason it now stands above the other great dramas of the era. Breaking Bad succeeds where other shows fell short due mainly to the fact that it was an honest reflection of American society that never compromised or strayed from its vision. The end, when it came, wasn’t meant to shock or take the audience by surprise. It had a feeling of inevitability, derived from the momentum the show built from the beginning.

Vince Gilligan has said publicly that he doesn’t care much for politics and that he doesn’t give the subject much thought. Though generally vague about his personal political views, he’s stated that he considers himself more conservative than most of the entertainment industry. Yet Breaking Bad has emerged as a genuine progressive television series, clearly indicting the system of capitalism that rules over society, and the way it infects all aspects of life, including the way the “traditional” family unit reinforces greed and the exploitation of others.

All art puts forward social and political messages, even if making a political statement isn’t your primary objective. Perhaps Breaking Bad is simply greater than the sum of its parts. Even if Gilligan doesn’t consider himself a progressive, and even if members of his writing staff sometimes publicly misinterpret aspects of their own story during interviews, through their creative collaboration a piece of progressive art was born. This isn’t to say that Breaking Bad‘s progressive position is purely accidental. By crafting of a narrative about the nature of greed and the pursuit of power in a detailed, almost scientific way, developing characters honestly and realistically, always making sure the chemical equation was correct, Gilligan and his team were able to accurately reflect the horrors of the capitalist system, and the moral truth was allowed to shine through their work.

Breaking Bad is about a man who’s been beaten down, victimized by a capitalist way of life that champions a man’s ability to provide for a family, and his inability to live up to that standard despite being a kind, respectable man. He’s been conditioned to believe that he’s a failure, and when he’s diagnosed with cancer that will most likely end his life in rapid fashion, he sets out to reclaim his manhood, to prove to the society that he’s been victimized by that he can provide after all. While we empathize with Walter’s plight, his decision is ultimately a selfish one in that it’s designed primarily to satisfy himself. Even though his choice is rooted in legitimate pain caused by the system, he sets out to master that system for his own selfish pride.

The series takes us through Walt’s entry into the drug trade and through his transformation into a murderous monster as he’s corrupted by capitalism’s need to expand no matter the cost to others. Through the entire show he lies to his family (and to himself), but Breaking Bad always shows the audience Walt’s true motivation. His wife, Skyler, eventually finds out and attempts to resist. Defiantly she says, “Someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family,” but she, too, eventually succumbs to the corrupting influence of accumulated wealth. While she originally objected to Walt’s drug manufacturing on the grounds that it would bring danger to the family, ironically, maintaining the perfect image of the “traditional” family unit is what allowed her to ultimately give in and assist Walt with his criminal dealings, rather than turning him in.

By the time we approach the final episode, Walt’s pursuit of wealth and power, which had been negatively impacting society in ever expanding concentric circles for some time, which he was fine with, has finally damaged his own family, the very thing he always said he wanted to protect and provide for. His brother-in-law, the DEA agent Hank, has been killed by the very forces he unleashed. His son, Walt Jr., finally learns the truth about his father, and with his family in shambles and no where to turn Walt is forced to go into hiding. He takes refuge in an isolated New Hampshire cabin with virtually no contact with the outside world, which gives him time to reflect on what he’s done and who he has become. When we arrive at the finale, Walter White’s growth, decay, and transformation is complete, and the show has been the study of his change.

When “Felina,” the last episode of Breaking Bad, begins, Walter White has come to terms with the evil man he has become. While he may regret the bad things that have happened, it appears Walt has made peace with who he is and what he’s done. He’s not remorseful, he simply has no more need to lie to himself or anyone else, and he glides through the last days of his life completely at ease, his criminal instincts having become second nature. During his last conversation with Skyler he admits for the first time that he did it all for himself, not for the family. “I liked it,” he says. “I was good at it.” In this moment Gilligan is rubbing the truth in the faces of those who argue that Walt remains a good person.

Even Walt’s final plan, which he returns to Albuquerque to set in motion, is still mainly motivated by selfish pride, rather than any genuine altruism. He’s come back to find a backdoor channel through which to give his money to his son, and to eliminate the organization that stole his drug money and is still selling his signature blue meth. Walt Jr., who would rather be called Flynn, has completely rejected his father and doesn’t want any of his blood money. Walt forcing that money upon his son is more for his own peace of mind, so he can die knowing that he actually did provide for his family despite everything that went wrong. And getting rid of Jesse, Lydia, Todd, and the gang of neo-Nazis isn’t really about setting things right or getting any sort of justice, it’s about making sure that his product, the blue meth, dies with him. It’s an act of reclaiming ownership over what he considers to be his property, rather than trying to rid the streets of a toxic drug for any sort of humanitarian reasons. Even at the very end, Walt is still out for himself, trying to maintain his image and solidify his reputation.

While it’s unclear as to whether Walt goes to the neo-Nazi compound with the intention of killing Jesse, or to rescue him, ultimately Walt takes pity on him and spares his life once he sees him in chains, and Walt offers Jesse the chance to kill him once the Nazis have been dispatched. But even this isn’t really a genuine sacrifice. Walt knows he’s about to die anyway, and with nothing left to accomplish, offering himself up on a platter for Jesse is more about assuaging himself of guilt than helping Jesse recover from the terrible abuse Walt has put him through. To Jesse, it’s just one more way that Walt wants him to do his dirty work for him, just like he did with Gale Boetticher. This time, though, Jesse refuses to comply and tells Walt to do it himself.

This is Jesse’s moment of moral triumph. While many often mistakenly describe him as “weak,” in reality he is the only major character on the show who actually reverses course and rejects the status quo. While Breaking Bad is primarily about Walt’s transformation, Jesse has also undergone some major changes. His transition is in many ways opposite of Walt’s. While Walt became increasingly greedy and power hungry, Jesse ultimately went from wanting to make “fat stacks” of money by selling meth to rejecting the pursuit of money based on exploitation and violence. Given that Breaking Bad has been an allegory of capitalism from the very start, one could argue that Jesse’s reversal, representing the moral compass of the show, is a symbolic rejection of capitalism all-together.

Jesse eventually learns that Walt and his endless manipulation is the source of his pain and that Walt’s greed is a negative force on all of society, and he chooses to stand up to him. It can take a great deal of strength to confront a tormentor, especially a manipulative abuser like Walt, and Jesse summons the will to do just that, at great personal cost. But once he drives away from the neo-Nazi’s compound, simultaneously crying tears of sadness and joy, pain and relief, he’s free in a way that no other character on the show is. We get the sense that Jesse has actually learned something, both about himself and the world, and his future is a blank slate which will likely be very different than his past. He chose not to kill Walt. He’s grown and evolved and will no longer allow himself to be manipulated, which is an indication of strength, not weakness.

By contrast, what has Skyler learned? Has she learned a lesson about using her family as an excuse to become complicit in violence and exploitation for profit and security? It doesn’t appear so. She hates the damage that Walt did to her comfortable family, but she doesn’t seem to recognize her own role in the madness. By the end, she was advising Walt to kill more people to protect the family. “What’s one more?” she asked. Jesse’s evolution is much more righteous and the show rewards him with the chance to atone for his mistakes. Skyler will make a deal with the prosecutors and rest easy knowing that Walt won’t be around to threaten the family’s stability any more, and in doing so she will avoid accountability. But make no mistake, Skyler broke bad, too, though she will likely never admit her complicity, even to herself. Anything to protect the family.

Breaking Bad was a magnificent show, and it represents the very best the medium can achieve. It was cinematic in a way no other current show can match, other than possibly Game of Thrones, with an extremely high quality of cinematography, acting, writing, and directing all coming together in perfect measure, combined with an obsessive attention to detail, narrative, and theme. Because of this perfectly balanced equation Breaking Bad was able to avoid the pitfalls experienced by other great television dramas and end on its own terms, gracefully, while staying true to itself and satisfying the audience at the same time. Six Feet Under was able to pull off a similar feat, but Breaking Bad was able to elevate the medium in ways even Alan Ball’s brilliant show didn’t, by raising the technical aspects to the highest level possible, and crafting a completely absorbing drama that incorporated questions of morality as its central focus.

Gilligan, whatever his personal views may be, managed to guide the ship home in a way that was consistent with what the show has been from the beginning. It didn’t end with a lame “drugs are bad” message that upholds the war on drugs. And it also didn’t end with Hank, representing the establishment, ultimately prevailing. A lesser show might have had such an ending, perhaps showing Hank and the DEA leading Walt away in handcuffs to face justice in a court room. Thankfully, Breaking Bad is Breaking Bad, and its ending was consistent with the essence of what made the show great.

The final moments of Breaking Bad show Walter White, dying, but at peace with his monstrous deeds. He has nothing left to do. There’s no one left to lie to, manipulate, or kill. His work is done. While he waits to die he surveys the last lab used to create his infamous blue meth. He’s accepted who he became and embraced the pursuit of wealth and power as his true love. The Walter White in these last moments is the full expression capitalist-imperialism, rotted to the core and withering away. Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” provides the soundtrack as Walt admires the lab set-up. “Guess I got what I deserved…”

Walter White smears blood on a tank as he finally collapses and dies, alone in the dark with the chemistry he used to give himself value at the expense of thousands of others; both Walter White and Heisenberg laid bare and exposed with no more lies left to cover the truth. “Didn’t know you’d think that I’d forget or I’d regret the special love I had for you, my baby blue…”

The camera slowly rises and rotates, and if you look with the right kind of eyes you can see it, from the aerial view of Walter White’s lifeless body on the floor, an equals sign, formed by the tables upon which the lab equipment rests. Breaking Bad, down to the last shot of the series, balanced the equation.



Please see FedRev’s previous analysis of Breaking Bad

- “The Empire Business”: Breaking Bad, Capitalism, and the Family

- Breaking Bad: Hank Isn’t “The Good Guy”

Breaking Bad: Hank Isn’t “The Good Guy”

:::Please see my previous analysis of Breaking Bad before reading this follow-up:::

I’ve noticed a sentiment in the Breaking Bad community that Hank is considered “the good guy” by many viewers; or, at least, the goodest guy. I want to dispel that theory once and for all.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that Walt, at this stage in his transformation, is beyond the point of possible redemption. He’s too far gone, done too many horrific things, exploited too many people, and committed murder many times over, all in the selfish pursuit of wealth, power, and respect (His motivations are discussed at length in my previous piece). He truly has broken bad, never to return, and he’s well past the point where any moral observer should be able to root for him.

His most obvious foil on the show is Hank Schrader, his DEA agent his brother-in-law. It would be logical to assume that if we can’t root for Walt, then Hank, the agent trying to catch him, is who we should be pulling for. But that is not the case.

First of all, Hank is a hypocrite. While he makes his living busting people for using certain drugs, he’s totally comfortable smoking illegal Cuban cigars, brewing his own homemade beer, and serving as bartender at house parties, pouring everyone margaritas and doing shots of whiskey. His drugs are okay while other drugs aren’t.

Second of all, Hank is an officer of the Drug Enforcement Agency, which means that he is an agent of oppression. He’s a federal employee whose job it is to arrest people who produce, distribute, or use illegal drugs. Meanwhile, the government is in bed with the pharmaceutical companies, who push their legal yet just as potent, addictive, and dangerous drugs through the health care system. In essence, Hank’s job is to eliminate the corporate state’s competition.

And the police are in general an oppressive force designed first and foremost to protect the status quo and preserve the established order of society. In other words, their job is to safeguard the elite, and they oppress the masses in order to do so. The police are only necessary in our society because the system creates haves and have nots, and their job is to make sure the haves maintain their power over society. As a police officer Hank is part of the mechanism that enforces the class divide and fills the for-profit prison industrial complex with drug users, and everything he does is stained by that fact.

Finally, Hank has crossed the line too many times. Throughout the entire show he has bent the law, or flat out violated it, in order to pursue his leads. He breaks and enters without warrants, willfully ignores orders from his superiors, and engages suspects without documented proof, on more than one occasion outright assaulting people without cause. His beating of Jesse was brutal and unforgivable, and he should have been fired. The only reason he wasn’t arrested was because Jesse didn’t press charges, and it should be noted that Jesse would have pressed charges if it weren’t for Walt’s manipulation of the situation.

The point I’m trying to make is that Walt and Hank are almost equally bad. Both are prone to breaking the law and committing acts of brutal violence, the only difference is that Hank is sanctioned by the system and Walt is not. Walt is a renegade capitalist-imperialist who exists outside the law while Hank serves the established system of capitalist-imperialism. They are mirrors of each other, and we can’t root for one to prevail over the other.

There are many ways Breaking Bad could end, but the worst possible ending would be one in which Hank emerges as a triumphant victor over Walt. Though it might be gratifying to see Walt get what he deserves after escaping justice for so long, Hank shouldn’t be the one to give it to him, because ultimately that would represent the oppressive establishment preserving itself, ridding itself of Walt’s anomaly, and the current order of haves and have nots lives on.

So, if we can’t pull for Walt or Hank, who can we root for? In my opinion: Jesse. While Jesse, like Walt, has done many terrible things, he hasn’t yet lost his moral compass. He still knows right from wrong, and he is therefore redeemable. Plus, you have to consider that a lot of his wrongdoing is the direct result of Walt’s manipulation, and if left to his own devices Jesse would have remained a small-time meth cook scraping together a living, more interested in partying with his boys than building a drug empire.

Personally, I hope both Walt and Hank get what they deserve in one way or another, and I hope that it’s Jesse who ultimately gives it to them, since he has cause to hate them both, and he, unlike them, still has time to redeem himself.

“The Empire Business”: Breaking Bad, Capitalism, and the Family

“Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” – Edward Abbey


Last year on AMC’s Breaking Bad, during episode 506: “Buyout,” Walter White has a conversation with his partner in crime, Jesse Pinkman. Jesse is trying to convince Walt to retire from their illegal meth operation. They have an offer on the table to sell their supply of methylamine to a rival organization for $5-million each. It’s more money than either of them ever imagined they’d make when they began, and more than enough to comfortably set them up for life. Walt rejects Jesse’s plea to take the deal and drop out of the business by telling a story about his past, the content of which spells out Walt’s true motivation and illuminates the thesis of the show.

He explains that back in grad-school he co-founded a company with two friends, Gray Matter. Walt even came up with the name, but he took a buyout before it became profitable because of an affair with one of the other co-founders. The amount he took: $5,000. He tells Jesse that today the company is worth billions and that he looks up its value every week, knowing that he could have been immensely wealthy had he not sold his stake in the business. Walt scoffs at the measly $5-million buyout Jesse is advocating. “I’m in the empire business,” he proclaims.

Though it may have taken five seasons for Walt to clearly and honestly express his motivation to another character, the audience should have already had a pretty good idea of what motivates him. It’s amazing how many seeds of who Walter White would later become were planted in the very first episode.

At the beginning of the series, Walter White is an overqualified, middle-aged high school chemistry teacher. He has a teenage son with cerebral palsy, Walter Jr., and is in a relatively stable marriage with Skyler, who is pregnant with an unplanned baby. They live in a modest house, but are having trouble making ends meet. Their rusting water heater leaks and turns their water brown, Skyler lectures Walt about using the wrong credit card at Staples, the glove box in his car is broken and won’t stay shut, and in order to make some extra cash he works a part-time job at a car wash after school. Though hired to work the register, his boss forces him to wash cars outside, where he’s humiliated by one of his students (who drives a much more expensive car than Walt does). At home his sex life appears to be passionless; Skyler seems more involved in selling their household items on Ebay than sharing an intimate moment in the bedroom, and Walt has trouble getting “inspired” anyway. To make matters worse, Walt has a loudmouth, alpha-male brother-in-law, Hank, who has a flashy job as a DEA agent, which is infinitely more impressive to Walt Jr. than his gig as a chemistry teacher.

Right away, we can see that Walter is a 50 year old man whose life didn’t turn out how he envisioned. He feels beaten down, stretched thin, passed over, cheated, emasculated, exploited, unfulfilled, and even his great talent, chemistry, falls on the deaf ears of his students who couldn’t care less. And then the cancer hits.

But even before his diagnosis he felt like a failure, unable to adequately provide for his family, or, more specifically, to fulfill the role expected of a man in this society. Learning that his life will be unexpectedly cut short, coupled with the knowledge that he’s going to leave his family bankrupt, is the final slap in the face, the last humiliating insult life can dish out.

When Walt partners up with Jesse, one of his former students, to make meth, his stated motivation is his family. He says that before he dies he wants to be able to take care of his loved ones. Practical things, mostly. He wants Skyler to be able to pay off the mortgage, to cover college educations for his children, and medical bills for the whole family. At one point early on he even calculates an exact figure of how much money he needs to make in order to provide the essentials for his family over the next 20 years ($737-thousand), and then he’d quit selling drugs once he reaches that number.

Becoming a meth manufacturer is morally dubious, but even though the audience might disagree with his choice, given the state of Walt’s life, it’s understandable why he would make that decision. At first, anyway. After all, Walt is a victim of the capitalist system. He has been dealt a terrible set of circumstances in a world based on exploitation, and he is virtually powerless to change them by legitimate means. Though he’s still a member of the comparatively better off middle class, the anger he feels about having to scrounge for every dollar while being trapped in an monotonous cycle, his life passing by day by day without any joy or fulfillment, is legitimate, and it’s compounded by the importance placed on the “traditional” patriarchal family unit, as well the pressure and expectation put on men to provide for their families under the capitalist system. A man who can’t isn’t really a man, goes the thinking.

By the end of the first episode Walt has survived his first foray into the dangerous drug underworld, and while it was life threatening, terrifying, and violent, for the first time in years he feels invigorated. He goes home and sleeps with his wife. Skyler, surprised by his sudden sexual advance, asks, “Walt, is that you?!” as she gasps for breath and the credits roll.

And there it is. That’s really what it’s all about for Walt. While he may say that he just wants to support his family before he dies, what he really wants is to finally be a man, a real man, and to get all the privileges that go with that. His family is just the excuse he uses, the lie he tells himself to justify his actions. He wants to shed the image of the nerdy science teacher who can’t take care of his family. He wants authority and power. He wants respect. The tone is set for the rest of the series as Walt seeks revenge against the society that screwed him over, undervalued his worth, and overlooked his potential. From the moment of his diagnosis forward Walt will take what he wants and he will prove to any doubters that he’s man enough for anything, by any horrific means necessary.

Later on, when Walt and Skyler need to buy a business to launder their drug money, Walt is determined to purchase the very same car wash that wounded his pride. He refuses to let the previous owner keep his framed dollar on the wall, and out of spite Walt uses that dollar to buy a soda from the vending machine. It’s clear that Walt is more interested in getting revenge than providing for his family.

Though while Walter was right to feel angry and bitter about the unfortunate hand he’s been dealt, his mistake is that instead of channeling that frustration into exposing and tearing down an unjust system, a system that exploits and oppresses millions around the world, he goes about trying to place himself atop that system of exploitation. He doesn’t want out of the system of oppression, he wants in. He doesn’t care about the plight of other oppressed people, he only cares about his own misfortune, and as a result, while he is attempting to rebel against the capitalist system, he adopts that system’s own ideology, and thus dooms himself to failure. As he said, he’s in the “empire business.” He wants to conquer, to dominate, to bend the world to his will, and enrich himself without limit for the sake of obtaining power, everyone else be damned. His idea of revenge isn’t to bring down capitalism, he wants to become the ultimate capitalist, and in this way, his successful rebellion against the system is just as bad as failure.

The show, in effect, becomes an allegory of capitalist-imperialism, clearly indicting a system that allows a tiny minority to profit off the misery of the vast majority. As Walt delves deeper into the criminal underworld he increasingly sees people as expendable pawns, who he either manipulates to further his interests, or eliminates. Early on, Walt has great difficulty bringing himself to murder, but by the end of season 5, he barely gives it a second thought. Nothing can stand in the way of his growing empire, and being in a position of power numbs his empathy for other human beings.

Walt’s rise to power mirrors the classic capitalist model. In order to survive as a capitalist you must expand or face being overtaken by your competitors. If you don’t ruthlessly expand your business, someone else will, and you lose everything. Likewise, every time Walt is forced to make a choice between backing out or doubling down, he always doubles down. Every time he comes up against someone with more power than he does, instead of retreating he systematically destroys them and takes their place. First Krazy 8, then Tuco, Gus, and finally Mike, until only he is left holding the keys to the kingdom.

It’s also important to note that it’s always other people who pay for Walt’s crimes. He makes a huge profit off of the poor people addicted to his product, with absolutely no regard for the damage done to society. In fact, he thinks of drug addicts in the worst possible terms, as if they’re less than human, even though he’s more than willing to exploit them for his own gain. In his wake, thousands ruin their lives using meth, many people are murdered, and he’s even responsible for a major air disaster. The damage ripples through society while he profits and gains power. It’s a perfect allegory for the way wealth flows from the exploited masses to a tiny elite, and shows how under capitalism, if you’re willing to brutally exploit, oppress, and destroy other people you can achieve a great measure of what’s considered “success.” And Walt is very successful by that standard.

The family is also a major theme in Breaking Bad, and it can’t be overstated how important the concept of the “traditional” patriarchal family is to capitalism. It’s a model that by design teaches individuals to value the well-being of their relatives over those of everyone else in society. This may not seem like a big problem at first glance, but the net result is a society where everyone does what’s best for their family, even if it comes at the expense of everyone else. Society becomes about competition, rather than collaboration, and people often abandon their moral or political principles when faced with a choice that might negatively impact their family. It’s an institution that keeps the masses pacified as individuals become preoccupied with maintaining the well-being of their family unit, preventing the people from uniting to struggle for justice for all, relatives or not.

Walt frequently uses the concept of family as a justification for his actions. “When we do what we do for good reasons, there’s nothing to worry about, and what better reason is there than family?” Walt assures Skyler, who is struggling with the collateral damage inflicted upon her former boss, Ted Beneke. He’s paralyzed while trying to flee from a pair of goons Skyler dispatched to force him to pay off his debt to the IRS, preventing the government from catching on to the Whites’ illegal drug money. Skyler and Walt do what is best for their family, and the result is devastating to other people. Breaking Bad brings this issue to the forefront, and the fact that Walt is so frighteningly at peace with this justification should force the audience to call into question its own morality. How much damage would you be willing to inflict upon society in order to protect your loved ones?

Given the state of the world today, considering where the lines of battle are being drawn in society, it’s possible that Breaking Bad is currently the most politically relevant show on television. America’s capitalist-imperialist empire is beginning to rot from the inside, but before it crumbles the establishment will use all available options to maintain power, brutally suppressing the masses if necessary. Breaking Bad has clearly been an allegory for the moral vacancy of obtaining power through the capitalist system, and it shows the horrific consequences of going down that path. Is it worth it to enrich yourself if you destroy the world in the process? Walter White says ‘yes,’ and his example should be a blueprint for how not to think and for what not to do.

The problem with building an empire is that there’s no end point. There’s always someone else to conquer, more power to be gained. This is where Walt lives now. He built his capitalist empire with brutal violence, and enriched himself beyond his wildest dreams, but when is it enough power? When is it enough money? It’s worth noting that Walt does not stop producing meth after he surpasses his goal of $737-thousand.

When you’re on a mission to prove to the world how great, powerful, and manly you really are, there’s no logical stopping point, and you expand or die. You keep growing for the sake of growth because you have to, just like the cancer that resides inside Walt’s body, until it spreads too far, consumes all life, and kills its host from the inside. That’s what has happened to America. Breaking Bad might be the Moby Dick of this era, with Walter White as the new version of Captain Ahab, and Gray Matter, Walt’s long lost opportunity for wealth and power, as the illusive white whale, taunting him, luring him further into the void, and hastening his destruction.

The show is crafted with such care, and such attention to detail. The acting is impeccable, the cinematography unmatched, and the music completely absorbing. Bryan Cranston (Walter) and Aaron Paul (Jesse) are obviously the standout actors on the show, but the entire ensemble plays their parts with great nuance. Taken as a whole, Breaking Bad is a masterpiece unlike anything else on television, and it’s clearly more than just an entertaining story about a chemistry teacher turned drug lord, though it is that, too.

What it might lack in realism it more than makes up for in allegory. It’s telling us something about who we’ve become as a society. It’s warning us that next time, when we’re faced with a choice between taking a step back or doubling down on a misguided course of action, when we hear that voice inside our head, the lie we tell ourselves that rationalizes evil as long as we do it for a “good reason,” like protecting our families no matter the cost to others, we need to ignore that lie and take that step back. At some point the chain has to be broken and we need to put the greater good ahead of our own individual interests.

Walter White is more than just an isolated cautionary tale about drugs and violence. He represents something bigger. He symbolizes the attitude of America on the global stage and he wields its greatest weapon, capitalist-imperialism, to benefit himself, to give himself a sense of worth and pride, and he justifies his murderous greed by claiming he’s just doing it for the good of his family. That lie is the American way. Underneath that thinly veiled altruistic excuse is a naked desire to dominate others for the sake unfettered growth and power.

If you watch Breaking Bad carefully, you’ll notice that Walt is just itching for the chance to tell his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank that it’s actually him, the mild mannered chemistry teacher that everyone’s always overlooked and laughed at, who’s been behind the legendary blue meth all along. It’s that reckless desire for masculine pride that causes Walt’s empire to swell beyond control, and it’s what will cause his inevitable downfall, even if it’s everyone else who pays the price for his crimes.

There’s a brief but significant moment of note toward the end of the first episode. Walt is standing on a desolate road in the middle of the desert. Sirens are approaching and he believes he’s about to be caught. He pulls out a gun, puts it under his chin, and pulls the trigger. He hears the click, but no bullet is fired. The safety is on. He fumbles with the gun and accidentally fires a shot into the ground. After feeling the force of the gun in his hand he loses his nerve and goes on living. The sirens turn out to be firetrucks, not police, and Walt is relieved. In hindsight, knowing the monster he will later become, it’s hard not to think that the imaginary world of the show would have been a better place had the safety been off. But the great thing about art is that it can help us understand the real world. Walter White’s fictitious journey illuminates a very real and inconvenient truth about our society, and being deprived of his horrific transformation on Breaking Bad would be a major loss, not only culturally, but politically, because it demonstrates how deeply out of order our priorities are under capitalism.

:::Please see follow-up piece about Hank not being “the good guy”:::