Watching AMC’s critically acclaimed television drama, Breaking Bad (now available in its entirety on Netflix) was like reading Crime and Punishment or Macbeth. I wished I were in a Breaking Bad book group. The show raised so many fascinating moral questions. I constantly felt the need to discuss.
We live in an age allergic to moral absolutes.
In the first episode of the series, Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston), a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher, discovers that he has terminal lung cancer and cannot afford his treatment. Wanting to be able to leave money to his struggling family, he decides to start cooking and selling crystal meth on the side.
White is an everyman character. Milquetoast, slightly beat down by life, and eminently relatable. He seems to be doing a bad thing, at least at first, for all the right reasons. You find yourself wanting him to succeed.
White teams up with his drug dealing former student, Jesse Pinkman (played by Aaron Paul), and as the show progresses gets pulled further and further into the New Mexico drug scene and all of the darkness and crime that goes along with it.
Breaking Bad is one of the most critically acclaimed dramas of all time. It’s won 26 television awards including six Emmys (and its up for 16 more). Incredibly well acted, directed and written, the show is admittedly dark, suspenseful, and deeply disturbing, but like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, it also powerfully explores the nature of sin, and serves as a kind of deterrent, lest we romanticize evil, or think ourselves somehow above its sway. Walter White is a 21st century American man, in other words, a man without a code. He is us, and because we can relate to him, the amoral person he becomes is that much more terrifying.
At the beginning of the series White feels confident that he will be able to dabble in the drug trade without becoming a “bad” person. He thinks he will be able to keep himself and his family protected from his double life, but as he soon discovers, there is no such thing as private sin. His actions have consequences for his family, his friends, and many innocent people along the way, and what he does, day in and day out, changes him.
We live in an age allergic to moral absolutes. We live in a time in which people think it’s silly to avoid certain actions simply because they are forbidden by some so-called higher law. Most Americans think that everything is situational, that adults should be able to create their own moral codes on a case-by-case basis. They trust their ability to reason through every decision. This moral relativism is in the very air we breathe.
Again and again, White articulates this fundamentally relativistic, individualistic, and libertarian worldview. Adults are free to use drugs, and he’s not doing anything wrong by supplying them with what they have freely chosen to consume. As his partner Gill says, “If I’m not supplying it, they’ll get it from someone else.”
Breaking Bad shows how difficult it is to remain a moral agent while deciding each issue on the basis of self-interest alone. Many times in the series Walter is given the opportunity to repent and break-good, but his pride and self-reliance keeps him from accepting charity, or admitting fault. And so he remains trapped in a world where he has money, power and glory, but is unable to enjoy any of it at all.
– Anna Keating