Breaking Bad: Moral Perception

One of Bryan Cranston’s most memorable roles was Hal in Malcolm In The Middle up until recently. He  played a zany and goofy dad with an unpredictable knack for getting into silly trouble.  Turn the channel to 2008 and his character of Walter White (Heisenberg) in Breaking Bad (BB) brought a darker and more turbulent character to the screen.

Walter White had been swimming in murky water, since his failure with Gray Matter, the company he initially founded. His past decisions didn’t result in mere afflictions; they motivated him to search for superiority by selling meth. Compared to his colleagues, he missed the chance at success, and was left in the bubble of safety.

Transformation, by Eduardo Leon @ Deviant Art.
Transformation, by Eduardo Leon @ Deviant Art.

BB tests the moral fibers of Walter and most of its characters—how far their limits can go, how much they can tolerate guilt, where their loyalty lies: sister or husband, boss or friend, family or business. Marie likes to steal, Skyler cheats on  her husband and helps launder money, Hank punches Jessie until he’s a vegetable, and Saul twists the law to save criminals. Heisenberg’s main partner, Jessie becomes the mirror of Walter’s conscience, whereas Walter himself stays collected. As Walter turns ruthless and cold blooded, Jessie shows an internal guilt for his own actions.

At the heart of his hubris is this failed notion of the American Dream, and what it means to be successful.

With the opening of the series, there’s a tone of regret, unhappiness, and disappointed in Walter’s life as a high school teacher and a meek husband. Though he was regarded as an exemplary family man, providing income and being a good husband to his mostly controlling wife, he still feels empty. Around him are great men: Hank, a DEA agent, robust, brave, and with an expertise to praise, and the owner of Gray Matter, Walter’s colleague, who became rich and married Walter’s ex girlfriend. Walter settled for mediocrity after selling his Gray Matter shares. This guilt weights heavily on him, since the two owners left in charge of Gray Matter became billionaires, meanwhile Walter’s family settled for a middle-class life with weekend barbecues.

Walter is an intelligent chemist with much potential, but the present seems most undeserving in view of his earlier beginnings as an academic. Life suddenly becomes a burden on his ego, and there emerges Heisenberg. At the heart of his hubris is this failed notion of the American Dream, and what it means to be successful. By not finding the ideal reality, everything resides in a failed or inferior state. Thoughts of failure and loss of opportunities are prevalent themes for someone mid-way through their life. Walter is a reflection of many Americans who endured the effects of the recession, with unemployment, loss of income, and debilitating health issues, which couldn’t be covered by their wretched insurance companies.

The audience finds itself being sympathetic to his cause. Walter is the predictable man with khaki pants— an unlikely criminal with cancer. After his emotional and physical change, he appears comfortable and more in control. “I am the danger.” “I am the one who knocks,” he tells Skyler. We find ourselves rooting for this guy. But sympathy can only go so far as his hubris begins to grow. There’s a wide range of behaviors in Walter. In a day, he could be running over a couple of drug criminals, planning someone’s death, and then cuddling a baby girl. Walter can be a killer, a manipulator, and then come home and bring pizza, sit in the dinner table and have a normal conversation. These moments test his moral strength, and depending on the instance Walter changes his method of action, but there is a prior feeling hovering above, a feeling of failure or fear of someone taking advantage, which leads him to test the waters all too irrationally.

If all you need is a means that suits your desired end, you fail to make a qualitative interpretation of that initial action. What value does it have?

BB is not solely about running a drug empire; it’s a character analysis. Throughout the series, Walter touts a utilitarian approach for the meth business: he needed the money to pay off the cancer treatments, later he says, “I did it for the family.” After a while it no longer seemed to be the case, but rather the meth business continued for sheer joy and possible triumph against  enemies. Initially we see Walter screaming in the car, this sense of energy stored in him, after blowing up Tuco’s hang out. Towards the end of the series he tells Skyler, as he tries to encapsulate the whole series in this line: “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it, and I was really… alive.” If the paramount object is to maximizing personal happiness or that of a large group regardless of the action, then Walter would be right on.  But the idea of utility turns moral conflicts into mere calculations. If all you need is a means that suits your desired end, you fail to make a qualitative interpretation of that initial action. What value does it have?

Bryan Cranston as Walter White.
Bryan Cranston as Walter White.

Another approach to help us understand Walter is freedom of choice. If moral obligations are derived from one’s environment then perhaps we are bound to fail when uncontrollable factors arise.  Any person can become dangerous if the right circumstances play out in such way to change the person. It’s truly a fine line, but there has to be a prior disposition of failed dreams, such as one existing in Walter. While that’s true, often individuals are ruled by the moment. Freedom of choice doesn’t concede the right to hurt others, it simply means we all have different preferences, and we look to culture, family or the law for moral guidelines. In Walter’s case its not enough to say follow the law or a universal code, because it appears he followed the law all his life. It wasn’t until he stopped that he started living. Walter coped with reality by continuing his role as a father and a family man while his criminality raged on. This was an interpretation for the sole purpose of making it right in his head. But the dangers of creating your own reality instead of reflecting, generates an alternative reality, an illusion, one free from judgment— a necessary sceme if one is to keep going on a meth-making rampage while killing adversaries. Walter’s true purpose was being a Chemist—that was his craft, but he found it in a not so virtuous place.

2 thoughts on “Breaking Bad: Moral Perception

  1. I think you have really nailed it here – BB is all about the characters’ depths and about the society in which they struggle to survive. There are hard lessons and challenges to realise that we all have the potential for denial and cruelty, given enough desperation.

    1. Thank you Roberta. That’s the funny thing about humans, we constantly walk on a weak rope. If the circumstances are just right there’s nothing stopping us from going overboard. You have to be resilient to keep true to your principles, and knowing there’s a better life out there– beyond what has been handed to you.

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