Few television shows present evil. Sure, we follow the lives of rakes, cads, and criminals. We have cheered for the likes of Don Draper (Mad Men), Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), Al Swearengen (Deadwood), Nucky Thompson (Boardwalk Empire), and Stringer Bell (The Wire). But we don’t think of them as evil. They are misunderstood, had a bad childhood, or operate outside the law (which may not even be a just law). The same cannot be said for Breaking Bad’s main character, Walter White. For the past five seasons, viewers have seen Walter transform from a nominally good man into a bad one. Through this process, Breaking Bad reveals the true nature of evil.
Walter White is initially a sympathetic character. When we meet him, Walter teaches high school chemistry and works a second job at the local car wash to pay the mortgage. His wife, Skyler, is pushing 40 and pregnant with a surprise baby. Their 15-year old son has cerebral palsy. Days after his 50th birthday, Walter is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.
To ensure that his wife and family have enough after he’s gone, Walter decides to make methamphetamine. A year later, he is a vicious drug lord. The transformation of Walter White from downtrodden savant to hardened criminal isn’t instantaneous but is a series of small, understandable, even relatable steps.
Step one was to enter the meth business. For most viewers, cooking meth is unbelievable. For Walter, though, meth is about chemistry, and he is really good at chemistry. Walter was one of the brightest graduate students at Cal Tech, was especially gifted in crystallography, and contributed to Nobel Prize winning research. Walter sees logistical difficulties, not moral quandaries to cooking meth. Walter joins a ride along with his DEA agent brother-in-law, Hank, to get a sense of the business. Once Walter discovers that his former deadbeat student, Jesse, cooks and sells meth, a plan emerges: Walter will handle the chemistry; Jesse, the business.
Evil is easily justified, and often masquerades as necessity. Take Walter’s first murder. He creates phosphine gas to kill two drug dealers threatening to shoot him. One (Emilio) dies; the second (Krazy 8) survives. Walter must decide to let the second go or kill him. Ever the analytical scientist, Walter makes a pro-con list. The reasons to let him live include:
“It’s the moral thing to do”;
“You are NOT a murderer”;
“Sanctity of life”;
“He may be able to listen to reason”;
“Won’t be able to live with yourself”; and
“Murder is wrong!”
The reason to kill him is succinct: “He will kill your entire family if you let him go.”
Walter gives Krazy 8 a chance to weigh in. In their conversation, Walter learns that Krazy 8 is Domingo Molina, born and bred in Albuquerque, holds a degree in business administration (but wanted to study music), worked at his father’s furniture store, and possibly sold the Whites a crib 16 years earlier. Walter decides to let Domingo go, but then murders him after learning Krazy 8 has a hidden weapon. Necessary self-defense, right?
Cooking meth also started as a necessary. Initially, Walter calculates that ten-weeks of cooking meth earns enough ($737,000) to cover college, the house, and expenses for his family once he is gone. But more territory, money, recognition, and the prospect of a meth empire draw Walter in deeper.
Meth and murder are not necessary. They seem necessary because Walter rejects the alternatives. Hank offers to support Skyler and the kids if Walter dies. Walter could return to Gray Matter (the multi-billion dollar company he helped found but left before it took off) and have interesting work, steady income, and top-notch health insurance. Even after he rejects that, his friends at Gray Matter volunteer to pay for the cancer treatment outright. Every season, Walter has at least one opportunity to get out or go deeper. Each time, he chooses the latter.
Evil is seductive. Manufacturing meth makes Walter feel in control. He does not need to rely on family or friends; he can take care of himself. When Jesse asks what makes an old guy like Walter break bad and cook meth, Walter responds, “I am awake.” Meth is his craft, his techne, as Aristotle would call it. The DEA says it’s the purest substance on the market, Walter’s recipe is coveted nationally and internationally, and the rumor of availability tempts addicts out of recovery. Walter craves recognition of his brilliance—even if it takes a DEA investigation.
Evil has consequences, though, and it is a cancer to those seen and unseen. We see it in Walter and his family. Walter misses his daughter’s birth to finish a drug deal. He relates to his son by buying him expensive cars and encouraging reckless behavior. His marriage disintegrates. Walter himself changes. He becomes callous and arrogant and insufferable. We see it in the wake of brutal murders and dismembered bodies.
Meth also ruins lives. Breaking Bad doesn’t dwell on meth users. We mostly see montages of buyers or recreational users, Jesse’s junkie friends, and some recovering addicts. But we do get one prolonged glimpse of the suffering. In season two, we meet a husband and wife who have stolen from Jesse’s dealer. They have scrawny limbs and open wounds, scream obscenities at one another, and routinely rob to obtain drugs. They live in squalor with their small child, whom Jesse feeds and nurtures. They don’t love their child or each other. They love drugs and it shows: she ultimately murders her husband for a fix. Walter claims to cook meth for the sake of his family, but, at the most basic level, he cooks for these addicts, his customers.
Through the transformation of a good man into a bad one, Breaking Bad reveals the true nature of evil. We, like Walter White, do not go from good to evil in one step. Indeed, evil infects our lives by a series of small, understandable choices. Evil presents itself as justifiable, even necessary. For Walter, each murder and new business venture seems necessary, reasoned even. But as Walter gets deeper the “necessity” becomes more attenuated. Evil perverts our skills and desires, thereby seducing us further. One may try to avoid the consequences of wrong behavior, but evil is too pervasive to be sequestered. We don’t know how Breaking Bad will end (the final episodes air starting on Sunday). Will Walter consolidate his evil empire? Will lung cancer come back to save Walt’s family from himself? But perhaps the biggest question: once you break bad, can you ever go back?
Julia Shaw is research associate and program manager at the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at The Heritage Foundation. This column appeared first in Acculturated. Image of Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn courtesy of Big Stock Photo.