[Note: As of the writing of this article, the author has not yet seen Breaking Bad’s Season 5 premiere. The episode aired Sunday, July 15, 2012]
I am going to begin from the critical consensus-based assumption that we do care about Breaking Bad. To cite just one example, last year Chuck Klosterman began his article on the program: “there doesn’t seem to be much debate over what have been the four best television shows of the past 10 years. . . . The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad.” I am also going to assume that we know why we care about Breaking Bad. Most articles praising the program point to the engrossing nature of its narrative arc and its impeccable sense of dramatic timing. Few television programs in recent memory—or perhaps ever — have rivaled Breaking Bad’s ability to keep us watching. This week in The Atlantic, Meghan Lewit called Breaking Bad “a master class in efficient storytelling” and “proof that the formula of delivering constant cliffhangers and ratcheting up tension to unbearable levels can work in the confines of a precisely crafted narrative.” What makes Breaking Bad the best program on television feels Aristotelian: even wild plot twists, of which there have been many, feel like part of a self-contained arc whose payoff is forthcoming, and but for Ted Beneke’s fortuitous death near the end of Season 4, we’ve rarely seen the program write itself into a hole that necessitates Aristotle’s cardinal narrative sin of a deus ex machina resolution.
What I’d like to discuss is why we should care about Breaking Bad. Most commentators have discussed how the high-wire mechanics of Breaking Bad’s plot are fueled by its baiting of our moral compass. In the program’s Wikipedia entry, the first topic under “Themes and Symbols” is entitled “Moral Consequences,” and calling Breaking Bad a morality play has become such a cliché that it should henceforth be banned from any and all reviews. The program began with a seemingly moral man forced into a life of crime—for moral reasons—by circumstances beyond his control, and his descent into immorality has sustained our attention. By this point in the narrative, the litany of immoral acts has long made us question the original moral obligation that set the plot into motion.
Perhaps the cliché is true and Breaking Bad is a morality play, but I have yet to see any commentators asking why that should matter. To my thinking, the morality at play in Breaking Bad doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The show debuted in January of 2008, during Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. At the heart of that campaign was the promise of universal health care. Lack of health care was, of course, the reason why Walter White began cooking meth, to ensure that his family wouldn’t be saddled with his medical bills once he succumbed to lung cancer. We began to care about Breaking Bad for the same reason we care about any narrative: because we identify with its protagonist. In this specific case, we sympathized with Walter White. One wants to pose this in Aristotelian terms: we pitied Walter White.
Plot, Aristotle writes in the Poetics, should in its highest form evoke in the audience feelings of pity and terror. What made Walter White sympathetic at the beginning of Breaking Bad was his being pitiful (he is a low-paid high school chemistry teacher who works part-time at a car wash to make ends meet, only to then be diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer), and much of what has unfolded since the pilot episode (when White, having just been diagnosed, quits his job at the car wash after being humiliated as he is forced to shine one of his high school students’ hubcaps) has been terrifying. But as White “breaks bad,” something happens to our sympathy, and this “something” is truer to the meaning of Aristotle’s terms. Structurally, we still root for him; he is, after all, still the protagonist. But more and more, we judge his actions.
The question of why we should care about Breaking Bad begs the self-critical question of why it is that we should care about Walter White. For those who would advocate for the United States to erect a system of universal healthcare, it’s almost second nature to point to a pitiful person like White who suffers under terrible circumstances. It is easy to feel sympathy for that Walter White. But it’s less easy to feel sympathy for the person that Walter White has become. “Hubris” is another overly used literary term in Breaking Bad commentary, and as the program’s plot proceeds, it’s not certain to us whether that initial choice of “breaking bad” has indeed forged a transformation from pitiful high school chemistry teacher to murdering drug kingpin, or whether he was that guy all along. This question puts the viewer in an uncomfortable position: if we think of Breaking Bad as not about methamphetamines but health care, would we extend the same sympathy to the later Walter White whom we judge to be immoral that we did to the early Walter White whom we pitied?
At stake is the universality of universal health care, and ultimately our ability to care about those whose values differ from our own. The ugly traits that we have seen in White, which we observe driving him to act in morally terrible ways, seem ultimately to boil down to an acute sense of entitlement and frustration. He was a high school chemistry teacher with a humiliating part-time job that may or may not have caused his lung cancer. But, in his mind, he could have — should have — been an elite researcher securing million dollar patents, had that life not been stolen from him by two old graduate school colleagues, one of whom is an ex-girlfriend. It is never revealed to us whether the co-owners of Gray Matter Technologies did indeed steal White’s research, or whether this is another of his megalomaniacal conceits, but against our narrative about universal health care in the United States stands a disgruntled white middle-class man who feels that a life that was rightfully his, and the dignity and respect that accompany it, have been stolen from him. Offered free health care from those ex-grad school colleagues, he refuses; he needs to to feel that he has earned it himself and his single-minded determination to do so drives him down the slippery moral slope that sustains our plot. As viewers, we observe a paradox that the protagonist can’t see: his individualism is rooted in his entitlement, he doesn’t act in his own self-interest, he misunderstands what his self-interest should be. To stretch this analogy a little further than it wants to go, Breaking Bad has revolved around this man trying to find an alternative way to pursue the American dream—insofar as the American Dream can be distilled to the ability to survive and, more importantly, to provide for one’s family—and much of this has involved staking out some manner of prosperity (read: protecting one’s own) in an economy overrun with foreigners from the south (from the Hispanic-American meth distributor Krazy 8 in the pilot to the Mexican Drug Cartel in Season 4). The discontents of Walter White are not identical to those of the disgruntled American white middle-class to which I am alluding (the Tea Party), but with the self-defeating ugliness that we have seen from Walter White, the delusions of grandeur and the alternate reality going on in his head. . . would we also care about this guy’s health?”
Aristotle’s Poetics defines tragedy as a narrative of great importance, whose protagonist is unlike the audience—indeed, the protagonist is better than those in the audience (he counterposes this to the lower art of comedy, which represents the actions of those who are worse than us). Walter White is not better than us; that’s why we judge him. But as an unsympathetic character, he is also most certainly not us. To view Breaking Bad in Aristotelian terms, our mechanism of identification is not with the character but with the plot. The plot holds our interest and ultimately makes us care about Walter White, even if we don’t necessarily care for him. What results is a testing of our concern for others, simultaneously against the kind of conservative individualism that would only extend concern to those like us and the liberal concern for those whom we magnanimously pity (i.e., under different circumstances, that could be me). Narratologically, liberal sympathy and conservative xenophobia are revealed to be the same means to different ends.
Ultimately, Breaking Bad turns away from traditional televisual narratives based around sympathy to one that extends our concern universally. This is the truer meaning of Aristotelian pity. Though dying of cancer is no longer a going concern in the program—his miraculous recovery would perhaps would be another deus ex machina—we still find ourselves rooting for Walter White’s continued survival, even though this would be a survival of circumstances of his own immoral making.
Breaking Bad’s unsympathetic protagonist makes for great television. In the middle of another presidential campaign—decidedly not great television—one wishes that we could be asked to care about other humans without first having them humanized. We should care about Breaking Bad because it asks us why we care.
Godfre Leung is Assistant Professor of Art History at St. Cloud State University.He is a recent graduate of the Program in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester. His doctoral dissertation was entitled The White Wall in Postwar Art: The Aesthetics of the Exhibition Space.