By Jesse Van Mouwerik
It’s hard to deny the overstated notion that people these days adore anti-heroes. From TV characters Tony Soprano to Don Draper, Americans are fascinated with the story of middle-aged dads in untypical professions, each struggling with their inner demons as they work to reconcile the morally questionable demands of their livelihoods with the personal and financial needs of themselves and their families.
The story of Breaking Bad also follows such a formula, revolving around infamous high school chemistry teacher turned meth cook, Walter White. But where 60’s advertising on Madison Avenue or the Italian Mafia have in varying degrees something of a glamorous charm to them, Breaking bad has no blush to put on the face of its anti-hero, only more dirt. Anyone who saw Sunday’s season finale is acutely aware of this.
The Walter White Saga: Recap for those Unfamiliar
If you haven’t seen the show, but want to start watching, there are some spoilers here. Otherwise, here’s the summary: The story of Breaking Bad is about a man named Walter White, a mild mannered high school chemistry teacher from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who discovers on his 50th Birthday that he has terminal lung cancer. With only a year to live, Walter is leaving behind a teenage son and a pregnant wife, along with no money in the bank to take care of them after he dies. In a desperate attempt to provide for his family before his death, Walter employs his knowledge of chemistry to cook and sell methamphetamine.
But the profession he enters from the very beginning places Walter in a world of crime, violence, and life-death situations where he is cornered into choosing between what he believes is the right thing to do, or what will most ensure the security of himself and his family. His attempts at providing for his wife and children are also met with the threat of losing them if they ever knew the extent of what wicked acts he had to commit in order to take care of them.
Under the alias Heisenberg, Walter’s knowledge of chemistry makes him an exceptional meth cook, and his success gradually makes him, aside from millions of dollars, into a monster. Soon he finds himself in the meth business not just to take care of his family anymore, but also in order to gain a sense of self worth that didn’t previously exist in his life. His imminent death and newfound power both liberates him from fear and replaces it with a need to make his mark on the world, at any cost. It’s as much a story about making the hard choices to help the ones you love as it is about a broken man who once he has nothing to lose, is free to unleash a lifetime of repressed anger, bitterness, and cruelty out on a world that seems set on his demise.
The Nightmare within the Dream
There is a fair case to be made that that Breaking Bad is in many ways a story about the social, financial, and moral cost of living the American dream. It’s a story about the many people who aren’t by any means feeling like they live in a land of endless bounty and opportunity, but who instead are feeling the pinch, and struggle just to maintain a basic standard of living. Breaking Bad doesn’t occupy high rises and mansions like other TV anti-heroes do, but instead a world of unglamorous suburbs, mobile homes, cheap motels, chain restaurants, bargain shopping outlets, and perhaps Breaking Bad’s largest metaphor of all, the desert. A vast, beautiful stretch of land reaching in all directions, but feeling as unforgiving as it is infinite.
For all of the stories that American culture has put forward about how one struggles with reconciling life within the bubble of living the American dream, there are far fewer stories occupying the realm of popular culture that examine the thoughts and feelings of those who are entering it through the back end. The beauty of Breaking Bad is that it examines the emotions that come with facing up to a culture that values affluence and accomplishment when your immediate reality is merely one of survival. In that reality, the human conscience is forced to entertain making choices that could benefit the self, but potentially (and often) at the cost of others.
Walter White’s transformation from a mild mannered high school teacher into a murdering sociopath at the top of the meth business is perhaps a proposal that the American dream of building a better life is as much a product of aspiration as it is one of desperation. Walter embodies the great lengths that we as people are willing to go in order to take care of those we love, but ultimately also to validate a much more selfish sense of identity, and in turn, the story of our lives. Walter, like all of us, wants to matter.
There are of course many ideas and themes to take from Breaking Bad’s five seasons, but in a time when this country is working to remain a place of optimism and opportunity in wake of harsh political divisions and rising economic inequality, it could be worth it for all of us to pause and consider that part of our ability to connect with Walter is that in spite of the insanity of his story, the pressure that he feels hits us closer to home than we would like to admit. He grants us a space to examine not just our own inner demons, but also the darker side of American society at large. The struggles of Walter White, along with other anti-hero’s, is unlikely to become unpopular anytime soon, so long as we all keep on struggling with him.