“Evil is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our own table”
– W.H. Auden
The first time I watched Breaking Bad, I didn’t like it at all. From the sight of Walter Hartwell White’s hip-hugging tighty whities to the nervousness that beset his first meth-making venture, I wasn’t really sold on the prospect of the show. After hearing so much about how good it was, again and again, I returned to it a couple years ago and now count myself among its most ardent fans.
Nearly two years after its last episode aired, Breaking Bad still stands out to many as a stupefying and surreal delight comprised of top-echelon acting, skilful writing and plot twists that could only be wrangled out with believability in the life of a man who is falling dangerously down. For me, it wasn’t the first or third or 17th episode that got me but the slow burning life of White – the new reality overtaking a man who was both re-inventing and destroying himself.
While White belongs to the category of flawed lead characters that is populated by Tony Soprano and Don Draper, White was neither born nor nurtured into his particular badness. Instead, as a high school chemistry teacher who finds out he has terminal cancer, he becomes a desperate man looking for any means possible to take care of his family. I’m doing this for my family could in fact serve as the unofficial tagline of the show, and in White we see the everyman.
From the outset, what stings for viewers of the series is the possibility of a different life for Walter. We are able to see more of our own selves in White than we ever would in Soprano or Draper, and it is here that the true power of the show emerges, showing us the corrupting abilities of the wrong place and the wrong time – the throes of desperation. It is the kind of premise that is rarely shown in such a non-judgemental way, and if we moralize about it too much it is easy to miss the show’s best point.
The historian Lord Acton famously stated that, “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely” and this is exhibited perfectly in Breaking Bad. It’s comfortable enough to watch White from the sofa and moralize on his ethical failings, but we all have a collection of small choices in our own lives that can have a corrupting influence. White’s situation is certainly more extreme than most – we don’t all make meth and hide it from our local DEA agent – but there are a host of things, as his trajectory highlights, that can slowly eat away at us until we only see the way we have made them, and perhaps not the way they are at all.
In an age where the Internet allows us to rage against the powers that be – the institutions and mechanisms that seem to seek to enslave – it’s naive not to see ourselves among these same institutions, beholden to the very same rules to a lesser degree. While some of us are guiltier and some more innocent, to function in society we must – in some way – participate in its madness. In the way White finds himself swiftly tunnelling through a drug-world darkness that is self-created, we choose in small measure to participate in the world whether or not we agree with all that it entails. To himself, Walter is a man doing it for his family, but to the viewer, something has gone horribly wrong.
We all have the capacity to be corrupted, but such a bright spotlight is not shone on everyone. In White, we have the opportunity to observe the final end of the small, daily rationalizations we make taken to their most extreme end- the journey from a state of near innocence to a paradise lost. It’s why, whenever I see his moustache and that full head of hair, I miss the old Walter.