Walter White has been damned by his pact with the devil; but the morality debate tells us a larger truth about America todayby David Herman / September 30, 2013 / Leave a comment
‘Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it:’ (Doctor Faustus)
In last night’s final episode of Breaking Bad, one of the minor characters summed it up: “The whole thing felt really shady, morality-wise.” In the final episode, as all through the series, we are in a grey zone. The more the bodies pile up, the greyer it gets, the further away we are from the black and white morality tales of 20th century US television. What makes Breaking Bad the greatest US TV drama series is not just the great acting, writing and directing. It is also the mix of violence, moral complexity and the underlying politics of gender and modern America.
Walter White’s critics attack his cruelty – his lies, his grandiosity, his violence. He lies to those nearest to him. Jesse, Hank and Mariea, but especially to his wife, Skyler, and son, Walter Jr. All she ever wanted was to build a firewall around their home. To stop the criminal world he had embraced destroying their family. But at the moral centre of this most deeply moral of dramas is a simple truth. Evil corrupts absolutely. You can’t go into that world of vicious killers by day and come home, safe and sound, at night.
Walt’s fans, however, are not for budging. “Too much hate for Walter White,” said one tweet (is this the first great TV drama of the Twitter age which has been passionately debated by viewers scene by scene?). “Everything he did after finding out he had terminal cancer was to protect his family.” They still see White as a victim, a good man who finds himself out of his depth. Everything he does he does for his family. He is a loving father and husband, a good teacher, overwhelmed by circumstances beyond his control. That’s why White is Mr Chips-become-Scarface.
This is the issue at the heart of the political debate over Breaking Bad, the moment at which a debate about morality becomes a debate about politics and modern America. Walter White is the embodiment of white rage in turn of the century America. He is the successor to Michael Douglas’s character in Falling Down. Early on, a hospital psychiatrist asks White why…