Reel Therapy

Unraveling the mind through film

Breaking Bad: The Darkness is Coming

An examination of the hit show's moral trajectory

In writing a post about “Breaking Bad,” the most critically acclaimed series currently airing (and the most consistently awesome product of television since “The Wire”), I’m not sure how far to zoom out. On the one hand, this is my first blog on the show so I should probably start from the beginning. On the other hand, we’re now five seasons in and such an endeavor sounds exhausting.

Let me simply say this — for those of you who don’t know, “Breaking Bad” is about a high school chemistry teacher, Walter White, who turns drug dealer after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis and watching the medical bills pile up.

The show has spent much of its time depicting a fascinating evolution in Walter’s morality, and ascent/success in the drug world. He’s been gradually, tantalizing, complicatedly — breaking bad.

His progression (I suppose "fall" might be a more appropriate term) toward darkness, I believe, sparks many interesting questions. In the earlier seasons Walter was shockingly absorbing. I found his intellectual prowess and general adaptability to be exceedingly impressive, and I found his motives to be relatable, if not sympathetic. And although many of the situations he found himself in seemed like more than a departure from normal, everyday life, I felt I understood his thought processes and reactions.

(For an exercise in problem-solving and emotion-regulation skills see first season episodes in which Walter cooks meth, while running from the cops, and coughing up blood from chemo).

It was all so fascinating as we’d watch Walter twist his face up in that thoughtful philosopher-king way of his, and proceed to effectively scheme his way out of the complex holes that he and society had co-constructed around his feet. And we (well, perhaps I should just speak for myself here) would gleefully root for him to beat the cancer, make some money to save his family from debt, and avoid getting caught. Sure his motives weren’t pure, but we understood him, and we liked him, and he was performing understandably desperate and extraordinary actions that seemed commiserate with the desperate and extraordinary circumstances.

(Perhaps a separate blog could be written about the disturbingly easy way in which I set aside the morally repugnant effect of his meth-production on society. If the show ever starts to depict meth addicts in the ugly throes of their addiction than perhaps the moral consequences of Walter’s behavior will become “hotter” — more concrete, and less abstract — and I’ll stop my gleeful rooting, at least publically).

So, it used to be that Walt did what he had to do in reacting on the fly to a challenging transition into the drug world. But now things have changed — changed for the darker. In the final scene of the most recent episode, “Hazard Pay,” we watch as Walter puts on his now-familiar scheming hat (I’m being metaphorical but he does occasionally sport a very gangsteresque top hat). He’s putting on this hat because, as always, there’s obstacles that need overcoming and problems that need solving. But unlike in earlier seasons Walt’s back is no longer against the wall, his pursuit is no longer noble, and the difficulties are completely self-imposed.

As one of many examples of this I’ll mention that Walter is confronted with his business partner Mike’s agenda of

a. being in charge of the “business”

b. dispersing and dolling out a greater chunk of the drug-money profits than Walter agrees with

In short the scheming is around Walter’s displeasure with his cut and Mike’s socialistic intentions (which involves paying various parties who are helping to facilitate their drug business in a variety of ways).

Walt is no longer pondering how to help his family, maintain his freedom or stay alive. Instead he’s consumed with darker desires like maximizing unnecessary levels of greed and attaining greater power over others. It’s a Darth Vader thought process. It’s a predictable development and perhaps a creative one, but I wonder how ENTERTAINING/INTERESTING Walter’s internal progression toward darkness really is.

Stay tuned for a follow-up blog on my theory for why dark deeds/dark minds make for boring narrative. For now, let’s take a poll. Does Walter’s season-five scheming prove:

  1. Exciting
  2. Boring

Jeremy Clyman, Psy.D., attained his doctorate in clinical psychology at Yeshiva University.

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